Which Came First, James or Romans?

A friend of mine asked:

You’ve frequently said that James was a commentary on people’s reception of Paul’s theology. It has always bothered me, and I was wondering what source material you base that on… the most common protestant view is that it was one of the earliest epistles written (c. 47, no later than 49). Considering that, I don’t see how it could be a commentary on Paul’s teachings in Romans, since the earliest date most think that Romans was written is AD 58.

He’s a Calvinist, and I like to point out to him that both James and Romans (and Galatians) were inspired by the Holy Spirit, so to take an interpretation of the latter two that renders the first unintelligible doesn’t do justice to Scripture. He’s right also, that I contend that James is written as a response to a misunderstanding of Paul’s views on justification. The major bones of contention are as follows:

  • Romans 3:28 says: “For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law. ”
  • Yet in James 2:24 we hear: “See how a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. “

So what’s going on? Are these two feuding with each other? I’m not sure exactly how my friend harmonizes the two, but let me give a little overview on the views of some non-Catholic Christians, followed by how I harmonize these verses (and thoughts).

A Few Non-Catholic Christian Views on This Issue Which I’m Aware Of
The only time the words “faith alone” appear in the New Testament together are in James 2:24, which doesn’t treat them sympathetically. Yet the 16th century saw Luther introduce the radical concept of sola fide, faith alone, into Christianity, rupturing the Western half of the Church in two at a time when Islam was invading central Europe by force. One of the ways Luther “justifies” his view (cheap joke, I know!) is by citing to Romans 3:28. In his translation of the New Testament into German, Luther actually adds the word alone so that it says what he wants it to. When called on it, he defended it thusly, in his Open Letter on Translating:

If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola (alone), say this to him: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing.” Sic volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. For we are not going to be students and disciples of the papists. Rather, we will become their teachers and judges. For once, we also are going to be proud and brag, with these blockheads; and just as Paul brags against his mad raving saints, I will brag against these donkeys of mine! Are they doctors? So am I. Are they scholars? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they debaters? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they logicians? So am I. Do they lecture? So do I. Do they write books? So do I.

Sic volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas means “I will it, I command it, my will is reason enough.” The footnotes mention that Luther used this phrase to mock the “arbitrary power of the pope.” How does Luther handle this problem of James? Um, poorly.

In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works. It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac; though in Romans 4 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15.
In a word, he wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task in spirit, thought, and words. He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore, I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him. (Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude)

So Luther understood Paul to be arguing against James, and sort of “setting him right.” He pretty clearly gets around this problem by simply denying that James is inspired. Luther’s is clearly one view. But I think he’s wrong, and I think that anyone who affirms that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit would have to agree.

An early date for the Epistle of James actually compounds this problem. While Luther seems to think it’s not really the work of St. James himself, proponents of the early view all say that it is. After all, how convincing is Epistle of Fake James going to be when Real James is alive to say, “that’s not from me!” Of course, even those of us who take a late-date view think that James wrote it himself, so Luther is stuck in the position of not just saying that a book of the Bible is wrong (he actually says more than one book is wrong, or at least not inspired), but that at least one Apostle is wrong: that one of the Twelve chosen followers of Christ post-Pentecost understood Christ’s message less well that Luther himself. It’s not just the common “papist” that Luther is sitting in judgment of here: it’s the Apostles’ writings.

A second view on the issue can be found from non-Catholic Christians. Since most of the ones I’m concerning myself with here believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, alternative explanations are needed. One argument is that James is using an older sense of the term justified: that he means it in a traditional Jewish sense, and that Paul revolutionizes the meaning, and our understanding, in his Epistles. This view is the one which brought me into the late- or early- date controversy. I think that this view turns James into the last Old Testament writer, rather than an Apostle, and I find it personally hard to match up with a view of the Holy Spirit at work. Even if Paul were the one to “reveal” sola fide, if it is an authentic part of Christianity’s original doctrines, then it would have to have been true before Romans was written. While it is theoretically possible that James is inspired by the Holy Spirit and just using confusing termonology, I view this as unlikely. If He intended us to believe in faith alone, it seems strange to then go and inspire James to write something which leads people in the opposite direction. It also seems to once again assume that James needs a correction by Paul. This view is sort of insulting to James’ status as an Apostle, but more insulting to the idea of the Holy Spirit as the source of inspiration.

