Thursday, May 6, 2010

Grace Leading into Faith

Next week I will begin to probe the troubled waters of the Justification debate. However, I felt that one more post was merited to transition between prevenient grace and Justification.

The span of life between prevenient grace (which begins at, or even before, birth) and the graces that flow from faith, is a live area of debate. Some Christians (John Wesley among them) have produced writings that at least appear to claim that non-Christians can do nothing good, or do nothing to please God. These Christian thinkers in various ways, and to varying degrees, have claimed that prevenient grace is not sufficient for a human to do anything pleasing to God; faith is required for any such acts. Often these claims revolve around holiness, and the fact that any form of holiness must flow from an explicit faith relationship to God. Another characteristic of this line of thought is that there is a clear and impassible barrier constructed between holiness and the development of virtue, or any form of virtue ethics.

Well, there are quite a few claims here, most of which I either seriously question or outright reject. This line of theological reasoning often flows from a misguided desire to keep the speculations of philosophy separate from the truths of the Christian faith. There are fears (often quite justified) that if one allows philosophical concepts to be applied to faith categories, the Christian faith will be reduced to a stale philosophy. There is little else that I more ardently desire to avoid in my writing; however, I think the insights of virtue ethics (which predates Christian theology by several centuries) are too true and theologically applicable to simply write off or avoid. I will treat this issue in greater detail when I get to the topic of sanctification, but even now a few preliminary comments are helpful. This is because the process of developing virtue usually begins before Christian sanctification proper.

Even a toddler can understand certain moral issues. Hitting is bad, stealing is bad, sharing is good, obeying your parents is good. Virtue (or vice) is being developed long before any explicit faith is exercised. Now, since the development of holiness closely resembles the development of virtue (a claim I will better substantiate later when I get into issues of sanctification), does this mean that people can develop some measure of holiness even before they come to faith?

Although my thinking on these issues is still fairly plastic and open to change; I am leaning towards affirming this reality. Of course, there may be types or degrees of holiness only available to those who have come to lives of explicit faith. But is it realistic to say that no measure of holiness is present in a person who has not yet come to explicit faith? An example will clarify this dilemma.

Imagine two people. The first grew up in a remote and impoverished Hindu village. For her entire life she had never heard one thing concerning Jesus or the Gospel, yet she followed nearly all of Jesus' teachings as if she had. She loved her neighbor as herself, returned good for evil and daily sacrificed for those even more impoverished than herself. As a result she daily grew in virtue and became more Christ-like than the vast majority of Christians. She died through starvation because she gave her only food to a poor child who had none. Now imagine a second person. She grew up being spoiled in a wealthy home in an affluent American neighborhood. She gradually developed vicious habits learning to steal from those that had less than her and horde all of her plentiful material wealth. She got into a first rate college through her parents connections, but decided to neglect studying in lieu of partying. She continued faithfully developing vices, adding promiscuity and drug addiction to her already characteristic selfishness and avarice. Far from helping the poor she would steal from them whenever she could do so without being exposed as the monster she was certainly becoming. Her drug addictions and horrible character led to a loss of employment and an isolation from family and friends. Eventually she finds herself strung out on drugs and homeless. In and out of shelters, she never thanked anyone for their charity; daily she continued to grow in her viciousness. Eventually her drug abuse landed her in a hospital bed, dying. Bottomed out on her death bed, she is visited by a priest. Because she has bottomed out in despair, and now staring death in the face, she is finally able to see the abject evil of her ways. The priest leads this women to a death bed repentance and the first feeble acts of faith in Jesus Christ (just before she dies).

It is obvious which person died more virtuous. The question is, which women died more holy? If holiness is primarily about: being filled with love, having a rightly ordered heart, loving the right things in the right degrees, the development of mercy, the diminishment of pride, an utter desire to help others and an utter lack of (what my astute friend Kyle has termed) “self-curvature”; if holiness is about these things, then does not the first woman die much more holy than the second? It seems holiness is not necessarily perfectly correlated to explicit faith, but it does seem to be well correlated with the development of virtue.

It is at this point that I can offer an olive branch to the reticent Christian who wishes holiness to be the sole possession of those who have faith. Perhaps it would be best to say that the first woman’s holiness did in fact flow from faith, only it was an implicit faith (see my former posts on faith for more on this topic). Upon this realization things fall into place quite nicely. The first woman appropriates God’s prevenient grace (which she has increasing access to through her faithful acceptance and appropriation of it) in implicit faith and as a result grows in holiness throughout her life. It is not as if the first woman somehow does it on her own, apart from God. She does not even develop holiness apart from faith. She merely develops it apart from an explicit faith, a part from an explicit belief in who Jesus Christ is.

If I am correct in my reasoning (and I am certainly open to finding out otherwise) then the first woman experiences something not unlike sanctification. Perhaps there is a pre-Christian analog to this process that all Christians experience. I will leave you to consider that provocative tidbit until I arrive at the topic of sanctification in a few weeks. Next week we are on to the exciting topic of justification. Until then . . . peace.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Prevenient Grace: The Beginning of Salvation

Faith is not the beginning of salvation. Neither is justification. Grace is the beginning of salvation. So, now, after we have had our helpful detour in the realm of faith, we will go back to the beginning, to grace. Specifically, we will begin with prevenient grace.

