Giving Up On Faith

Scrambling the Evangelical Egg

On Saturday I laid out some thoughts about being a progressive evangelical. Over the past week or so I have been working through some of my reading backlog by going through Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence

The book is reminding me that my own journey toward what seems to some to be a scrambled identity did not happen in a vacuum. The information age we’re in has propelled a seismic shift that has scrambled people’s alignments: evangelicals adore the liturgy, Catholics speak in tongues, mainliners read the Bible through the old lenses of the creeds.

My progressive evangelicalism is a scrambling of what used to be true of just conservatives with what used to be true of just mainliners. And a crucial component in my journey away from being a conservative evangelical was when I gave up on faith.

Ok, I didn’t give up on faith entirely. But I started to understand differently what saving faith looks like. In short, it comes down to this: thinking the right things does not save anyone.

“Thinking the right thing” is my interpretation of “believing the right thing.” Because in practice, they are equivalent. And the dangerous posture that has taken deep root in Protestantism is that the wholesale systems of belief we have constructed are the things that demand our allegiance if we are to find ultimate favor with God.

From Faith to Faithfulness

In my personal narrative, the first move away from faith was to “faithfulness.”

What I have to say next might come as a shock to some people, so if you’re standing and reading this on an iPhone or something, have a seat. I don’t want anyone  getting hurt.

The one who led me from “faith” to “faithfulness” was Paul. What is it that saves us, in Paul’s estimation?

Yes, of course there is our response to the gospel message. But this is not, ultimately, what saves us. The saving work is Jesus’ death and resurrection. And when Paul talks about saving faith, it’s Jesus’ saving faithfulness that takes pride of place:

However, we know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the Law—because no one will be made righteous by the works of the Law. (Galatians 2:16, CEB)

One of the most important dynamics of the biblical story that they hammer into your head in seminary is that “indicative” precedes “imperative.” That is to say, what God does for us always comes before what God asks of us.

But it’s more specific than this. The indicative not only precedes, it also sets the trajectory for the content of what is to follow. It becomes the narrative that people expect to see repeated.

The saving story of the cross writes the script for subsequent generations of disciples: “take up your cross and follow me.”

In Paul’s letters it is no different. Paul does not write to the churches about the death and resurrection of Jesus in order to get them to think the right things. He writes these letters to get them to be faithful to the God and Father of Jesus in the same way that Jesus himself was: a crucifixion of the flesh with its passions and desires, laying down their lives so that the people around them might find life.

When Paul expresses the goal of his discipleship, he says that it is to bring about, not faith [full stop], but “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). Christ saved by faithfulness, and we are called to a lifelong fidelity to God.

From Faith to Trust

The sharper image that has developed over the past several years has been to move from thinking of “faith” as “belief” to thinking of faith as “trust.”

The impetus for this particular rendering of our Christian vocation came from Romans 3. There, Paul is starting to get into the weeds a bit about the implications of Israel’s failure to respond to Jesus as Messiah. Here Paul plays with the Greek word pistis. We typically translate this “faith,” but it won’t quite work here. Take a look:

First, they were entrusted (episteuthesan) with the oracles of God. What then? If some of them failed in their trust (episteusan, or “were faithless”) their failure of trust (apistia, “faithlessness“) will not nullify God’s trustworthiness (pistis, “faithfulness”), will it?

The question Paul is wrestling with here is, Can God be trusted? Is God trustworthy? Alternatively, we might see this as, Is God faithful?

God’s own mission in the Gospel is to find a people whose willingness to entrust themselves to God matches God’s willing to entrust himself to them.

(I know that this is true because at the end of that last sentence my word count was 777.)

From Reformed to Reforming

The Reformation was built on “justification by faith alone” as one of its key rallying cries.

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with the Reformation. I have been more committed to its mode of theologizing than its theological results. Give me the Bible and Jesus and my brain and my understanding of history and my community. But don’t think I’ll “honor” the Reformers by saying what they said, thereby setting them up as the very sorts of ecclesiastical authorities they worked so hard to throw off.

In fact, what I have found is that the dangerous game of defining ourselves by “thinking the right things about God,” a temptation that has haunted the church almost from its inception, has been deadly (literally and figuratively) across the centuries. It is the mistaken understanding of the gospel that leads to such lethal mistakes as the Wheaton College Larycia Hawkins fiasco.

Going back to the Paul whose writings sowed the seed for “faith alone,” I have discovered that the heart of the human response to the message of Jesus is not believing that it happened, but entrusting ourselves to that story, to that God, to that God’s way of saving, to that savior’s way of being fully human.

So when I stand up on Sunday mornings and recite the Creeds, I do a little translation in my head. While everyone else is saying, “I believe…” I am saying by my words, “I entrust myself to God the Father Almighty… and to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord… I entrust myself to the Holy Spirit…”

Because, in the end, thinking the right things is not what God is after.


Featured Image: © vagwi 2009, Flickr, CC 2.0

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  • mhelbert

    Well said. This is a journey that I’ve been on for a few years. In seminary I used to tell folks that I came from a tradition that basically wants to unscrew the top one’s head and pour in some propositional truths. Screw the head back on and send us off to be good little followers. However, like you, when I began to understand the Greek to mean substantially more than ‘just believe,’ my life was changed. Now, I’m following, (trusting?), the Word, not necessarily the ‘words.’

