Thursday, June 19, 2008

Druchesis I: Faith

Introduction

This summer I am going to be writing a brief catechism of sorts: a series of weekly reflections on the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments. The bulk of the series (the first eight weeks) will be dedicated to the Apostles' Creed. The decision to use this summer for this series is occasioned by three events:

(1) I am currently developing an on-line course for Biblical Seminary entitled "Introduction to Christian Tradition," which is intended to be a sort of graduate-level catechesis. Drulogion is as good a place as any to collect my thoughts.

(2) The release of Keith Drury's book on the Apostles' Creed, Common Ground. This series will not be a commentary on his book, but rather a commentary on the same subject-matter. But I certainly suggest reading my father's book alongside this series, for we operate in two very different idioms even when writing in the same genre.

(3) Jim Garlow's rather surprising revelation at the Wesleyan General Conference that at Skyline Church of all places they have begun declaring the Apostles' Creed as part of their worship, and he called for other churches follow suit. This marks a significant shift beyond the allergy to formal liturgy within evangelical churches.

So, now that you know some of the circumstances which surround this project, let's get started.

Part I: Faith

The Apostles' Creed open with the phrase: "I believe." This phrase appears two additional times in the Creed, signaling a threefold structure typical of Christian creedal formulas. Since it contains a subject and verb, this phrase could stand as a complete sentence on its own. So let's think about what it means to believe.

In the New Testament, the Greek word for faith (pistis) appears numerous times and carries many senses. There are three primary senses that appear throughout the NT: (1) belief, (2) trust, (3) fidelity. The word faith does not mean all these things in every text. But faith does means all these things in the life of the believer. A neglect of any one spells trouble. Let's take a look at each.

(1) Belief.

To believe means to assent to certain propositions, to affirm that certain things are true. Belief is a crucial element in faith. It is fashionable from time to time to suppress the assenting character of Christian faith. Now it is true that Christian faith cannot be reduced to believing certain propositions. But it is not true that Christian faith can get along fine without propositions. You can't trust in a God you don't believe exists or don't know anything about. Belief that God exists is not sufficient -- even the devils believe and shudder. But belief that God exists is necessary. Christians believe that certain things are and that certain persons lived and did certain things. There's some data involved in faith. These beliefs are contained within Christian faith as a necessary part of it.

(2) Trust.

But Christian faith is more than mere assent. To believe also means to trust in certain persons, to cling to them in time of need, to take them at their word. Trust is also a crucial element in faith. In reaction to the aforementioned fashion to suppress the assenting character of faith, there is the mirror opposite fashion to suppress the trusting character of faith. Now it is true that Christian faith cannot be reduced to an amorphous feeling of trust. But it is not true that Christian faith can get along fine without a deep, heartfelt trust in God. Faith is both propositional and personal. It is both intellectual and emotional. If either pole is suppressed, faith suffers. Over-reaction in either direction deprives both sides. This unfortunate and unnecessary conflict comes to expression quite clearly in the division between pietism and scholasticism in European Protestantism in the 17th and 18th centuries. And you have probably encountered this conflict in your own church experiences. Let me tell you today that you do not have to make this choice. Christians both believe that God exists and trust in him.

(3) Fidelity.

The dynamism of Christian faith is even more rich than the polarity between belief and trust. There is a third element. To believe also means fidelity, to be loyal, to persevere in one's belief and trust, to be faithful within a community. When you say, "I believe," you join your voice with the voice of the church in all times and places to declare a common faith. The Nicene Creed is helpful by using the plural, "We believe." Fidelity is a crucial element in faith. In the recurring conflict between intellectualism and emotionalism, we often forget the communal character of faith. Now it is true that Christian faith cannot be reduced to participation in a religious community and the preservation of its traditions. But it is not true that Christian faith can get along fine without communal continuity. God has chosen a people and in order to believe in and trust God one must participate in this community. To grow in faith entails initiation into this community. It is thus not coincidental that the Apostles' Creed and its antecedents emerged as a baptismal confession. Proclaiming this faith means joining this community.

Christian faith is belief, trust and fidelity. All three aspects are necessary. Now I need to admit at the outset that this series will give a large quantity of attention to the first aspect. That is not because of some kind of personal preference, but simply an inevitable consequence of engaging in a discursive exposition of the content of faith. The content of faith takes the form of doctrines, official teachings of the church on various topics. This does not mean that the ultimate object of faith is doctrines. No, God is the ultimate object of faith. But in order to express this faith in speech for the sake of communicating the gospel to others, one necessarily formulates doctrines. We need not apologize for this. It is appropriate for catechetical instruction.

However, despite this focus on beliefs, trust and fidelity will not and cannot be set aside in this series. On the one hand, exposition of the doctrines which we believe feeds trust and fidelity. Doctrinal reflection enlarges our understanding of the one in whom we place our trust and draws us into the great conversation of the community in which we embody our fidelity to God. On the other hand, trust and fidelity fuel doctrinal exposition. Trusting God and being faithful to him in the context of his church drives us to understand God more fully with the help of those who have gone before us. So as we turn our attention to the doctrinal content of faith, let's keep in mind the dynamism of faith as belief, trust and fidelity.

Any thoughts?
Does this three-aspect exploration of the meaning of faith work?
Is it helpful?
What are some consequences of neglecting one or more of these aspects?
Are there other key aspects I have overlooked that cannot be categorized within these three?
Any suggestions as I proceed with this series?
_

8 comments:

Bob MacDonald said...

