Seidensticker Folly #22: Contradiction? Saved by Faith or Works?

Seidensticker Folly #22: Contradiction? Saved by Faith or Works? October 1, 2018

Atheist and anti-theist Bob Seidensticker runs the influential Cross Examined blog. He asked me there, on 8-11-18“I’ve got 1000+ posts here attacking your worldview. You just going to let that stand? Or could you present a helpful new perspective that I’ve ignored on one or two of those posts?” He also made a general statement on 6-22-17“In this blog, I’ve responded to many Christian arguments . . . Christians’ arguments are easy to refute . . . I’ve heard the good stuff, and it’s not very good.” He added in the combox“If I’ve misunderstood the Christian position or Christian arguments, point that out. Show me where I’ve mischaracterized them.” Such confusion would indeed be predictable, seeing that Bob himself admitted (2-13-16): “My study of the Bible has been haphazard, and I jump around based on whatever I’m researching at the moment.”

I’m always one to oblige people’s wishes if I am able, so I decided to do a series of posts in reply. It’s also been said, “be careful what you wish for.”  If Bob responds to this post, and makes me aware of it, his reply will be added to the end along with my counter-reply. If you don’t see that, rest assured that he either hasn’t replied, or didn’t inform me that he did. But don’t hold your breath. On 8-24-18 Bob wrote (after virtually begging and pleading to dialogue with me in May 2018) that my alleged “disinterest in the truth reflects poorly” on me. What are we to make, then, of his utter “disinterest” in defending his opinions against serious critique?

Bob’s words will be in blue. To find these posts, word-search “Seidensticker” on my atheist page or in my sidebar search (near the top).

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In his article, “25 Stupid Arguments Christians Should Avoid (Part 12)” (7-27-16), Bob wrote, in his characteristically misguided zeal:

Stupid Argument #40: Interpret difficult passages in the light of clear ones.

This argument is an attempt to wriggle away from Bible verses that are unpleasant or that contradict each other. “Interpret difficult passages in the light of clear ones” is advice from Josh McDowell’s New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (page 48). McDowell makes clear that difficult isn’t the issue at all—it’s contradictions that are the problem. They’re not difficult to understand, only to reconcile. For example, the epistle of James says that salvation is by works but Romans says that it’s by grace. The trick, McDowell tells us, is to find the interpretation that you like in the constellation of competing verses, bring that one forward, and either ignore the others or reinterpret them to be somehow subordinate or supportive of your preferred interpretation. That’s not quite how he puts it, but that’s what he means.

The quest for the “clearer” passage has become a quest for the most pleasing one.

The mere existence of what McDowell euphemistically calls “difficult” passages is an unacknowledged problem. How could verses conflict in a book inspired by a perfect god? If conflicting verses exist, doesn’t that make the Bible look like nothing more than a manmade book? How could God give humanity a book that was at all unclear or ambiguous?

I’m glad he gave a specific example. That means it can be examined and scrutinized. And when it is, guess who comes out looking “stupid”? Yes, you guessed right.

I think Bob is clever and informed enough to know that Catholics and Protestants have wrangled about the relationship of faith to works, and of each to salvation, for 500 years, and so he exploits that to his purposes. It’s a real and important debate, and I have devoted plenty of effort to it as a Catholic apologist, but, the differences are not nearly as great as one might think at first glance, and there is very significant common ground, as I shall show below.

Bob’s claim is that the inspired Bible contradicts itself in this regard, and that’s just not so. He’s not even accurate in how he describes the views of the books of James and Romans. Bob’s bias is so profound that inevitably, he can’t even get simple biblical facts correct (“what does book x teach about y?”). If he wants to wrangle about biblical interpretation, with one experienced in Bible study, he will lose every time, and the present case is definitely no exception to that pattern.

Bob states flat-out: “the epistle of James says that salvation is by works.” But this is simply not so. In the RSV, “works” appears 13 times in the book of James. Here they are, categorized for ease of interpretation:

Faith and Works are Connected and Inseparable

2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?

2:17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

2:18 But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

2:20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? 

2:22-23 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, [23] and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. 

2:24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 

2:26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead. 

The following passage also applies, even though the word, “works” isn’t present. The concept is (healing and salvation):

5:15 and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 

Justification by Works (But Not Works Alone)

2:21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? 

