EXEGESIS OF JAMES 2:18-20
James 2:18 But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith from your works, and I will show you from my works my faith.
Verse 18 is difficult for several reasons.
First, in Greek, verse 18 has major textual variants. So the translation of this verse depends on which Greek manuscripts one elects to translate. The reading found in the majority of Greek manuscripts makes virtually no sense at first glance, and the reading found in the remaining tiny handful of manuscripts is, at best, a small improvement at first glance.
From this, the manuscript evidence appears to show that a scribe from the early church in Alexandria edited this verse to correct what appeared to be a mistake, and that his edits found their way into a few subsequent manuscripts.
In view of the sporious history of the Alexandrian manuscripts, the following analysis is based upon the language of the Majority Greek text, which forms the textual base of the King James Bible.
There are two clauses offered in verse 18. In them, the "Fool" (the imaginary disputer of James) invokes a debate with "you," The term "you" may refer back to James (as if the disputer is debating with James), or the imaginary disputer may be creating his own imaginary disputer ("Disputer 2").
In the minority of manuscripts, principally of Alexandrian
origin, the logical arguments of the two clauses are reversed, as if the imaginary fool is going to show the superiority of one theology over the other. So, the Fool challenges Disputer 2 to show his faith "without" his works, while the Fool is willing to demonstrate his faith "from" his works.
In the majority of manuscripts, both clauses repeat the same idea, not alternative ideas. Only the word order is switched. The "fool" challenges Disputer 2, "show me your faith from your works, and I will show you my faith from my works." It is understandable why many scribes throughout history thought this was a manuscript error and sought to correct it. Only an idiot would make an argument of alternative propositions by repeating the proposition twice. But we must remember, by James' own words, this argument is advanced by an imaginary "fool." So perhaps James is not simply creating an imaginary "fool," but something closer to an imaginary imbecile.
We will accept that the majority of manuscripts are correct in the following analysis, rather than a tiny minority of manuscripts. Verse 18 above has been translated in this light.
The second problem with verses 18-19 is that it is not clear from the Greek manuscripts exactly where the disputer's words end and James' analysis resumes. The quotation marks are added to the English text, but do not appear in the Greek language, and their placement is a matter opinion by any team of translators. It was a common form of rhetoric in classical Greek to invent a disputer, allow him to advance an argument, and then show the error of his reasoning. And in many classical examples, the words of the imaginary disputer continue until the writer again addresses him. If James were following this classical Greek style, the quotation marks would extend all the way to the end of verses 18-19, after which James again addresses the imaginary disputer. But the placement of the quotation marks remains uncertain. The disputer's words could end after verse 18, where the quotation marks are usually found in most translations, or even after the first sentence of verse 18.
Perhaps the difficulty in interpreting these verses is that theologians assume that some sort of logical argument is being advanced by the fool, and then refuted by James. But before we beat our brains out interpreting verses 18 and 19, it is important to remember that, whatever they may mean, in verse 20, James tells us that they are the hypothetical ramblings of an imaginary "fool".
Let us therefore look also at verse 19 and 20 and, based on that analysis, offer a paraphrase of these three verses as a unit.
James 2:19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe--and tremble!
Whatever this verse means, it does not form a foundation for the doctrine of soteriology.
Firstly, it appears that these are the words of the fool, since it is not until the next verse that James resumes his reply, which begins by addressing the fool. The words of a fool are hardly the foundation on which to build a doctrine of eternal salvation.
Secondly, demons can't be saved since Jesus never died for their sins. Those who seek to apply this verse to eternal salvation seem to be unaware of the role that the death of Christ played in our redemption. Faith's inability to save demons is not due to the sinfulness of demons, but that Jesus did not pay for their sins through his death. He paid for the sins of Adam's race. Jesus never died for the sins of any demon.
Thirdly, Scripture teaches that to redeem someone, the redeemer must be a kinsman of the redeemed. Mankind is a race. That is, we are all fallen descendents of Adam.