>>But it is not true that Christian faith can get along fine without propositions.<<

God knows I cannot deal with some aspects of proposition, but in trust (in good or bad times) and faithfulness I cannot fail for he is faithful.

I learned lots of stuff in my youth as have many I know about catechism. Catechism is not salvific. It may help some aspects for some people - but I have never found it helpful. It seems to me to assume that explanation is sufficient. For all my doubts that I should never write another word, it is only God who is sufficient to our need, not ever our explanations. - here is a line I wrote in my creed some years ago: He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us. This I believe. The hound of heaven would not otherwise pursue me if he did not desire me more even than I desire my own life.

A few weeks earlier I had written: To 'have' faith in someone is to be willing to commit to hearing with a relationship that includes believing that obedience to what one hears is worthwhile.

I wonder if I should rewrite my articles from several years ago - maybe the time is come - not sure.

The threefold aspect you have chosen is, I think, limited. I like better your pattern of 'it is true... but it is not true'

My first statement of creed wsa this: if I had to have one word in my creed - it would be that word 'draw' in the sense that we have a motivation and we are drawn to or drawn out of something. The two Scriptural spots that I will draw the reader's attention to in order to test my creed's traction are the opening verses of the Song of Solomon and the verses in John's gospel that speak of all being drawn to the crucified Christ.

JohnLDrury said...

Bob,

Of course "Catechism is not salvific," as you say. I would never advocate that. Nor would I "assume that explanation is sufficient." Such reductionisms occur all to often in the churches, and it is truly a shame when they do.

But to abandon genuine catechetical instruction is not the answer to these mistakes. The response to abuse is not disuse but proper use. It seems to me that thoughtful reflection on what we believe is a small but appropriate part of Christian discipleship. And if we are going to do that, why not start with the common faith of the church, rather than my personal creed? Hence the method I have adopted. I think all the concerns you raise are valid, but they do not in the end invalidate the project I am advocating. Rather, they confirm the main point of this initial post: that exposition of beliefs must not be pursued in abstraction from trust and fidelity.

If you are not convinced, perhaps you would be willing to indulge me a bit to see if my "druchesis" avoids the traps you have rightly identified. I hope it does. You can let me know if it doesn't. :-)

John

Scott Hendricks said...

Concerning this comments discussion on the validity of catechism, I am not sure where I fall, but if God has used human words to speak to us, then I must believe that these human words play a role in our salvation, if confession means anything. Romans 10, confessing with the mouth "Jesus is Lord" and believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead is salvific. You can't do this without the help of the Holy Spirit. I must believe that the truths confessed in the words of the creed are more valuable to me than many other words I will read. They are not more valuable than my fellow humans (and maybe less valuable than the rest of creation, certainly they are only signs of the truth/story to which they point). I regard them of like value to scripture, since they contain much biblical language and summarize that story somewhat well. 1 Cor. 15 is a great example.

Do few catechisms include something like the beatitudes or the sermon on the mount? These seem pretty essential to me. It seems if we are going to 'make disciples,' then the commands of Christ ought to consume a good portion of catechism. Although one could make an argument for why these may come after baptism.

I like your threefold exposition of faith, especially your description of trust in persons (doesn't Augustine do this in "faith in the unseen" or "the profit of believing"), and including fidelity as a quality of faith.

Bob MacDonald said...

I will wait faithfully and in hope - sorry for the typos, I am using a dreadful keyboard and my thumb keeps hitting the mouse pad.

Bob MacDonald said...

I think that catechism is of course important - that we might obey from the heart ourselves that form of teaching to which we were delivered (Romans 6:17). Clearly the mystery of God's using human language is still an issue philosophically - see e.g. here. (Talk about getting tangled in words!)

WTM said...

John,

What a great exercise! You are more ambitious than I. One thought, which will reveal my Torrencian side: Whose faith (belief / trust / fidelity)? Surely the Christian's, but merely the Christian's? Ought not the Christian's faith be grounded in its 'dimension of depth' in Christ's own vicarious humanity?

(Even if we would use different language to explain all this, TFT's language helps to make clear precisely what I am asking.)

In other words, have you sufficiently grounded this installment of your Druchesis in Christology>

JohnLDrury said...

WTM,

Great point. Thanks for bringing that up. My presentation of the three aspects of faith was insufficiently christocentric, though in fact my thinking on the matter has Christological roots. I first came up with an earlier version of this triplicate when thinking through the exegetical debate surrounding the "faith of Christ" in Paul (is it a subjective or objective genitive). I think all three of these have a basis in Christ's faith (subj. gen.) which grounds and issues forth our faith (obj. gen.). Perhaps TFT's lingo helps here, but I think the exegetical-grammatical point of entry is pretty good. Thanks for pointing out this concern, especially as it gives me a chance to distance myself from some kind pf "pisteology" that reflects on faith as a human experience abstracted from God's action in Jesus.

David Drury said...

Some time ago I was researching on what I considered to be "scriptural creeds" where a moment in the Bible contains what amounts to a creedal statement of belief. (Like 1 Cor 11 and Phil 2)

You noted at the time, John, that the simple and common statement, "I believe" in the narrative really amounts to a mini-creed--for instance in John 9:38 (pisteuvwn is found 85 times in John alone). That thought stuck with me through the years, and i'm reminded of it again as you launch into your Druchesis from the appropriate point of belief.

I'm glad the creed begins there and returns there. So much counts on it.

I look forward to being re-chatechized this summer through this project. The last catechism I walked through in community was written by Rick Warren... so I'm hoping this one takes me a bit deeper. (It may already have... hee hee hee)

:-)