Those of you who are not of the Wesleyan persuasion may not be familiar with the term “prevenient grace” (other traditions have similar or virtually identical analogs). This is literally a “grace that goes before.” This term encompasses the first graces offered by God to humanity. This is grace offered to people before they even know who God is. This is a grace that is offered to ALL of humanity. Every person from birth (before birth really) has some part in God’s grace through prevenience. This means that while all people have a part in sin (all are sinners) no one is completely depraved. Total depravity, while a pious concept touted by some Protestants, is ultimately a misleading term. No one is totally depraved. To be TOTALLY depraved one would have to be TOTALLY without God’s grace; but the reality of prevenient grace means that no one is completely separated from God’s grace. No one is COMPLETELY depraved, all have a measure of grace.

This doctrine is at once incredibly hopeful and incredibly humbling. It is hopeful, because this means that no one anywhere on earth, at anytime in history, has been completely separated from God. All are given grace sufficient for salvation. All are given grace sufficient to come to God in a saving way (even if only through implicit faith in this life (See my former posts on faith for more about this). This extremely hopeful truth also has incredibly humbling implications. Since all are recipients of God’s grace, no one can claim any independent moral merit. All good actions, even before one is aware of God’s existence, flow from God’s grace. Any ability to make a decision for the good and the right comes from the empowering prevenient grace of God. Indeed, the very existence of a human conscience (a universal reality, even if expressed in various ways in different cultures) is a chief expression of God’s prevenient grace. Think of how much unrestrained evil would prevail if not for this powerful human reality!

What does all this mean for salvation? First, it means that the beginning of the process of salvation, at least in the lives of humans (the ultimate beginning is in the infinite love of the Trinity, which I wrote about several months ago), is in God’s grace. Salvation does not begin with a work of faith, not even the relatively passive faith-act of accepting God’s grace. No, salvation begins with a generous showering of God’s grace. This grace is forced upon us whether we like it or not. God unilaterally decides to give all of humanity grace. We have no choice in the matter; we are helpless to avoid his graciousness. Later, we have the opportunity to reject or accept this grace; but at first, God works alone.

This is the ultimate beginning of salvation. Salvation is a lifelong process that begins with this first of graces. Next week we will look into how this prevenience plays out as life goes on, how it might lead to further graces, and how this all matches up with sanctification. Until then . . . peace.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The False Protestant Dichotomy of Faith and Works

If you have been following my posts on faith (or if you go and read them now) you have an important key to unlocking the mysteries of salvation theology. The motor that drives the order of salvation, or ordo salutis, is certainly grace; but the power from this motor is put into action through the instrumentation of faith. Thus far, I have concluded that faith, beyond merely inspiring good works, actually includes them. As we continue to discuss salvation theology a governing assumption will be that “works do in fact play a part in salvation.” I will clarify the place of works further as we move forward, but first I would like to round out our initial discussion of faith by addressing one of the greatest theological tragedies in the history of the Church: the false dichotomy of faith and works.

Martin Luther was not just some crazy beer swilling monk, as certain Roman Catholic officials made him out to be. He was a devout Roman Catholic with a keen spiritual sensibility. And Luther was not simply nit-picking when he called on the Roman church to reform. There were real substantive abuses that had grown up through the Middle Ages in the Roman church. Among the worst of these abuses was the state of Roman worship and some distinctive practices that had arisen in the medieval church. Luther’s problem was not that he was over-reacting (these abuses were real and substantive) or that he simply wanted to form his own church (Luther was excommunicated and almost burned at the stake as a heretic); he desired reform and was forcibly removed from the Roman church. Where Luther went wrong was in his salvation theology.

More specifically, Luther linked certain deplorable practices of the Roman church with certain Roman doctrines that were actually quite orthodox and unproblematic. To use an admittedly broad statement, it was as if Luther looked at the abuses of the Roman church and said, “all this exists because we have allowed works to seep into our conception of faith.” Luther strengthened this view with a selective reading of Paul and an almost total discounting of James (He was quite close to dropping this book from the Canon altogether). This resulted in a deceptively simple and seemingly pious mantra, sola fides, or faith alone. Actually, Luther would have agreed that salvation is by grace alone through the instrumentation of faith.

Of course, on one level, Luther is right. Salvation is by grace through faith. The problem is that Luther’s definition of faith appears to be anemic. He falsely separated faith and works and opposed the former to the latter. Luther, and Calvin after him, identified works as that which follow from faith. Calvin’s famous quip, “saving faith is never alone” sounds catchy, but it is less than helpful. Although this view seems neat and tidy, upon closer inspection, it is deeply flawed and incoherent. And, if you have read my last few posts, you know why. Faith is a choice. Yes, it is empowered by grace, but it is a free decision nonetheless. As we have seen, beliefs, even beliefs as lofty as “trust” are, for the most part, completely involuntary. The only thing that can be truly voluntary is a work or an action. The decision of faith is not a decision to believe, it is a decision to do something based on a belief one already has. Where Luther and Calvin’s anemic view of faith forces a showdown between Paul and James, a view of faith that includes works produces an easy synthesis. Yes Paul, salvation is by faith alone. Yes James, faith is not mere belief, but includes works. Salvation is by a faith of “grace empowered works” or “works of faith.” If only Luther and Calvin could have separated the harmful practices of the Roman church from their harmless theology.

As it stands, Luther, Calvin and their Protestant progeny, have to varying extents adopted a false dichotomy between faith and works. As a Protestant I do recognize abuses of the medieval Roman church and I still disagree with some facets of the contemporary Roman church. However, unlike most of my Protestant brethren, salvation theology (at least the general bulk of it) is not an area where I lodge significant protest. Unfortunately most Protestants see this as the main battle ground between them and high church traditions. This perception rests on an incoherent view of faith and the piety that flows from it. And, after all, the Lutheran concept sounds good and pious, “Far be it from me to do anything to affect my salvation. I am merely a helpless sinner, I can do nothing. Salvation is completely a work of God. No work of mine contributes one iota.” This sounds good, but ultimately it is bad theology.