Therefore, Jesus, by being born into Adam's race, became the kinsman redeemer for all of Adam's race. In this way, he was able to redeem all of mankind. In contrast to Adam's race, angels and demons are not a race. They do not reproduce and have offspring. Each angel was a separate creation of God. They are unrelated by blood. Therefore, even if Christ were to decide to redeem fallen angels, he would have to take on the flesh of each demon separately, dying countless times for countless demons.
Fourthly, since demons can't reproduce, there is no way for Jesus to be born as a descendent of any demon. And without a kinsman redeemer, demons cannot be saved. In short, demons are beyond redemption.
Fifthly, unregenerate minds who seek to formulate some bizarre argument for salvation by works from verse 19 clearly don't understand the gospel. The great "shma"%u2014that "God is one" -- is not a soteriological formula of the New Testament. The New Testament formula for salvation is that Christ died for our sins and arose again on the third day.
For at least these five reasons, only a fool would look to James 2:19 to formulate their doctrine of eternal salvation.
But I guess that's the point James makes in the very next verse, isn't it?
James 2:20 "But do you not know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?"
From these facts, we offer the following interpretation or paraphrase of verses 18, 19, and 20.
Verse 18: The fool, according to the majority of Greek manuscripts, argues that works are the automatic and certain result of faith. (A popular belief today as well.)
Verse 19: The fool advances this argument by saying that demons believe, but do not have good works, and that this is how we know that demons are not really saved.
Verse 20: James calls the man a fool for at least seven reasons. Firstly, the fool has tried to set up a logical alternative, but repeated the same proposition twice in verse 18. Secondly, works are not the "automatic" result of trusting Christ.
If they were automatic, they wouldn't be called "work." Finally, the disputer's "proof" of his argument (that demons are not saved), is not a proof, but a theologically idiotic statement for the reasons stated above in conjunction with verse 19. James calls him a fool.
Why does James, in the middle of a plea to help the poor, present an idiotic soteriological argument and then reject it as foolish? It is clear that James wants to stress the importance of charitable works, particularly in light of the distress in Jerusalem and the outlying areas. It is also clear that James wants to use irony to convey this passion. He may even be a little annoyed with the number of Christians that were so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good.
But if James were to express any criticism toward the authentic gospel, he would be a self condemned heretic.
And although he was enflamed with passion for the poor, he was also in love with Jesus Christ, and would never attack the gospel simply to help the poor.
Perhaps the same heretical belief that permeates the church today, that faith automatically results in works, was present in the time of James. So, in one short passage:
James presents, and then condemns, the warped "works are automatic" of the imaginary fool; James ensures that his ironic style was not taken to be an attack on the true gospel; and James avoids getting knee deep into a discussion of soteriology. Because James does not wish to divert his focus (the poor), he sets up a "straw man" of manifestly stupid theology. That way, he is able to simply dismiss the statements as the ramblings of a "fool," and return to his foundational premise, that when the poor are starving in the streets, it is not faith that will save them. Faith without works is dead.
Heuristic 1: James briefly raises the objection, dismisses it, and then returns to his theme . . . that faith without works is dead. Faith cannot deliver a cold and starving man from physical death if it does not have works, and all the philosophizing in the world won't change that.
Heuristic 2: James calls the disputer a fool for believing that works automatically follow faith. And then, James adopts this position himself, teaching works "automatically" follow faith, and that if one does not have works, they were "never really saved," but simply had "dead faith."
Although Heuristic 2 should, by now, appear patently absurd to persons of average intellect, long after James' death, it would go on to become a popular theological position.
Eventually, that resourceful twentieth century expositor, John MacArthur, would go on to divine roughly 48 different varieties of faith in the passages of Holy Scripture, all from the single Greek root "pisteuo," such as dead faith, living faith, professing faith, possessing faith, saving faith, faith that works, faith that claims to be authentic but does not have works, etc. etc.
With such remarkable taxonomical skills, it does not take a great imagination to see what a great service could be done to the church if John MacArthur entered field of secular anthropology, where he could use his creative taxonomy to categorize the various "hominids" as well as other fanciful lines in Darwin's "tree of life."