Sunday, August 31, 2008

Paul, James, and the Word-Concept Fallacy

It is often suggested that James's statements in his epistle (2:14-26) necessitate a re-assessment of the doctrine of justificatio sola fide. If James explicitly says that Abraham was not justified by faith alone, we are asked, how can we not take this into account when formulating our doctrine of justification?

There is an underlying assumption at work here, which is that the existence of a word in a passage necessarily means that a related concept is also present. This error, called the “Word-Concept Fallacy,” insists that if the term “justify” or “justification” is used in a certain text, the biblical doctrine of justification be expanded to account for this usage.

Concerning what he calls the “unwarranted neglect of disting-uishing peculiarities of a corpus,” D.A. Carson writes:
Because Paul uses δικαιόω to mean “to justify,” and often uses δικαιοσύνη to mean “justification,” many scholars have applied this meaning to the term when it is used by other writers. Not a few, for instance, take “justification” to be the meaning of δικαιοσύνη in Matthew 5:20; but Benno Przybylski has convincingly shown that in Matthew δικαιοσύνη always means an individual’s conduct of righteous life, not forensic righteousness being imputed to him.... The fallacy involved in this case is the false assumption that one New Testament writer’s predominant usage of any word is roughly that of all other New Testament writers; very often that is not the case.
Turning to James, we observe that “The meaning of such terms as ‘faith,’ ‘works,’ and ‘justify,’” writes James White, “cannot be ascertained outside the context in which James uses them.” He continues:

Polemicists who need to find in this passage a foundation for some kind of synergistic works-salvation system insist that James’s use of the identical term for “justified” (δικαιόω) and the identical phrase for “by works” (ἐξ ἔργων) proves beyond question that we must read James’s use of these terms in the same context that Paul uses them in Romans and Galatians. But we have already seen that James is arguing against a use of the word “faith” (a deedless, dead, empty, useless faith that exists only in the realm of words and not action) that is not paralleled in the Pauline passages that speak of how one is justified.
It is illegitimate and fallacious, therefore, to simply appeal to “justification language” found in various biblical contexts in order to demand that we broaden our doctrine of justification to incorporate that language. This is why, White points out, the NIV is correct in rendering ἐδικαιώθη as “considered righteous” in James 2:25. This flows not from some “precommitment to a theological perspective, but from the context itself.”

Luke Timothy Johnson writes:

The precise meaning in each case must be determined by context, not some general theological concept. Given the previous statement demanding the demonstration of faith, the translation here as “shown to be righteous” seems appropriate.... It is in this light that the present translation renders the Greek as “shown to be righteous,” (2:21, 24), for the entire line of argument here has involved demonstration: “show me your faith apart from deeds, and by my deeds I will show you my faith (2:18).”
The fact that the event to which James appeals to demonstrate Abraham's justification by works (the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen. 22) transpires a few decades later than the event to which Paul appeals to highlight Abraham's justification by faith (Abraham's initial response to God in Gen. 15) further illustrates that these two authors have different phenomena in mind. Paul is using “justification” to refer to the patriarch's initial acceptance by God, while James's term denotes the demonstration of this prior reality before men. Hence the latter's challenge:
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (vv. 18, 20-24, emphasis added).
The issue here is clearly Abraham's being vindicated and his righteousness being demonstrated to us, not to the God who already declared that it was so.

OK, fire away....