That a “faith of works” takes part in salvation is undeniable (unless you wish to go the way of determinists, in which case you have bigger problems). This does not mean that one earns salvation. It simply means that God will not save us against our wills. He wants His love to be freely accepted and returned in works of love. Works of faith are simply the instrumentation of Gods grace. We could do nothing without grace and God has decided not to save without works. Who are we to question God’s wisdom and demand that we have no part in our salvation, that we do nothing that contributes to it in any way? God saves by grace through faith and this faith includes works (which are empowered, but not completely determined by grace).

This is one area where Protestants need to recognize that our high church brethren actually had it right. We need to relinquish the false faith-works dichotomy (as pious as it sounds) and adopt a more robust and coherent work-of-faith dialectic. Our high church brethren still have flaws worthy of protest, but salvation theology (at least this part) is not one of them.

Until next week, when we dip into grace and the beginnings of sanctification . . . peace.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Faith Part V: The Works Righteousness Objection to “Faith as Existential Trust”

This week I will conclude my presentation of ‘faith as existential trust’ by answering a common, and quite serious objection concerning works righteosness. Please let me know what you think of this conception of faith, especially if you see any other strong objections.

Objection: Faith as Existential Trust = Works Righteousness

An orthodox Christian, especially a Protestant one, is likely to object, “Your description of faith is a degradation of divine grace. ‘Existential trust’ appears to be a euphemism for ‘works righteousness’.” This is a worthy objection and deserves careful consideration. Orthodox Christianity has always affirmed that salvation is not something humanity can earn, even with great effort. The grace of salvation is freely given; it is a debt ordinary humans could never pay. It is a debt that only the God-man, Jesus the Christ, can pay on behalf of humanity. Christians have traditionally affirmed that this gift of salvific grace is accepted in faith. Yet faith as existential trust sounds like a work one performs to earn this grace. I must admit that works are inherent to this conception of faith. On this model faith does not merely inspire good works, it includes them. Faith as existential trust is actually not genuine faith unless some type of work is present. To fully answer the charge of works righteousness, it is necessary to place faith as existential trust within the context of salvation theology.

D. Response: The Nature of Salvation

The “works righteousness” objection, while well intended, rests on a fallacious understanding of salvation. Many Christians (mostly Protestant) view salvation as a punctiform event that occurs when someone decides to relinquish their life to Christ. A person makes the decision of faith, accepts God’s gift of grace in repentance, believes that Jesus is the Son of God and accepts him as both Lord and savior. There are several Protestant variations, but they all make the same error: they claim that a person is saved in that one decisive moment. This, however, is a misleadingly narrow picture of salvation.

Let me suggest a description of salvation that is more in line with the tenor of Christian Scripture and tradition. Simply put, salvation is the transformation of a sinner into a holy Christ-like saint. It is a transformation of a sinner into someone capable of inhabiting heaven. This is indeed a miracle of grace, but it is most often a gradual miracle. Salvation is a processive rather than a punctiform reality. God gives grace (in the form of some mixture of beliefs and desires) sufficient for every single person to respond to Him in faith, whether implicit or explicit. As a person responds to God this person is provided with further grace. By receiving and responding in faith to each addition of grace a sinner is brought further along the path of Christ-likeness. This is the process of sanctification; it is the process of becoming holy, like Christ, through various works of faith, which are preceded and followed by divine grace. Is this works righteousness? I do not think so. Faith as existential trust is a process wherein divine grace is appropriated in works. Without grace a sinner would have nothing to appropriate and would also lack the ability to respond. God uses imperfect works of faith as the occasion for salvation; it does not follow that people earn salvific grace. This is simply the process God has chosen to bring people into His coming kingdom.

God is love. God desires a love relationship with every person. This means that He desires each sinner to be transformed into a saint capable of inhabiting heaven. He could unilaterally ‘zap’ them into this Christ-like state, but relationships are inherently bi-lateral. So God provides grace in various measures and seeks faith responses, which are works (often works of mercy or piety) that form an ever-strengthening relationship. Essentially, the process of sanctification is the process whereby God forms and perfects a God-human relationship. Salvation is complete when this relationship is perfected. In a real sense the process of salvation (building this relationship) is the prize of salvation (a perfected relationship with God).

Conclusion: Salvation by Works of Faith

If the preceding description of salvation is accurate, then the Christian simply cannot avoid the fact that works are inherent to faith. This is because I am assuming the Christian will want to maintain that salvation is by faith; yet as we have seen, salvation in its fullest sense is achieved through good works. Ultimately the ‘works righteousness’ objection rests on a fallacious faith-works dichotomy. Let me suggest that this dichotomy can be overcome in a ‘work of faith’ synthesis. I am not merely claiming that faith inspires good works; rather, I am making the stronger assertion that good works are the content of faith. With this distinction the apparent contradiction between Paul and James is mitigated. Salvation is by grace through faith alone and salvation is also by grace through works. This is because salvation is a passionate process of appropriation, whereby the sinner appropriates divine grace in works of faith. Without works there can be no appropriation and therefore no sanctification of the sinner into a holy saint. By demanding a salvation without works the misguided Protestant demands a salvation without content. This is because salvation simply is the sanctification process, which includes works.

