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Why I’m Not, And Never Will Be, A Roman Catholic (Reason 2 – Inconsistent Interpretations of James 2)

March 6, 2011

Jesus, Mary and Joseph depicted in stained glass

I have been curious about Robert Sungenis’  arguments in regards to James 2. Sungenis is an affluent Roman Catholic apologist. I figured if I really want to make sure my interpretation of James 2 is a solid one, I better hear the best arguments the other side can possibly offer. After reading it I decided to post my review of the book on Amazon. This thread is the same as my review, however, for the purposes of this blog I want to provide an even more in-depth critique of the book. Therefore, I went back and added some clarifications and additional insights which are in green. Also, Sungenis responds to the reviews on Amazon here and I’m looking forward to dialoging with him about it if the opportunity presents itself. Overall, if you’re after consistency, I think you’ll find that his interpretation is off and is ignoring many important components.

Here is my interpretation of James 2:14-26.  Please feel free to compare my exegesis with Sungenis’. If my review seems harsh I apologize. I was a bit zealous when writing this and should have toned it down a bit. Just ignore my zealousness and consider the facts at hand.

Here is my review:

Reviews can be based on many things. Personally, when I review theological books, I mostly rate them based on consistency and truthfulness (from what I have thus reasoned to be consistent and truthful). I give him 2 stars for the effort. My critique is mostly of what he says about James 2.

1.The subtitle should rather be “The eisegeted evidence for the Catholic Doctrine of Justification through the lens of Sola Ecclesia, which isn’t even a decreed infallible interpretation of Scripture”. Sungenis can try to interpret James 2 all he wants but Rome still doesn’t have an infallible decreed interpretation of it, even after supposedly 2,000 years of Papal authority to do so. How does he know he’s interpreting it correctly? He can’t know for sure until Rome gives a decreed infallible interpretation. He might be interpreting parts which Rome someday will interpret differently. Because of this fact, he wasted his time even writing the book, and should have just wrote a single sentence which said, “Rome believes this, Rome is true, therefore we should all listen to Rome”. That would have saved him a lot of time. There’s only the official doctrines on justification by the Roman Church. Catholics can only interpret James 2 through the lens of that official teaching.

Catholics CAN actually agree with the interpretation that many Protestants have laid out. A Catholic agreeing with the Protestant interpretation of James 2 CANNOT force the Catholic to stop being a Catholic. The Catholic can agree with the Protestant interpretation because 1. there’s no decreed infallible interpretation of James 2 by Rome, and 2. our interpretation doesn’t contradict Rome. It’s just that Catholics try to use James 2 to counter solafide, that’s all. They just have to make sure they don’t believe anything contrary to Rome.

2.pg. 124 “Countering the Protestant interpretation that “you see” in James 2:24 refers to what man sees as the fruit of one’s salvation as opposed to what God sees for justification, is the mere fact that at Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his own son Isaac, no human beings witnessed the act”.

In other words, Sungenis argues that James 2 can’t be about justification before men, or men detecting if one is justified, since James uses Abraham as an example and no one was there to watch Abraham’s actions. Then why does James use a synonym for “horate” (“you see” in v.24) in v.22 (“blepeis”) in regard to his readers physically seeing Abraham’s actions?! In fact, James expects his readers to “blepeis” Abraham’s past actions, which is a stronger word for “physically seeing” something, than “horate” in v.24! Sungenis missed this. In addition, James uses the words “blepeis” and “horate” which are second personal plural pronouns in the present tense! He’s addressing his readers in the present and telling them that they can physically see and notice Abraham’s actions and if one is justified! Sungenis needs to reread the text and take it up with James. James disagrees with Sungenis, thus, Sungenis is simply wrong.

The English phrase “you see” is the single Greek word “horate”, which is synonymous with “blepeis” in v.22. I would argue the word is indicative, (which Catholics should agree with since the Latin Vulgate interprets it as being indicative) and more accurately means to “notice” or to “know”. This is why it’s also no problem to not translate “justified” as “vindication”. I agree justification is before God, but justification before God can also be evidenced before men. That’s the point. We can notice and know that Abraham and Rahab were justified by reading about what they did. Verses 22 and 24 are consistent with v.18 which says that faith will be “shown” by works. In v.24 we know or notice faith by works, not faith alone (or just intellectual faith which even demons have, v.19). I meant to say, we know or notice “justification” by works, not faith alone. Sungenis never even looks at the Greek words “horate” and “blepeis” in his book. Then on pg.166 he quotes v.24 to make a powerful conclusion, yet leaves out “horate”! Without it, it makes his position look stronger. With it, it falls apart.

3.pg. 131-132 he says the context of James 2 is soteriological since the proceeding verses are about God’s judgment. But James shifts topics frequently throughout his letter. We can’t force surrounding statements into other statements which then have new contexts. But even if the context is about judgment, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s soteriological! It could be about judgment, while v.14-26 are talking about how you detect justification, not obtain justification. If judgment is coming, then we better make sure we detect justification in ourselves and others!

