Faith and Works


The point of the Breviary is to abbreviate so that praying the Divine Office becomes more practical. The Anglican Breviary is uniquely practical and uniquely “brief.” The selections from Scripture are also “brief” and selected with care. Today’s readings are lifted from the Epistle of the Holy Apostle James. Attention is focused on faith, and we here come upon the one and only time where Scripture mentions “by faith alone.” This should interest the user of the Breviary since the Protestant Reformation has traditionaly made much of precisely that: “by faith alone.”

From the Epistle of blessed James the Apostle

Lesson i

What doth it profit my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them: Depart in peace; be ye warmed and filled: notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself.

(Anglican Breviary, p. C377)

Can faith save him? the Apostle asks … The question is rhetorical, the implied answer is “no, it cannot.” Because saving faith only exists where it is energized into works. The opposition between faith and works is very ill-conceived. Faith in itself is dead and completely powerless to “save.” The Apostle continues:

Lesson ii

Yea a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith apart from thy works, and I will she thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man that, faith apart from works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

(Anglican Breviary, p. C377)

Faith here refers to content. The kind of faith that believes one God and therefore puts trust in the Scriptures wherein this one God is uniquely revealed. Trust in a very superficial sense though. Trust in the sense that even demons can have it, simply because they cannot doubt that there is one God and that the Scriptures are therefore true. Faith that does not necessarily include a right relationship with God, faith in itself does not bring that relationship about either. Only a faith which is alive by works is a faith capable of putting us in a  right relationship with God. The kind of faith that realizes that “faith” and “baptism” are equally necessary to salvation and embark upon the Christian life. One can believe that baptism is a dying and rising with Christ, but until one actually does die and rise with Christ in the action of baptism the belief is not salvific.

Think, for a moment, of the Ninevites. After Jonah’s preaching of repentance to them, theere were several options open to the Ninevites. One of them would have been the possibility that they acknowledged God had spoken to them through this prophet. But then they could simply have gone about their daily business and fail to repent – in spite of knowing that God had called them to repentance by means of his prophet. Of course the Ninevites, wisely, did not do so. They acted on their faith by performing works of repentance. This is what saved them. The Apostle is telling us the same thing here.But he is not yet done:

Lesson iii

And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

(Anglican Breviary, p. C377)

Here we have the contested phrase “by faith alone (only)” occurring in Scripture. It is not endorsed in Scripture but flatly denied. That should put an end to any easy fideism – the idea that merely granting intellectual consent can save. Saving faith is always evident in that it lives in works as a spirit lives in a body. All this, of course, does not make the perceived opposite of “by faith alone” true: “by works alone.” James consistently puts the two together. He does not assert that by faith only is corrected by means of by works only rather says the Apostle: Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? again the question is rhetorical and the implied answer is that “thou” (you and I) are now able to see precisely that faith is made perfect in works. It is not a matter of either or, but of both and.

The Anglican Breviary by selecting these verses for our reading today is making a doctrinal point here and warns us not to oppose faith and works, and not to rely on either in isolation form the other. The Breviary here makes the point that faith is made perfect in works. In my limited readings of the Protestant Reformers (I mean Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Hooker etc. but deliberately not the lunatic fringe which accompanies all movements of reform) I have come across quite a few admonitions to the necessity of holiness of life, and it seems to me that they too agree with the Apostle here. Rather than finding opposition between Reformed and Catholic thought here perhaps there is unity in both believing the words of the Apostle and both putting this into practice. Whatever the theoretical issues may be, we seem to be doing the same thing and perhaps in some sense we must therefore believe the same things.

Fr. Gregory Wassen +

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About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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3 Responses to Faith and Works

  1. Eric says:

    Fr. Gregory,
    A good post on the relationship between faith & works. I was immediately reminded of this apt clarification on what is meant by the word ‘faith’ in the Augsburg Confession (Lutheran): “Men are also admonished that here the term “faith” does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history—namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ.”
    To my mind I do not see a disagreement between your words and that of Augsburg and though I can’t just post the entirety of it, I believe this quotation shows that faith is more than just an acknowledgement of God (which is likewise the property of demons).

    Similarly, I believe that the Articles of Religion (Anglican) have a succinct way of expounding this subject: “Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.”
    I believe you are correct when you say that there is not necessarily the opposition between the Reformed, Evangelical (I mean this in the traditional, Lutheran, sense), and Catholic traditions on the ‘doing’ of faith. The Protestant traditions push hard (rightly so) against anything appearing as ‘works-righteousness’ and as such are then incorrectly judged as down on works altogether. The Protestant traditions are then accordingly misjudged as weak on sanctification.

    If you will allow me to step out on a limb here, I believe that much of the authentic Protestant traditions has been muddied by modern evangelicalism and poor Christian education. I say this as an Episcopalian who is surrounded by others who believe Anglicanism to essentially be a “believe whatever you want” tradition despite the catholic and ancient nature of the Prayer Book, the historic episcopate, Articles of Religion, etc.

  2. fathergregory says:

    Eric,

    Thank you for those references. From an Orthodox perspective it is also interesting to note that “deification” (an Orthodox pet peeve) is present under a different name in Luther, Calvin and particularly Hooker! The above may perhaps shudder at the name “deification” but in their teachings on unity with/in Christ they are advocating the exact same thing.

    The dichotomy works vs. faith is easily misconstrued. In the days of the Reformation it was posited against “indulgences” (which is unacceptable under any explanation that I’ve seen to date), seeing as many elevation as possible to collect brownie points (merit) with God, where days/years/decades relief from purgatory could be bought by having masses said (each Mass said for one intention being more powerful in effect than the same mass for several intentions) etc. In that peculiar light the opposition to “works” is fleshed out very differently from how it is understood in a more recent context. The Reformers – I suspect – would be surprised to see where their language has been taken to. But surely the Fathers of the Church would be equally surprised to see a Vladimir Lossky make the assertions he does about salvation as deification to the point of denying the “guilt” and therefore “juridical” aspects of salvation. Christus Victor – absolutely but the Anselmian soteriology posits a victory over sin on our behalf just as much as do Lossky and his favorite ancient sources. Anselm merely emphasizes a different tendency in the one soteriological tradition.

    I suppose my point is that we, in the Christian family, are not as far apart as we often assume for purposes of polemics in order to better advertise our own “kind” of Christianity.

    Fr. Gregory +

  3. Eric says:

    Fr. Gregory,

    You may enjoy what Veli-Matti Karkkainen has to say in his book ‘Pneumatology’ on the points of contact between Luther and Eastern Orthodoxy. If I remember correctly, he points out that the doctrine of ‘theosis’ in Orthodoxy has some similarities to what Luther describes as the Image of the Trinity growing in the Christian nourished by the sacraments, etc. I may be off on my wording, but I believe Karkkainen would be on board with your position that the major traditions of Christianity aren’t all that far off from each other.

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