Monday, August 06, 2007

What is Faith?

For a long time now - long before I became Christian - I've wondered what precisely is the content of that faith that saves. As those who've followed my arc of my argument know, I have deep reservations about the Evangelical view. Before I became Catholic, I had concluded that the Catholic view is superior. Now I wish to take up the question again. My contention is that the Evangelical view, if thought through, unfolds into the Catholic . The faith that saves is not merely an emotional or cognitive state separated from the rest of oneself. It is rather a profound transformation of the self that extends into all facets of one's life.

Let us begin. My Evangelical brethren tell me that all anyone needs to gain salvation is faith. Faith saves, they say. But faith is always faith in something. Moreover, it is faith that the thing will behave in a particular way. I had faith long before I had faith of a religious sort. I had, for instance, faith in my wife. I had faith that she would remain with me and her children, and that she would act to insure their welfare; and here, as in all examples of faith, faith is always faith in, and it is always faith that.

So what is the faith that saves in. What is it faith that? (From here on "faith that saves" will be "fts". Surely you didn't think that I could write an entire post and not make an abbreviation?) The first answer is easy. The fts is faith in Christ. The second is not so easy. But of course it has to do with the salvific power of Christ's life and death. Perhaps then we should say this: the fts is the faith that by his life, and his death, Christ secured for us all that is necessary for our salvation. (I'll not here take on the issue of just how Christ secured it. Opinions divide on the issue, and it is not my purpose here to defend one over the others.)

Let us then reflect upon this faith. It is like a flower bud. It seems simple, but is really complex. So let us begin to unfold what it is in it. Assumed in this faith is our impotence to obtain salvation for ourselves. Assumed moreover is that the gift of salvation is freely given and is not demanded by our merit. The fts knows the impotence of humanity, knows what it lacks, but accepts the free and unmerited gift of salvation.

Now what, I ask, is the natural response to one who freely gives us such a gift as this? What is the natural response to one who dies to give us the gift of salvation? Gratitude, certainly. But in addition to gratitude, we must say that love is the natural response. Those who have faith in Christ - not a mock-up but the real thing - also love Christ.

This is our first conclusion. The fts is never just faith in Christ. It is also love of Christ. But the love that grows from the fts does not end in Christ. It must extend to the whole of humanity. For Christ died not only for one. He died for all. Thus did he show his love for all, and if we love Christ we will come to love what he loves. If we love Christ, we will come to see the infinite value, the infinite potential, in all that we attribute to ourselves when we say that Christ died for us. (Christ died for sinful creatures. He did not die for worthless ones. Christ died for creatures deficit of virtue. He did not die for ones who had no potential to grow in virtue.) Thus the fts includes not only love of Christ. It also includes love of humanity.

(One could say the same about hope too. If one has faith in Christ, and one knows him for who is his - the risen son of God - one will inevitably have hope for the life to come.)

The fts thus unfolds into a love a God and of neighbor. It is there in it, perhaps implicitly at first, but it the faith grows and becomes more secure, so too will the love. Faith without love is an impossibility, as it deep faith without deep love.

But what has this to do with works? (One would assume that I meant to end with a word about works, for to start I said that the Evangelical view unfolds into the Catholic view.) The answer of course is as simple as it is obvious. There is no love without works. If I say that I love my children but do not care for them, you know that I lie. If I say that I love the Lord but do not do as He commands, you know that I lie. It is not that love often or even always gives birth to works. Rather it is that works are love made manifest. They are the public face of love, and as such are not something distinct from it. Love is loving, and loving is seeing after.

I contend, then, that faith has an internal and necessary connection to works. They are in the end not something separate from it; they are not even something distinct from it to which in time it gives rise. They are the fts's public face. So when one says that it is not by works but by faith that one is saved, one is guilty of error. Of course the works one does prior to, and in independence of, faith do not save. But the works of faith - the works in which the love entailed by faith live - do save, for they are faith, and so love, made manifest.

Faith saves. Works save. This is no contradiction because works are faith in action.

4 comments:

Tom Gilson said...

That's not so far from my view as an Evangelical, Franklin.

The problem with works salvation, from an Evangelical perspective, is where the works are thought to come from and what they are thought to produce. According to Eph. 2:10, God saved us for good works. This follows immediately on 2:8, 9, which emphasize that saving faith is a gift of grace. If one thinks of earning salvation by one's own works, that is a serious denial of grace and the gift of God, and it credits humans with an ability we don't have, namely, to do works that would please God apart from his grace. But works of love and righteousness certainly come with the work of grace that God imparts. They are as much a part of the package as heaven itself.

So if works are taken to be a means of salvation, springing from within the unsaved person's own resources and being efficacious toward salvation, I and other Evangelicals would disagree strongly. If works are seen as a fruit of salvation, we would say that we see that in the Bible, too. It's in James, most clearly, but also in 1 John, and in Hebrews 3 and 4 (where "unbelief" and "disobedience" are used interchangeably), not to mention other places that don't come as quickly to mind.

I think you're saying that works accompany salvation, not that they produce or merit salvation. If that's what you're saying, there's not much distance at all between our views.

Franklin Mason said...

I did mean for my post to be a bit combative. I'd hoped for some response.

What I mean to say that is there is at most a verbal and not a real distinction between faith and works. Thus if we say that faith saves, we must also say that works save. I would add, of course, that on our own, faith and so works in accordance with law are impossible. Left on our own, all we do is sin.

What I deny that is there is such a thing as a purely intellectual or affective state divorced from works - even if it gives rise to works - that in itself is sufficient to save. No such state as that could really be faith.

I'm still not sure how close together we are. Time will tell, I suppose.

jdavidb said...

Tom, I don't agree that Ephesians 2:8-9 says faith is a gift of God. It says grace is a gift of God.

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