2:25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 

Works Simply Mentioned 

3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

What is striking in the above data of “works’ in James , is that it is never stated to be efficacious for salvation by itself (which would be “salvation by works” or the heresy of Pelagianism, which all Christians condemn). In the first category above, we see that works are directly and intimately tied to faith, to such an extent that faith considered by itself without it is indeed “dead” (2:17, 26), “barren” (2:20), and cannot “save” (2:14). The truth of the matter, according to James, is that works are necessary to “show” or exhibit or manifest faith (2:18), and to complete faith (2:22).

James 2:24 (“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”) seems to be capable of two simultaneous interpretations. It sounds like “justification by works [alone?]” but it can just as plausibly be taken to mean “faith alone is not enough for justification, works are also required”. This interpretation is strongly reinforced by all the other passages in the first category above, that are in the same context and chapter, save for 5:15. Indeed, the “faith + works” connection is asserted two verses before, and two verses after. All non-fiction literature has to be interpreted in context.

Beyond that, justification is not the same as salvation. I delve deeply into the interpretation of James compared to other books, with regard to faith and works, justification, and salvation, in the following papers (suffice it to say here that Bob is way over his head, arguing about this, and in very deep waters with no “life jacket” of reason or hermeneutical ability):

Justification in James: Dialogue [5-8-02]

Justification: Not by Faith Alone, & Ongoing (Romans 4, James 2, and Abraham’s Multiple Justifications) [10-15-11]

“Catholic Justification” in James & Romans [11-18-15]

Reply to James White’s Exegesis of James 2 in Chapter 20 of His Book, The God Who Justifies [10-9-13]

This leaves James 2:21 and 2:25 (second category), which seem at face value to assert at least “justification by works” (but not salvation by works) but they prove nothing. But they do not, because the immediate context in both cases proves that works cannot be isolate by themselves. 2:21 and 2:25 simply mention works only, but that is not contradictory to the other passages. They would be if they used the language of “works alone”: because that would preclude faith. In the cases of both 2:21 and 2:25, the verses immediately before and after both connect works to faith.

It couldn’t be any clearer than it is. But ol’ Bob proceeds like a bull in a china shop, ignorantly claiming that “James says that salvation is by works.” If the above data isn’t enough to disprove this claim, then we can do more word-searching. “Salvation” never appears in the book. “Saved” or “save” does five times:

James 1:21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. [the “word” or the gospel saves]

James 2:14, seen above, states that works and faith save. It logically precludes faith either by works alone or faith alone.

James 4:12 There is one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you that you judge your neighbor? [God saves; i.e., His grace saves]

James 5:15, seen above, also reiterates that works and faith together save. It’s a prayer, which is a work by another, but it’s a “prayer of faith“: so that faith is also present.

James 5:19-20 My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, [20] let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. [this is salvation by means of the divine grace passed along by evangelistic effort: probably including also prayer, given the immediate preceding context of praying (5:13-18, where prayer is mentioned in every verse).

Conclusion: salvation by works alone, without faith, is never ever taught in the book of James. Bob needs to get his basic facts right, in order to make claims that he thinks will establish biblical contradiction. Even despite his gross ignorance of the Bible, hermeneutics, and Christian theology, he could have done the simple word searches that I just did. It wouldn’t have put him out.

Bob also stated:Romans says that it’s [salvation] by grace.” All of Scripture asserts salvation by God’s grace. All Christians believe that. I’ve written many times about it:

St. Paul on Grace, Faith, & Works (50 Passages) [8-6-08]

Grace Alone: Perfectly Acceptable Catholic Teaching [2-3-09]

Grace, Faith, Works, & Judgment: A Scriptural Exposition [12-16-09; reformulated & abridged on 3-15-17]

Bible on Participation in Our Own Salvation (Always Enabled by God’s Grace) [1-3-10]

Monergism in Initial Justification is Catholic Doctrine [1-7-10]

Grace Alone: Biblical & Catholic Teaching [12-1-15]

Catholics and Protestants Agree on Grace Alone and the Necessity of the Presence of Good Works in Regenerate and Ultimately Saved Persons; Disagree on Faith Alone [5-4-17]

But this doesn’t preclude works (nor, of course, faith in grace). Thus, Romans, like all the other books, mentions salvation or justification by grace, but it also mentions works as non-optional and intimately connected to faith (precisely as James does). In my paper, “Catholic Justification” in James & Romans, I noted:

St. Paul opposes grace and/or faith to works in Scripture, only in a particular sense: the “works” of Jewish ritualism by which the Jews gained their unique identity (e.g., circumcision).

