(This is part 2, which means that you should read part 1 if you haven’t yet.)
How do we define Christian faith? This is what I’ll try to do now.
1. Faith is (In a Small Way) About Us
There is a human element to faith. Faith is “human reasoning paying attention to God” (1). A person can believe in God. This is perhaps the easiest aspect of faith to understand because it is the way faith is generally approached by Western contemporary Christians. “In Western Christendom ‘faith’ is often understood to be primarily a matter of intellectual assent, ‘belief’ that something is the way it is claimed to be” (2). Faith is also an active way of being. Although the English language has no verb form for the word “faith,” Fowler rightly notes that “‘faith’ is an active way of being, committing, seeing, and interacting” (3). Ideally, those who have faith choose to live their life in a way that reflects their beliefs. However, the essence of faith lies elsewhere. To speak of faith in relation to that which is ‘unseen’ suggests that the key to religious assent lies not in human action alone, but in the nature of God (4).
2. Faith is (Really) About God
Faith is not a personal affair; it is realized only through an encounter with God. Though “divine initiative and human response are each essential to and inseparable from one another,” (5) “the point of gravity [in faith] is not with humans but with the God who comes to meet us with reconciliation and liberation” (6). Faith is ultimately from, and based in, God; “its activation is of divine origin” (7). Considering this realization one must ask: What is it about God that creates and sustains faith?
3. The God of Faith
Psalm 89 describes the God of Christian faith. This is a God of “steadfast love,” “faithfulness,” covenant obligation, awesomeness, might, authority, power, dominion, creative enterprise, “righteousness,” “justice,” “countenance,” “glory,” protection, trustworthiness, and attentiveness (8). This is the God of faith. Psalm 89 presents a God who stands by His promise to be His people’s “shield” and provider. Further, the inner-biblical dialogue between Ps 89:18 and Gen 15:1 cannot be overlooked. The God of Ps 89 is the same God who initiated the covenant agreement, and upheld it, centuries earlier with Abraham.
Psalm 89:6–19 are verses that express the “cosmic rulership of Yahweh:” a rulership that is characterized by Yahweh’s faithfulness (9). “The word [faithfulness] suggests a conscientious way of acting which reflects inner stability and consistency” (10). One must also note that “the pair hesed and faithfulness (emunah and the synonym emet) appears seven times [in Psalm 89]: a fact that can hardly be accidental (11). Parallelism confirms their synonymy and progression, and thus the connotation of hesed, translated “steadfast love,” is loyalty (12). God, in Psalm 89, is obligated and committed to honouring His covenant. Further, Ps 89 demonstrates that even in the case of confrontation (“Rahab” in v. 10) or disobedience (vv. 33-37), God’s fidelity to His covenant-promise and His people cannot be broken. “Commitment and faithfulness are personalized [in Ps 89] as like aides serving YHWH, entities that come into YHWH’s presence to receive their orders” (13).
However, Ps 89 is also concerned with a (perceived) terrible failure of Yahweh to keep His end of the bargain; God’s fidelity is challenged by the writer. The point of this, though, is not that God has been untrustworthy or unfaithful; He has not been. “The questioning in the latter half of the Psalm does not defuse the proclamations made about Yahweh’s faithfulness and fidelity to the covenant in the first half of the Pslam” (14). The declarations in the first half of the Psalm have been allowed to stand. The Psalm reflects “the perplexing experience of the contradiction between old promises and understandings of the way of God and the actuality of the developments in history” (15). However, “if we take our cue from the use of the formulaic question in Job 35:10, the question [in Ps 89:50] reflects trust that Yahweh will respond;” God will hold true to His covenant-promise. “The world may little note or refuse to listen at all, but Yahweh-God hears the stories of his people’s pain and hurt” (16). This is the God of faith.
4. How, Then, Does Faith Work?
Faith is putting one’s faith in the faithfulness of God; faith is putting one’s trust in the trustworthiness of God. This, according to Gen 15:6 and Rom 4:3, is what Abraham did and he was counted as righteous. This is the story of Heb 11. Faith is ongoing dependance on a God who is dependable; it “is an answer, a response to a God who speaks, and a reply to God’s promise” (17). “A life of faith is not just a matter of taking certain beliefs about God and his salvation to be true; it is also a matter of our trust in God and of God’s trustworthiness” (18). Faith finds certainty and validity in who God is and what God does. A Christian who has faith is a person who gives up control, who yields their will to the will — the faithfulness and trustworthiness — of God. To “live by faith” means putting faith in a faithful God and acting faithfully in return.
5. What, Then, is the Point of Faith?
This is the crux of faith: A person grows in faith when they grow in their relationship with God. To know God more is the ultimate aim of the Christian life — of Christian faith (Matt 22:37).
Thus in the New Testament as much as in the Hebrew Bible, to believe or have “faith” in God is not simply an act of intellectual assent or a single, determinative act of will. Rather, it involves an ongoing relationship of trusting dependence on a dependable God, matched by faithfulness in conduct that mirrors God’s own fidelity (19).
“God is more than an object of our knowledge. God is subject, co-subject, a person who acts intentionally, who makes himself known, and allows us to experience his presence. Only in this way can we speak about faith as involvement, as a living relationship,” the point of which is to know the God who initiates the relationship (20). Faith is a matter of active trust. Faith is a matter of “getting to know” and experience God. After all, God reveals Himself to those who would seek after Him (Exod 34:6-7). Through all the circumstances of life — good, bad, and otherwise — faith is about knowing God more in and through each one. Therefore it is only in knowing God that faith exists, is nurtured, and is worked out.
In my next post I’ll reflect on the ways in which this sort of faith can be nurtured and practiced in pastoral care. In the meantime, any thoughts?
(1) McIntosh, “Faith,” 142.
(2) Knowles, The Unfolding, 150.
(3) Fowler, “Faith/Belief,” 394.
(4) Knowles, The Unfolding, 150.
(5) Knowles, The Unfolding, 161.
(6) Immink, Faith, 18.
(7) Immink, Faith, 18.
(8) Words in quotations are found in Ps 89. The words not in quotations are used to summarize themes and truths found in Ps 89.
(9) Tate, Psalms 51-100, 420.
(10) Tate, Psalms 51-100, 420.
(11) Tate, Psalms 51–100, 410. “Seven” connotes fullness, completeness, and perfection. Interestingly, “Jewish tradition observes that the three letters of this word (emet), aleph, mem, and tau, are in turn the first, middle, and the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, suggesting that God’s emet — divine ‘truth’ and trustworthiness — encapsulates the whole meaning of Scripture” (Knowles, The Unfolding, 151).
(12) Schaefer, Psalms, 217-18.
(13) Goldingay, Psalms 42-89, 674.
(14) Goldingay, Psalms 42-89, 664.
(15) Tate, Psalms 51-100, 428.
(16) Tate, Psalms 51-100, 427, 430.
(17) Immink, Faith, 18.
(18) Immink, Faith, 26-7.
(19) Knowles, The Unfolding, 161.
(20) Immink, Faith, 39.