Scott Hahn has, with his wife, been a convert to Roman Catholicism since 1986 (source). He is fairly well known amongst most Roman Catholics as a kind of “model convert” and has supposedly won many over to the Roman Catholic Church with his story. Particularly popular is his reasoning against Protestant theology, which does seem to have some affect on people. One convert’s story:
An audiotape recording on the conversion of former Protestant minister Scott Hahn clinched it for me. Hahn clearly exposed the errors in the Protestant Reformation’s battle cries of sola fide and sola scriptura. [Lynn Nordhagen, When Only One Converts; pg 190]
The audio recordings of Scott Hahn’s conversion are floating about the internet and are widely available, but it was also converted into literary form in his book Rome Sweet Home. Here was what he had to say regarding the doctrine of sola fide:
Saint Paul (whom I had thought of as the first Luther) taught in Romans, Galatians and elsewhere that justification was more than a legal decree; it established us in Christ as God’s children by grace alone. In fact, I discovered that nowhere did Saint Paul ever teach that we were justified by faith alone! Sola fide was unscriptural! [Scott Hahn, Rome Sweet Home, pg. 31]
Luther and Calvin often said that this was the article on which the Church stood or fell. That was why, for them, the Catholic Church fell and Protestantism rose up from the ashes. Sola fide was the material principle of the Reformation, and I was coming to a conviction that Saint Paul never taught it.
In James 2:24, the Bible teaches that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Besides, Saint Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “…if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” This was a traumatic transformation for me to say that on this point I now thought Luther was fundamentally wrong. For seven years, Luther had been my main source of inspiration and powerful proclamation of the Word. And this doctrine had been the rationale behind the whole Protestant Reformation. [ibid, pg 32]
I’d like to respond to this somewhat simplified view on the topic, and respond to it in two parts. I would like to begin first with an examination of the texts which Hahn cited as those which led to his “traumatic transformation.”
It would be proper beforehand to properly define what sola fide is. The phrase is a Latin one which means “by faith alone,” and is often related to sola gratia (“by grace alone”), just as Paul related faith and grace with: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8; ESV). However, sola fide does not mean “faith isolated” or “faith by itself,” as we see so often in the easy believism of modern day Evangelicalism.
From the perspective of those steeped in the medieval church’s instruction, the Reformers’ radical reduction of what was needed for justification was shocking. Urging that it came “by faith alone” seemed to undercut any call to holiness of life – the life spent doing good works. The defenders of the Roman church quickly pointed out that the Reformers’ teaching would lead to indifference toward godliness.
In 1531 Melanchthon responded to this assertion as made in the Roman Confutation (a reaction to the Augsburg Confession). He observed, “Our opponents slanderously claim that we do not require good works, whereas we not only require them but show how they can be done.” According to Melanchthon, while justification is by faith alone, faith is never alone: the faith that justifies cannot be solitary. It cannot exist by itself, in supposedly blissful isolation. What Melanchthon here asserted was the common teaching of all the Protestant Reformers. [James R. Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings; pg 122-123]
The issue between sola fide and works is that it is from our faith that the works stem, and therefore it is not our works which justify us but the faith from which those works come.
Although, as I have said, inwardly, and according to the spirit, a man is amply enough justified by faith having all that he requires to have, except that this very faith and abundance ought to increase from day to day even till the future life…Here then works begin; here he must not take his ease; he must give heed to exercise his body by fastings, watchings, labour, and other regular discipline, so that it may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform itself to the inner man and faith, and not rebel against them nor hinder them, as is its nature to do if it is kept under. For the inner man, being conformed to God and created after the image of God through faith, rejoices and delights itself in Christ, in whom such blessing have been conferred on it, and hence has only this task before it: to serve God with joy and for nought in free love. [Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian; source]
Therefore we must remember that sola fide does not mean an isolated faith that amounts to: “I believe in God. The End,” but a living faith from where a person believes in God and, from that faith, does the will of God. That will be important as the discussion progresses.
I’d like to begin with 1 Corinthians 13:2, as that will be the simplest to start with. It would be important to first note that 1 Cor 13:2 has nothing to do with justification, nor does it directly relate to the topic of sola fide. In the previous chapter, Paul had been speaking to the Corinthians about unity within the church despite the existence of various spiritual gifts. Paul then transitions into the topic of love, ending the section with a promise to show “a more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31; ESV). The faith spoken of in 1 Cor 13:2, however, is not a faith of justification so much as a faith in miracles. This would coincide with the comparison of this faith to the spiritual gifts, as well as Paul’s elucidation of “faith, so as to move mountains.” Again, 1 Cor 13:2 has nothing to do with the topic of justification, let alone sola fide.
Now we move on to James 2:24, which is perhaps the most common passage cited against sola fide. Let us begin by looking at this section of James 2 in context:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. [James 2:14-26; ESV]
In the verses preceding this section, James had been speaking heavily about hypocrisy in worship (James 2:1-13). He instructs the believers: “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty” (2:12). He then moves onto the deeper meaning of this topic.
The apostle asks what good it is “if someone says he has faith but does not have works,” asking specifically if “that faith” will save him (2:14). This is a person who believes but has nothing to show for it. James gives an example of such a person with a mini-parable: a supposed Christian meets a poor person, wishes them well, but does nothing to alleviate their pain. To this kind of outward show of faith (or lack thereof), James asks, “What good is that?” (2:16).
Of course, these people might try to defend such a faith. “Show me your faith apart from your works,” James asks, “and I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18). Here he is merely reiterating what he said earlier in his epistle, which was “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (1:22). He declares he will respond to faith isolated with faith displayed by works – in other words, a faith displayed by works stemming from that faith. It is by the fruits of his faith that James will display such a faith.
