Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gospel Faith

I'm continuing right along with this series of posts delving into the complex, often tense relationship I've had with "the gospel", the all-important confessional centerpiece of the evangelical circles in which I find myself. Recall that in my introduction I introduced the doubts and questions I had about the gospel, as it was described to me, by comparing them to a house with a front and back door. Well, this metaphor turned out to be so utterly brilliant that I'll be expanding it even further, because I'm just that brilliant. I picture the house from The Simpsons.

I'll start with the front door, that is, a highly emphasized and visible point to which we constantly return: justification by faith. This was the crucial realization that (as the story goes) Martin Luther had that sparked the German Reformation. If you hear in someone's testimony about how they found a church that "really preached the gospel", they usually mean they heard something like justification by faith there after not hearing it elsewhere. It's safe to say that evangelical (and most Reformed and Protestant) Christians make a huge deal out of justification by faith; it is the center of the gospel, if not the whole.

I increasingly try to avoid buzzphrases like "justification by faith", or at least to avoid relying on them. Weighty terms like these are like a suitcase into which rich concepts can be easily packed and transported, but if they aren't opened up and unpacked every once in a while, it's easy, for me, at least, to forget what's inside. So I'm going to try and dissect "justification by faith" as I see it used, both by myself and (as far as I can tell) in the wider Christosphere. My change of perspective on the nature of "justification" came through the back door which I'll get into later, so for now I ask: what, exactly, is this all-important "faith" that everyone says is so essential?

Faith as belief (of facts)

Personally, by far the biggest misconception I've had about faith is to keep shut the suitcase into which I pack my concept of it, until my working definition of "faith" is more informed by my own biases and habits than Scripture or any Christian tradition. "My own biases and habits" mean that my concept of faith is highly intellectual in nature, consisting of figuring out, "believing", and affirming things about God. For example, when I first started to actually care about my "faith", it led to some of the most intensive study of theology and apologetics I have ever done—and nothing more. This is why I have so frequently pointed out, from my third post onward, that faith is not just an intellectual assent to propositional facts—I need to hear it more than anyone else!

More practically, this means that where my faith is concerned, my thoughts and words are constantly running ahead of the rest of my life. I see this constantly when looking through my old journals—I will clearly describe some shortcoming or unfulfilled need or sin issue I'm facing, but then continue to struggle with it for years because I have this underlying misconception that by identifying the problem and "figuring it out", I have solved it! And the biggest irony of all is that the problem is self-perpetuating; I may even be doing it right now! The underlying issue is this wrong definition of "faith"-as-intellectual-belief that I hold, which leads me to equate faith problems with deficiencies in my knowledge, understanding, or thinking.

I'm not alone in this misconception, either. Besides how I described above, this intellectual distortion of "faith" can come about in another, related way, which I will refer to as "orthodoxy". Of course, orthodoxy is not a bad thing; its Greek root simply means "right belief", which is presented as important in, for instance, Philippians 2:2 and Titus 2:1. Historically, orthodoxy has meant conformity to the established traditions of the church, or the "rule of faith" used by the early church to distinguish orthodoxy from "heterodoxy" (different belief).

But Protestants tend to distort the old idea of "tradition" (and, therefore, orthodoxy and faith) in two ways: by intellectualizing and individualizing it. With regard to intellectualizing, I mean that we make faith dependent on affirming certain doctrinal propositions, rationalizing that "if you truly have faith in God, you will believe and affirm His teaching through Scripture of ___". The alternative, we think, is putting ourselves above what God has told us and believing whatever we want. I saw this clearly recently with the whole blow-up over World Vision's decision to hire people in legal same-sex marriages, a move which many commentators equated with denying the gospel and the Christian faith.

You might say that this is simply a continuation of how the church has always made belief of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles a non-negotiable; the idea of a "rule of faith" or a creed that all believers were supposed to abide by goes back to the early years of the church. And so today we continue this defense of the truth given us by refusing to compromise on God's words in Scripture. Right?

Are they really "God's words", though? All too often I see theologians equate what Scripture "clearly teaches" with what we make of it. This is a subtle, but common form of theological arrogance in which an interpreter of Scripture becomes blind to the fact that he is interpreting. So his conclusions are what the Bible "clearly teaches" and are thought to have all of its authority; to disagree with him is to disagree with God. If we make our opinions equal to God's, there are bound to be consequences—such as the sadly unnecessary divisions among Christians who have different opinions, all of whom refuse to budge because they believe themselves to be defending "the truth" God told them, and so unknowingly replace Him as the standard of truth.

