Manifest Faith: James 2:14-26 Part Three
In any journey for meaning in the Scripture, we must apply meaning from the ancient times and theological principles of scripture to the modern times of now. This is no easy task. A river made of ancient culture, language, situation, and time separates us from the text and also hinders our grasping of the actual meaning of the text. As we do this we must seek to understand the plain meaning of James’ letter. He has definite principles and ideals in mind, we should look for them.
As an attempt to cross this river, we develop a principilizing bridge to gain accurate meaning in the texts. Each text is different yet it is our pursuit to find the original meaning as well as the universal theological principles that are still relevant for us, today. As we read our pericope a few questions should emerge. Anytime we, as modern readers, look into the Word of God for guidance we should attempt to read it correctly. Let us look at a few questions from each verse.
(14) Here James begins by asking questions with an assumed answer of no (rhetorical inquiry). This use of rhetorical questions and answers, as mentioned earlier is quite frequent. James also begins with the use of emotion by invoking the phrase "my brothers". Is it possible then that he wants to ensure kinship with them as he broaches a controversial topic? Does the particular "faith" mentioned in this passage relate to one's salvation (Romans 5:1; 6:1)? Does pistis here carry the same import as in Romans 5:1? In the English translations we see that James mentions the word "faith" at least 11 times in this pericope (James 2:14-26). Thus, faith of some sort is primary.
(15) Becoming more specific, James creates a “for example” situation. He makes a practical case by using the example of a "brother or sister" that is destitute. Here he moves from the general to the specific by citing a specific example. Does this mean our generosity should only extend to our fellow believers?
(16) This verse begins with a conditional clause. The use of "if" here predicates a response or action by people. The action then is active. The entire verse is rhetorical and explanatory.
(17) This verse begins with a conjunction, "In the same way." Vs. 16 is enjoined by 17 in that either situation (a brother or sister without food or one with faith) should experience some action on account of saving faith. The content of either verse, then, is contrasted one to the other. Is faith then qualified by good deeds? Are good deeds essential? What if one professes to have genuine faith but never produces positive faith in action? Is that genuine faith?
(18) This verse puts James' argument in a more practical way. "Someone will say" is James’ intuitiveness in knowing that some will say, "I have faith" and yet others will lean upon their deeds alone and say, "I have deeds." James goes on to indicate that the two are actually mutually inclusive. James is actually being sarcastic because it may be impossible to prove the presence of faith apart from deeds because the antithesis to the aforementioned is that "I will show you my faith by what I do." Does our good works spring from our faith?
(19) Again James uses a conversational device by dialoguing with an imaginary person. James possibly answers certain questions by asserting that even the devil believes in the existence of one God. James’s point seems to be that even the devils believe in one God, yet they obviously do not act according to that God, but do tremble—something more than those who simply profess faith. Most Americans profess a faith in God, or a higher power. Likewise, it is probably that many people in the time of James’ letter were vocal in their monotheism but were absent in manifesting the faith. Could it be that James is indicating that faith should naturally be appropriated in some action?
(20) Even more emotion and accusatory is introduced. James rhetorically asks the imaginary person if he wants "evidence that faith without deeds is useless". Interestingly enough, those who still seek this evidence may find themselves amid the prior company--the demons.
(21) Here James begins with more specifics in moving to further prove that, historically, faith accompanies positive obedience. James sees mere profession of faith inadequate if it is not manifested in fruits. Did the righteous deeds of Abraham justify or was it his faith? Is faith contingent upon obedient acts?
(22) James brings greater clarity by telling us that the faith and actions of Abraham worked together and thereby making his faith "complete". Does this mean then that faith can rest in some sense in an incomplete stage?
(23) Here James introduces further data about the Abraham, the OT patriarch of faith. James seems to reach a pinnacle here in declaring that it was actually because "Abraham believed God" that he was justified and became in friendship with God. Does this undo what James has written prior? Or, does this statement lend to qualify the prior?
(24) This verse is a crux interpretum for many in NT theology. Does this statement actually contradict other Pauline discourses? How do we reconcile this seemingly contradictory statement? The imaginary opponent is dropped here and the recipients of James' epistles are invoked by "you see".
(25) Again a conjunction is used to bring continuity or relationship of thought. The conjunction, though, leads us back to rhetoric in the example of Rahab and her positive acts to save her life. Would someone really act if faith was not already active or present? Is works then, given the example of Rahab and Abraham, something that is done BECAUSE of faith or to PROVE faith? James uses many emotional clauses. Is it possible then that James is actually taking aim at a cultural attitude?
(26) The verse is very plain, short and begins by comparison to a body without a spirit. Is it possible then, given the analogy of a body dead without a spirit, that James is addressing a stale orthodoxy that could no longer save? Is the address of James towards a local area or people group that was possibly backsliding?
Rhetorical Inquiry with Case in Point- James 2:14-16
The use of rhetoric enables James to be direct in his approach without offense. He further uses this approach, possibly, by using the phrase “my brothers”. In such a time as James’ this subject would be controversial. If faith, that one supposes to have, does not provide the benefit of salvation then that faith is defective. It profits us nothing to simply say we have faith.
The word for "faith" here is exactly the one used in Romans 5:1 and Ephesians 2:8. It is quite difficult to imagine the faith described in James as something not relating to personal salvation. Faith is the subject of most of the Letter of James, but notice here that he is referencing a person that says, or proclaims to have faith but has not works. Faith is fine, but to declare it without demonstration is incongruent with the thinking of James. James is not speaking of the man who has true faith, rather he aims at those who say that have such a faith.
Herein lays the rub. James takes aim at those who say he believes but whose life does not bear out that profession. OT Jews knew well the command by God to supply the needs of the poor (See Deut 15:7-8). A brother or sister should certainly be given help, but the poor in general were too as well. They knew that to do so was disobedience before God. In verse 16 James uses a Jewish farewell blessing, “Go, I wish you well” (NIV), but may should reflect something like “go in peace.” The mention of being warmed was probably an allusion to the cold that easily developed because of the high elevation of Jerusalem, especially in winter. It is said that “Jewish people held Abraham to be the ultimate example of such hospitality.”
1. Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Jas 2:14). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.