In our house we ask our children to share by giving, they respond by redefining sharing as taking. In the same way, we see reinterpretations of Scripture that look like contradictions. Genesis 15:6 says “And he (Abraham) believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Paul cites this as evidence of justification by faith alone (Galatians 3:6, Romans 4:3), while James uses this to illustrate faith evidenced by works (James 2:23).
The first step that many people take is to turn to commentaries. Ben Witherington III demonstrates that Paul breaks with Jewish interpretations by focusing on the righteousness that came from Abraham’s faith rather than Abraham’s faithfulness in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. James Dunn in his commentary follows the same line of reasoning in the Romans parallel. Douglas Moo looking at James suggests tAbraham was initially declared righteous by faith alone, but it was Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac that was the “final declaration of righteousness on the basis of a ‘faith that works.’” Victor Hamilton argues Paul and James were not contradicting each other, but rather were dealing with separate issues, both relevant to Genesis 15:6. The commentaries are good but leave us with more information than answers. This is the danger of over reliance on commentaries.
What we need to do before we ever pick up the tools is have a good reading of the text, especially in its context. Genesis is about the accomplishing of God’s promise in surprising ways in the face of continuous obstacles. Genesis 15:6 is Abraham’s submission to God by believing an unbelievable promise. The author is not attempting to illustrate Paul’s justification by faith or James’ active faith that leads to social justice.
The question still stands: Are Paul and James misusing Genesis? The key is the word ‘righteousness’ and it is here that we turn to concordances and Bible dictionaries. Strong’s concordance tells us that the Hebrew for ‘righteousness’ means both rightness and justice. Vine’s New Testament Dictionary describes righteousness as a quality of God that must find expression in his actions. In the TDNT we find that the use of ‘righteousness’ by James “is not to be identified with the central content of the word as Paul uses it in the light of the saving work of the cross. It undoubtedly means right conduct, the work of righteousness.” This takes us back to Hamilton’s commentary that tells us that the Hebrew for ‘righteousness’ means “both ‘rightousness’ (a theological meaning) and ‘justice’ a juridical meaning).” Both Paul and James found what they were looking for in ‘righteousness.’
How do we bring this all together? We must read Genesis, Paul and James in context. Commentaries are good, but they are more useful raising the right questions than providing answers. A careful reading shows that Genesis has a theme of promise fulfillment that should not be too quickly examined through a New Testament lens. Using Bible dictionaries to study the key word ‘righteousness,’ we can see that the author of Genesis was making room for a number of legitimate and non-contradictory applications. Paul and James were able to see in this passage a faith that was both a response to grace and a faith that was revealed in works.
Peter H. Davids, Epistle of James. New International Greek Testament Commentary
James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary
Victor P. Hamilton, Book of Genesis 1-17. New International Commentary on the Old Testament
Gerhard Kittel (ed.) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
Douglas J. Moo, James. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries
James Strong, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
Ben Witherington III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians