The following is taken from The God Who Justifies pp. 333-336:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? (NET)
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? (NIV)
What use it is, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have deeds? Is the faith able to save him? (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James, 236)
The text of the verse presents no difficult variants, and its translation is not questioned in the main. However, one vitally important syntactical issue must be addressed, that being the translation of the last phrase and in particular the presence of the definite article h` before the word pi,stij (faith). As this is the opening statement of James thesis for 2:14-26, we need to take special care in our understanding of what he intends to communicate.
What good is it, my brothers Literally, what benefit or gain is there? The phrase is repeated in 2:16. The question is rhetorical. There is no benefit or substance to the claim being made, anymore than there is in 16. The NET takes the plural masculine as a generic plural forthe entire Christian congregation (“brothers and sisters”), recognizing that the words of James apply equally to men and women.
if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Literally the text reads, “says” rather than “claims,” but the NET translation is very accurate, retaining the infinitival form, “to have.” James presents a hypothetical question. Is there any benefit or use in the claim of a person to be in possession (e;cein) of faith (pi,stin, placed first in the clause for emphasis) when that same person is not in possession of e;rga, deeds. Two immediate issues confront us:
First, the subjunctive le,gh| (says, claims) will be expanded upon by James throughout the section. It is plainly his intention to contrast the mere claim existing only in the realm of wordswith the true possession of real faith that is demonstrated by something more than mere speaking. Hence the accuracy of the NETs claims,for this carries more forcefully in English the idea of empty profession than merely says. This translation will be seen to fully fit James application in the next two verses.
Next, what is the correct translation of e;rga? Obviously both deeds and works fit the original meaning. Johnson comments,
The translation of erga as deeds attempts to represent more accurately the point as well as to avoid precipitous or inaccurate comparisons with Paul. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James (1995), 237.
A person seeking to equate Paul’s context with James’ context will object to such a translation. And as we have already seen, Paul’s normative use of e;rga is actually perfectly in line with James! Paul often speaksof deeds done in righteousness that flow from a changed heart. Indeed, Paul teaches that we are saved by grace through faith unto good works (Eph. 2:8-10). He insists that it is God’s purpose that we should walk in or live in doing good works (e;rgoij avgaqoi/j). Yet, we also know he says that no one is declared righteous before him by works of the law (Rom. 3:20) and that God credits righteousness apart from works (Rom. 4:6). So it is primarily in Paul that we see the same Greek term being used in more than one sense. Since the confusion generated by this passage is due to the errant assertion that James is addressing the same context that Paul addresses in Paul’s decrying of works,choosing, with Johnson and the NIV, to use the term deeds makes perfect sense, and the wisdom of the translation will be borne out throughout the exegesis of the text.
has no deeds…We should not assume that this means the person is morally neutral. No one is. Instead, this person has no actions by which to demonstrate the existence of the reality of the claimed faith. He or she has nothing in the realm of the demonstratable that is consistent with the Christian claim, I believe.
Can this kind of faith save him? The phrase begins with the negative mh., indicating the expected answer is negative, “No, that kind of faith cannot save.” Here the issue of the translation of h` pi,stij comes into play. The KJV and NKJV render the phrase without reference to the definite article, “Can faith save him?” The Textus Receptus, however, reads identically to the NA27 in having the article before pi,stij. Most translations recognize this as the anaphoric use of the article, pointing back to the previous appearance of the same term (i.e., to the faith that has no works). Hence the NASB reads that faith, the NIV such faith, the NET, this kind of faith, ASV, that faith, NLT, that kind of faith, etc. Yet some, including the NRSV, leave the article untranslated.
Daniel B. Wallace lists this as an example of the anaphoric use of the article. He commented on this passage, after rendering it “this kind of faith,”
The author introduces his topic: faith without works. He then follows it with a question, asking whether this kind of faith is able to save. The use of the article both points back to a certain kind of faith as defined by the author and is used to particularize an abstract noun.