  • Curt Longacre

    I had to think about this a bit. For me faith in God has always been about entrusting myself to God, so in one sense, this was not a revelation to me. Having said that, I can also say that I have not heard faith defined in those terms, so in that sense it is a new way of thinking about faith – one that will no doubt be helpful to people. Good word, Daniel.

  • AlanCK

    Yes, indeed. Is faith offering, or is it gift?

  • jekylldoc

    This way of thinking and talking about faith is an important development. It is not entirely new, but it has suddenly taken a big jump in how widely it is understood. Kudos for helping to explain in clear terms. This is truly “evangel” – good news.

    I agree that the Reformation boxed us in a bit. By emphasizing faith over works, the Reformers were slicing through a rotten set of practices which the Roman church itself discarded before long. But the damage of defining the faith by assent to particular propositions about the supernatural had been done long before. The reformation institutionalization of that in terms of Biblical authority did further damage, but of course it also helped in some ways.

    I would like to see a wholesale revamping of the recitation of the Creeds. Instead of reciting particular propositions about the supernatural, I would like each statement of Creedal faith to do a bit of the translation you mention, and fill in something of what it looks like to put trust in some Biblical affirmation, such as “all things work together for good” or “work out your faith in fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work” or “there is now neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus,” or even “all things are lawful, but not all things build up.” This has traditionally been the domain of the sermon, but it could become “testimony time”, or liturgy to say together.

  • Hermina Janz

    Haha, 777! Sign from God!
    I have long been frustrated by people in churches clinging so fiercely to boundaries determined by thinking or saying the right things. But there are some things about church people that they sometimes get very right, like compassion and being willing to help when needed. So I can agree that trust seems a better description for how we might relate to a God that self-reveals as love.
    It seems to me that the concept of being loved by God is actually much more difficult for many people to trust than it should seem. I wonder why.

  • Chad

    Daniel, some helpful thoughts here. I agree that “faith” in Paul is much deeper than cognitive recognition, but is this an “either or” or a “both and,” especially given Paul’s indicative-to-imperative tendencies?

    • There has to be some both/and: there is a story to be trusted, which means believing some things about what God has done.

      • JD Walters

        You probably should have stressed that more strongly in your OP. It’s very trendy nowadays to write “deeds not creeds” pieces lamenting the ‘reduction’ of the Gospel to ‘believing the right propositions’ and then offering an alternative emphasis on ‘trust’ or ‘faithfulness’ or ‘community’ or ‘story’ or whatever, while either intentionally or unintentionally ignoring the inescapable fact that you can only trust or believe in or follow someone when you know some propositions about them and what they’ve done. And this passage makes no sense:

        “the heart of the human response to the message of Jesus is not believing that it happened, but entrusting ourselves to that story, to that God, to that God’s way of saving, to that savior’s way of being fully human.”

        How on earth can you ‘trust yourself to a story’ or to a ‘way of saving’ if you don’t know, or at least confidently and rationally believe, that that story is the right description of things and that way of saving is real?

        • Well, a lot of folks have found ways to live the story while shelving the question of its reality.

          But as to that passage that “makes no sense”: the question is what is at the heart of our response to the message, not what are all the component parts. What is a Christian response? That Jesus lived and did a few things, and died? Or that we follow as he called us to?

          • JD Walters

            Those folks are, as Paul put it, ‘of all people most to be pitied.’ It makes no sense to be a self-denying Jesus follower unless Jesus actually was who he said he was and his followers will gain the rewards he promised.

            And the early Christians’ first imperative was, in fact, to get people to believe that Jesus lived, did ‘a few things’ (kind of an understatement when those few things included him rising from the dead) and was in fact the Lord of the Universe. And it was on ‘that’ basis that people were expected to follow him. It would make no sense for Christians to demand allegiance to Jesus merely because they could spin a good yarn about him, or because his followers were really cool, authentic dudes to hang out with in the coffee shop.

          • Iain Lovejoy

            I would agree that you self-evidently can’t trust in God or Jesus if you don’t actually believe they exist, that would be silly.
            However, but that doesn’t mean that you have to believe all the right things about God or Jesus to trust in them, nor does it mean that believing all the right things about them is of much use if that’s all you do, no matter how confidently believe and assert you are right.

  • LarryN

    JR you’ve confused trusting with entrusting, both in the English and in the Greek.

  • JD Walters

    “Because, in the end, thinking the right things is not what God is after.”

    This should read “in the end, thinking the right things is not the ONLY thing that God is after.” God certainly wants us to have correct beliefs about him and his attributes.

    • ctcss

      God certainly wants us to have correct beliefs about him and his attributes.

      Perhaps it might be even more that God wants to have a greater understanding of Him. Belief is reasonable starting point. It can certainly point a person in a specific direction to walk. But in so walking, I would expect that a person’s understanding would grow as they gain a greater understanding and appreciation of God and what God is as they make the effort to draw nearer to Him in their thought and action.