"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Justification and Living Faith

"The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"
Rembrandt (1632)

This is a follow-up to "Justification: Divided over Charity", and presumes familiarity with it.

A dead body is not the same thing as a living body. What distinguishes a dead body from a living body is that the former does not have life. A dead body is a body that has lost its life. So, necessarily a living body is a composite of body and life, otherwise, necessarily every body would be a living body.

Likewise, a dead faith is not the same thing as a living faith. What distinguishes dead faith from living faith is that the former does not have life. So, necessarily, living faith is a composite of faith and that which makes faith living; otherwise, there would no such thing as dead faith. But we know that there is such a thing as dead faith. (cf. St. James 2:17, 26) Therefore, living faith is a composite of faith and that which makes faith living.

For this reason, if a person claims that we are not justified by dead faith, and claims that we are justified by faith alone, then we can take this position in two possible ways. Either the position is self-contradictory, since [faith + life] is not "faith alone", or the term 'alone' in "faith alone" should not be taken absolutely, so as to exclude that which makes faith living, but should be taken relatively, so as to exclude something else (e.g. a product of living faith, or something co-present with living faith, but not that by which faith is made to be living). The latter way of understanding the position is more charitable, so that's the way I will understand it.

This factor that makes faith living, call it L (for 'Life'). Now, L cannot be a product of [faith without L], for two reasons. First, dead faith cannot produce anything, being dead, and therefore useless. Second, since nothing can give what it does not have, [faith without L] cannot produce L. Just as a dead body cannot produce life, so [faith without L] cannot produce L.

Not only that, but for faith to be living, L cannot merely be co-present or juxtaposed alongside or simply with faith, for then we would just have L co-present or juxtaposed alongside or with dead faith. Therefore, L has to be informing faith in the same sort of way that a soul informs (i.e. animates) a living body.

This raises three questions for those who hold all three of the following claims to be true: (1) faith alone justifies, (2) dead faith does not justify, and (3) charity does not make faith alive or contribute to making faith alive. First, what is L? Second, what is your evidence that L does not at least contain or include charity? Third, is your evidence for (3) strong enough to warrant forming or perpetuating a schism from those who do not hold (3)?

"I remembered how one of my favorite theologians, Dr. Gerstner, once said in class that if Protestants were wrong on sola fide -- and the Catholic Church was right ... "I'd be on me knees tomorrow morning outside the Vatican doing penance." - Scott Hahn, Rome Sweet Home, p. 31.


daniel said...

Hi Bryan,

Being a Catholic, I agree with the position you have been outlining in these posts. I also agree that a Protestant who holds that there exists 'dead' and 'alive' faith will face the difficulties you have raised here.

However, consider for a moment the Protestant who cites this sentence of your post: "So, necessarily a living body is a composite of body and life, otherwise, necessarily every body would be a living body."

You take the latter conclusion to be absurd and not held by anyone. But suppose I affirmed it and said "necessarily, every faith *is* a living faith. When James talks about a 'dead' faith he does so rhetorically, and only to highlight the impossibility of having true faith that does not result in works."

If I'm understanding this correctly, were I to deny the actual existence of dead faith, the analogy to a body fails and the rest of your post doesn't follow. Does that seem like a reasonable objection?


Bryan Cross said...

Hello Daniel,

I don't know if you read Greek, but if you do, read from James 2:14 through 26. You'll see the same term used for 'faith'/'believe' throughout, as noun and verb. We don't see this in English because as a noun it is translated 'faith', but as a verb it is translated 'believe'. So, in verse 19, these people are believing [faithing], just as the demons believe. If there were no such thing as 'dead faith' or 'dead believing' what James writes wouldn't make sense. He is comparing the epistemic state of those who think it is sufficient to believe, to the epistemic state of demons, and saying that they are analogous. They both believe, but don't obey, and this shows that their faith is dead. A living faith is distinguished from a dead faith precisely in that the former produces works, while the latter doesn't. He's not saying that the problem such people have is that they neither believe nor work. Otherwise the demon example would not fit; he'd have to make the demons out to disbelieve in God.

