Friday, May 2, 2014

More Musings on Belief

In my previous post, I talked about what IMO comprises much of evangelical Christianity: that is that Christianity is a belief system, defining the word "belief" as a granting of mental agreement to a set of propositions.  I then asked, if this was what Christianity should be like.

I now need to narrate the way in which this view of Christianity as a belief system changed for me.

This view began to crumble during my senior year in college.  I was taking a class called "Christian Literary Classics" taught by Dr. Ralph Wood, and in reading Dante's Purgatorio I was served a huge piece of humble pie.  At first I was taken aback by the strange beliefs of Dante, especially with regard to Purgatory.  Then it hit me.  Dante's beliefs were strange to me, but my beliefs would also be strange to him.  Moreover, it became perfectly clear to me that had I been born in 14th century Europe, I would have believed exactly as Dante believed (there is of course the corollary to this view, and that is that if I had been born in India on the same day I was born, I would most likely be Hindu, not Christian).

This realization, that our beliefs are to a great extent dependent on our culture, opened up all sorts of other questions for me and taught me to hold my beliefs a little more lightly and a little more humbly.

Another great change in my view of Christianity as a belief system came with my study of the New Testament through Seminary and Ph.D. Studies. As I studied the NT, I found that the NT authors don't often (at least on my reading) focus much on belief, at least not in the sense of giving mental assent to propositions.  Now, this might sound strange.  The Greek word for belief, pistis, and its cognate verb pisteuo occur more than 550 times in the NT, so how can I say that I did not see much teaching on belief in the NT.  Well, it has to do with word meaning and translation issues.  You see, there are three perfectly acceptable English words that can be used to translate pistis and its cognate verb.  They are "faith," "belief," and "trust." The noun pistis is most often translated as "faith," and the verb is most often translated as "believe."  Fine, but I do not think that the current connotations of these English words adequately capture the meaning in the Greek. "Faith," and "belief" in their current English connotations carry the sense of giving mental agreement to a proposition.  Thus, one is saved by faith (mental agreement with a proposition about Jesus), not by works (doing something good for God).  But, if that is what faith means, then Paul's letters make no sense to me.  How can Paul, on the one hand contrast faith (mental assent) with works, but then go on to command all sorts of behavior, and to condemn other behavior?  These two don't fit. Luther's saved sola fides, faith (mental assent to a proposition) alone, does not fit then with New Testament teachings on Christian behavior.  Well, maybe the problem isn't the tension between faith (mental assent) and calls for certain behavior, maybe the problem is with our understanding of the word belief.

I think that of the three words given as translation options for pistis, the english word which in its current connotation comes closest to the sense in which the word is used in the NT, is "trust."  Trust, in current English connotation implies action.  Trust encompasses the English concept of "belief," but it goes further.  Trust requires acting on one's belief.  Faith (trust) in Christ is not just giving your intellectual OK to a proposition about Jesus (e.g., Jesus died for my sins), but rather, a trusting following of Jesus in his example.  To trust Jesus, means to change one's behavior, to take up one's cross and follow him.  Trust is much fuller than belief (in its current English connotation).

So, I am uncomfortable with viewing Christianity as a belief system.  Christianity is much more than a belief system.  I guess you could say that Christianity is a "trust system," a system in which followers of Jesus act out their trust in Jesus by following his example, living lives that embody his teachings of loving God with all of their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and loving their neighbor as themselves.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Keith,

    Someone else who sees what I see when reading the Bible!

    I tried to make this very point to some Christians recently, but I failed to preface it with a lesson in Greek. Thanks for the clarity that adds. Funny that I used the exact same terms as you to make the distinction between Faith and Belief. Here is what I wrote:

    - Biblical Faith is a trust that God will always do what is best for you, and especially that he will provide for all of your needs.

    - Modern “faith” is mental assent to a list of historical propositions or doctrinal beliefs. Perfectly illustrated by churches and ministries publishing a “Statement of faith”. It is a list of propositions that you need to agree with in order to be considered “in” their club.

    - One demonstrates an implicit trust in God, and the other merely describes your system of belief. You cannot call them both “Faith”. More importantly, we must know which one applies when we claim that salvation is by “faith alone”.

    Now, how do we get this essential message out to a Billion believers who think that by ticking a few boxes on a list of factoids that they now have their ticket to heaven and can sit around waiting for that great train to glory?