According to James: Studying Norman Shepherd (Part 2)
Every text in the Bible has a context. The first place we should go for that context is the immediate verses, next the surrounding verses, and then the entire book. After doing this, we may proceed to branch out to see a text's relation to other authors of sacred scripture.
Norman Shepherd does this with James 2:14-26 better than anyone else that I've personally read or listened to.
Shepherd gives his translation of James 2:24 (p.20 WOR) as "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." He then makes this statement (I will quote at some length):
"Verse 24 comes at the end of a line of reasoning that begins with what is really a rhetorical question in verse 14. 'What good is it my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?' James develops an argument in answer to this question and reaches a conclusion in verse 24... From this line of reasoning we can see that James is using the word justify in a sense parallel to the word save in verse 14. If you are saved you are justified, and if you are justified you are saved. The same reality is in view in both verses because the affirmation in verse 24 answers the question posed in verse 14." (WOR, p. 21)
Now I have tried, but I cannot get around the argument Shepherd makes from these two verses. James is dealing with salvation in 2:14. Can a person make the claim "I have faith," but have no works, and really have the faith he claims? The question is rhetorical in James, and the answer is, no.
The man who says "I have faith" but has no works is not a saved man. That may upset some people, but that is what elder James teaches.
Shepherd's point on justification is found when we couple verse 14 with the conclusion found in verse 24 (NASB) - "You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone." Justified is used in a soteric (Greek for salvation) sense by James because verse 24 is the concluding answer to verse 14, which asks about the salvation of a person.
This means that justification in James is vertical. It is soteric justification in the courtroom of the Almighty.
Just in case I, or anyone else wants to play with the word save in 2:14, Shepherd goes to the verses just prior to this section, James 2:12-13 (the surrounding context). Quite a novel idea.
He points out that in 2:12-13 James gives us a courtroom scene, where the criteria for judgment is the law of liberty (the royal law, vs. 8). This law requires us to be merciful, and if we have no mercy towards others, we cannot expect the Judge to be merciful towards us.
Shepherd writes: "Salvation in verse 14 is therefore salvation from condemnation when we stand before the Lord God to be judged. Salvation from condemnation in the judgment of God is exactly what we mean by justification. That is why James can use the word 'justified' in verse 24 in answer to a question about salvation in verse 14." (WOR, p.21)
We learn in all of this that justification in James is not only soteric (2:14), but it is also forensic, having to do with a judgment declared by the One with authority to judge (2:12-13).
Shepherd's point is that James uses the word justify in the same forensic-soteric sense that Paul uses the word justify (rf. Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16). Theologians have attempted to steer James in the direction of using the term justify in a different sense, because many feel that if both James and Paul use justify in the same sense, there is a contradiction between two inspired authors.
The problem here, as Shepherd labors to show, is that his peers often come to the text in James with that decision made before doing exegesis inside James' work. I tend to agree with Shepherd. I think it's similar to making a decision about what we will believe, and then combing the Bible for verses that seem to align with what we've already decided.
I have for quite some time taken the position that James uses justify in a demonstrative sense, albeit with some hesitancy. The hesitancy came from just reading and re-reading James. He is not difficult to understand. I was the one making it difficult.
Shepherd has helped me see what I believe was an interpretive error on my part. An error caused by refusing to respect James' work enough to interpret it within itself before skipping to another author for my answers.
Shepherd's main thrust for forensic-soteric justification in James is two-fold. One, it is persons being justified, not faith itself. Two, while there are times when justify means "show to be righteous" or "show to be just," the word justify cannot mean "show to be justified." In Shepherd's words, "The demonstrative sense is 'show to be (inherently) righteous or just,' not 'show to have been declared just (justified forensically and savingly).'" (WOR, p.24)
There is an additional problem with this supposed demonstrative sense in James. James' point is not that a man that has faith but no works is really justified, but only lacks the visible evidence. His point is rather that faith without works is a dead faith. It isn't saving faith. It isn't justifying faith.
I can see how Shepherd was treated poorly for bringing this to the forefront among his colleagues. It doesn't sound as "Protestant" as the status quo. But as I once heard Shepherd say (and I'm paraphrasing), "It may be that some haven't been paying as much attention to the Bible verses as they should."
In my next and final installment, I will examine Shepherd's understanding of what James means when he says "a person is justified by what he does, and not by faith alone."