Against the vast bulk of commentators, Hodges argues that the article is not anaphoric, since otherwise the articular pi,stij in the following verses would also have to refer back to such a workless faith. He translates the text simply as “Faith cannot save him, can it?” Although it may be true that the article with pi,stij in vv 17, 18, 20, 22, and 26 is anaphoric, the antecedent needs to be examined in its own immediate context. In particular, the author examines two kinds of faith in 2:14-26, defining a non-working faith as a non-saving faith and a productive faith as one that saves. Both James and Paul would agree, I believe, with the statement: “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.” Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, (Galaxie Software) 1999, 219.
The passage then makes a firm statement: a faith that exists only in words (one that is “claimed”) but has no evidence of its existence in actions (deeds) is a faith that cannot save. It is non-salvific. It lacks the ability to save. As such the question can profitably be asked, “Does it follow that a faith that exists both in word and in deed can, in fact, save?” The answer would seem to be yes, it can and does in James understanding of the gospel. It should be remembered, the Protestant doctrine of sola fide has never meant “faith in isolation” but instead “faith alone without the addition of human works of merit.” James is not addressing such a concept of faith here: his assertion is that this kind of words-only, deedless faith simply cannot save.
Jimmy Akin Quotes Bob Wilkin
Yesterday Jimmy Akin answered a question about this text on his blog, here. Unfortunately, Akin does not address the syntactical relationship of the definite article to the noun it is modifying. The closest he gets is, “In other cases, though, they used it with more force than ‘the’ has. In these situations, it has the force of a pronoun, like ‘that.'” Well, sorta, but not quite. He refers readers to one of his This Rock articles, but to be honest, there is little there overly relevant to our purposes in examining James 2:14. He then states,
The passage is more naturally handled with option #1, as the King James and New King James translators (who were firmly Protestant) did. The passage naturally reads like one in which the definite article has less force rather than more, and if you aren’t being motivated by a variant of the “dead faith” solution to the James/Paul problem, I don’t see why you’d want to go with option #3.
This is translation and exegesis based on external issues alone, which is surely not a sound methodology. Nor does it even begin to touch upon the real issue, that being, why is the definite article included? If Akin were forced to provide a syntactical category for the use of the article, he would see that the anaphoric use is easily defensible on a basic exegetical basis without any reference to sources outside of James. Once again, though both Catholic (Luke Timothy Johnson noted above is Catholic) and Protestant scholarship has addressed this issue fully, Akin misses the point in his answer.
But most interesting is that Akin then cites none other than Bob Wilkin on the topic! What an odd conjunction, a Roman Catholic citing a proponent of non-Lordship salvation! The egregious eisegesis incumbent upon the Hodges/Wilkin camp when it comes to James 2 is well known, so much so that their twisting of the text has been cited by other scholars as an example of how not to interpret the Bible. Whether Akin is even familiar with Wilkin’s unusual and erroneous position I do not know. A Google search of Akin’s blog site only turned up this one use of Wilkin’s name (Akin has misspelled it: it is Wilkin, not Wilkins), and nothing appears on catholic.com either. So it is possible he is simply unaware that Wilkin teaches the idea that a singular act of intellectual faith brings one salvation; that such a person can then live a life of utter debauchery, become an atheist, etc., and yet gain heaven. But the reason Wilkin says what he says is the exact opposite of why Akin quotes him! Wilkin does not believe there is anything even slightly like “dead faith,” but Akin says just the opposite. The citation is, therefore, somewhat humorous.
Finally, in response to Wilkin, contrast the clear words of Dan Wallace, a professor at Dallas Seminary, with Wilkin’s comments (Wilkin’s Ph.D. is from Dallas). It is utterly specious argumentation to point out that you would not use “that” or “such” for other uses of the definite article with faith in the same context. Such requires a very basic misunderstanding of how to translate the article in Greek, let alone the syntactical categories relevant thereto. Now, one can forgive Jimmy Akin in that area, but a Ph.D. from Dallas has little excuse for not knowing his Greek syntax.
By the way, while the KJV/NKJV do not specifically bring out the anaphoric relationship of the article to the preceding reference to faith, it does not follow that their translators interpreted the passage so that “faith” is taken as a mere abstract. The lack of specificity does not mean the non-specific interpretation is being promoted by any particular translation. That needs to be kept in mind.