If we are to accept a robust salvation, then an equally robust faith is requisite. Furthermore, if we are to avoid the problem of volition stated in prior posts then faith will need more than merely notional content. I have offered a plausible account of what that extra-notional content might be and just how little notional content might be required for genuine faith (whether explicit or implicit). Faith as existential trust and implicit faith fit nicely into a fully orbed and orthodox salvation theology.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Faith Part IV: First Objection to Faith as Existential Trust

Last week I finished discussing alternatives to “faith as belief” by presenting the strongest (and I believe correct) notion of faith: faith as existential trust. This is a faith with stress upon action and not upon notional belief. This conception of faith goes a long way in solving our original problem (concerning salvation via involuntary beliefs) but two formidable objections remain. This week I will raise and answer one. Next week I will raise and answer a final objection and thus conclude our foray into the world of faith.

A. Objection: Belief Snuck in the Back Door-

A major strength of faith as existential trust is that it does not require people to will themselves to believe that God exists, or that Jesus is God incarnate or that God is trustworthy. It requires much more modest notional content, namely: if God exists and Jesus is God incarnate then I should follow the teachings and example of Jesus and; acting as if Jesus is God incarnate is my best shot at achieving my ultimate purposes. However modest this notional content may be, one may object that faith as existential trust still requires involuntary notional content. People are still going to be held accountable for involuntary beliefs (albeit modest ones). So while the problem has been lessened with this more inclusive concept of faith, it has not been solved completely.
Existential faith still requires beliefs [A’] and [S], and both can be plausibly rejected by a large number of people. This is because, to believe that if [J], then I should follow Jesus’ teachings and example, or that acting as if [J] is true is my best shot at achieving my ultimate desires, one must first have at least a vague notion of [J] . There are millions, if not billions of people on earth who have never heard of Jesus or his teachings. Furthermore, there are many people who have heard of [J], accept [A’] but reject [S] . Often [S] is rejected because of the many faith options in our modern world. It is likely that people who have heard of Jesus and his teachings have also heard of at least one other plausible world religion. Given someone’s noetic structure, Christianity may not strike them as their “best shot”. One could respond that a modern person should perform faith experiments, sampling each viable option. But how long would these experiments take to be valid and how many people would perpetually experiment until death because of the many options offered? Ultimately the experimental option will only be viable for some of the modern people who have encountered Christianity. This leaves the rest of those who have encountered Christianity, and the few billion humans who have never had such an encounter, without any volitional recourse. How should we address these people, for whom explicit faith, even in the form of existential trust, is not an option?

B. Response: Implicit Faith

So far as I can see the only adequate answer to this objection is that there must exist a form of implicit faith that is sufficient for salvation. Ultimately this concept of implicit faith is best worked out in a fuller account of salvation theology; here a brief initial description will suffice. Someone who exercises implicit faith will be the type of person who will respond explicitly (in existential trust) when confronted with the teachings and example of Jesus given that they believe [S]. Such a person would hold belief [M’] which follows: if there is a legitimate higher moral power or authority, then I should obey it. This is an uncontroversial claim that even a staunch moral skeptic would accept. This minimal belief guides the person of implicit faith. They act according to their best approximation of what the moral law might be if a moral authority exists. This type of implicit faith could apply to someone who has never encountered Christianity, but it can also apply to the skeptic who has encountered the teachings of Jesus, accepts [A’] but rejects [S]. Given belief [S] they would exercise explicit faith, but since they cannot bring themselves to believe [S] they may exercise implicit faith by holding to belief [M’]. It is important to note that the driving force behind any faith (explicit or implicit) is desire. One must act on a desire to do what one should do, given your beliefs. Genuine faith and salvation status is not determined by belief, but by action. One is held accountable for what one decides to do given one’s beliefs. The decision of faith is a choice, not between beliefs, but between various actions aimed at satisfying competing desires.

This description of faith should lead into another, perhaps more common, objection concerning works righteousness. Next week I will state and address that objection and conclude our musings on the nature of faith.
Until next week . . . peace.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Faith Part III: Strong Alternatives

In the past few weeks I have introduced the volitional problem concerning faith, done some preliminary definitional work (concerning belief and action) and outlined a popular alternative to “faith as belief” which is “faith as trust.” As I mentioned last week “faith as trust” still does not really mitigate the volitional problem since trust is simply a special kind of belief. If we are to move beyond the volitional problem (i.e. If faith is belief, and belief is voluntary, it would seem God holds people accountable for an involuntary mental state) then we will need to construct a conception of faith which lessens or eliminates the non-volitional belief content requisite. Below I will offer a few more promising alternatives to “faith as belief.”

B. Faith as Hope

Louis Pojman has suggested that “hope” might serve as a substitute for belief. Pojman observes that many people desire to believe that God exists but cannot will themselves into such a state. This is the heart of our problem. If faith is equated with belief that God exists or belief that Jesus is God’s son, then it seems that the non-believer (or anyone) has little choice in attaining faith. Pojman’s alternative to belief offers such people a more volitional option. His concept of faith as hope is clarified in returning to our horse racing example (see last weeks post for the example’s introduction).

Let us suppose that Climacus is at the track again and that he has the same belief that Santa’s Little Helper is a 10 to 1 underdog in the seventh race. However, in this scenario, the official odds on Santa’s Little Helper are actually 100 to 1. Let us also suppose that Climacus has an extremely strong desire to attend a top culinary program, but he needs a $1000 tuition deposit by tomorrow in order to do so. His desire is so strong it would be a grave tragedy for him to wait another year in order to raise the money requisite for the deposit. Climacus has $10 in his pocket. Other than betting on Santa’s Little Helper, there is no other conceivable way to obtain the deposit in time. As the seventh race approaches, what do you suppose Climacus does?
It is not hard to predict that Climacus will risk his relatively unimportant $10 for the chance to gain admittance to the culinary program. But why would he do this? If we asked Climacus if he believed that Santa’s Little Helper would win, he would most certainly reply “no” (assuming our prior definition of belief). In fact, Climacus has a strong belief that Santa’s Little Helper will lose. Climacus places the bet while strongly believing that he will fail in his efforts. This action is not irrational or unpredictable when one takes into account Climacus’ strong desires. Remember, actions are only guided by beliefs, they are motivated by desires. Climacus is acting on his extremely strong desire to enter into the culinary program. Pojman characterizes this type of action as hope.

