Few things can be more fundamental to Christianity than the correct way of salvation. Surely, then, we should expect the New Testament authors to be unanimous and unequivocal on this subject. Yet when it comes to the issue of our justification, this does not appear to be the case. When Luther was struggling to re-establish the principle of justification by faith, as set out in Paul’s letters, the letter of James (and especially James 2:14-26) seemed to undermine his case. It has remained a source of embarrassment for many Protestants ever since.
James is commonly assumed to be a legalist, an opponent of Paul and of Paul’s gospel of justification by faith alone. His letter has often been interpreted as an attack on Paul’s teachings, criticising him for separating faith from works. Some people have even regarded this as evidence of an early split between Jewish and Gentile Christianity, as represented by these two influential apostles.
I think this is being unfair to James, who seems to have been unwillingly co-opted into the legalists’ cause even in his own lifetime. Those who wanted to impose the Jewish Law on Gentile converts claimed to speak with his authority (Galatians 2:12), although he later denied any connection with them (Acts 15:24). But if James really had such fundamental objections to Paul’s version of the gospel, why did he (along with the other apostles) give it his official approval (Galatians 2:6-9)? Far from being a zealous promoter of the Jewish Law, the James that Luke portrays in Acts 15 and 21 is an influence for moderation and reconciliation, doing his best to draw together people on both sides of the argument.
It is true that, at one point in his letter, James does appear to be attacking someone with a differing opinion to his own (James 2:18-22). However, this is likely to be a purely rhetorical device, with the imaginary interlocutor playing the role of a hypothetical objector, or of a student seeking clarification. In any case, this person does not represent Paul. His words (“You have faith; I have deeds”) seem to indicate someone under the impression that faith and works are two distinct but equally valid options – which is definitely not Paul’s position!
I therefore think it is very difficult to sustain the accusation that James is contradicting Paul. Those who would set the two apostles against each other must not only reject the evidence of Acts but also have to distort what has been written both by Paul and by James.