Bede the Venerable on Sola Fide

Bede the Venerable ca. 673-735

Excerpted from Bede’s Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles

Jas 2:15-17 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.

It is evident that just as words of concern alone do not help a naked or hungry person if food or clothing is not provided, so faith observed in name only does not save, for it is dead in itself if it is not made alive by works of charity, by which it may be made to come to life. Nor is that contrary to this statement which the Lord uttered, He who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mk. 16:16), for it must be understood there that only he truly beleives who carries out in deed what he believes. And because faith and charity cannot be seperated from one another – as Paul bears witness by saying, and faith which works through love (Gal. 5:6) – appropiately the apostle John brings forward a statement about charity akin to James’ about faith, saying, Anyone who has the world’s substance and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the charity of God remain in him?

Jas. 2:19 You believe that God is one; you do well; the demons also believe and they tremble.

You should not think you are doing something great by believing that God is one, for the demons also do this, nor do they believe only in God the Father but also in God the Son. So it is Luke says, The demons also went out from many shouting and saying, “That you are the Son of God;’ and rebuking them, he did not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was Christ. (Lk. 4:41) And they do not only believe, they also tremble. So the legion who were besieging the man; cried out to him in a beseeching voice, “What is there between me and you, Jesus, Son of the most high God? I earnestly entreat you by God, do not torment me.” (Mk. 5:7) Therefore, those who do not believe that there is a God, or believe and do not fear, must be judged slower-witted and more shameless than the demons. But it is no great thing to believe there is a God and tremble if one does not also believe in him, that is, if love for him be not held in the heart. For it one thing to believe him, another to believe that he exists, another to believe in him. (credere illi…credere illum…credere in illum.) To beleive him is to believe that the things he speaks are true; to believe that he exists is to believe that he is God; to believe in him is to love him. Many, even the wicked, are able to believe the things he speaks are true; they believe that they are true and do not wish to make them their own because they are too lazy to do anything about them. Even the demons believe, however, that he is God. But they alone know how to believe in God who love God, who are Christians not only in name but also in action and [way of] life, because without love faith is empty; with love it is the faith of a Christian, without love the faith of a demon. Therefore, anyone who does not wish to believe that Christ is God still does not imitate the demons. He believes that Christ [is] but hates Christ, he makes a confession of faith out of fear of punishment not out of love of a crown. For they too were afraid of being punished. Accordingly, when blessed Peter, confessing the Lord, said, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, (Mt. 16:16) he appears to utter by his mouth almost the same words as the demons; but their confession, because it was uttered with hatred for Christ, was rightly condemned, his, becuas it came forth from inward love, was rewarded.

