Faith has garnered much attention from me lately. The concept plays an important role in Christian theology, perhaps more so in Protestant thinking, with Sola Fide (by faith alone) being one of the banners of the Reformation. A question that’s followed me for some time concerns faith: what is it? In some Protestant circles it’s merely mental and intellectual assent to doctrine. If you believe the right statements about Jesus, you’ll go to heaven: no questions asked. In some Charismatic circles (which I see and hear on a regular basis), faith is about some sort of emotional certainty. Faith is about latching on to some putative promise of God and removing all doubt it will come to fulfillment (or come to pass!). Here the task (or my caricature of it) seems to be convincing yourself of something so fully that God can’t help but answer your prayer. In this sense, faith comes across as some mysterious, magical force and prayer is how we use our “faith.” Then there’s the concepts of faithfulness and trust. Our expression, “have faith” is often synonymous with “trust.” The Greek verb used in the New Testament certainly has trust within its range of meanings.
Which of these are right? In what degree? When we set out to define a robust, biblical doctrine of faith, what aspects of it should we make sure to discuss? I want to critique the ideas I set out previously, noting the high and low points of each understanding of faith.
First, let’s take a stab at doctrine. What is faith’s relationship to doctrine? The Pastoral Epistles offer some positive direction for us. A common statement here is, “this saying is trustworthy.” These statements are generally doctrinal in nature, like the magnificent exposé of justification by grace in Titus 3:3-7. The Greek word here is pistis. Pistis can have lots of shades of meaning, but translation into English requires us to pick the best option The word can mean faith, the faith, faithfulness or trustworthiness, in addition to some I’m likely missing. Trustworthy is a perfectly good translation right here, and most Bible translations use it. The preceding statement of doctrine is worthy of our trust, but I would also suggest that the saying is trustworthy precisely because it is faithful. It is a faithful depiction of God’s own actions in History. That is what doctrine must be: faithful descriptions of reality. They must be faithful to the character and nature of God, and of his creation. We trust the doctrine of the church catholic (catholic with a little ‘c’) because we trust that God has revealed himself adequately to his people. Doctrine must not be separated from either relationship with God himself or from Christ’s church. Mental assent to doctrine is important, but only in the context of the family of God as revealed in Ephesians 3.
Second, what is faith’s relationship with emotion? Faith does have an emotional component, but the tendency is either to magnify it absurdly or ignore it completely. I’ve seen plenty of both in my short time on this earth. What helped me think about this was an analogy of a frightened child. Perhaps the child is afraid of her room at night, imagining monsters or some other nasty creature coming to get her. The child will then run to her parents for comfort. The father or mother will undoubtedly soothe the distraught daughter and then explain that she is safe and nothing is coming to get her. So it is with us and our Father. The comfort of her parents enables the child to go back to bed. While she may still have her doubts about the presence of monsters in her room, the emotional comfort is an important part of her going back upstairs. Likewise, we need the soothing grace of the Father to comfort us through frightening times. This is an important part of faith, but it is only a component, not the whole.
Finally, what is faith’s relationship with trust? I think this may be the most important dimension of faith, as trust is inextricably tied to the character of the ‘trustee.’ But what exactly is trust? How does it relate to belief? In my mind, one believes a fact or statement, but one trusts a person. Thus, I believe that earth travels around the sun, but I trust my wife/husband/father/mother, etc. I would argue that the latter is much more important than the former. In the next post, I want to explore this aspect a more, particularly how love and relationship affect it. Only after that can we move onto good works (the fruit of faith) and new creation (the fruit of good works) be examined.