This is where the individualism comes in, and where the difference from historic Christianity becomes sharpest. Luther had the revolutionary idea of the "priesthood of all believers", or the end of the clergy's monopoly on the interpretation of Scripture. While this was a definite positive step towards God's promise that all would know Him, from the greatest to the least (Jer 31:34), by itself it did nothing to solve the problem of sinful people baptizing their false interpretations. Now, instead of one church (or two) declaring its teaching on the Bible to be true, anyone could back their teaching with the authority of God's Word.

In our post-enlightenment age, this means that as long as we follow the methods of Sound Hermeneutics and remain blind to our own subjectivity, we can consider any conclusions we arrive at from Scripture just as reliable, and therefore just as fundamental, as the early creeds, councils, or rule of faith. We can be sure that every Christian, if his faith is authentic, will believe as we do, having listened to what God's word clearly teaches. This is evident in extreme form in Christian cults or churches that believe all other churches are false, and in less extreme form in the growing multitude of Protestant denominations.

All this is to try to illustrate how, in our rationalistic and individualistic way, we can easily add to the "faith" that justifies us in a way that stifles doubt, alienates people, and distracts us from living the gospel rather than just believing it. I've certainly done it, and I struggle not to keep doing it, especially in times like the recent World Vision controversy where there's just so much I want to say, all of it true and necessary to hear... Of course not all Protestants fall into this trap, but it's a danger we face constantly by virtue of our history.

Faith as passion

Another distortion of faith, somewhat the opposite of the first but similarly common, is to focus too much on its emotional side. Rather than emphasize "correct" belief, it makes authenticity of feeling what counts. You have to feel a certain way when you pray, or when you worship, or repent in a certain way, or have a certain spiritual experience to know you're saved. More charismatic branches of Protestantism are certainly at risk of this, but I have little experience with them, so I won't say any more.

I bought into this misconception about faith when I was younger, in middle and early high school. I remember one summer at the camp my old church ran, when my friend and cabinmate described praying a prayer on his bunk to ask Jesus into his heart, at which point he felt a sensation like a chill or tingle (I can't remember exactly) running up and down his whole body. When I heard this, I was amazed. This was what becoming a Christian must feel like, I thought. I longed to have a similar experience and began to get nervous that I hadn't "truly" repented in similar fashion, even talking to a counselor about it at some point. He prayed with me and tried to reassure me of my salvation, but the worries lasted for years until they were mostly replaced by the intellectualizing tendencies I described above.

So whereas faith-as-doctrine reduces faith to assenting to propositions or holding certain positions, there is also an opposite tendency to make faith all about chasing a certain spiritual feeling, or having a certain transformational experience. Given how unstable human emotions are, this is a sure path o discouragement. The KGP (Knowing God Personally) booklet that Cru distributes admirably answers this kind of thinking about faith, reminding readers not to rely on their feelings, just as the (relative) safety of a flight is in no way dependent on the fears or worries of the passengers, but on the pilot. In other words, our faith in God is not based on how we presently feel about Him, which is worth repeating. The KGP, however, does show one more way faith is often distorted...

Faith as decision

Particularly in evangelical circles, high emphasis is placed on securing "decisions of faith", or "decisions for Christ"—getting people to take that crucial step that separates believers and nonbelievers, the saved from the unsaved. I've recently referenced Scot McKnight on this kind of "threshold" evangelism and its problems, so suffice it to say here that it incorporates parts of both of the other two distortions. Great importance is ascribed to the conversion experience, to the point of distracting from what comes afterward. And yet the essence of conversion is making a decision, which (to minimize the barriers to faith) is often distilled to the "raw gospel", or a bare essential framework of propositions that people must believe to be saved. Can Christian faith really be boiled down like this without losing something valuable? How much do these decisions mean, anyway?

There is an irony to all of these working definitions of faith. We so often emphasize how faith is not about our own strength, or our works, or anything we do, but what God has done for us (more on that next time). Yet all of these definitions of "faith" come down to something we do, or at least experience. We assent to certain doctrinal beliefs, or seek a certain religious experience, or make a crucial decision, and then go to great lengths to explain how these things were really not our doing at all, but God's. I have tried to believe them (again, more next time), and ultimately I think all of these definitions of faith make it about us. That is, the answer way to know you "have faith" and don't doubt is to make sure your beliefs are in line with what Scripture "clearly teaches", or seek some new spiritual high, or rededicate your life to Christ, or just to "have more faith" (possibly the most unhelpful advice ever). All of these things are unreliable as they depend on us, and so if we base our "faith" on them we will be racked with doubts, tossed around like a wave on the sea.