Pojman stipulates four qualifications for faith as hope. (1) For one to have hope in a state of affairs there must be at least a slim possibility of that state of affairs obtaining. I cannot hope to draw a square circle because such an action is impossible. (2) Hope precludes certainty; there must be at least some chance of failure. The probability for a state of affairs that is the object of hope must be between 0 and 1. (3) Hope involves at least some desire that a state of affairs obtain. (4) All this implies that one will be disposed to do what one can in order to bring about the state of affairs which is the object of hope.

Climacus’ bet at the track can be characterized by hope. Santa’s Little Helper had some chance of winning, but he was far from a certain bet. With this objective improbability pervading, Climacus acted on his great desire to do the only thing he could to bring about his hoped for state of affairs. He bet his $10 in hope of gaining the necessary $1000. Pojman presents this scenario as a possibility for the person of faith who lacks certain beliefs.

C. Faith as Hope and Acting ‘as if’

For the purpose of evaluating Pojman’s project we will work with the traditional Christian belief: Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate (henceforth, [J]). Now if a non-Christian could come to believe [J] many other beliefs necessary for the Christian life would fall into place, such as a belief that one should follow the teachings and example of Jesus. We will refer to these beliefs as action, or [A] beliefs. Given the right desires (i.e. the desire to please God), [A] beliefs will probably lead to characteristically Christian actions. Although Pojman, if pressed, would admit that some beliefs are necessary for faith, in outlining faith as hope, he is denying that beliefs akin to [J] are requisite for faith. Strictly speaking, if Pojman’s characterization of faith as hope is valid, one need not believe that [J] in order to exercise Christian faith. However, this does not eliminate all notional content requisite for Christian faith. Pojman has eliminated the need for strong beliefs such as [J] but his concept of faith as hope still requires two lesser notional commitments.

The first lesser, but necessary, belief is a belief that is similar but not identical to [A], let us call it [A’]. The belief [A’] runs as follows: If [J], then I should follow Jesus’ teachings and example. This belief is actually implicit in the person who believes [J] and [A], but it is a much weaker, and therefore a much less controversial claim. My guess is that even most atheists hold to [A’]. The second lesser, but necessary belief, let us call it [S], runs as follows: acting as if [J] is true is my best shot at achieving my ultimate desires. Here, “ultimate desires” may refer to a variety of deeply felt wants depending on the specific context of the person.
A drug addict may have an ultimate desire to be free of her addiction. Someone else may have a more theologically reflective desire for eternal happiness. Still another person may have an ultimate desire to perfectly fulfill the moral law. There are many candidates for an “ultimate desire” but there are at least two clear constraints on such desires. First, ultimate desires cannot be grossly contrary to the morality of Jesus. It would be odd if someone could act in genuine faith in order to achieve an elaborate murder. Second, the person in question must not believe that they can achieve their ultimate desire on their own. Ultimate desires are, by definition, desires which make you feel your own inadequacy or insufficiency (whether perceived or real) with respect to a specific project.

D. Faith as Existential Trust

With these alternatives to “faith as belief” in play we are prepared to bring the conceptual threads together in a robust, yet more inclusive, model of Christian faith. First we will return to trust.

Luther’s concept of “faith as trust” has great potential, but in order to be useful, it must be brought out of the purely notional realm. If faith is something one can be held ultimately accountable for, it must be voluntary; which means it requires some action oriented content. Let me suggest that Christian faith should be characterized as existential trust. This is a form of trust, but the stress lies on the action and not the notional belief. An example will clarify.

Let us suppose I am sitting in my philosophy of religion class looking out of a three storey window at a large tree. There is a moderately sized branch a few feet from the window. Looking to shake things up a bit I exclaim, “I think that branch outside the window would hold me up just fine.” A cheeky individual opens up the window and replies, “Then why don’t you jump out onto it?” Here is where the distinction of existential trust comes into play.

There are two reasons that I might not jump out of the window onto the branch. First, I might not actually believe that the branch can hold my weight. In that case I do not have even a notional trust in the branch. My earlier assertion was an empty bluff. Perhaps upon considering the prospect of jumping out of the window, I realize this lack of notional trust for the first time. Second, I might have a genuine notional trust of the branch’s integrity, but I may lack a sufficiently strong desire (or any desire for that matter) to jump out of the window to test it. Perhaps there is no real gain in the action beyond me verifying my claim. I trust the branch fairly strongly, but I am not certain it will hold my weight. The small risk of falling three storeys outweighs the potential reward of proving my assertion correct. Thus, while I do have genuine notional trust, I still refrain from action. The act of getting up and jumping out of the window onto the branch is an act of existential trust. It is a trust with the accent on actions, not on beliefs. In fact, existential trust has the odd feature that one may exercise it without possessing a genuine notional trust. Although my act could very well be guided by a strong or moderate trust in the branch’s integrity, if I possess certain strong desires, a notional trust is not requisite for action. I may believe that the branch has only a 10% probability of holding me up; yet my desire to prove myself right, or look courageous, may be so strong that I jump out of the window anyway. In this case you could say that I lack notional trust (indeed I think it 90% likely that the branch will break under my weight) but that I exercise existential trust. This conception of faith as existential trust has some obvious affinity for faith as hope and faith as acting ‘as if’.