The Apostle Paul doesn’t oppose grace, faith, and works, and in fact, constantly puts them together, in harmony. Here are two typical examples:

1 Corinthians 15:10 (RSV, as throughout) But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.

2 Corinthians 6:1 Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.

Grace and works are for Paul, quite hand-in-hand, just as faith and works are. . . . 

St. Paul states:

Romans 3:28 For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. (cf. 3:20; 3:24: “justified by his grace as a gift”)

But “justified by faith” is different from “justified by faith alone”. The “works of the law” he refers to here are not all works, but things like circumcision. In other words, we are saved apart from Jewish rituals required under Mosaic Law. Paul makes clear that this is what he has in mind, in referencing circumcision in 3:1, asking rhetorically, “Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all” (3:9), multiple references to “the law” (3:19-21, 28, 31), and the following statement:

Romans 3:29-30 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, [30] since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.

Paul is not against all “works” per se; he tied them directly to salvation, after all, in the previous chapter:

Romans 2:6-8 For he will render to every man according to his works: [7] to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; [8] but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.(cf. 2:13: “the doers of the law who will be justified”)

Paul uses the example of Abraham in Romans 4, in emphasizing faith, over against the Jewish works of circumcision as a supposed means of faith and justification (hence, he mentions circumcision in 4:9-12, and salvation to the Gentiles as well as Jews in 4:13-18).

Here are other passages in Romans, where Paul connects faith and works and sees no dichotomy between them (“works” portions highlighted in blue):

Romans 1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 

Romans 1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”

Romans 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 

Romans 3:22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction;

Romans 3:31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Romans 6:17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,

Romans 8:13 for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. 

Romans 10:16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”

Romans 14:23 But he who has doubts is condemned, if he eats, because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

Romans 15:17-18 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed,

Romans 16:26 but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith —

Thus, we can readily observe that Bob’s description of the teaching in the epistle to the Romans is dead-wrong, too. What a shock!

Earlier, I alluded to Protestant-Catholic differences about justification. Yes, they are real. But they don’t mean that the Bible contradicts itself. I have shown above in great detail that there is no contradiction in this regard. The two sides wholeheartedly agree about the following:

1. Salvation is by ultimately caused by God’s grace alone.

2. Man cooperates with or at least accepts this free grace in order to be saved.

3. Justification is by faith.

4. Good works are absolutely necessary in the Christian life. It’s questionable that someone is or will be saved, or in the state of grace if these works are not evident in their life

Protestants go on to say that justification is by faith alone, which Catholics deny (and it’s a very involved, confusing discussion). Protestants formally separate works from justification, and place them in a separate category of sanctification (while Catholics essentially conflate justification and sanctification). But it’s also good Protestant teaching to assert the absolute necessity of good works in the saved or elect person, as proof of an authentic faith (which basically brings us back to the emphasis of James again):

Catholic-Protestant Common Ground (Esp. Re Good Works) [4-8-08]

Martin Luther: Good Works Prove Authentic Faith [4-16-08]

John Calvin: Good Works Manifest True Saving Faith [9-4-08]

Martin Luther: Strong Elements in His Thinking of Theosis & Sanctification Linked to Justification [11-23-09]

Martin Luther: Faith Alone is Not Lawless Antinomianism [2-28-10]

Moral of the story: don’t trust atheist and anti-theist polemicist and sophist Bob Seidensticker to be any sort of accurate or reliable guide to Bible teaching. Go to someone who has actually studied the Bible and who understands it, and how to interpret it. In case anyone is wondering, I’ve been intensely studying the Bible for 41 years: 37 of them as an apologist, and the last 17 as a full-time Catholic apologist, with strong credentials and 50 published books and hundreds of “officially” published articles.

I know what I’m talking about in this area. Bob doesn’t; and I highly suspect that his profound ignorance (when someone who actually knows the subject matter confronts him) is a prime reason why he hasn’t uttered one peep in reply to my first 21 installments in this series. It’s virtually certain that he will ignore this reply, too. Just watch and see! If he replies, and I’m made aware of it, I’ll note that here, and will counter-reply, since I (very unlike Bob) am quite confident of my views.

If I am proven to be wrong, I change my mind. After all, I was once a Protestant for my first 32 years (I’m now 60), so I have changed my mind in massive ways, in terms of theology (as well as in many other major moral and political issues).

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Photo credit: The Good Samaritan, by Jacopo Bassano (1510-1592) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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