What is Faith?

Leave it to the Mockingcast to awaken me out of my summer-long blogging slumber. On […]

Leave it to the Mockingcast to awaken me out of my summer-long blogging slumber. On it, they discussed a hilarious McSweeney’s article called “I am the Universe, and Humans are Interpreting my Signs.” The idea of the post is simple: God (or “the Universe”) is a living God who is regularly involved in the everyday workings of human life. It’s our simple job to get with the program and everything will be well with us and the world. Crazy, I know, but to hear most Christians nowadays, it’s not far off from how most of us live our lives.

For readers of the Apostle Paul, the issue McSweeney’s raises really has to do with the nature of faith and what it means to live faithfully on a day-to-day basis. What does faith actually look when it comes to everyday decisions, whether mundane or more far-reaching? The exponentially complex nature of modern life, marked by a fluidity of mores and infinite possibilities, heightens what’s at stake for how it is we answer this question. When everything in our life feels like a choice from numerous possibilities, we demand that our religion help us along the way. It’s not so much that we need a Law by which to live, but if the life of a Christian is now “under grace” (Rom 6:14-15) the question becomes whether, and how, this life of faith might be described.

Is faith a walking in accordance with the active movements of the Universe … I mean … Spirit (Gal 5:25)? Does faith have nothing to do with our works and everyday choices (Rom. 3:27-28)? Or is faith actually a kind of obedience to God (Rom 1:5)?

In his magisterial commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther defined faith as “tak[ing] hold of Christ. [And] if it is true faith, it is a sure trust and firm acceptance in the heart. It takes hold of Christ in such a way that Christ is the object of faith, or rather not the object but, so to speak, the One who is present in the faith itself. Thus faith is a sort of knowledge or darkness that nothing can see” (LW 26:129-30). Here, Luther brilliantly fights a number of battles simultaneously, while introducing a possible difficulty. For Luther, faith is “sure trust and firm acceptance” of Christ and nothing else, attacking those who hold faith to be a function of works and simultaneously ensuring that faith cannot be reduced to personal attitude devoid of Christ. To have faith is to grasp hold of Christ, without any other activity—whether it be personal piety or love. Yet this thoroughly Christological definition of faith had the perhaps unintended legacy of making faith entirely un-worldly, or unable to address the questions that arise in daily life.

These questions are answered, for Luther, in what followed from faith—love of God and neighbor. What this looks like in practice is not a question that here seemed to trouble Luther, who somewhat blandly defines love as service for you neighbor and doing your duty (whatever that might be!). It is, of course, true that love of neighbor is not a topic Luther neglects to address elsewhere, but my point here is to underscore his highly cognitive and exclusively Christological definition of faith. By barricading faith from the possible threat of a work which might justify, Luther unwittingly bequeaths to Protestantism an understanding of faith that could implicitly rob it of having any real-life consequences. Having “correct” belief can blind one from realizing how little faith they really have.

Within the world of recent New Testament scholarship, there have been two reactions to Luther’s legacy. Working from within Lutheranism, the scholar Rudolf Bultmann sees faith itself to be a far more self-involving and ethically consequential reality than Luther would allow (Theology of the New Testament, 1§35). Noting the concentric circles of Paul’s concepts, Bultmann believes Paul employs a variety of terms that outline the totality of “Christian existence.” Faith, then, is the same thing as obedience, confession, hope, love, self-knowledge, and an unconditional openness to the future. It is a kind of active disposition in response to the Gospel’s proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. One is freed from the self that is bound by the burdens of the past to become an altogether new creation. Bultmann contends for a direct, generative connection between the proclamation of the Gospel and our subsequent faithful activity. Such a faith, for Bultmann, is no longer a static possession, but, like a flickering lightbulb, depends solely upon the experientially intermittent gift of empowering grace. Bultmann overcomes the difficulty of a more cognitive definition of faith to sketch out the broad outlines of a faithful life, but he does so by blurring Luther’s firm boundary between faith and works and at the expense of a confident divine assurance. If faith is so grand, then its absence can certainly feel like a impenetrable divine indictment.

In response to Bultmann (and a misreading of Luther), Richard Hays’s reading of Paul pushes aside the question of salvific faith to emphasis a salvation that depends upon the faithfulness of Jesus unto death on the cross. In other words, Hays avoids the potential pitfalls of Bultmann and Luther by taking our faith and agency out of the salvation-equation altogether. We are not justified by our faith, but Christ’s (Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ, p. 154). For Hays, this cosmic narrative of redemption moves and captivates the hearts of Christians to the participant in that narrative. Accordingly, the faith of Jesus unto death serves as a pattern for our own faithfulness, empowered somehow by the movement of the Spirit.

Setting aside whether Hays’s reading of Paul is plausible (it has a number of critical difficulties), “trying on” his theology for size is largely unsatisfying. Jesus’ faith accomplishes the redemption of the world, but when it comes to addressing the Christian in the concrete difficulties of life, Jesus’s faith is much more of an example than a gift. God may be abundantly gracious, but “grace” here feels like a cipher without any real emotionally plausible causality. Faith doesn’t arise because it is inspired by an example, but because of the divine word of grace, love, and liberation.