Pressing the issue, James makes a grand statement to those who are hearers but not doers: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (2:19) The demons, being fallen angels, know there exists a one true God, but this did not bring them joy. They hate God, work against His ways, and at the mere utterance of His name feel fear because of His power over them. This is a dead faith. A supposed Christian may know there is a God, and may believe that Christ is Lord, but they do not do as He commands. James stresses here that such a faith is not a true faith.
There would probably still be people arguing the point here, so James transitions into an example of scripture. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” he asks (2:21).
Here we should stop momentarily to remind the reader of something: James is not stating that Abraham is justified by works alone, as he has continually associated faith and works together. Most Roman Catholics, including Scott Hahn, are aware of this, but how faith and works are related, especially in regards to sola fide, we will get to momentarily.
In regards to the sacrifice of Isaac, James explains that one can “see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (2:22), and “the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ – and he was called a friend of God” (2:23). The reference to Genesis 15:6 is the exact same reference that Paul makes in Romans 4:3, which takes place before the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:1-19). This has led some to claim there is a contradiction between the works of Paul and James, but upon closer inspection a greater harmony can be discerned.
The immediate assumption here may be that Abraham was justified because he had faith and he performed works. Let’s not, however, forget the full context. James has been attacking empty faith with no outward shows of works, and then takes us to the story of Abraham and Isaac. His reference to Gen 15:6 is spoke of in the past tense, as he says “the scripture was fulfilled” (and there can be no fulfillment unless there was a state that required fulfilling). The Greek word itself (ἐπληρώθη) means “to complete” or “make full.” Furthermore, James emphasizes to the reader that Abraham’s faith was “active along with his works” and “was completed by his works.” Ultimately, Abraham’s faith was revealed and confirmed by his works, and showed that he had truly been made righteous by God for his faith.
Now we finally get to the verse in question: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). By now, we see the full context: the “works” are those stemming from faith and not apart from faith; “faith alone” does not mean the same context of sola fide. Instead, it relates more to what we might call solo fide, or faith isolated from everything else. The apostle goes on to explain: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (2:26). The “faith apart from works” refers to an empty faith (the faith of demons in 2:19) and therefore a dead faith. James is, in the context of this entire section, attacking the concept of a dead faith, and promotes instead a living faith from which works are shown as fruits.
It might be good here to turn to the teachings of our Lord in a related manner. Christ instructed His disciples, “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matt 7:17; ESV) and likewise, “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43-44; ESV). People so often forget that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit, and a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. What if the tree bears no fruit, you ask? It is dead. Dead, just as the barren fig tree that bore no fruit (Luke 13:6-9), and dead like the faith of the false Christian in James 2:16.
Therefore, Scott Hahn’s citation of James 2:24 does not deny sola fide in any way, shape or form. James is teaching a living faith? So is sola fide. James says that works must be a sign of our faith? So is sola fide. The easy believism of some modern Protestant churches does not deny the true definition of sola fide. Orthodox Protestants have certainly never denied a living faith – in fact, as already established, that is precisely what sola fide is and how it is taught. One example:
Why then does James say that it was fulfilled? Even because he intended to shew what sort of faith that was which justified Abraham; that is, that it was not idle or evanescent, but rendered him obedient to God, as also we find in Hebrews 11:8. The conclusion, which is immediately added, as it depends on this, has no other meaning. Man is not justified by faith alone, that is, by a bare and empty knowledge of God; he is justified by works, that is, his righteousness is known and proved by its fruits. [John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible, regarding James 2:23]
When Paul says that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law (Rom. 3:28), he plainly speaks of another sort of work than James does, but not of another sort of faith. Paul speaks of works wrought in obedience to the law of Moses, and before men’s embracing the faith of the gospel; and he had to deal with those who valued themselves so highly upon those works that they rejected the gospel (as Rom. 10, at the beginning most expressly declares); but James speaks of works done in obedience to the gospel, and as the proper and necessary effects and fruits of sound believing in Christ Jesus. Both are concerned to magnify the faith of the gospel, as that which alone could save us and justify us; but Paul magnifies it by showing the insufficiency of any works of the law before faith, or in opposition to the doctrine of justification by Jesus Christ; James magnifies the same faith, by showing what are the genuine and necessary products and operations of it. [Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible, regarding James 2]
Obedience to God is essentially requisite to maintain faith. Faith lives, under God, by works; and works have their being and excellence from faith. Neither can subsist without the other, and this is the point which St. James labours to prove, in order to convince the Antinomians of his time that their faith was a delusion, and that the hopes built on it must needs perish. [Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, regarding James 2:24]
Ye see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only – St. Paul, on the other band, declares, A man is justified by faith, and not by works, Rom 3:28. And yet there is no contradiction between the apostles: because, They do not speak of the same faith: St. Paul speaking of living faith; St. James here, of dead faith. They do not speak of the same works: St. Paul speaking of works antecedent to faith; St. James, of works subsequent to it. [John Wesley’s Commentary on the Bible, regarding James 2:24]
Again, if Scott Hahn wishes to tell us that James 2:24 smashed sola fide for him, then he either did not fully understand sola fide during his Protestant days, or he did not fully study James 2 enough to understand what the apostle was really saying.
Much of what we’ve discussed touches on the subject of works’ relationship to faith and justification. I hope, God willing, to touch on this in the second part, where I will respond to Scott Hahn’s assertion by searching the writings of Paul specifically and the New Testament in general.