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Christian Virtues for Everyday Life
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2012 Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett
All right reserved.
Chapter One Faith
Paul K. Moser
According to Jewish and Christian theism, God authoritatively invites and highly values human faith in God. What exactly is such faith? What, in addition, is its primary value? Is it a virtue of some sort? How, furthermore, is it related to human knowledge and evidence, and how does it contrast with human "works"? This chapter addresses these questions, and puts the idea of faith in God in an illuminating theological, cognitive, and moral context. It thereby sheds light on the idea that "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:6, NIV).
Faith in God
God's valuing of human faith became apparent, according to the Hebrew Bible, even before the origin of national Israel and of Judaism. Thus Genesis 15:5-6, NRSV: "He [God] brought him [Abram] outside and said, 'Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.' And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness." The Hebrew word translated "believed" derives from the same root as our word "Amen." So, we might offer this paraphrase: "Abram 'amen-ed' the Lord, and the Lord counted it for him as a right relationship with the Lord." The word "trust" is among the best in the English language for the relationship in question. The NEB, REB, NAB, and NJB translations use language consistent with the title of this essay: "Abram put his faith in the Lord." We can treat "faith in God," "trust in God," and "belief in God" as interchangeable phrases in this context.
The kind of faith ascribed to Abraham in Genesis 15 is not merely intellectual or psychological. It involves the central purpose and direction of Abraham's life relative to God's redemptive promise and call to him. Such faith may best be understood as "entrusting oneself." Thus, we should consider this paraphrase: "Abraham entrusted himself to the Lord, and the Lord counted this entrusting as a right relationship with himself." The entrusting required Abraham's living into an ongoing relationship with God as the authoritative promise-giver and promisekeeper, and thus his faith was itself ongoing (or, diachronic) rather than static (or, synchronic). This entrusting exceeded intellectual assent, given that it was life-involving, and not just mind-involving. In particular, Abraham was entrusting himself to God relative to God's unique promise to bless all the families of the earth through him, even though it was unclear to him exactly how this promise would be realized (see Gen. 12:2-3; 13:16).
According to Genesis 15, God calls Abraham into an entrusting relationship, and then responds to Abraham's entrusting himself to God by crediting this entrusting commitment as righteousness, that is, as a right relationship with God. In other words, God thereby offers a means to exercise mercy rather than condemnation toward wayward humans, without condoning the rebellion, the supposed self-righteousness, or any other wrongdoing of humans toward God. God thus seeks the redemption of humans via the human response of faith, or entrustment, toward God. We will return to this important lesson later in the chapter.
The temporal order in the divine process of crediting righteousness to humans via faith, or entrusting oneself, is crucial. Mercifully, God moves first, with a redemptive promise, for the needed good of humans, and with a corresponding authoritative invitation to humans to entrust themselves wholeheartedly to God. Specifically, God calls Abraham into a needed relationship before Abraham calls God (Gen. 12:1-3). We might thus say that "in this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us.... We love, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:10, 19, NASB). God's promise and corresponding invitation to humans manifest divine love, as various biblical writers have noted (see, for example, Hosea 11:1-9; Rom. 5:1-11; 9:25-33). We are, accordingly, called by God to put our faith in, or entrust ourselves to, the God who first loved us. This distinctive theme of divine grace, appropriated through faith as entrustment, emerges in both the Old and New Testaments. We will return to this theme in due course.
Philosophy and Faith
The topic of faith in God has attracted considerable discussion throughout the history of philosophy, at least from Socrates to the present. One important theme of this discussion is that the notion of faith "in God" is not reducible to the idea of faith "that God exists." Faith that God exists, if it amounts simply to a belief that God exists, is merely a psychological attitude toward a judgment, or a proposition. That is, it is simply de dicto, related to a propositional dictum, the dictum that God exists. In contrast, faith in God is best understood as having a de re component that is irreducible to a judgment, or a proposition. In particular, faith in God relates one to God, and not just to a judgment, or a proposition, about God. Some writers, under the influence of Søren Kierkegaard, would say that human faith in God involves a distinctive "I-Thou" relationship between a human and God that goes well beyond belief that God exists. What exactly such an I-Thou relationship consists in has been a topic of controversy in the philosophy of religion. Clearly, given its de re component, it involves more than just historical information.