In jumping out of the window onto the branch in existential trust, I am acting in hope and I am acting ‘as if’ the branch will hold my weight. One major strength of faith as existential trust is that it is quite inclusive. One can act in hope, ‘as if’ something were true, whether one believes a proposition to be nearly certain or nearly impossible. The object of hope must only be less than certain and at least possible. Under this model a person may exercise genuine faith by acting as if [J], which only implies the much lesser belief [A’]. Under this model the stress is put on the action and not the notional content of faith. Although some notional content is requisite, it is minimal, well short of [J] or beliefs akin to [J]. Strictly speaking one may act in faith, acting in hope ‘as if’ Jesus is God incarnate and ‘as if’ God is trustworthy, without even believing ‘that’ Jesus is God incarnate and ‘that’ God is trustworthy. Faith as existential trust has this odd, but appropriate consequence: one can strongly believe in the nonexistence of God, and still exercise faith in Him. This is possible due to the motivating force of an ultimate desire and the guidance of the minimal belief structure of [A’] and [S].

At this point I am guessing that many Christians of various flavors will have some objections. Feel free to raise them in the comments section. Next week I will raise, and answer, what I think are the two most formidable objections to this conception of faith.

Until next week . . . peace.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Faith Part II: Definitions and the Alternative of “Faith as Trust”

Last week I introduced the chief problem with conceiving of faith as mere belief. Essentially it boils down to this: faith is volitional (it is a decision) and belief (in large part) is not. Faced with this dilemma one has two options, either: (a) redefine faith in a more volitional manner or (b) retain the definition of faith as belief and admit that faith is not volitional (and that we are held eternally accountable for a “decision” we have no control over).

Faced with this dilemma I have chosen option (b) and will begin pursuing it below. Towards the end of this post I will begin to introduce alternatives to “faith as belief,” but first it is necessary to do some preliminary definitional work.

Definitions and The Humean Model of Action

Language surrounding faith is often multivalent. In order to discuss faith and its components productively it is essential to start with clear definitions. For the purposes of this study the term “belief” will refer to a confidence in the truth of a proposition. Unless otherwise stated, belief will always refer to “belief that” something is true (i.e. corresponds to reality). A belief need not be certain, but it must be more probable than not. To believe that something is true is to think that there is greater than 0.5 (or 50%) probability that it is the case. A brief example will clarify.

Let us suppose that Climacus is at the race track and has two beliefs. Climacus believes that the horses will run today and also that ‘Santa’s Little Helper’ is a 10 to 1 underdog in the seventh race. Climacus’ belief that the horses will run today is fairly straightforward; it has a high probability. Barring a freak electrical storm, the horses will be running. His belief that “Santa’s Little Helper” is a 10 to 1 underdog is not as simple. Strictly speaking, Climacus does not have a ‘10% belief’ that Santa’s Little Helper will win’. Such a low probability belief would be no belief at all. In this case Climacus has a belief that the odds on Santa’s Little Helper are accurate. Let us assume he knows the odds makers and thinks that they are both trustworthy and knowledgeable. Thus, Climacus does not have a belief that Santa’s Little Helper will win, but he does have a moderately strong belief that the odds are accurate.

With this concept of belief in mind we can move to the definition of an action. I will use the Humean model of action, which follows:

Desire + Belief = Action

In this model, desire is analogous to an engine and belief is akin to a steering mechanism. Desire motivates an action (it is a want for some as yet unobtained end), while belief (or beliefs) determines what steps an agent takes to achieve her desired end. It is clear that both elements must be present for an action to follow. I may have a belief that a tree will fall on my house if I chop it down; however, an action will not follow in this case because I have no desire to ruin my roof. Conversely, I may have a desire to fly without mechanical aide, but this desire will not incite me to flap my arms. This is because I have no belief that such flight is possible. An action is a volitional movement motivated by a desire (or desires) and guided by a belief (or beliefs). With these definitions in place we are ready to address the problem of faith.

Alternatives to Faith as Belief

In this study I assume the traditional Christian position that a response to God in faith is requisite for salvation. If faith is mainly, or solely, belief, and belief is involuntary, then a morally objectionable consequence follows: people are held accountable for involuntary mental states. If we are to reject this consequence then we must admit some other content to the concept of faith. I will now begin to suggest alternatives, beginning with “faith as trust.”

Faith as Trust

Martin Luther put forth “trust” as an alternative to mere “belief” at the time of the Reformation. Luther’s faith as trust adequately answers the objection raised in James chapter two, where even demons are said to have belief in God. Luther, like many others, stressed that faith cannot be mere belief that God exists. Faith is a trust in God. While this conception of faith is certainly superior to a mere belief that God exists, it does not adequately address our problem. Ultimately the concept of trust is purely notional in content. Trust is merely a specific type of belief, namely the belief that one can depend upon a person or thing. Trust in God may have more devotional cache when compared to mere belief in God’s existence; however, trust does not advance a person one iota beyond purely notional belief. Hence the volitional problem we have already outlined remains.

I will end the post here. Next week I will outline some stronger alternatives to faith as mere belief, including one that I think solves our volitional problem.

Until then . . . peace.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Faith Part I: The Problem

In a way I am jumping the gun. If one wishes to keep a strict chronological approach in relating the ordo salutis (order of salvation, or the ordering of the steps in the process of salvation) then one needs to begin with grace. Indeed the oft repeated reformation mantra sola fide is inaccurate and does not really get at the meat of what the reformer Luther wanted to say. If we had to center on one element the correct mantra for salvation would be sola gratia (grace alone). If we allow two elements in our description of salvation, then, and only then, does faith come into the picture. Salvation is by grace through faith. In other words, the main emphasis in salvation is on God’s grace and He has arranged things so that this grace is salvific when appropriated through faith. Nothing of what I have just said should be controversial to an orthodox Christian. Protestants as well as Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox should be able to agree at least upon this (it is the exact nature of this appropriation of grace that is the bone of contention).

