How do we settle disputes over scripture? How can we determine which interpretation is better? In order to work through these sorts of issues, we need to know what we are looking for. Let’s use the different interpretations of James 2 between Mormons and Historical Christianity as our example.
The Mormon will point out that James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24). This passage of scripture shows that faith is essential, but it is not complete without works (see verse 22). One must have faith and works to be truly saved. In other words, works are necessary for salvation (such as baptism, repentance, etc).
The view of historical Christianity will say that faith alone is what saves you, and that works are an indicator of genuine faith. They would agree that if someone says they have faith but there are no works that flow from that faith, then they are not saved. The issue, however, is not that they did not have works but that they did not have a genuine faith as it would have resulted in works. They will interpret verse 24 to mean that a faith that doesn’t lead to works is not a saving faith (so one cannot be saved by faith alone, since genuine faith is never alone). They will look at verse 22 and say that it is faith that saves and works completes the picture (showing faith to be genuine) but the works themselves do not save. In other words, works are not necessary for salvation but if one is saved then they will do good works.
How do we resolve this dispute over James? The first thing we need to understand is that a passage only counts as evidence for one interpretation over another if it supports one interpretation at the exclusion of the other. It isn’t enough that scripture would support the Mormon position if it would just as easily support the historical position, and vice versa. As we have seen, both verses 24 and verse 22 can just as easily support either view. For that reason neither verse is helpful in determining which position is correct. Instead we need to find verses in this passage that would support one view and refute the opposing view.
In the case of our example in James, it seems that there are two such verses. James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” We know that it is just as much of a sin to fail to do a good work as it is to do an evil work. If James’s view is that we need to do good works in order to earn personal salvation (as the Mormons hold), then why does he here say that if we commit any sin (including any sin of omission) that we stand guilty of all sin (including all sins of omission)? The Mormon position has to require that we are capable of doing good works that remove guilt. How is that consistent with James’s assertion that we have the same guilt in doing no good work as we do of doing many good works? The view that our guilt is not affected by works is consistent with historical Christianity, but it is not consistent with the Mormon position. It is for this reason that James 2:10 would count as evidence against the Mormon interpretation of this passage.
Consider also James 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Notice James’s question, “Can that faith save him?” If James’s view is that no faith of any quality saves by itself, then why does he not say, “Can faith alone save him?” His question is about whether the faith can save, with no mention of any role for works to play in salvation. If the Mormon position is correct, and James believes that no one is saved apart from works (even with faith) then it seems he would have phrased this differently. Admittedly this is not conclusive, but when taken in conjunction with the passage in James 2:10 we start to have a better picture of what James was getting at.
Another way to resolve these disputes is to use other passages of scripture to clarify unclear passages. We might look at Titus 3:5, which reads, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy…” to clarify the passage in James. This is a useful tactic, especially if we have the same author in both passages. The liability, however, is that we might imply that there is disagreement between the biblical authors. If our first response to the passage in James was to quote Titus 3:5 then we would be open to the claim that James and Paul must disagree with each other. We need to be careful to first show that our interpretation is the most consistent with the passage in question before trying to move to other passages to clarify.
In short, when there is a disagreement over interpretations of a passage we should take a two-step approach. First read the whole passage carefully in context and identify any verses that favor one interpretation over the other. Second we can seek out other passages (preferably written by the same author) to shed light on what the author was saying. In this way we can have a better understanding of what scripture means and a better response to anyone who might twist scripture.