Monday, December 01, 2003

Faith: More than a Feeling!

I've been reading up on the Fathers of the Church recently (especially in this book by Newman) and, although there are many ways in which the ancient Church is unlike the modern Church, there is one in particular that stands out: the lengths to which they would go to clarify seemingly trivial points of doctrine. Is Jesus homoousious or homoiousious with the Father? Does Christ have both a human will and a divine will? A human intellect and a divine intellect? Was Christ merely God taking on an appearance of humanity? Who cares? Yet all of these issues were so important that popular uprisings would occur, should a bishop pronounce himself on the wrong side of this issue. Ambrose, for example, was ready to die rather than to sacrifice church property to an Arian congregation. The integrity of the Faith was so important that there could be no compromise.

(Can you imagine such behavior in a bishop now? Imagine a bishop shutting down hospitals or charities rather than complying with state orders to provide contraceptives! Christians in the early ages of the Church would die rather than sacrifice to idols. We would cheerfully make the sacrifice just to keep a tax exemption.)

Why were early Christians so, well, obnoxious about doctrinal purity? Were they all crazy? Have we become more sensible over the years? Or is it that we don't really understand what faith is? I think it is the latter. See, since the Protestant Reformation, there has been an emphasis on sola fide, or salvation by faith alone. But what do they mean by faith? It seems that what is meant is a strong feeling, an inner conviction that places trust in Christ. If only one clings to Christ, then one will be saved, no matter what else one does. Luther is reported to have said that one could commit a million murders a day as long as one had faith.

Now, to be fair, there is an element of inner conviction in the meaning of faith. We mean by the word both the content of what is believed and the virtue that allows us to believe it. But I think that in the last five hundred years Protestantism has denuded faith of any contentual meaning. It doesn't so much matter what you believe, as long as you believe it really strongly. One gets this answer quite often to moral hypotheticals in a philosophy class: "Well, as long as Hitler (or Bin Laden, or Stalin) really believed he was right. . . ." The fissiparous nature of Protestantism itself shows that faith has come to mean mere belief, only a feeling. As long as you accept Jesus as your personal savior, what difference does it make if he is consubstantial with the Father or not?

But this is very far from what the Church Fathers believed. Why? What made them so wrong? Was it an evil plot by evil Constantine to repress free believers? I don't think so. Take a look at just a few passages from Scripture on the nature of faith. Start with Hebrews 11:1

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This seems to give support to the notion that faith is just a feeling, since it talks about assurance and conviction. But note that it is an assurance and conviction in certain things. Does it matter what things? Read on:

[4]By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts; he died, but through his faith he is still speaking.
[5] By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God.
[6] 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.

See, it isn't that Enoch and Abel had merely an inner conviction, they had a correct inner conviction, namely that God exists and rewards those who seek him. Their faith saved them, but it couldn't have saved them if they had faith in the impersonal First Mover of Aristotle.


[7] By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.

Noah was saved because he had faith in a specific truth, that there would be a flood. Note that Noah would not have been saved if he had a strong inner conviction but believed that God's words about the flood were mere metaphors.


[17]By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son,
[18] of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your descendants be named."
[19] He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Abraham's faith manifests itself in an action (sacrifice of his son), because he believed in a specific fact: God can raise people from the dead. If Abraham had strong inner conviction in a god who couldn't raise from the dead, he would have flunked the test, and wouldn't be our Father in faith.

I could multiply examples here. All of these people certainly had a strong conviction that what they believed was true. But as important as the conviction is what they believed.

One more example: Ephesians 4:5 speaks of "One Lord, one Faith, one baptism." How could there be one faith if faith mean only a feeling? Wouldn't there be a multitude of faiths? Rather what is needed is unity. The early Fathers took this call to unity in the content of faith very seriously, and we play with fire if we ignore their example.

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