Thursday, September 10, 2009
On the Nature of Saving Faith
Trinity Great Swamp United Church of Christ, Spinnerstown, PA
(Photo by Stephen)
I've been having a conversation over on Dave Armstrong's blog about the nature of saving faith. This conversation veers off point from the original post which deals with issues surrounding the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, but it is in reality quite integral to it. I am asking, "why is a belief in the PVM necessary for salvation?" The answer has been, "God has revealed it, so we must believe it." Even if I were to grant that God has revealed it, which I don't, again, why is it required knowledge for salvation?
I received this response:
We all agree that faith is necessary for salvation. What is faith? It is assent to what God has revealed. If we do not assent to what God has revealed, then we lack faith and so lack salvation (emphasis mine).
I was asking if everything God reveals in Scripture is directly related to salvation and is necessary to it. Notice that the commenter is assuming (and as a Catholic he should) that revelation is brought to us by some means other than the Scriptures; oral tradition, the Magesterium, the Pope, etc. Immediately, we find that we are not on the same page in our discussion. Nevertheless, we press on:
For example, should we count a knowledge of the genealogies God has revealed to us in Scripture as necessary for our salvation? How about geographical locations in the Bible? The numbers of fish caught in nets (a la Harold Camping)?
I'm not a fundamentalist or a biblical literalist and therefore do not count any of these things as "revelation." They may be historical in some cases; they may be legendary; they may be colorful details in an inspired fiction. The books of the Bible are inspired in a way that is consistent with their several genres, and these genres include short novels (Ruth), historical fiction (Esther), tall tales (Jonah), and others. Where the Bible isn't "historically accurate," it is because the writers didn't intend to be historically accurate in our sense.
What is divinely revealed is what the Church teaches as articles of faith. The perpetual virginity of Mary would be one of these.
Here then is our second problem. The commenter and I are not quite on the same page regarding the inspiration of Scripture either. We seem to be in agreement to this extent: with the historical-grammatical hermeneutic at work, we can distinguish between what the writer intends as historical narrative, what is poetry, what is prophetic, what is apocalyptic imagery, and so forth. Although with differences in who and what is required to interpret it accurately, both conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics are in agreement that the Bible is God's inspired Word. We believe everything the Bible teaches, within the parameters set forth by the nature of the genre on display. The differences occur, of course, when one is not convinced that the Bible teaches a particular doctrine. I am not a fundamentalist either, but I would never refer to anything in the Bible as either historical fiction or a "tall tale," which suggests to me that my commenter has a more modernist approach to the inspiration of Scripture. I suspect that the story of Noah's ark, perhaps, would be an example of either historical fiction or the "tall tale," as he says of the story of Jonah.
As a Reformed Protestant, I would add that the fiducial element of saving faith is absent in this formula. The fiducial element is the element of trust. That trust is in the person and work of Jesus Christ as He faithfully executes His offices of Prophet, Priest and King in righteousness through His life (active obedience), death (passive obedience), resurrection and glorification. Of course, to us, this righteousness is then imputed to the believer for this salvation. I sometimes tell my children, by way of imperfect American legislative analogy, that believers are like a rider attached to a congressional bill (Christ). If the bill passes, and it will because it has already been accepted by the Father, then the riders are accepted also. I'm not looking to get into the question of justification, imputed vs. infused righteousness, etc. I just wanted to fill out the formula somewhat as Reformed Protestants see it.
There is much more, of course, that I have not discussed regarding faith, repentance, effectual calling, regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification. Also, "mental assent" only vs. evidence of regeneration and renewed life (fruits of the Spirit), and so on. In fact, your description of assent to God's revealed truth (mental assent or belief) sounds Evangelical Protestant! ;-)
I meant this last sentence as a disparaging remark about Evangelical Protestants who believe that faith is merely a naked mental assent to a series of facts about Christ, without any need for regeneration or repentance or other change in lifestyle. But my commenter surprised me with this:
I would disagree with you strongly here. I don't think Christian faith is a matter of "trust" at all. You won't find a lot of trust in the NT. You will, of course, find faith.
Again, faith is nothing more or less than assent to what God reveals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that trust, as Protestants understand it, is inconsistent with true faith.
However, within the context of a discussion of faith and works, James said this:
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! (James 2:18-19).
We see that James acknowledges that faith cannot be merely assent to God's revelation of Himself and His precepts, for even the demons "believe" in Christ. But it is not a belief unto salvation. They do not "trust" in Him for eternal life as God's elect do.
And this brings us to the third problem. The Scripture is replete with admonitions to trust in the Lord, and the commendation of God for those who do so. The word "trust" itself does not appear in the New Testament in connection with the word "faith," as far as I have been able to determine. But this is part of the first problem mentioned above. If the Bible is not a cohesive whole from beginning to end, if the whole of Scripture is not "God-breathed," then we can expect to see a false dichtomy made between the authority of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament. And as a matter of sad fact, Protestants are frequently neglectful of the Old Testament to their detriment.
But if we see the Bible as one cohesive whole, far from being something Protestants cut out of whole cloth and impose on the Scriptures, or on Christ's Church, or upon the consciences of men, trusting in God for what He has revealed regarding Himself and His salvation plan is everywhere commanded and exemplified in the Scriptures. To separate the concepts of faith and trust is grave error. This frequently manifests itself in the Protestant world through "decisionism," that is, saying the sinner's prayer, signing some piece of paper, raising the hand, walking the aisle, etc. None of these things gurantees anything of themselves.
The word faith, as it is used in the New Testament sense of belief, does not readily appear in the Old Testament. The use of "faith" in the Old Testament mostly means "a breaking of trust," as is often the case there, a breach of contract or covenant with (the Lord), especially by sinning (see Leviticus 5-6).
The word "faith" in the New Testament encompasses much more than mental assent. There is no question regarding the Scriptural stance on this. I would argue that the word "faith" in the New Testament is a reasonable replacement for the word "trust" in the Old Testament. Since the word "trust" does not appear much nor in the same context in the New Testament, this makes sense. The two words should not be divorced from each other since they are so intimately connected.
Below I have listed only a few of the many verses which deal with trusting in God for His provision both in this life and the life to come. All bold emphases are mine.
God commands us to trust in Him:
Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.
testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
God commends us for trusting in Him:
2 Kings 18:5
Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him.
When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.
God chastises His people for their lack of faith (trust) in Him and His provision:
In spite of this, you did not trust in the LORD your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.
"But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?"
Reward for those who trust in God:
O LORD of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
God reveals Himself in His precepts:
Your decrees are very trustworthy; holiness befits your house, O LORD, forevermore.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
So that your trust may be in the LORD, I teach you today, even you.
Trusting God for salvation:
In that day they will say, "Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."
yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Faith in God is more than mental assent:
Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.
22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God.
God tells us that His words are trustworthy:
The angel said to me, "These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place."
Why would I believe in Someone I did not trust? Conversely, why would I trust in Someone in whom I did not believe? I can't even wrap my mind around that.