More than once in my life as I was growing up did I read the New Testament book of James and walk away wondering how on earth salvation wasn’t some how tied to works. I finally just reconciled it with a passive answer that really did not deal with the problem. Recently, under the tutelage of my dad, I was introduced to the Semitic Totality Concept. This is the idea that was held by the Jews (thus the term ‘Semitic’) that if something was spiritually true, it was to be lived out without question. The Western concept of having something as true not meaning you lived it was absolutely foreign to the Hebrew way of thinking. Thus when God inspired the Law of Moses the Jews lived it out actively. The Western idea of a dichotomy was a foreign concept both culturally and philosophically.
To put it into perspective the Gentile mind could not conceive of a God that was moral and had truth because their gods were completely immoral and were often prayed to for things like the ability to steal better. So when Paul writes in the New Testament about various things needing to be done on a moral level it is having to do with the logical conclusion of what Christ has done in the believer’s life positionally and not assumed that the Greco-Roman mind would automatically take truth and apply it. To a Gentile (non-Jew) truth was not directly related to application. They lived in a world of hypothetical philosophy wherein actually proving out the philosophical assumptions to prove them was considered below the intellectual. Thus, Gentiles would pursue philosophy and knowledge but never stoop to prove their principles due to their arogance. The Jews could not relate to this given their view that all that was true should be applied and worked out.
So, when James writes in chapter 2, verse17, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” he is speaking to Jews (as is evident in Chapter 1, verse 2) and it would seem that the Semitic Totality Concept is in play. This is surely not a scapegoat in that we need to apply proper hermeneutics to all passages when we read them, but it helps us apply proper hermeneutics knowing historically what the culture knew to be normative for Jewish Christians. We can look at the context of whom is being written to about what and understand their cultural tendency and grasp the depth of the content in context rather than trying to mash it into a modern 21 century context.
In short the Semitic Totality Concept is something that was cultural that helps us understand the author’s perspective. It does not necessarily represent a doctrine, but explains why the doctrines are represented the way they are.