A third, and in my opinion, stronger, argument is that James is forward looking: that when he says “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” he really means that when a man is justified, he will later produce good works. Under this view, good works are only a fruit of an already-occurred forensic declaration of righteousness. They are not themselves necessary in any way, but only show the justice in God in determining who is declared righteousness (or alternatively, are external evidence of a person’s already existing justification). This view uses James 2:21 and James 2:23 to great effect, because James says that Abraham was “justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar,” an event which occurred some 30 years after “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This, in my opinion, is the strongest argument sola fide proponents have to harmonize these verses.

The major problem even with this stronger view is that James 2:21 says he was justified “when” he did this action, not “in anticipation of.” Additionally, James 2:22 uses justification in a sense very contrary to the traditional “forensic justification” context Protestants often use it. James says that Abraham’s “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works.” Rather than a seed-fruit view, where the seed of faith grows the fruits of works, James has a much more dynamic process. A sort of symbiotic one foot in front of the other process, where you start with faith, but move ahead by faith and works supporting each other.

My Thoughts on the Subject.
I think that provides a pretty good lead-in to my own affirmative case. There are two presmises I’d like to assume at the outset: first, that the Holy Spirit has inspired both writers. I can defend this, but this isn’t the place to do it (not today, I mean). The second is that there is a real tension between James’ work and Paul’s. In addition to the verses I cited above, here are two examples:

  • Paul (or whoever wrote Hebrews) cites to the example of Rahab as someone saved by faith in Hebrews 11:31. James cites to her as an example of someone saved by works in James 2:25.
  • Paul uses Abraham as an example of someone saved by faith in Romans 4:3, Romans 4:20-22, and Galatians 3:6. He cites, as a proof-text of this, Genesis 15:6. James says that Abraham was saved by works (James 2:21-22), and uses Genesis 15:6 as his support (James 2:23).

The fact that the same two individuals are used, along with the same proof-text as support, is indicative of this being intentional. This is all the more true in that one of the two people cited is Rahab, the prostitute, a relatively minor Old Testament figure. One of these writers is correcting something based upon the writings of the other. Virtually all signs here suggest that it was James correcting an understanding of St. Paul’s works. First, why else would he choose Rahab? For Paul to choose her is obvious. She wasn’t a “good person” even by secular standards, yet she is saved.
Second, why rely upon Abraham, and especially Genesis 15:6? Genesis 15:6 seems on face to be faith without works. If James is saying, “your understanding of Genesis 15:6 is wrong, because Abraham was required to do works as well,” this makes sense. But it’s a silly idea to think that James would say, “I want to show that you’re justified through works… how about this verse where Abraham believes and is justified?”
Third, Abraham and Rahab are examples used in different Pauline works. If Paul intended to respond to either James’ own poor understanding of justification, or a misinterpretation of James, why do part of it in Hebrews, and the other part in Galatians and Romans? On the contrary, if James is intending to correct a misunderstanding of Pauline justification, it makes sense to address all of the examples and proof-texts in short succession.
Fourth, look to the external evidence. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter says that Paul’s letters are being misunderstood:

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear
brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the
same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters
contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable
people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

This shows two things: first, it establishes that the Pauline epistles were at least earlier than 2 Peter. Second, it shows that Peter (inspired by the Holy Spirit) was concerned that Paul’s letters were being misinterpreted. To me, this provides a solid answer to the question I posed above, about who was correcting a misinterpretation of the others’ writings. If we take the early-date James hypothesis, what should we assume? That the Holy Spirit is inspiring Peter to say, “there’s a problem with how you are interpreting Paul’s writings,” and then to leave it at that? This problem is especially acute for those who affirm sola Scriptura, the idea that Scripture is the final rule of faith, and that Scripture ought to interpret Scripture. If the early-date James people are right, the order goes: James, Paul, Peter… and then what? Where do we find a correction that lets us know how to interpret Paul correctly?
Remember, if you believe in sola Scriptura, this correction must be in the form of more Scripture, because it was misunderstanding the existing writings which got them into trouble to begin with. This leaves three options: (a) this correction came in the form of a later letter – the only realistic candidate (in my opinion) would be James, since he tackles the issue of justification by faith head-on, in a way that the others don’t; (b) that this correction came from the Apostles’ oral teachings, and was entrusted to the Church via Tradition rather than Scripture; or (c) both. Is there a fourth option that I’m missing?
My conclusions from this are basically this. First, Paul doesn’t mean (or teach) faith alone. He’s saying that you are not justified through the Law of Moses, and further, that just “being a good person” isn’t enough to save you. You’re not a good person, and God knows it. And you would, too, if you would be honest with yourself, and think, “here’s the really ridiculous things I do to God and to my fellow man,” rather than “here are some nice things I made a point of doing,” coupled with a list of crimes you haven’t commit (Hey! I never murdered anyone! Aren’t I great?). But just because you can’t earn your way to Heaven, it doesn’t mean that faith in God comes with no strings attached. God expects you to obey, and if you don’t, your justification can be revoked. There are a lot of examples of this in Scripture:

