Faith or Works?

I was recently reading an article by a Presbyterian pastor who candidly shares his struggles with the New Testament book of James and James’ typically Jewish emphasis on saving-faith as doing-faith, where amazing grace becomes amazing works.

Faith or Works? Yes.

The Catholic position on the faith-works interrelationship is rich, and maintains the quintessentially catholic tension of et…et, ‘both-and.’ We hold no sola, no ‘alone’ as ever truly alone. As Luther himself, who with a reformer’s love for paradox professed many ‘alones’ — sola fides, sola gratia, sola Scripture, solus Christus — we believe that no single dimension of the faith can be isolated from, or exalted over and against, another.

For example, the Catechism affirms that the fullness of God’s saving grace is to be found not in faith alone, but in the triplex of the theological virtues, faith-hope-charity:

…deprived of hope and love, faith does not fully unite the believer to Christ and does not make him a living member of his body’ (CCC 1815). We are saved by faith, in hope and through charity.

Creedal Corpse

For the sake of brevity, and in deference to its suprassing greatness, I will focus my brief considerations on charity.

Charity is defined in the Catechism as ‘the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God’ (CCC 1822). Charity is a ‘theological virtue,’ meaning that it is simultaneously a gift from God at work in us (i.e. theological) and a human work of cooperating with the divine gift (i.e. virtue).

Faith separated from charity is empty, lifeless, hollow. Why? At heart the answer lies in the fact that the God we have faith in is love. Faith and love are inextricably bound to each other.

The gift of charity given to the baptized bestows a remarkable power that makes us capable of loving God and neighbor with the very love with which God loved us in Christ. Here we don’t simply mean that we are empowered to imitate or mimic Christ’s love, but that our love becomes God-loving-in-with-through us. This divine love, poured into our hearts by the Spirit, enables us to love God above all things, to love all things for God’s sake, and in the way God wishes them to be loved.

And for a Catholic, the definition of a saint would be one who has consented to this revolutionary gift of charity.

Labor of Love

What’s more, the gift of charity by its nature labors, works, is active, and is obedient to the commandments by means of a virtuous life. If it does not, charity-filled believers become people of the lie.

Summarizing the argument of James 2:14-25, Aquinas called this charitable faith fides caritate formata, ‘faith formed by charity.’ Living faith, which opens us to encounter the saving revelation of God in Jesus Christ, is inextricably bound to charity, and so by its very nature impels us to love-in-action; and though we would affirm that our action is a response to, and not the cause of God’s saving gift, we would simultaneously affirm that our free and obedient response is an irreplaceable and constitutive element of saving, living faith.


So here, in a very simple way, let me suggest that (1) replacing the faith-works/either-or contrast with a faith-charity/both-and consonance, and (2) replacing the divine gift-human response/either-or contrast with a divine gift-human response/both-and consonance more fruitfully frames the terms of a debate that began in earnest 15 centuries ago when St. Augustine and Pelagius engaged in their war of words.

Inspired Diversity

Those who find St. James’ theology of faith somewhat at odds with St. Paul’s are on to something.

The Catholic approach to the canon of the Bible is that all of the inspired books together, in all their wildly diverse perspectives, form an organic unity whose inspired meaning is discerned ever-afresh by the living Tradition of the Church in every age. This diversity gives rise to a fruitful tension not to be overcome, but to be mined for ever-deeper insights.

St. James’ iron, unrelenting ethic of deeds stands as a crucial Biblical counter-narrative to St. Paul’s impassioned quest to liberate Christ from a uniquely Pharisaic form of exclusive devotion to erga nomou, the ‘works of the Law.’ James’ Letter represents a distinctive tradition in early Christianity, and exposes to clear view the fact that early Christian churches preserved an irreducibly diverse vision of the meaning of the ‘Christ-event.’

Early Christianity was not in any sense a monolith, but rather a complex (but not complicated!) symphony of faith whose beauty would be lost without its infinitely diverse movements. The Church, in her finest moments, holds all of these unstable tensions together in a catholic unity long enough for the symphony to reach its magnificent climax: the saints.

Thank you

St. James, we thank you for your God-breathed Letter by which we learn that faith is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but rather the portal by which divine love invades and overthrows the human heart and foists on the world otherworldly beauty.

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