If someone claims that when James is talking about 'dead faith', he is using a term that has no referent, then when James talks about what the demons are doing, to deny that that has a referent is basically to deny that James means what he says. If that's not making Scripture a wax nose, I don't know what is. Your [hypothetical] proposal would mean that James is using the same term to talk about nothing in verse 14, nothing in verse 17, nothing in verse 18, something in verse 18, nothing in verse 19, nothing in 20, something in 22-23, nothing in 24, and nothing in 26. That is a serious bit of hermeneutical gymnastics to get around the obvious. And anyone who finds himself doing that ought to be asking himself whether he isn't just trying to prop up a faulty theological system, and prevent himself from letting Scripture speak freely.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Strider said...

In thinking about this difficult question, I have found it useful to concentrate on the nature of salvation, namely, eternal life within the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What is the essence of this divine life? Is it not love? Is it not love precisely because God is a community of love? Does not this love constitute the nature of God?

Once we understand that salvation is participation in the love of God, then it is difficult to make sense of the notion that we can be incorporated into the love of God apart from love.

The problem, of course, is the almost exclusive dominance of the legal metaphor in classic Protestant and Catholic formulations of justification. The justification debate is driven by the question, "What do I need to do to get into heaven?" In response to this question, the Protestant only sees one answer--"nothing!" The Lutheran states the "nothing" in terms of the sola fide; the Reformed states the "nothing" in terms of unconditional predestination. But it is the "nothing" that is decisive.

The Catholic, however, finds it difficult to assert the "nothing" precisely because he knows that one cannot participate in the God who is Love apart from love. Hence he asserts the necessity of a faith formed by love. To Protestant ears, however, this assertion sounds as if the Catholic is asserting a justification by works, as if we can earn our way into the love and grace of God, as if God needs to be persuaded and convinced to forgive us. For 500 years we have been trapped in this impasse, with each side hurling anathemas at the other.

There is a good reason why Eastern Orthodoxy finds this debate alien to its experience--it subordinates the legal metaphor to the Trinitarian love of God. I suggest that this subordination lies beneath the recent Lutheran-Anglican-Catholic convergence on justification.

Kenny Pearce said...

In dealing with this issue, I have found that the English translations of James 2 confuse the issue by insisting on using the word 'faith' which is a loaded term. The English word 'faith' does not mean the same thing as the Greek word pistis (though it once did, and that's why it is the traditional translation). I have therefore found it useful to re-translate the passage accordingly. In doing so, I put scare-quotes around some of the uses of the word 'trust' (which is how I translate pistis) because I do think that the use is rhetorical, as Daniel said. That is, James's opponents are using the word 'trust' to apply to something that isn't trust at all. If you claim to trust God but don't actually trust him with anything (in your actions) then you are like the person who says to "a brother or sister ... naked and lacking daily food ... 'Go in peace, be warm and filled,' but does not give the necessary things to them." This person is not serious about desiring that his brother or sister be warm and filled.

Anyone who seriously trusts God will show it in one way or another. I believe that two ways of showing it that are particularly important in the NT are (1) to stop trying to earn salvation by good works, and (2) to follow God's instructions out of love of God and a belief that his ways are genuinely better. (I read the discussion of 'entering his rest' in Hebrews 3:7-4:11 in this way.) If you really trust God (and that's what the NT means in the places where the standard translations talk about 'having faith in' or 'believing in' him) then you trust him to work your salvation (so you don't try to do it yourself) AND you trust that his ways are better than yours (so you obey his commands).

I take it that when James talks about a 'dead' faith, this is a poetic/rhetorical way of referring to a false faith. Of course, you might say that a false (dead) faith is related to a true (living) faith in much the same way a corpse is related to a human being: a corpse has the outward form of a human being but is inanimate, it doesn't actually do anything, and so isn't really a human being at all.