Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The meaning of 'faith'

People seem to have very different ideas about what 'faith' means. Everyone seems to think their view is obvious.

I enjoy reading discussions about the relationship between faith and works in salvation. Yet such discussions seem to suffer when no effort is made to define 'faith'. I am amazed at how often even scholars omit discussion of the meaning of 'faith' when talking about the relationship between faith and works.

For example, I've just been reading a discussion of Origen's thought on the relationship between faith and works in justification. I would have thought that such an analysis should ask what meaning Origen gives to these key terms. Apparently not.

Surely to understand how faith and works might relate, it is crucial to understand what they themselves are? Maybe not. I suppose that for most popular definitions of 'faith', the concept of 'faith' is entirely separate from the concept of 'works'. Such defintions only become relevant if you take a view like mine that the actual definition and meaning of the word 'faith' (pistis) means something that overlaps with the concept of 'works' (eg means 'the faithful doing of God's will' or somesuch). In that case, in asking how faith and works relate, you are asking a very subtle question of the distinction between faithfully doing God's will and doing the good works that God wills. It is suddenly essential to know exactly how 'faith' and 'works' are being defined so that the subtle distinctions can be understood.

But if 'faith' and 'works' are completely separate - eg. 'believing things' and 'doing stuff' - then you don't need to enquire so closely into their definitions in order to talk about their relationship to each other.


Blogger PamBG said...

Possibly not a 'sufficiently theological' statement, but....

The older I get, the more I believe that 'faith' is simply throwing myself on the grace of God. The older I get the more I understand how utterly helpless I am in every sense of the word: helpless to save myself and helpless to 'have control over my life'.

I'll stand by the old statement that works are evidence of a life changed by God and that they are therefore 'necessary' in the sense that they are evidence. The person who says s/he loves God but hates h** brother and sister deceives h**self.

Liberal churches can go off-track when they preach salvation by works of justice. Conservative churches can also go off-track by preaching the 'salvation by works' of personal morality. Yet both social justice and personal morality are signs of a changed heart.

And finally, lurking beneath your post is the question: "Does faith require 'correct theology' in order to be truly faithful?" I don't want to throw doctrine out entirely, but I think that Christian churches have classically emphasized 'salvation by correct doctrine' rather than 'salvation by faith'.

I think 'faith' is actually very difficult to define.

Blogger W. E. Messamore said...

Hey Andrew, this isn't on topic, so I won't be offended if you delete it after reading it, but I couldn't find an e-mail address for you on the blog (forgive me if I missed it).

Reading through your blog, I thought you might find this essay interesting (it's actually an address given by an Orthodox priest at a conference) as it relates a unique view of atonement:

I'd like to hear your opinion:

Blogger Andrew said...


I read the River of Fire a few years ago. It was very interesting. I would say it was a key influence in helping me formulate my own personal views on the afterlife and salvation.

Blogger Barbara said...

I view faith as Trust. Trusting God to be who and what He reveals Himself to us to be through His Word, and trusting Him to keep His promises - which would be part of that. Trusting in His wisdom and tender mercies even when we just simply don't understand, realizing that all we see are the little strands on the underside of the embroidery - He sees the full, finished product in all its glory.

The works of faith, then, are simply the natural outworking of the reality of that kind of faith in our lives. That's the fruit. Works don't save you, but if you have been truly saved, the works involved with the bearing of fruit will appear in God's time. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments," Jesus said. One cannot love Him unless He places that root in our hearts.

There's a great freedom in that. When you trust your Father to work all things together for the good - to conform you to Christ's image and bring you Home to Him at the end of life, and when you trust Him to filter everything to work that in you even as He draws you near to Himself or even pulls back a little to remind you of your dependence on Him....when the fruits of that faith are the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), stepping out into the unknown out of obedience to Him brings peace and joy.

That faith, too, is a gift of His grace. Paul reminds us of that in Ephesians 2.

In an above comment there's the mention of whether faith requires "correct theology" in order to be faithful. I find that He gets us at whatever point we are at first, and then He goes about the work of conforming us to the image of Christ. Since Christ is Truth (John 14:6), He will teach His elect correctly, guiding us back to His ways when we get off-course. Part of that is the longing for the pure milk of the Word that Peter talks about in 1 Peter and then that blessed grace of repentance that often comes through that same venue.


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