“Faith is being exalted so high today that men are being satisfied with any kind of faith, just so it is faith. It makes no difference what is believed, we are told, just so the blessed attitude of faith is there. The unidiomatic faith, it is said, is better than the dogmatic, because it is purer faith—faith less weakened by the alloy of knowledge…Faith is often based upon error, but there would be no faith at all unless it were sometimes based upon truth. But if Christian faith is based upon truth, then it is not the faith which saves the Christian but the object of faith. And the object of the faith is Christ.” (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p. 143)
Last week in Princeton I had the opportunity to attend three outstanding lectures on the Gospel of Mark by Dr. Robert Yarbrough, chair of the New Testament department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the Chicago area. Among a host of enlightening remarks, one statement of Yarbrough’s in particular stood out to me. While discussing the central role of faith in Mark’s narrative, Yarbrough remarked that “believe is not an intransitive verb” for the NT writers. For those who are a bit rusty on English grammar, an intransitive verb is one that requires no direct object to function grammatically in a sentence. Examples would be “I am walking” or “I am hungry.”
Yarbrough’s point was that faith is increasingly treated as a good (or end) in itself by contemporary society, even among religiously oriented people. Instead of being defined by and gaining significance from its external object (as it does in the biblical worldview), the actual subjective act or inward motion of “believing” is interpreted as intrinsically valuable and beneficial to the one exercising it. Echoes of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberalism, are present: in his book The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher famously defined faith as the “feeling of absolute dependence.” Doctrine and precise apprehension of God’s works, ways and nature, however, were points of profound indifference to the German pietist—just as they have often remained for his theological heirs.
Yarbrough employed two Latin phrases to bring out this distinction. Fides qua creditur refers to “the faith by which it is believed,” while fides quae creditur highlights “the faith which is believed.” The former emphasizes the actual believing of the person who looks to Christ with trust and reliance and who clings to Him. The latter focuses upon the content of what is gazed upon by faith—the person and work of Jesus in the gospel, the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). To be sure, both are absolutely crucial in the Christian life. If Schleiermacher made the mistake of so exalting fides qua creditur that he lost sight of fides quae creditur, it is likewise true that many conservative-minded Christians—the “chosen frozen”!—place so much value on sound doctrine that bare intellectual assent to orthodox propositions is implicitly understood as being constitutive of genuine Christians. Intriguingly, the NT frequently uses the word “faith” (pistis) to refer to both the act and the content of faith–cf. Galatians 1:23 and Galatians 2:20.
The image this conjures up in my mind is of the relationship between electricity and a conductor. The death and resurrection of Jesus (as well as the various “means of grace” such as baptism, the Lord’s supper, Scripture, etc. by which Jesus is communicated to us) is the “power” of God, the electricity, apart from which no transformation takes place in our darkened lives. Yet it is also the case that for this power to enter our lives effectively without being hindered, it requires a conductor to travel from God to His people. If a surge of electricity is touched to a dull piece of wood (unbelief!), it immediately dissipates and fades away. But if it comes into contact with solid metal (faith!), its force is communicated and channeled to the one in possession of the appropriate conductor. So it is with Christ and faith—one without the other is worthless and of no avail for us. But bring them together, and mountains move and Satan quakes with fear as his kingdom shrinks.
In one sense, faith is nothing—just as a piece of metal with no electric current to channel holds no promise of power. Yet from another perspective, faith is everything—for the redemptive consequences of Jesus’ atoning cross and liberating new life remain forever outside of us if we stubbornly persist in unbelief. Faith is, indeed, “absolute dependence.” But it is absolute dependence on Christ crucified and risen, who is held out to us in the Gospel to behold and gaze upon and trust in with all of our hearts. As Calvin reminds us, “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.1.1) Doctrine and devotion, then, must remain ever together for us. Calvin again is helpful on this theme:
“As if we ought to think of Christ, standing afar off and not rather dwelling in us! For we await salvation from him not because he appears to us afar off, but because he makes us, ingrafted into his body, participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself…if you contemplate yourself, that is sure damnation. But since Christ has been so imparted to you with all his benefits that all his things are made yours, that you are made a member of him, indeed one with him, his righteousness overwhelms your sins; his salvation wipes out your condemnation; with his worthiness he intercedes that your unworthiness may not come before God’s sight. Surely this is so: We ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or ourselves from him. Rather we ought to hold fast bravely with both hands to that fellowship by which he has bound himself to us.” (Institutes, 3.2.24)
In 2 Corinthians 11:1-4, Paul criticizes a group of young, straying Christians not for lacking Schleiermacher’s internal sensation of “absolute dependence,” but rather for adulterously directing such a disposition of faith toward another gospel, another spirit, and another Jesus. Faith saves…if it is faith in Christ as set forth in the New Testament. This Christ saves…if he is responded to with radically self-emptying abandonment and trust. I can do no better to conclude than to encourage readers to ponder deeply and slowly the vision of faith in Hebrews 11.