Writing as Johannes Climacus in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard has emphasized the importance of the "inwardness of faith." He proposes that such inwardness "cannot be expressed more definitely than this: it is the absurd, adhered to firmly with the passion of the infinite." He adds that the relevant inwardness includes "... placing [a person] decisively, more decisively than any judge can place the accused, between time [viz., human finitude] and eternity [viz., God], between heaven and hell in the time of salvation." Faith in God, according to Kierkegaard, involves a commitment to mystery, the presence of God in human inwardness, that does not go away or yield to explanation, nonparadoxical description, or philosophical resolution.
Human philosophical speculation about God and God's purposes, according to Kierkegaard, "is a temptation, the most precarious of all" temptations. The speculative philosopher, he claims, is not the prodigal son who comes home to his waiting Father, but is rather "the naughty child who refuses to stay where existing humans belong, in the children's nursery and the education room of existence where one becomes adult only through inwardness, but who instead wants to enter God's council, continually screaming that, from the point of view of the eternal, ... there is no paradox." Kierkegaard makes his anti-speculative point in connection with divine forgiveness of human sins. He proposes that "the simple wise person," even after reflection on God's forgiveness of human sins, would say: "I still cannot comprehend the divine mercy that can forgive sins; the more intensely I believe it, the less I am able to understand it." On this basis, Kierkegaard concludes: "Thus probability does not seem to increase as the inwardness of faith is augmented, rather the opposite." This seems to accord with his suggestion that Christian faith "is not a matter of knowing."
Faith in God, according to Kierkegaard, does not require comprehending God or God's ways. If "comprehending" means "fully understanding," this position is compelling, or at least worthy of serious consideration. We should not expect cognitively limited humans to be able to comprehend God or God's purposes in the sense of "being able fully to explain God or God's purposes." Still, we should be careful about the implications of this position for reasonable faith in God, particularly in connection with such a remark as this: "Faith has ... two tasks: to watch for and at every moment to make the discovery of improbability, the paradox, in order then to hold it fast with the passion of inwardness." Kierkegaard's rhetoric yields a dubious message in this connection; it suggests that the inwardness of faith is antithetical, or at least inversely proportional, to reasonable belief as probably true belief.
At times Kierkegaard suggests that his talk of the "absurd" and the "paradox," with regard to the inwardness of faith, is just talk of an eternal, infinite God entering temporal, finite human history, particularly in the divine incarnation in Jesus as a human with historical existence. If this is all Kierkegaard means, his talk of "absurdity" and "contradiction" is potentially very misleading, because it suggests much more than this when taken at face value. The proclaimed divine incarnation in Jesus is shocking and mysterious indeed, but it is not, strictly speaking, absurd or contradictory. Any suggestion to the contrary should deliver a careful demonstration of the alleged contradiction. In addition, we should avoid blocking people who existed before the assumed incarnation in Jesus from the "inwardness of faith" as the human means of receiving divine grace. Abraham, for instance, should be a candidate for faith in God, in keeping with Genesis 15 and Romans 4, even if (quite naturally, given his historical location) he did not believe in the divine incarnation in Jesus.
Faith in God, as suggested, is most plausibly regarded as a human response of entrustment of oneself to God and God's promises. In addition, as illustrated by the case of Abraham in Genesis 15, such faith can enjoy a cognitive basis in the human experience of God's intervening in human lives with redemptive actions and thereby calling people to trust and to obey God. Indeed, human faith in God should be grounded in supporting evidence of that distinctive kind in order to avoid being mere wishful thinking or being otherwise cognitively arbitrary. Ideally, such faith is cognitively grounded in experienced evidence of its divine personal object: the God who authoritatively calls humans before they call God. Faith in God should thus not be characterized as an inward embracing of absurdity or contradiction, at least in any ordinary sense of those terms. That approach to faith would undermine the important need for supporting evidence. Kierkegaard's language about faith, then, is misleading and harmful if taken at face value. Even so, Kierkegaard is correct about the independence of human faith in God from philosophical speculation. If such faith is a human response of entrustment to an experienced divine call, it does not depend for its existence on philosophical speculation.
