What is Faith (pt 1): Foundational Doctrines
So I finally finished the first of the six foundations mentioned in Hebrews 6:1-3 last week (Repentance) after 5 posts (seven if you count the two posts on sin beforehand). This week I start in on the next one: faith. I’m currently doing a study of the book of James for Lent Readings in the morning (they post around midnight U.S. Central Standard Time) and it has a lot to say about faith. I’m going to overlap, but hopefully this series will present it more systematically.
Faith as Belief
Let’s start with the most basic understanding of faith that most people have. Faith is, in this context, another word for belief. That’s just how it’s commonly used. But clearly it can’t just be any belief. My belief in my own existence, for instance, may be incredibly useful for me personally now, but it doesn’t really seem to be a foundational doctrine in the sense that the author of Hebrews uses it. True it is foundational in different ways, and I would like other people to also believe that I exist (no I’m not a figment of your mind, but you might be one of mine), but that seems immaterial.
What about, also, the idea that faith requires a level of uncertainty? It’s not faith if we know for sure, some say. I don’t know where this idea came from (actually I have an idea and I think it has something to do with Kierkegaard), but I don’t think it is biblical. On the one hand, yes technically we can’t ever know for sure anything if by knowing we mean providing an absolute proof and account. In fact knowing something means we need to have believed it, so the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
So what criteria are we going to use to talk about this? As some people put it, what (or who) is the object of our faith? Clearly many things just won’t do. It can’t be belief that Five Guys Burgers and Fries is the most delicious, greasy mess you’ve ever had, or that Houston is the best city in America (I’ve got statistics to back it up). Instead we need to be talking about something more “religiousy” or “spiritual.”
Belief in God
Hey now this sounds like a winner. So is faith foundational because I believe in God and someone like Richard Dawkins doesn’t? Well, there are lots of potential gods to believe in. If all it takes is belief I could, conceivably, create my own god who acts how I want him to act and believe in that god. Clearly we don’t mean any god. So we mean a particular God. Alright, let’s say it’s the Christian God (I’d get there eventually, let’s just skip the other rhetoric). What is it about belief in this God that is so important?
Do we need to believe just that this God exists? Are there certain attributes we have to affirm? What about the Trinity? Is that required? While some would want to say yes, I’m not so sure it’s a requirement. Now, let me be clear, I believe that belief in the Trinity is vitally important, and it is, in a different way, foundational. However, I want to focus on the moment on saving faith for the moment. Is Trinitarian faith a requirement for salvation? I’m inclined to say no. In part because nowhere does the bible say that this is what faith is, and it is clear that pre-New Testament people were saved because of faith, yet had no concept yet of a Trinity. The bible says that for New Testament Christians, one needs to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. Alright, but is Romans 10:9 giving the totality of what saving faith is? The confession of Jesus as LORD seems to entail other beliefs as well, right?
Maybe it’s not just belief
To be sure, this entails other beliefs, but that’s not my point. Whether Jesus did or did not die is a fact. Whether he was raised from the dead is also a fact. You can believe it or not. Why should believing in one set of facts somehow make you better. My belief in the physical existence of this chair or that 2+2=4 doesn’t affect my salvation, so why should believing that Jesus was raised from the dead suddenly make me saved? Well, according to James belief by itself is pretty useless, faith has to mean something more.
Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
Belief in and of itself is not enough. That’s not the kind of foundation the writer of Hebrews is talking about. If it were just belief, says James, we’d be in trouble. The demons know more theology than you ever will. Yet there is something fundamentally different about their disposition and ours. Their knowledge is a source of fear. If we are honest, our knowledge about God should likewise cause some fear, after all we openly war against him. As Ephesians states it, we are “children of wrath.” So belief on its own can’t be the only element of faith. It seems we need something else. Next week I’m going to talk about that something else. For now, let’s call it Trust.
If you are not a Christian and want to know more about this faith, and how it can be saving please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or, if you’re feeling brave, in the comments). I’ll gladly mess up the series for that kind of discussion.