Faith as trust

But, blessedly, most people don't just believe one of these three distortions about faith, not without mixing them with what I consider to be a much worthier view. The word in the Greek New Testament for "faith/belief", pistis, is also translated to "trust", or even "faithfulness/trustworthiness", which is significant. If we distill this to one of the above three things, we lose sight of the fact that Christian faith is not about us, but about the One we have faith in, or trust. It looks outward for its assurance, not inward.

The three distortions I list all diminish this powerful trust in some way. If we must think of this faith as belief in doctrine, then it is not a hollow profession but a real truth that has completely sunk into who we are and how we live. If we characterize it as a passion, then we must admit that it is deeper and more abiding than fickle emotions and religious "highs". If it consists of a decision, then it is a decision that be made constantly. We can't realize any of these things ourselves, and by accepting this our dependence on God for it becomes plainer and much truer than depending on indicators of faith we find in ourselves—putting our faith in our faith, as it were.

Some Scripture will help to define faith better than I can. Probably the clearest such definition is in Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." This definition is in two parts:

The assurance of things hoped for: The Greek here is interesting in that the word for "assurance" is hypostasis, which is better known as the technical term later used in the Chalcedonian definition to describe the common divine "substance" shared among the Trinity. What is this theological term doing here? I'm not yet good enough at Greek to speak with confidence, but it seems to be emphasizing the present reality of the things still hoped for, at least in the mind of the believer. It means laying claim to future hopes as if they have already been realized. In the following examples we see that it roughly means trusting God with peace and full assurance for the fulfillment of His promises. Matthew Henry's commentary is insightful:
It is a firm persuasion and expectation that God will perform all that he has promised to us in Christ; and this persuasion is so strong that it gives the soul a kind of possession and present fruition of those things, gives them a subsistence in the soul, by the first-fruits and foretastes of them.
The conviction of things unseen: Echoing Jesus' words in John 20:29: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." In other words, faith is the firmly established belief in something unseen. To the extent that we look to things we can see (or perceive) like our doctrines, emotional state, or past decisions to find our faith, we undermine it. These things will come in later, but not here. Faith looks beyond the visible to the invisible, to what we can't know for sure by any conventional means, and trusts in that. It may appear irrational, but in fact it completes what is lacking in mere rationality.

Two stories from my own experience might help show times when I experienced faith more authentic than the intellectual kind I tend towards. The first was on the 3rd of July, 2010, in an incident described here. That night, I was watching fireworks over the lake in Milwaukee with my summer project crew. I had previously been informed by another friend from Milwaukee that for the finale, the US Bank tower shot fireworks off its top. So I eagerly awaited this; during pauses, I knew the show couldn't be over because they hadn't shot off the US Bank tower. Unfortunately, this faith turned out to be misplaced and I went home disappointed. But my faith stayed strong against what I was seeing, until the very end.

The second one is my more recent struggle with, and triumph over, doubt. As unanswered questions made the teachings about God and the gospel I'd heard for so long seem increasingly unbelievable, I lost my faith—at least by the above standards. Christianity no longer made intellectual sense to me, and I wasn't really sure what, if any, doctrine I could believe. My peace and comfort as a believer were gone, replaced by a desperate sense of having them torn away by doubt. And because of this, the previous "decisions" I'd made for Christ seemed foolish or misguided.

And yet, somehow, I still trusted. Even though all these signs of belief were gone, I didn't despair, because I still felt confident that God would restore me somehow. And He did! (The answers He subsequently guided me to are most of what led to the current series of posts) But I had to lose all these things that we normally associate with faith to realize what it really was—"mere faith", if you will. Ironically, by realizing that faith was less than I used to think, I saw how it was far more powerful and crucial than I imagined.

Application: Which of these distortions of faith do you subscribe to? This simple definition of faith has deep implications, so it's easy to (like me) say you believe that faith is more than just an intellectual assent or what-have-you but not believe it consistently. Like many others, I still tend to think that if someone disagrees with me on a theological matter than I consider important, then their faith is false, or at least self-deluded. The perspective on faith I learned for myself, I don't consistently apply to others.

No comments:

Post a Comment