Thursday, February 26, 2015

Romans Versus James: An Orthopathic Integration

As Christians who devote ourselves to the study of God's Word, I think we all have our most and least favorite books. You may really love the Gospel according to St. John, but not have such a wonderful appreciation for Deuteronomy. The Epistle to the Philippians might stir your soul, but not so much Ecclesiastes. Hebrews may make your faith soar, but Proverbs or Song of Solomon bring it to ground again.

Martin Luther
Many Christians have felt a similar dilemma when it comes to Paul's extraordinary epistle to the Romans, and the letter of James, the half-brother of Jesus. The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther was one of those. While the theology expressed by Paul in his letter to the church at Rome laid the underpinnings of Luther's Reformation of grace and salvation by faith alone; the book of James so annoyed him that he wished it to be removed from the Christian canon.

I too have sometimes been "annoyed" by the book of James. This verse in particular really seems to fly in the face of everything else we learn in the New Testament: "You see that man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24). James "redefined" religion as "to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (1:27).

The prior verse says: ""Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless."

The person who receives "the crown of life" (that "God has promised to those who love Him") is the one who "perseveres under trial" (1:12).

And on and on. James' focus (on practice as opposed to belief) seems at first blush to be not on the faith in the finished work of Christ on the Cross which saves us, but (at face value) on the behavior that identifies us as those who have been saved.

What's happening here? Does the Bible contradict itself? Why was Luther so concerned?

The Supreme Importance of Context

Recently I've been challenged to re-examine the highly critical role of context in the way we read and interpret and teach God's Word. The truth is we find it very easy to "proof-text." The Bible contains more than 54,000 verses, all told, which makes it very easy to isolate a specific verse or set of verses which support "our position" on an issue. Whole books have been written which do this. For instance, some today claim that the Bible doesn't really oppose homosexual practice in the manner that orthodox Christian teaching (for hundreds of years) has held it does. "Jesus taught on a lot of subjects, but He never even addressed the issue of homosexuality," they claim.

This teaching, of course, ignores the larger context of Christ's teachings about sexual fidelity in marriage, as well as His clear definition of marriage as being created by God for one man and one woman. It also ignores the clear explicit teachings of both Paul and Moses (embraced by Christ) representing homosexual practice as abhorrent to God. It jettisons the whole counsel of Scripture in favor of a sort of "proof-texting by omission" that seeks to support its position.

In order to accurately interpret Scripture, we must approach it holistically. We must take the "whole counsel" of the Word into careful consideration.

And this approach is very helpful when it comes to a book like James. In fact, even within James itself, context makes a huge difference as we are looking at some of the more "works-focused" verses that I cited earlier.

In fact, one of the key clues comes from James 2:24 itself. "You see that man is justified by works and not by faith alone." James is certainly not claiming that works alone justifies a man ... but that works comes alongside faith in some manner as being the source of justification.

Two key questions must therefore be asked. The first is: What does James mean by "faith?" A closer look at 2:14-26 helps answer this question. It becomes clear that, to James, there are at least two (and possibly three) kinds of faith: 1) Verses 15-18 illustrate a kind of faith James calls "dead faith," one which is not accompanied by action. The person who has this kind of faith sees a person in need whom God places in front of him, and says: "Go in peace, be warmed and filled." In other words, he offers "cheap grace," pronouncing a "word of faith" blessing on that person. "God bless you, brother," he says upon encountering the man beaten in the road, as he moves to the other side and continues on without helping. This man pays lip service to God but does not allow God to use Him as His hands and feet to minister true compassion to the person in need. James calls this "dead faith."

2) Another kind of faith is seen in verse 19. James calls this "useless faith," but I think you could also call it "doctrinal faith." He says (rather sarcastically): "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder." Simply believing the right things, simply believing truth about God, is a kind of faith. But because it doesn't inspire any kind of heart change, it's useless.

And 3) it's nothing like the third kind of faith, which James illustrates in the account of Abraham, being willing to sacrifice his son at God's command, in verses 21-24; or Rahab the harlot, who risked her life to save the spies sent by Israel against Jericho, in 25-26. In verse 22 James calls this "working faith," which was accounted to Abraham (and to Rahab, respectively) as righteousness.

It's very interesting to me that James offers these two examples. Abraham, the Father of our Faith, was a man God called out of his homeland and on a long journey of faith, toward the establishment of the Hebrew nation and ultimately the Promised Land. And Rahab, a Gentile woman, a sinner, who had a sudden and unexpected appointment with destiny wherein she was given the opportunity to exercise a faith in the one true God -- at great risk to herself -- and she seized that opportunity and earned for herself a position in that Great Hall of Faith. In some senses, they were diametric opposites; but in this cause they were equally heralded: their faith, as manifested by their "works" (taking a risk to be obedient to God), was counted to them as righteousness.

