Thursday, June 19, 2008

Druchesis I: Faith


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?