The message of James 2 is one that should have its readers—like the demons the author mentions—shuddering.
Here is the crucial passage:
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 has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.” See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route? For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26).
James’ clear insistence on the necessity of ‘works’ for faith is itself quite powerful. Just in case readers miss the message in these unequivocal words, James reinforces them with an analogy sure to jolt even the most complacent Christian out of his spiritual slumber: You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.
The idea that the demons have some faith is not unique to James. It surfaces in the gospels as well. When Jesus comes across two demon-possessed men in Matthew 8, the demons cry out to Him, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?” (Matthew 8:28). The same episode—with a similar address from the demons—is also reported in Mark 5 and Luke 8.
But in James 2 we are forced to directly confront the question of whether the demons have faith—and, if so, what that says about our faith.
There’s no question this is an extremely difficult text to interpret. It’s a hermeneutical minefield for both Catholic and Protestant interpreters. Protestant commentators often seek to resolve their obvious discomfort with this discussion about faith and works—particularly the use of the phrase faith alone in verse 24—by building a exegetical wall of separation between the faith of the demons and our faith. One faith is ‘good’ in some way while the other is taken to be defective and dead—that is the faith of the demons. But this is to read a distinction into the text that simply is not there.
And yet, this text isn’t much easier for Catholic readers. The symbiotic relationship between faith and works is one that we understand intuitively. But the idea that demons have faith that is somehow analogous to ours is no less unsettling for Catholics than it is for Protestants. Surely there must be some difference between the faith of Christians and that of the demons? But how do we distinguish between the two without committing hermeneutical hara-kiri?
One of the best solutions to this problem is offered by noted Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, who, in an exhaustive analysis of this text, shows that all attempts to differentiate between the faith of demons and that of Christians ultimately must fail. Attempts to show James is talking about a ‘dead faith’ or a ‘false faith’ render the text utterly absurd when those phrases are substituted for the word ‘faith’ in the text, as Akin painstakingly demonstrates. (For an exhaustive treatment of what this chapter says about the theology of faith, works, and justification, read Akin’s analysis here.)
Akin’s solution: the faith that is meant is faith in the sense of ‘intellectual assent.’ Faith in this sense is common to both the demons and the Christians (but under drastically different circumstances). The message of James is that “one is not saved by intellectual assent alone,” according to Akin.
This understanding of faith is in keeping with St. Thomas Aquinas’ own conclusions in the Summa Theologica, where he also raises the same question as to whether the demons have faith. The Angelic Doctor answers in the affirmative—albeit in a very limited sense. For both the true believers and the demons, faith occurs when the will moves the intellect to assent to the truth.
But the circumstances for the two are not the same. The will of the believer moves his intellect because his will is drawn to the good. The demons, on the other hand, are “in a way, compelled to believe, by the evidence of signs, and so their will deserves no praise for their belief,” according to Aquinas. The demons remain fixated on the signs, never fully apprehending the deeper truths they signify, Aquinas writes. So, the demons may recognize that the teachings of the Church are from God, but they “do not see” the things the Church actually teaches—such as the nature of the triune godhead.
Aquinas elaborates further on the differing circumstances between the two:
Faith, which is a gift of grace, inclines man to believe, by giving him a certain affection for the good, even when that faith is lifeless. Consequently, the faith which the demons have is not a gift of grace. Rather are they compelled to believe through their natural intellectual acumen.
What is thus common to both the demons and the believers is limited to faith in the sense of intellectual assent. With this understanding in mind, James 2 makes sense, without reading so many hidden distinctions into the text that one does violence to its plain meaning.
Aquinas also helps us to understand that the fundamental differences between the two—the demons and the Christian believer—is rooted in the will. Our will and the will of the spirits are both free. But unlike human beings, the will of the spirits is not mutable: their first choice is their last one. Thus, because the will of the demons is already hardened against God, their faith is “displeasing to them, so that their malice is by no means diminished by their belief,” according to Aquinas. For the believers, on the other hand, the will is opening itself up to God, so the act of faith is their first response towards God’s invitation to love.
This emphasis on the will is crucial because the will is also the seat of love, according to Aquinas. In Catholic theology, faith and love are both essential for salvation. (This is in contrast to Reformation theology, which ultimately divorces the two. For more on that see my previous article here.) The Catholic view is reflected not only in James 2, but also in many of the other New Testament epistles. One particularly potent text is Galatians 5:6—For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. In context, St. Paul is talking about justification—the technical theological term for salvation (to simplify a bit). He is scolding those who would try to merit salvation on their own by performing works under the Old Testament law (like circumcision).
The path to salvation, according to St. Paul, instead begins at faith. But it doesn’t stop there. Instead, it is “faith working through love” that “counts for something.” It is good works, performed not under the law, on our own, but good works (or “acts of love”) done through grace that contribute towards our salvation (or “justification”). James says much the same thing in the above excerpt in verse 22, in reference to the faith of Abraham: You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works.
In Galatians 5:6, St. Paul uses a loaded word to describe the relationship between faith and love. In English translations this becomes “working.” But a peek at the original Greek tells us much more than the English lets on.
In Greek, the operative word is energoumenē. This word is a combination of energéō, meaning engaged in, and ergon, meaning work. This addition of the verb to work intensifies it: faith is not simply “working through” love. It is deeply and inextricably engaging in the work of love. One dictionary defines energéō as “working in a situation which brings it from one stage … to the next.” The dictionary compares this to an “electrical current energizing a wire, bringing it to a shining light bulb.” (This is, after all, the word from which we get energy.)
We can thus think of the relationship between faith and love as like that of electricity and a light bulb. A light bulb can no more serve its intended function—providing illumination—than our faith can function without love. It is love that ‘electrifies’ our love, allowing us to be a light and a witness to others. As Christ said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.”
This is the message of James 2: love is indispensable to faith. Faith that doesn’t work in love would be about as useful as a lamp that is never plugged into an electrical socket. James is even blunter than this: “So also faith, of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The words of James still challenge us today. Does our faith work through love? Or, has our faith withered away to nothing more than an intellectual assent—the faith of the demons?