Twisting Scripture

How do we settle disputes over scripture? How can we determine which interpretation is better?  In order to work through these sorts of issues, we need to know what we are looking for.  Let’s use the different interpretations of James 2 between Mormons and Historical Christianity as our example.

The Mormon will point out that James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24). This passage of scripture shows that faith is essential, but it is not complete without works (see verse 22).  One must have faith and works to be truly saved.  In other words, works are necessary for salvation (such as baptism, repentance, etc).

The view of historical Christianity will say that faith alone is what saves you, and that works are an indicator of genuine faith. They would agree that if someone says they have faith but there are no works that flow from that faith, then they are not saved.  The issue, however, is not that they did not have works but that they did not have a genuine faith as it would have resulted in works.  They will interpret verse 24 to mean that a faith that doesn’t lead to works is not a saving faith (so one cannot be saved by faith alone, since genuine faith is never alone).  They will look at verse 22 and say that it is faith that saves and works completes the picture (showing faith to be genuine) but the works themselves do not save.  In other words, works are not necessary for salvation but if one is saved then they will do good works.

How do we resolve this dispute over James? The first thing we need to understand is that a passage only counts as evidence for one interpretation over another if it supports one interpretation at the exclusion of the other.  It isn’t enough that scripture would support the Mormon position if it would just as easily support the historical position, and vice versa.  As we have seen, both verses 24 and verse 22 can just as easily support either view.  For that reason neither verse is helpful in determining which position is correct.  Instead we need to find verses in this passage that would support one view and refute the opposing view.

In the case of our example in James, it seems that there are two such verses. James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”  We know that it is just as much of a sin to fail to do a good work as it is to do an evil work.  If James’s view is that we need to do good works in order to earn personal salvation (as the Mormons hold), then why does he here say that if we commit any sin (including any sin of omission) that we stand guilty of all sin (including all sins of omission)?  The Mormon position has to require that we are capable of doing good works that remove guilt.  How is that consistent with James’s assertion that we have the same guilt in doing no good work as we do of doing many good works?  The view that our guilt is not affected by works is consistent with historical Christianity, but it is not consistent with the Mormon position.  It is for this reason that James 2:10 would count as evidence against the Mormon interpretation of this passage.

Consider also James 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”  Notice James’s question, “Can that faith save him?”  If James’s view is that no faith of any quality saves by itself, then why does he not say, “Can faith alone save him?”  His question is about whether the faith can save, with no mention of any role for works to play in salvation.  If the Mormon position is correct, and James believes that no one is saved apart from works (even with faith) then it seems he would have phrased this differently.  Admittedly this is not conclusive, but when taken in conjunction with the passage in James 2:10 we start to have a better picture of what James was getting at.

Another way to resolve these disputes is to use other passages of scripture to clarify unclear passages. We might look at Titus 3:5, which reads, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy…” to clarify the passage in James.  This is a useful tactic, especially if we have the same author in both passages.  The liability, however, is that we might imply that there is disagreement between the biblical authors.  If our first response to the passage in James was to quote Titus 3:5 then we would be open to the claim that James and Paul must disagree with each other.  We need to be careful to first show that our interpretation is the most consistent with the passage in question before trying to move to other passages to clarify.

In short, when there is a disagreement over interpretations of a passage we should take a two-step approach. First read the whole passage carefully in context and identify any verses that favor one interpretation over the other.  Second we can seek out other passages (preferably written by the same author) to shed light on what the author was saying.  In this way we can have a better understanding of what scripture means and a better response to anyone who might twist scripture.

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6 thoughts on “Twisting Scripture

  1. If you are attempting to refute another’s doctrine and scriptural interpretation it would also help to have a firm understanding of what their doctrine is.

    For instance, the LDS church does not teach that we earn our salvation through our work, but that we demonstrate our faith in God in them. Thus it is not the act of dunking a person in water, or even the prayer that is said at the time that has effect in our lives. Baptism only has effect when it is done with a faith in God and that He will fulfill the promises He made to those who so demonstrate their faith.
    Take James 2:10 as your example. When we knowingly and willingly sin in anything we are guilty of unbelief in God and what He has said. It doesn’t matter what the sin is, we are saying “I don’t really believe that God will punish me as He has said.” Thus it doesn’t matter what sin we commit, we are displaying unbelief and thus our faith is such that it has no effect and we are as if we had violated the law in every way.

    As to works flowing from faith, we would agree with you on this, but would also maintain that faith can and does grow from works. Thus we see that Naaman the Syrian washed seven times in Jordan without faith, but when he was cleansed he was given faith and believed in God from that time onward.
    So, as James said, Faith, if it hath not works is dead, but then also, works without faith are dead. They are not separate parts that are added together, but are a united whole that gathers strength from the exercise of both and only together can either one have any effect on our salvation.

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    1. Thanks for reading! You may not believe that works are necessary for atonement, and if so then great! I don’t believe that either. That is, however, what the LDS church teaches. The LDS church teaches that Jesus accomplished general salvation (that is, he provided atonement for Adam’s sin, a.k.a. original sin, only) but that we must attain personal salvation through good works (atonement from personal sins). I have references, including the LDS statement of faith, in the post below:

      https://rationalchristian.wordpress.com/2017/05/26/defending-the-atonement/

      The post above is less about LDS beliefs themselves and more about how to resolve conflicting interpretations of scriptures.

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      1. I understand the purpose of the post, which is why I put my comment in the way that I did.
        I have seen many people try to refute LDS doctrine and more often than not they are refuting something else. Thus, their claims to refute LDS doctrine are not founded because they do not understand LDS doctrine.

        So, to confine this to the topic of the thread, would you agree that you need to understand something before you can refute it?

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        1. The content of this post was not to discuss LDS doctrine, but to provide objections to a particular interpretation of James (namely that James 2 teaches that works have salvific value). The purpose of the post had less to do with LDS and more to do with how one can discriminate between contradictory interpretations of scripture.

          If that is not how you would try to interpret James, great!

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            1. If you would not interpret James the way that I have described in the post, then great. We agree that the interpretation that I described in the post is wrong. To be frank, it seems argumentative for you to insist that I am misinterpreting the way that someone else has misinterpreted a passage of scripture. I’ll let you have the last word if you like, as I’m not sure that our conversation is going in a productive direction.

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