This short post has been guided by the concern to be able to speak of faith in such a way that it has a dynamic efficacy for the problems and questions of everyday life. As McSweeney’s so brilliantly parodied, everyone is looking for some guiding principle that informs the minutia of everyday decisions. Rather than seeking to introduce another Law to burden the faithful, I’m interested more in whether it’s even possible to describe what it looks like when the faithful begin to pick up the pieces of their broken life, when the addict wakes up on Day One of sobriety. What does such a faith look like in practice? And how might that be described?

In this brief survey, a number of problems have surfaced which may not easily be untangled. Arising from Luther, there is a tendency to speak of faith within an exclusively theological context, where faith’s object (Christ) so consumes the definition of faith that, like the parable of the unforgiving servant, it ceases to have relevance for the here and now. Guided by an anxiety that faith become a work, faith is an acknowledgment that one is forgiven, without an articulation that faithful reception of grace in this way necessarily reorients everything in one’s life. This is precisely the direction pursued by Bultmann, but stressing the all-consuming nature of faith as he does raising difficulties over whether this lively faith is just another “work.” Hays avoids the difficulties of both Luther and Bultmann, yet he does so by circumventing the question of faith altogether, thereby distancing the proclamation of the Gospel (as a cosmic narrative) from its existential relevance.

In short, a minimalist definition of faith fails to explicate how the proclamation of grace actually works in everyday life, yet the more one tries to define what faith looks like, the more it looks like a work. The answer, however, isn’t to expunge faith from the equation.

Perhaps it’s enough to say that faith must be a lively faith, entailing a radical reorientation of the self in accordance with the radical, upside-down, subversive nature of the Gospel. While this may verge on making faith into a work, this kind of faith is never really our work anyway, inasmuch as it is never self-generated or the product of our own efforts. The grace of God is always in the business of liberation from slavery, giving life to the dead, forgiving sins, and making all things new. What this looks like for every person will obviously vary. But the more one defines what these realities look like in life, the more it runs the risk of preaching “works,” so to speak. But the alternatives, it seems to me, are far more destructive in the end.  If it is our own desperation that moves us to faith, it would be absurd for this faith to have no relation to what moved us there in the first place. True faith is best defined as an appropriation of the life given by Christ, understanding oneself to be a sinner, reevaluating everything previously held dear, making amends with others, renouncing evil in the world, listening to the voice of God in the world, and even embracing what God might say with a newfound eagerness. Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he spoke of the emptiness of faith without love (1 Cor 13:2). Sure, such a faith can “move mountains,” sounding all the right notes, but it ends up amounting to nothing in the end.

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5 responses to “What is Faith?”

  1. Benjamin Self says:

    As I mentally tried to cut a way through the theological thicket, this was the line in your piece that spoke most to me:

    “…it is our own desperation that moves us to faith…”

    That’s what resonates with my personal experience. Faith is a kind of hope that miraculously springs up out of our despair—and some kind of despair is critical in my view because it means that we know longer are able to maintain “ultimate” faith in temporal things to save us, to breathe into us the abundant life we so desperately seek.

    Thanks for sharing. It was an interesting read!

  2. Charis Hamiltonius says:

    Glad you enjoyed the piece! Ha, the theological thicket *is* a little more dense than usual this time, but it’s to to hear it wasn’t too prohibitive.

  3. Sean Dwyer says:


    I always dig your stuff. I’d like to hear some more about this.

    I’ll admit, your emphasis, in my view, makes faith out to be a work, regardless if it’s Christ in us doing the work or not. I’m not necessarily opposed to faith as a work, so long as faith is not a requirement to obtain justification, or a means by which we obtain the reality of justification (the existential apprehension of of the reality of justification sure). On the one hand I’ve found so much comfort in the reformational undertanding of law and gospel, especially how that alone makes way for justification by faith alone. But I’m the other hand, personal faith is never perfectly directed at its object but is always corrupted…I’d prefer and hope in a salvation completely accomplished once for all, totally applied by the Spirit apart from my cooperation and agency, and not at all dependent on anything I say do think or even believe.

  4. Charis Hamiltonius says:

    Sean, I definitely hear your concerns – and share them myself. I think that when we start asking whether we have faith to merit justification by faith the answer isn’t to double down on our efforts to look the part, but to look to Christ – the origin and fount of our faith. So the assurance of our justification does not live in the measure of our faith. Seeking such assurances in our faith would be looking in the wrong direction and, indeed, make Faith into at work. Having a more minimalist definition of faith doesn’t escape this existential conundrum, it only pushes the question in the direction of whether you believe correctly.

    More broadly, it should also be said that the question of whether one has faith is not one that should be leveled against someone else as an accusation, but it’s certainly something we should ask ourselves daily. Doing so always pushes oneself back to Christ – I believe, help my unbelief.

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