  • Revelation 22:11 says “He that is unrighteous, let him do unrighteousness still: and he that is filthy, let him be made filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him do righteousness still: and he that is holy, let him be made holy still.” In the context, the end is so near, that people may not even have time to change their lives (for better or worse), but it assumes you can go from justified to unjustified (righteous to unrighteous).
  • In Matthew 18:23-35, the parable of the unforgiving servant, the Master (who clearly represents God) forgives the man’s debts, but then unforgives them when he refuses to act with even an iota of charity towards his fellow man.
  • Mark 13:13 says that “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” This suggests that there’s something of a process that you can screw up between the start and end.
  • Similarly, St. Paul describes this process with the metaphor of a race that not everyone will win (1 Corinthians 9:26-27) . If justification were a declaration that “you’re in, no matter what,” there’s no reason to race. Or if you are racing, it’s only to show your gratitude for having already won the race. That’s not how St. Paul describes the salvation process here. Rather, he says that he behaves as he does so that “after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” St. Paul is saved. But he is well aware that the race isn’t over.
  • 2 Peter 2 warns of false prophets rising up among the people, who “will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. ” (Some say “who ransomed you”). It’s pretty clear from the context that these apostates were saved, and then not. There’s plenty of support for this. In 2 Peter 2:4, he compares them to angels who are saved, but then condemned, and he concludes the chapter by saying (2 Peter 2:21-23).

    If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.’

    Look at the manner in which he speaks: these people have escaped the corruption, but are then entangled. They knew righteousness (and knew in the Biblical sense), but then turn their backs. They return to their unrighteousness and sin like so much vomit or mud. I think it would be hard to imagine a stronger support for this proposition of losing one’s justification than Peter provides in this passage.

To bring it back to the context of James and Paul, Paul is right that it is through faith in God that everyone, from godly Abraham all the way down to lowly Rahab, is saved. But both Abraham and Rahab were called by God to do something. Had they refused, their faith would have been dead. Even the demons believe in God, but refuse to serve Him (James 2:19). If you won’t take that next step, your faith (and justification) will sputter out (James 2:20). What is required instead is obedience to God (Romans 2:13). Sometimes, this takes the form of objectively good works, like saving the Israelites – this is what Rahab did. Other times, it can take the form of things which seem bad in the eyes of the world, like Abraham being told to kill his own son, or modern Christians standing strong on issues that make them seem like bigots or fools. This sort of faithful obedience is what Paul calls “faith working in love” (Galatians 5:6).
I should note that this sense of a “losable justification,” if you will is found elsewhere (see Revelation 22:11, and arguably, all the examples I provided above). In my opinion, this is the harmonious interpretation of James and Paul that best accounts for the Biblical evidence.
If you’re curious, the section on “Paul and James” is very good here, and answers pretty thoroughly the (weak) arguments advanced by the writer of this encyclopedia entry (see “Time”). None of the arguments presented in the latter case show (or even especially suggest) an early date. Christians were persecuted, poor, and often hungry, before and long after A.D. 47. If anything, I feel that these would be good arguments for the opposite conclusion – a date in the immediate wake of the destruction of the Temple, for example, over 20 years later.

1 Comment

  1. When was Abram justified? I believe my Catholic Bible states Genesis 15:6 ” Abram put his faith in Yahweh, and this was rekoned to him as uprightness”. Abram then became justified by faith…this is first before any works. Now, in order to show his faith in God, Abraham, did as he is asked by God. I think you are silly fighting about Paul and James who said what first. I believe both are saying similar things that Jesus died for us and by Baptism into Him, we are saved. However to show non-believers that our FAITH is in Jesus we do good works for the glory of God and his Son. We cannot earn heaven just by works, or that is owed us. Grace, is a gift unearned, because Jesus covers us with his Glory, and the Father sees his Son. SO please stop fighting stupidly about this, this I believe is from the devil trying to destroy the family of God not edify. You simply are falling for the trap as Eve and Adam in the garden. God Bless.

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