Kierkegaard suggests that Socrates manifested and recommended a kind of "existential inwardness" akin to faith. Even if he did, we should hesitate to compare Socrates favorably to Jesus on the matter of faith in God. The difference between them is, in the end, vast and irreducible. Jesus, as the self-avowed authoritative Son of his divine Father (see Mark 12:1-12; Matt. 11:25-27; Luke 10:21-22), commands people to have faith as obedient and loving entrustment of themselves to his Father (see Mark 11:22), on the basis of God's purportedly redemptive intervention in human lives. Such entrustment of oneself moves outward obediently in love, by divine command, toward God and thereby toward others. It transcends mere discussion in order to represent the primacy of a life of faithful obedience under divine authority. Accordingly, the apostle Paul speaks of "faith [or trust, in God and Jesus] working through love (agape)" (Gal. 5:6). Such faith in God is a consistent focus of Jesus as divinely appointed Lord, and it is absent from Socrates as represented by Plato. In this respect, the difference between Jesus and Socrates is more substantial than any similarity.
Kierkegaard captures an important dimension of faith in God in his emphasis on human decision regarding God's call. He remarks that "the speculative thinker ... believes only to a certain degree — he puts his hand to the plow and looks around in order to find something to know." The entrustment central to faith in God requires a definite commitment to God, and this commitment demands a human decision to yield oneself to God, relative to God's authoritative will and promises. In this respect, faith in God is a kind of obedience, even morally virtuous obedience because morally excellent (at least in one respect), as we shall see below. It is thus a mistake to oppose faith in God to human obedience. Even so, the required decision and commitment need not be cognitively arbitrary or otherwise unreasonable. They can rest on evidence supplied by divine intervention in human experience.
We have characterized human faith in God as human entrustment to God in response to human experience of God's redemptive intervention in human lives. Such faith as entrustment of oneself to God is a needed motivational anchor for human faithful actions toward God, in obedience to God. It includes one's general receptive volitional commitment to receive manifested and offered divine power of redemptive love as a gracious gift and thereby to obey God in what God commands and promises. This commitment can be firmly in place even if one occasionally disobeys God and thus violates one's general commitment. Such a volitional commitment, when actually carried out by a person in action, includes that person's submitting his or her will to God's authoritative will in a particular case of action, just as Jesus did in Gethsemane and Abraham did in the context of Genesis 15. This kind of commitment is morally virtuous owing to its reception of divine moral excellence. Mere belief that God exists can be altogether selfish, and thus need not be virtuous at all in that respect (see James 2:19).
Faith in God, at its heart, includes one's obediently receiving, and volitionally committing oneself to, God and what God graciously offers for the sake of reconciled fellowship with God. A life of faith in God is inherently a life that obediently receives, and volitionally entrusts oneself to, God and God's authoritative call to reconciled divine-human fellowship. The obedient receptivity of faith in God toward God's call leads to the kind of human transformation that enables a human to become suited to divine-human fellowship. It would be a mistake, then, to draw a contrast between faith in God and obedience to God's call to reconciled divine-human fellowship. Such faith is an obedient response of volitional commitment to receive and to follow agreeably an authoritative divine call that offers lasting forgiveness and reconciled fellowship. Faith in God is, accordingly, a means to reconciled fellowship with God. Abraham, the biblical exemplar of faith in God, is thus called a "friend" of God, given the role of fellowship with God in his faith in God (see 2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8; James 2:23). The receptive feature of this kind of faith, toward an experienced divine call, excludes a characterization in terms of pure imagination or wishful thinking, and points to a kind of experiential cognitive support. We will explore this important lesson in connection with a distinctively Christian understanding of faith in God.
The apostle Paul offers a distinctively Christian approach to faith in God, and this approach is unmatched in its profundity. He uses talk of obedience and talk of belief/faith interchangeably in some important contexts that can illuminate our notion of faith in God (see, for instance, Rom. 10:16-17; cf. Rom. 1:5; 6:16; 16:26; Gal. 5:5-7). Jesus, setting the authoritative model for Paul, likewise acknowledged a necessary role for human obedience to God's will in entering God's kingdom family (see Matt. 7:21; 16:24-26; 19:16-22; 21:28-32; cf. Matt. 6:24-29). In addition, Jesus commanded that his followers have faith in God, in himself, and in the Good News of divine redemption in himself (see, e.g., Mark 1:15; 5:36; 11:22; John 14:1). The "obedience of faith" in question is attitudinal obedience that includes obediently receiving, and volitionally committing and thus yielding oneself to, God as perfectly authoritative, for the sake of living into God's redemptive offer of volitional fellowship with God. We may call such faith in God obedience of the heart.
Excerpted from BEING GOOD Copyright © 2012 by Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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