In citing these examples, James also redefines not only "faith," but "works." How did the Pharisees define works? In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces a whole list of "woes" to the Pharisees, but verse 23 is particularly instructive: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former."

In other words, the Pharisees defined "works" as following the jot and tittle of certain parts of the Law, in such a manner that would not be too personally costly to them but would demonstrate their "righteousness" (self-righteousness) for all to see. But they would ignore other portions of the Law which they didn't like, which required them to embrace and exercise justice, mercy, and faithfulness! It was this cut-and-paste approach to "works" that earned them the rebuke of Christ.

And it's this second (ignored) part of God's Law which James refers to as "works." It's the "true religion" which exercises the compassion of God toward orphans and widows in distress. These are the "works" that justify, or demonstrate that our faith is real -- the "third kind" of faith James was talking about.

The Three-Legged Stool

Recently I read a very eye-opening blog by Christian Piatt, writing in the Huffington Post, which put it all together for me. First of all let me say that I'm not a great fan of Piatt's "progressive" approach to Christianity, which seems a bit too culture-tainted for my comfort. (Although I'd guess he'd probably say the same about me, perhaps? I don't consider myself "conservative" but I realize many of my views align with conservative notions of the world.)

Anyway, Piatt's recent blog, titled "Following Jesus isn't primarily about beliefs or actions," caught my eye. At the face of it, the "battle" between Romans and James seems to be just that, a battle between belief (faith) and action (works). So, what else is there?

Piatt explains:
Right thought or belief is generally called "orthodoxy," while right action is called "orthopraxy." And sometimes we seem to assume that these are the only things to focus on, or even that one is somehow superior to the other.

In studying the teachings and words of Jesus, however, I'm coming to embrace the sense that "orthopathy," or right-heartedness, is a critical third leg of the proverbial stool. Furthermore, I have the growing sense that this right-heartedness actually helps lead us to the path we're seeking for the other two.
It makes sense. You can be orthodox, or have the right "beliefs" about everything. Or you can be orthoprax, and have the right practice. You can even theoretically be both of these things, without having the right heart: to believe in God's Word; to practice God's Word and commands.

But ultimately, right-heartedness seeks sincerely to obey and fulfill the Greatest Commandment -- to love God with all that we are, and our neighbors as ourselves. Orthopathy!

I like the idea of the three-legged stool, but I daresay orthopathy is a synthesis of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It's faith and actions, together; or rather, it's the fundamental motivation that makes James' "third kind of faith" work itself out in our actions.

Learning to Love James

So, I am learning to love the book of James. The man who wrote it is an interesting character. The New Testament reveals that Jesus had four half-brothers (born to Joseph and Mary), and an unspecified number of half-sisters. ("Half" in the sense that Christ himself was not an offspring of Joseph, as his half-brothers and sisters were.) James was the first mentioned of those half-brothers. Early on, during His public ministry, it's implied that his own family members apparently struggled to believe that He was who He was. But later, after His death and resurrection, it's clear that James at least came around and ultimately was a leader in the early Christian church, taking a key leadership position in the church at Jerusalem after the disciples were dispersed.

Leading a church in the crucible of persecution would definitely give one a sense of what "real" faith looked like. And knowing the authentic, compassionate Jesus, as intimately as James did, would put you in a unique position to write about it authoritatively!

I think James issues a challenge to each of us who name the name of Christ. Don't "just believe," prove that you believe, through the way you live your life. Let God change your heart as well as your head, and you will see the fruit of that change working out through your lips and your hands.

1 comment:

authoritymike said...

Thank you Larry for your thoughts. I have been in an intensive on the book of Acts in Chiang Mai, Thailand this past week. The one thing that I see is a constant is that the ramification of the Gospel is found yes,in the forgiveness of sins, but yet also in the resurrection to newness of life. The world of Luke/Acts was a world turned upside down. I am constantly feeling the tension of this book, and the fine line that often seems to be walked by those in leadership .( Like James ) There was no way that any believer during that day could simply really slip into a life of mere "intellectual assent" toward the facts without there being some fruit being made manifest. The times and the calling made it so. There were issues to grapple with, and steps to take in community and the world at large in the whole process of identification. The cultural realities of the day... (Acts 15) and 1 Corinthians 8 even illustrated this in the everyday lives of believers (even in their eating. ) James steps out... his contribution in the Jerusalem council- in the discussion - feeling the tension- results in a movement toward greater testimony for His fellow Jewish community members. I doubt I would have done so well.. Either erring on a total side of legalism in the attempt to control, or assigning everything to the realm of grace where no accountability for action or inactivity was in clear view. I feel for James.. I appreciate James.. Thank God I wasn't James.