So, why am I starting in the middle, with faith, and not beginning with the true foundation of salvation: grace? Well, for starters, faith is often so misunderstood. This is especially true in Protestant circles. But beyond this, a right understanding of faith can crack open salvation theology and an inadequate understanding can stall even the most eloquent ordo salutis. For good or for ill, a person’s understanding of faith will color nearly every other element of their paradigm of salvation. And for ill (not good) issues surrounding faith have been the largest divider of Protestants and high church traditions. Although neither side is without blame, I have found Protestants to harbor particularly incoherent and inaccurate views of just what faith is. The great thing is, a lot of these issues can be cleared up with just a little dabble into philosophy (really just a little dabble into common sense once philosophy has done the preparatory analytical work). My goal then, is to show how Protestants and high church traditions alike can come together on the nature of faith. I will do this through a careful analysis of just what faith is and how it works within the economy of salvation (or within: how salvation is actually worked out). But before we get to the nature faith and its place in salvation theology, we must first delineate what faith is not. And in order to do this we must begin with a problem.

The Problem: Faith is a Choice, Belief is Not

What could be simpler than salvation by grace through faith? Where exactly is the problem? The problem arises when we consider some common conceptions of what faith is in concert with what philosophy (or just some common sense reflection) reveals.

Salvation begins with God’s grace. Historically, Christians have maintained that in order to be efficacious, this offer of grace must be accepted in faith. Hence, the common Christian belief that salvation is by grace through faith. It has also been commonly assumed that this faith is a choice. In other words, a person can either reject or accept God’s salvific grace. So far, so good.

Naturally the question arises, “What is the nature of this faith decision?” The traditional answer has been that one chooses to believe when one exercises the decision of faith. However, taken in the modern, purely notional sense, mere belief appears to be inadequate to account for the content of a faith decision. A decision is volitional by definition, but recent philosophy has concluded that belief, for the most part, is an involuntary state. Just think about it for a moment and you will realize by virtue of common sense what philosophers have labored in analytical detail to prove. Suppose, for example, that I see a basket of fruit before me on a table full of apples and oranges. If I actually look at the table (and my eyes and brain are working properly) I will involuntarily form a belief that I am seeing a basket of fruit. I cannot simply decide to not believe that I am seeing a basket of fruit. Nor is it as if I say to myself, “hmmm, do I wish to believe that I am seeing this basket of fruit? Yes, yes I do. I think I will form that belief . . . now!” The same thing applies to other less obvious beliefs.

For example, let us say that you ask your spouse to wash the dishes. You come home and they are not washed. Your spouse tells you that she (or he) forgot. Now you will form one of two beliefs: either they are telling you the truth, in which case they really forgot; or they are lying, in which case they purposefully avoided the chore for some reason. You will have a bunch of evidence at your disposal in order to form a belief. You probably have some sense of how honest your spouse is and if they have ever lied to you before. You can read the body language of your spouse to detect the truthfulness of her (or his) statement. You may take into account if your spouse is particularly lazy, or if your spouse often forgets things. At best you may be able to decide not to consider all or any of the evidence. However, once you do consider the evidence you do not have a choice concerning belief formation. You will simply form a belief based on the evidence automatically and involuntarily. You cannot choose to believe the truthfulness of your spouse anymore than you can choose to believe that you are seeing a basket of fruit. You simply either believe it or you do not.

Here is where the problem arises. Most Christians, indeed most people in general, have assumed that one cannot be held accountable for an involuntary act or mental state. Thus, a tension results between a faith that is assumed to be volitional and a faith that is assumed to be primarily (or solely) notional (i.e. solely belief in content). One assumption will have to be relinquished: either faith is not volitional (and people are saved/condemned based on an involuntary belief) or faith is volitional and not primarily or merely notional (about belief).

A Way Forward

So this is the problem as it stands. In a few short paragraphs I have shown why “faith as belief” (at least belief in the modern, purely notional sense) is inadequate. Some Christians may go their entire lives without realizing this, and that is fine. I do not think you need to know the exact philosophical nature of faith in order to exercise it in a salvific fashion. However, this conception of faith is incoherent (upon careful consideration) and has led to some judgment of other Christians (especially the high church variety). In the coming weeks I will attempt to identify and evaluate some alternatives to this view of faith. Ultimately, I hope to construct a robust vision of Christian faith that stresses its active-volitional nature while downplaying the notional (belief oriented) content. It is this notion of faith that I feel, when properly understood, has great potential to bring Protestants and high church traditions together on issues concerning salvation theology.

Until next week . . . peace.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Salvation: The Big Picture

I now wish to begin a series of posts on salvation theology. Before I delve into any of the specifics; I first want to give a broad overview of what salvation is. In brief, one could sum up salvation by saying that it begins and ends with the Trinity.

The Beginning of Salvation: The Trinity

Before anything was created there existed the Triune God from all eternity. For all eternity the persons of the Trinity gave and received love in a differentiated but united community. One God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God did not need to create humanity or anything else, so that He might have something to do or someone to love. He was completely fulfilled in His eternal communion of love.

However, that communion of love did overflow into creation, including human creation. Unfortunately human creation fell. It is clear enough form everyday experience that we all have fallen short of the moral law. Most essentially, we have fallen short in love: we have not loved God or others as we should have. As a result of this Sin, we are not in right relationship with the Trinity.

