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Introduction to Christian Doctrine
Chapter OneBelief in God
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth
I. I Believe
A. Definition of Faith
The word "faith" is commonly used in two different senses, which must be carefully distinguished.
1. There is the body of teaching about God, Christ, man, and salvation, which is the intellectual substratum to religious devotion and obedience. This is "The Faith," as in Galatians 1:23; Ephesians 4:5; Jude 3.
2. There is the human experience of being confronted immediately by God in the secret place of the heart, of being held by Him, and of holding on to Him in trust, depending upon Him in all things. At its deepest this is the experience of union in loving personal trust with the God who has made Himself Known in His crucified and risen incarnate Son. This is "faith": Christian saving faith (see pp. 221-22).
To bring out something of the importance of this distinction of usage it will suffice to say that the teacher who claims, quite rightly, that true religion is founded upon objective facts and sound reason, is arguing in terms of (1). The teacher who maintains, equally rightly, that mere orthodoxy does not make a man into a Christian, but that he must come to a living personal faith, is discussing the matter in terms of (2). Neither side logically needs to deny what the other says about Christian belief, but they may seem to be contrary, on account of differences in usage of the word "believe."
B. The Ground of Faith
The vast majority of Christian believers do not come to their religious faith by being argued into it, either by texts from the Bible or by venerable ecclesiastical authority or by the latest learned book. Commonly they start with the experience of worship, though some would emphasize the place of ethical experience. In some moment of worship, either prayer or the devotional reading of the Bible or the sacrament or song, or in the challenge of awakening preaching, the soul becomes aware of the sense of the presence of God, with a solemn and mysterious awe. Normally the first stages of this divine encounter happen when children are taken to church by their parents, or pray at home, before they have any self-conscious and reasoned thought on the subject. Sometimes there is also in adult life a conscious crisis of divine encounter. This walk of the soul with God is immediate, personal, and mysterious. Like an ear for music or an eye for beauty, this form of "faith" is a gift which some few persons appear to enjoy to an exceptional extent, and which makes them the rightful spiritual leaders of their fellows. Many more possess it to a more moderate extent, though the gift may be developed by training and discipline, while a few sadly and mysteriously appear to enjoy it hardly at all.
Religion, therefore, normally starts with what may be termed "the devotional experience." The thoughtful person, who wishes to bring his whole life to a rational system, then naturally proceeds to reflect about this experience. He will examine it critically to determine whether it is indeed a reasonable and trustworthy form of human experience, or a subjective delusion. He will draw out its logical conclusions, and frame them in terms of the apparatus of thought proper to his time. Thus a theology is formed.
C. Religious Authority
We cannot escape the question whether or not it is possible to be certain about religion, and if so, what the organ of this certainty is. In times when the Christian witness has been faced by a searching challenge, those parts of the Church have endured best which have made the most satisfactory appearance' of speaking to the people with a reasonable yet confident authority. At the same time, the circumstance that there are competing systems of authority shows that it is not easy to define the proper nature of Christian certainty. The confusion arises because, corresponding naturally to the two uses of the word "faith" which we have noticed, there are two chief aspects of religious authority.
1. There is the authority which can bring to the inquirer a rational degree of certainty that he has a sound grasp of "The Faith," considered as a body of doctrine. Within this sphere authority is a matter of fact, not of feeling, and the organ of it is largely corporate, rather than purely individual.
For the Christian, The Faith is based in the first place upon the record of the facts about Christ: namely, the account of the preparation of the world for His coming, His spiritual background, His wonderful birth and life, His character, teaching, death, and resurrection. The only record of these facts is in the Bible, and therefore The Faith is founded on the Bible. Hence is deduced the traditional Christian position that every true Christian doctrine must be in accord with Scripture. However, the Bible was written by men who in the main were more interested in spiritual devotion and moral obedience than in systematic theology. Their doctrine is implicit more often than explicit. Therefore the Bible needs to be interpreted, that one may verify the historical facts about Christ, and understand aright the spiritual and theological implications of what He was and what He did. The doctrine implicit in Scripture requires to be made explicit, and to be focused into carefully framed and unambiguous terms. Simple Christian believers do not necessarily need to understand this technical theology in order to come to God in Christ, and to partake of salvation. The preaching of the gospel is based on the plain facts of The Faith, as recorded in Scripture, not on the theological theories constructed to explain the facts. Nevertheless, a teacher of The Faith must seek to understand this theology, for only so can he give reliable guidance on the way his hearers are to understand the facts recorded in the Bible.
This interpretative and safeguarding activity of the theologian is an activity of divinely guided reason, and is in the last resort a scholarly activity. It is therefore a corporate activity. Christian truth is rich and various. Some parts of it make a natural appeal to some individuals, and some to others. Therefore there may be an apparent tension between the Christian Faith as it is understood by one historical period or school of thought, and by another. The apprehension of Christian truth proper to men of many different temperaments, casts of mind, walks of life, and social and racial backgrounds, needs to be brought together into a developing world-wide consensus of Christian thought, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Theologians supplement one another, correct one another, and discipline one another, by heeding the long experience of the past, and by maintaining intellectual and spiritual fellowship with one another in the present. Purely individualist thought is ever in danger of being found partial, unbalanced, subjective, and erroneous. Corporate thought is well considered, balanced, comprehensive, and reliable. Thus if correct doctrine and morals are to be established from the Bible it requires to be interpreted by the Church. The guide into a rational degree of certainty on points of doctrine is the witness of Scripture, interpreted and understood by the reasoning activity of the living tradition of the whole Church, guided as she is by the Holy Spirit. That which is accepted as The Faith by the whole of the universal, or Catholic, Church is the reliable and orthodox Faith, that is to say, the Catholic Faith.
Christian teachers who speak of religious authority in terms of the Church and her historic creed, and who uphold religious certainty with the threefold cord of Scripture, tradition, and reason, have in mind chiefly the kind of authority which can assure the inquiring mind regarding "The Faith."
2. We then ask what sort of authority can hope to bring to the human soul certainty in "faith," that is, in the experience of the divine encounter, in reverence, trust, love, and obedience. This is a very different matter! A teacher may be thoroughly versed in knowledge of the Bible and of theology, and so have a most authoritative grasp of "The Faith," and yet have in his own life no vivid sense of God, no compelling urge for obedience to God, and no power to communicate the sense of God to others. His religion is a dry academic orthodoxy. What is it, then, which can quicken "The Faith," so that it makes personal appeal in the human heart, and gives birth to "faith"?
The quickening of faith is nothing less than the immediate activity of God Himself upon the human heart. Faith is a gift, and the gift of faith is the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3; Ephesians 2:8). The "seeing eye," to which God is the most pressing reality of life, is akin to the artist's view, the musician's ear, or the poet's tongue. It is a wonderful faculty, which can indeed be developed and trained by disciplined human response, but which is itself an implanted "gift." The means which God uses to quicken the gift of faith are very commonly corporate-the Christian family and school, the evangelistic service, or the sacraments of the Church. Nevertheless, though the means to the gift are corporate, the gift itself is essentially individual. Each man meets God in the loneliness of his own heart. No man can go proxy for another in this solemn transaction. The time and the manner in which the gift is bestowed remains a divine mystery (John 3:8).
Excerpted from Introduction to Christian Doctrine by John Lawson Copyright © 1967 by Zondervan . Excerpted by permission.
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