What is Faith?

For far too long, this has been my definition of faith: “Believing the right things about God and Jesus Christ.” My faith, when-push-comes-to-shove, was reduced to, “I affirm that Jesus lived and died and was resurrected. At least I know the facts of doctrine.” And the more enmeshed in evangelical Christianity I got, even pastoring a couple churches, the more faith became defined as believing correct doctrine.

In order to evangelize, I felt that I primarily had to explain to people the facts that they needed to know. Even though we would never explicitly say so, evangelism was an invitation to think like Christians think, not an invitation into a relationship with God.
Apologetics in this context was all about defending the faith of correct beliefs: a philosophical argument for the principles and propositional statements that my “faith” was based upon, rather than an incarnational display of the relationship that I have with God.
And in order to join the churches I had pastored, I felt I had to teach the doctrinal statement of the church—since, in order to “belong” you had to “believe,” I had to make sure they believed all the doctrines of my church.

But in this subtle slide into defining faith as belief in propositions, I began to lose the real essence of faith.

So, “What is Faith?” This is the positive side of Leonard Sweet’s book, Out of the Question...Into the Mystery, whereas “What is Sin?” (an earlier blog post here at vanguardchurch) is the negative. Is faith the belief in propositions? Is it being able to believe the right biblical doctrine?

One of Sweet's biggest points in his book is this:

“The Bible does not cast faith as a spiritual footpath to heaven or an inner stirring that we try to rev up when the chips are down. Neither does Scripture describe faith as a cognitive capacity that God activates to effect our justification. Rather, faith is consistently defined by Scripture, at base, as a set of trust relationships—with God, with neighbor, with the world, with creation.” (p. 14)

“The word believe is an ancient compounding of the verb be and the noun life. To ‘believe’ is to
‘be live’—to live your being, to trust your ‘being’ to ‘life’ . The root meaning of believe as ‘credo’ did not originally mean nodding in intellectual assent; it meant ‘to give my heart to’ or ‘to hold dear’ or ‘to love’…In almost every place where the Torah talks about someone ‘believing’ God, you can insert the word trust or be living…The English phrase ‘right relationship’ captures more accurately the biblical meaning of the phrase ‘right belief’…If one understands ‘belief’ as intellectual asset, even the devil is a ‘believer.’” (p. 27)

“Biblical faith is not about living a moral life. That’s religion. Biblical faith is not about living the ‘good life.’ That’s capitalism. Biblical faith is about living the GodLife. An abundant life with the living God is living in a GodLife relationship. Obedience, in the biblical sense, is not ‘doing what you are told.’ Obedience is living relationally, even ‘indivisibly,’ with the Holy One so that we honor, uphold, receive, and follow all that God is and all that God is calling us to become. Biblical obedience means living in the light of who God is as much as in submission to what he says. That’s obedience in relationship” (p. 59)

So, to paraphrase, faith is not an adherence to a set of beliefs; faith is a trusting relationship with God. The ministry of Jesus Christ is the ministry of reconciliation—the restoration of the relationship.

And then it follows, since this is what faith is, that sin must be defined as the breaking of relationship.


Anonymous said...

'em old false antitheses die hard: "faith is not an adherence to a set of beliefs; faith is a trusting relationship with God"

faith may be MORE than adherence to propositions but can biblical faith be LESS than that? If not, why cast the proposition (ironic?) in antithetical form?


Bob Robinson said...


You’re sounding more Carsonesque with each comment. That’s exactly the kind of reasoning you’d hear him say—“faith may be MORE than adherence to propositions but can biblical faith be LESS than that?”

Nowhere did anybody say that faith is less than an adherence to propositions. That would be ridiculous.

In your being a stickler for literalistic readings of sentences (and not allowing the nuances of rhetorical style to have their power), you’re missing the big point.

Here’s an illustration: If you lived your entire life living and saying, “Health is through eating vegetables,” meaning that you believed that health is ONLY arrived at through eating vegetables and nothing else, then my response can rightly be: “Health is not through eating vegetables; health is through eating a balanced diet.” A literalist like yourself would get testy, saying, “That’s a false antithesis! Vegetables are a part of a balanced diet!”

Right! Of course vegetables are a part of the “balanced diet.” Yes, it is a false antithesis. That’s the POINT!

Now, IF my statement were pulled out of the context of what I am responding to, it would indeed be an oxymoronic statement. But the point is bigger than that: You’ve been eating nothing but vegetables.

My rhetoric makes it clear that there is indeed an antithesis to this—one that is broader and healthier. One that will require you to think in new categories. The context of the statement makes all the difference.

So, for those who have lived all their Christian lives by saying, “Faith is an adherence to a set of beliefs,” I say, no it is not. There is a better way, a healthier way to see faith: Faith is a trusting relationship with God. Faith is not an adherence to a set of beliefs; faith is a trusting relationship with God.

Does that help?

Scot McKnight said...

Leonard Sweet is fond of the via negativa, about which I blogged some time ago -- in essence, to describe something by describing what something is not.

In negating something, however, one is not denying its truthfulness but putting it in its place or establishing a hierarchy. It is not really about false antitheses, though at the surface level it appears so -- and Jesus did this very thing too.

So, Jesus said, "you must hate your parents.." and that does not mean he believes in hatred of parents. But, that love of him is more important.

What Sweet is doing, and I've got him down to read two books from now, and probably when Kris and I are vacationing in Italy, is rhetorical hierarchy.

I don't agree with him always, nor do I agree with using the via negativa so often, but the one thing he is not doing is absolute denial of the first. If he is, he ought to quit it.

So, what he is saying is that the first order of faith is trusting God personally -- which is what Evangelicals have been carping about for 100 years. If that isn't done, and now I sound like Paul in 1 Cor 13, the rest is a waste of time.

In my Jesus Creed, in the chapters in the middle on faith and abiding I work this out: genuine faith is an aspect of love, and until it is seen as that, it is not genuine faith.

Anonymous said...

If I have ONLY been eating vegetables then your response to me has to be “Health is not through eating vegetables ONLY; health is through eating a balanced diet.”

The way you used the false antithesis to make a point is fallacious because the point you were trying to make is itself false. You cannot say "Health is not through eating vegetables" because it could be. But if I have been eating ONLY vegetables then you have to address my singular obssession with vegetables in your challenge statement for your proposed point not to be false. You cannot address my particular focus with a general statement. It is never correct to say "health is not through eating vegetables" but it is always correct to say "health is not through vegetables ONLY".

This is not being pedantic.
For you to say "Faith is not an adherence to a set of beliefs; faith is a trusting relationship with God" is flatly incorrect if you hold to a set of beliefs. It should be: Faith is not an adherence to a set of beliefs ONLY; faith is a trusting relationship with God.

Hence when you say "Nowhere did anybody say that faith is less than an adherence to propositions", actually you said that and you said it again in your second one: Faith is not an adherence to a set of beliefs.

I'll take the Carsonesque comparison as a massive compliment although I doubt he'd feel the same.


Bob Robinson said...

That blog post in which Scot McKnight talks about the via negativa can be found at Jesus Creed.

fernando said...

just found your blog and this post is very interesting to me. the notion that belief-in (as a gesture of trust and relationship) is more important than belief-that (as in simple assertion of truth) is something evangelicals have played on for some time (maybe less so these days).

however, your comments do, for me, highlight the real big limitations with a apologetic approach to faith.