 Jas. 2:20-21 Do you wish, however, O foolish man, to know that faith without works is worthless? Was not our father Abraham made righteous by works? and so on. Since the apostle Paul, preaching that man is made righteous by faith without works, (Rom. 4:1-25) was not well understood by those who took this saying to mean that when they had once believed in Christ, even though they might commit evils and live wickedly and basely, they could be saved by faith, [James] explains how the passage of the apostle Paul ought to be understood to have the same meaning as this letter. And all the moretherefore he uses the example of Abraham about faith being useless if it does not issue in good works, because the apostle Paul also used the example of Abraham to demonstrate that man is made righteous without deeds. For when he recalls Abraham’s good deeds which accompanied his faith, he shows well enough that the apostle Paul does not teach by Abraham that man is made righteous without works to the extent that anyone who believes it has no responsibility to perform good works, but for this reason instead, that no one should think he has come to the gift of righteousness which is in faith by the merits of his formwer good deeds. In this manner the Jews wished to set themselves above the gentiles who believed in Christ, because, they said, they had come to the grace of the Gospel by the merits of the good works which are in the law, and therefore many of those who believed were scandalized that the grace of Christ was being given to uncircumcised gentiles. Hence the apostle Paul says that a man can be made righteous by faith without works, but [he means] previous works. For how is a person made righteous by faith able to act, if not righteously? When, therefore, James says, Was not our father Abraham made righteous from works, offering his son Isaac upon the altar?, he intentionally advised that an example of good work was to be learned from the patriarch himself, challenging those among the Jews who had believed they like good off-spring, were following the actions of their first and foremost outstanding ancestor. And since he was advising them not to fall away in temptations and prove their faith through works, he chose anexample from the patriarch, by which he might be able to instruct them in each virtue. For what greater temptation, except for thosw hich concern injuries to one’s own body, can happen than that someone, an old man, should be compelled to slay his only and most beloved son? Would he delay giving a tunic or his own food to the poor for the sake of divine love when he did not delay giving over to death immediately at the order of the Lord the son whom he had received as his heir when he was an old man? Accordingly, this statement of blessed James agrees with what Paul says, By faith Abrham, when he was tempted, offered Isaac, and he was offering his only-begotten son who had received the promises, to whom it was siad, “That in Isaac will your seed be called,” thinking that God is able to raise even the dead. (Heb. 11:17-19) Indeed, in one and the same action of the blessed Abraham James has praised the outstanding quality of his works, paul the constancy of his faith; and nevertheless Paul has brought forawrd a statement not dissimilar and different than James. For they both knew that Abraham was perfect both in faith and in works, and therefore each of them emphasized in preaching on him the virtue which he perceived his hearers needed more. For becuase James was writing to those who held that faith without works was wasted, fittingly he brought forward that example in which the superior faith of Abraham which was also previously praised by the witness of Scripture showed itself, because it had not become listless and useless in his heart but had flamed up and was now ready to obey the divine commands. But because Paul was instructing those who were boasting of their works without the grace of faith, he showed that without faith it is impossible to please God, (Heb. 11:6) and in order to refute and correct their rashness, having gathered together the examples of all the patriarchs, he clearly taught that all were approved by the witness of the faith. (Heb. 11:39) So too, he referred especially to the faith with which Abraham offered Isaac, reckoning, he said, that God is able to raise even the dead. (Heb. 11:19) He added, therefore, the work of faith of him who God would immediately raise him up; for he believed that he would be raised up by God after death because he believed what he had heard was true, “That in Isaac will your seed be called.” (Heb. 11:18) Blessed James also afterwards explains this connection between each virtue, saying:

Jas 2:22-23 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.

Paul treated of this witness most emphatically to the Romans, clearly teaching that so great is the virtue of faith that as soon as its mysteries are perceived it can make a righteous person out of an irreverent one. (Rom. 4:5) For because Abraham believed God with so great and lively a faith that he was ready in his mind to do everything God ordered, deservedly was his faith accounted for righteousness by God, who knew his heart. And that we also might know his faith by which he was made righteous, God tempted him, ordering him to offer his son, and by his works his faith was fulfilled, that is, how perfect it was in his heart was tested by the performance of works. Nowadays, too, if anyone coming recently to the faith receives baptism and then, intending with his whole heart to observe God’s commandments, shortly goes home from this light, then surely he has gone home made righteous by faith without works, because, by the determination of God himself, in whom he believed he did not have time to test his faith, live on for a long time and do not care to follow up with good works, must have it impressed upon them waht blessed James, after bringing forward the example of the faith together with the works of Abraham, at once appended, saying:

 Jas 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

What he says, from works, means from the works of faith, because no one can have perfect works without faith but many faith without works if they lack the time for works. Of them it has been said, He was taken away lest wickedness change his understanding or craftiness deceive his mind. (Wis. 4:11)

1 Pet. 1:1 Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing to ours

…For it is not legal circumcision but gospel faith alone that joins the peoples of the gentiles to the ancient people of God. Yet, because the same faith without works is not able to save, there is properly appended: In the righteousness of our Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ.

 1 Jn. 1:6 If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we are lying and not telling the truth.

He is calling sins heresies and hatred darkness. Therefore, the confession of faith alone is not all sufficient for salvation when it lacks the witness of good works. But neither is the uprightness of works of any avail without faith and the simplicity of love.