Salvation is God bringing us back into the life of the Trinity.

Let me repeat that. Salvation is GOD bringing us back into the life of the Trinity. God is salvation’s initiator, and it is to the Triune God that salvation aims as its end. Salvation is not our prerogative and it is not our achievement. The entirety of the Scriptural narrative can be read as God seeking to bring humanity back into the life of the Trinity (and humanity resisting nearly every step of the way). In fact, there was only one distinct point where humanity did not resist salvation at all: Jesus Christ. It is through Christ that we have a way to God.

What does it mean to come back into the life of the Trinity?

The special status of Christ makes Him the key to salvation. He is quite literally the only way we can be brought back into the life of the Trinity. In subsequent posts I will strive to lay out the specifics of how we can enter into the life of the Trinity through the mediation of the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. These specifics will include the nature of faith (both explicit and implicit), justification and sanctification among other things. For now this pithy summary will set forth the parameters of the discussion:

Salvation is entering into the life of the Trinity. This means coming back into right relationship with the Father, by being united to the body of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Next week: the nature of saving faith. Until then . . . peace.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Trinitarian or Unitarian worship?

In the coming weeks I hope to delve into salvation issues including the precise nature of saving faith, justification and sanctification. First, however, I want to say a bit about Christian worship and its relation to the Trinity.

Christians Worship a Trinity

My last post sought to highlight the implications that the Triune nature of God had for religious dialog among Christians. Now I want to ask what implications the Trinity should have for Christian worship.

Christians worship a triune God: one God in three distinct persons. Christians worship the Father. Christians worship the Son. Christians worship the Holy Spirit. For high churches and many liturgically oriented Protestant churches, this is obvious. The shape of the liturgy, as it has come to us through the rich Christian tradition, is unmistakably Trinitarian. Prayers are addressed to all three persons of the Godhead. Creeds acknowledge each person. Each person is integral to worship and each person receives worship. For liturgical traditions, at least in form, the worship is Trinitarian.

The Unitarian Danger of Non-Liturgical Worship

A problem arises with certain Protestant traditions that have departed from traditional liturgy. In many Protestant services the sermon, not the Eucharist, is the highpoint of worship. Creeds are absent and prayers are largely extemporaneous. This departure from traditional liturgical forms does not necessitate a departure from Trinitarian worship. However, it does greatly increase the risk. This type of worship often puts extra pressure on the sermon and the songs/hymns to achieve a properly Trinitarian form. Unfortunately, these elements in many Protestant churches fail to highlight or even acknowledge the triune nature of God. The result is that many Christian congregations, who are theoretically Trinitarian in belief, worship in a functionally Unitarian manner.

This Unitarian worship is most evident in contemporary worship music. Robert Parry, an astute Pentecostal theologian, ran a statistical survey of Trinitarian content for nearly 400 songs coming out of the Vineyard churches (an extremely influential contemporary Protestant force in worship). What he found was that many songs were addressed to a generic “Lord” or “God.” When one person of the Trinity was singled out, it was overwhelmingly Jesus who received the nod. An extremely small portion of songs mentioned the Holy Spirit at all, and almost none focused on the Spirit exclusively. Vineyard songs do not represent the totality of contemporary Protestant worship; however, they are fairly representative. Thus, when non-liturgical Protestant churches select worship music (if they are not extremely discerning) they will most likely create a worship music experience that is functionally Unitarian (most often worshiping either a generic “Lord” or “Jesus”).

What’s the big deal?

Besides the fact that all Christians theoretically believe in a Triune God, it is immensely important to worship in a Trinitarian fashion. If God is Triune then we Christians should worship Him as such. We should care about worshipping Him as accurately as possible. Humanity was made in the image of the Triune God. Since we have all fallen into sin, God has continually been trying to get us back into right relationship with Himself. This right relationship is expressed in its highest form through worship. Worship is where we as creatures approach our creator. We as the redeemed Church approach our Redeemer. We as the continually sanctified body approach our Sanctifier. Worship is the closest we get to heaven on earth. It is when we corporately express our right relation of adoration to God.

Through proper Trinitarian worship Christians can come closer to a realization of right relationship with the God who is triune.

What can we do?

My main advice for non-liturgical contemporary churches would be to adopt traditional liturgies. They are ready made triune vehicles of worship; you can’t go wrong. If this is not a possibility or simply not desired there is still plenty that can be done.

1. We should encourage our music leaders and song writers to write songs with substantive Trinitarian content, making sure not to neglect the oft forgotten Holy Spirit.

2. Even songs sung to a generic God can be redirected to one of the persons through a prayer that comes before or after the song.

3. Prayers should be informed by thoroughly Trinitarian language.

4. Other elements are ripe with possibility, including a Trinitarian benediction. Even the very structure of the service can evidence the Trinity.

5. Sermons should explicitly teach the Trinity and use implicitly Trinitarian language.

6. Perhaps a contemporary worship styl;e could be infused with a hymn every now and then. Charles Wesley wrote an entire hymnal (nearly 200 hymns) solely on the Trinity. \

A vision for Trinitarian worship

Essentially worship is when the body of Christ on earth, the Church, joins the Son in his continual worship of the Father in heaven, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Son is our high priest and main worship leader. He is constantly interceding on our behalf, making our worship acceptable to the Father. Christians, through the power of the Holy Spirit, join in the worship that the Son has offered for all eternity. Ultimately, worship is offered to the Trinity through the facilitation of the Trinity. In inviting us to worship, God is inviting us to join the eternal loving communion of the Trinity.