Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Faith or Works?

Today in my Christian Scriptures class we will be talking about Abraham.  Abraham is a fascinating fellow.  He stands at the head of three of today's major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

According to the biblical narrative, Abraham is both exemplary and deeply flawed.  He is a the father of a great nation, one who left his home in pursuit of a promise from God, but he was also a consummate liar.

I want to look briefly at how New Testament writers, specifically Paul and James, viewed Abraham. 

Paul portrays Abraham as the father of faith, the template for how Christian believers ought to behave toward God in their faith.  Romans chapter four is Paul's reading of the Abraham story.  He continually reitterates that Abraham was not justified by works, in his case by "circumcision," but rather, that he was justified by faith.  He quotes Genesis 15:6 which reads

Gen. 15:6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
 Therefore, Paul sees Abraham's faith as producing his righteousness or justification.  Paul writes:
Rom. 4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.
 Paul sees the Bible in Genesis proclaiming Abraham as justified because of faith before he had received the promise from Genesis 12:1-3, and before he had done any works (i.e., circumcision).

James on the other hand reads the story of Abraham quite differently.  He looks not to Genesis 15 for the justification of Abraham, but rather to Genesis 22 where Abraham almost carries out the sacrifice of his son Isaac.  In response to Abraham's actions the LORD says,
Gen. 22:16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
This statement is essentially a restatement of the promise of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.  James reads this statement and says that the promise of God to Abraham is fulfilled not merely on the basis of faith (as Paul said), but rather on the basis of works, namely the faithfulness of Abraham to carry out the sacrifice of his son which God had commanded.

So, Paul can say,
Gal. 2:16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
And James can say,
James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
 So, which is it? Are Christians justified by faith alone, as Martin Luther thought (sola fides)?  Or, are Christians justified by works, as in the case of James?  One can see why Luther, with his emphasis on sola fides, called James an "epistle of straw" and moved it to the back of his Bible.  This faith and works question is a question worth pondering.  Both views have a place in the Christian Bible and in the Christian story. 

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