4.pg.135 and 140 he says James was writing to people whom already had faith, were believers, or are the Church. But even so, this doesn’t preclude James from still being able to give warnings to the church to make sure they’re saved. The epistles are written to professed believers, but the truths only apply to true believers. 2 Cor was written to believers and v.13:5 says to “test yourselves to see if you’re in the faith”. 1 Cor was written to believers and v.15:1-2 says if you’ve believed another gospel then “you’ve believed in vain”. This type of language to professed believers is not surprising to find in the NT. It’s a bad argument on Sungenis’ part.

5.pg.137 says, “we must intentionally and categorically add works to faith in order to effectuate and complete justification”, and on pg.139 he says Christians must make a decision not to sin, “it does not merely flow from them naturally”. First, James never uses the language “complete justification”. He says faith is complete by works, never “justification is complete by works”. In what sense does faith + works = (real) faith? Is it in the sense that “real faith” then equals justification, or is it in the sense that “real faith” helps us detect, not obtain, justification? V.18 James says he will show us his faith by his works. V. 22 and 24 says we can “blepeis” (physically see) and “horate” (notice) the faith by works. Again, I meant to say about verse 24, we can notice the “justification” by works. The answer is obvious. Also, Scripture teaches both that good works flow out of justification and that we must be deliberate about it. For example, the passages in Rom 6:1 and 6:16 tells believers they shouldn’t go on sinning, NOT because they’ll lose their salvation or because then they wont be justified. Justification has already been established, but they are to choose not to sin because they were crucified and risen with Christ and because they are now slaves to righteousness not slaves to sin. It’s not either/or but both/and.

6.pg. 150 says about v.19, “James’s main argument is not the contrast between demon faith and Christian faith, but between a Christian who takes care of his brother’s needs and a Christian who does not.” How is this derived from the surrounding verses? According to Sungenis’ own hermeneutic, he interprets verses 14-26 to be about soteriology due to verses 12-13 preceding it. Yet, he gets to have his cake and eat it too and trump this hermeneutic when it comes to v.18 giving the context of v.19! It says nothing about works. V.14 says what good is it if you have faith but not deeds. Can it save you? I agree only an intellectual faith can’t save. Then v.18 proves this is the context because James says he will “show”, NOT “obtain”, his faith by what he does. That’s the context of the entire passage, as well as v.19. Even Sungenis has no problem with this concept because he says on pg.153 about v.22 that real faith is more than a mere “acknowledgment that God exists”, yet he won’t allow for this interpretation for v.18-19 which are more explicit then v.22 on this notion.

7.pg. 152 says, “James considers the faith and works of Genesis 22 as an indivisible unit”. Heb 11 considers it, but that is not the context of James 2! James points to a distant past faith (Gen 15) and says he was justified then. He then points to a distant future work (Gen 22). James never says Abraham’s faith and works in Gen 22 justified him when he very well could have! The reason for this is because v.22 teaches we can “blepeis” (physically see) his faith and actions working together, and faith was complete, NOT justification was complete.

On pg.165 he says that “Gen 15:6 (the crediting of righteousness) is also fulfilled in Gen 22”. Sungenis is boarder line straddling the Protestant interpretation with this language. Doesn’t it make sense that if Abraham was justified in Gen 15 that he will act on that faith later on in life as well? Again, James doesn’t teach this when he could have, and he does teach that Gen 15:6 was fulfilled in Gen 15:6. James never teaches that Abraham had partially useful faith for justification. He also doesn’t teach Abraham’s faith was dead faith in regards to the promise (Rom 4:18-20) and that he just needed works to be justified. V.23 says, Abraham believed (in the past tense, back in Gen 15) God and it was credited to him as righteousness. James could have easily used examples of Abraham’s faith and works working together in the present tense, yet he never does. If the common Catholic interpretation were true, wouldn’t we expect James to have used such an example in order to be crystal clear that faith and works (at the same time) merit justification? He speaks of Abraham’s distant past faith being acted upon by a distant future work. Thus, the context is about detecting real faith, not obtaining justification.

8.pg. 171 says in regard to Rahab, “Faith without works is “dead” (Greek: nekros). In other words, without adding works, faith cannot be used for justification.” This is exactly why the interpretation of James that faith + works = (real) faith in the sense of being justified, instead of in the sense of showing justification, can’t work. Not only does James 2:14-26 teach the formula faith + works = real faith (v.22), but also that faith – works = dead faith (v.17,20,26). Because of the negation formula, the context must be faith + works = (real, completed) faith in the sense of detecting faith since Abraham’s faith was never said to be partially useful or dead prior to Gen 22. He is said by James to be justified in Gen 15 and his faith was never partially useful or as dead as a dead body (Rom 4:18-20). Yet, we can “blepeis” his faith by his actions in Gen 15, and throughout our lives we can “horate” if people are justified by works, and not by faith alone.

Since Sungenis has a website which responds to all the Amazon comments, you can go to my blog at restorethegospel dot wordpress dot com and see all my responses to his replies to me as well!

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