Tag Archives: Theology

On having faith: Part 1 (Three inappropriate ways to view faith)

I recently preached a mini-sermon which used Exodus 33 and Hebrews 11 as its Scriptural foundation.  The theme of the sermon was faith.

Working on that sermon and thinking on the topic of faith has prompted me to take some prior work which I did on the subject and share it with you for sharpening and feedback.  I’ve simplified and scaled-down my original writing which was submitted as an academic paper.  This, then, is the first of a few posts in which I will talk about what I think it means to have faith.

First things first.  Let’s dismantle some of the oft-used versions of faith.

Three ways that faith (and subsequently God) is misinterpreted:

1. Faith as Currency: The Vending Machine God

Contemporary Western culture is defined by consumerism: people get what they want and desire if they pay accordingly.  This ideology does not only apply to the acquisition of material goods, but it also applies to relationships.  A person will pay into a relationship to get out of it what they are owed.  Due to the influx of this ideology into the church, faith has been turned into a currency.  Actions that are associated with “proper” Christian living — for example: attending church services consistently, praying, believing, doing good deeds — are done to garner favour with God and to force Him into paying out.  If a person does the correct things, and enough of them, God must do what that person desires.  The dark side of this equation is that if a person does not do the correct things, or enough of them, or does the wrong things — sins (1) — his or her faith will fail in prompting God to pay out.

Faith, in this understanding, paints God as a vending machine.  A vending machine will only pay out if the correct currency, and enough of it, is paid in.  Likewise, if not enough currency is put in the vending machine, or the wrong currency is used, the vending machine will not work.  Considering this representation of God, God functions correctly or does not function at all based on consumer principles: Did the person have enough, and the right kind of, faith to make God “work?”  This image of God is hardly consistent with the God of Scripture.  The God of Scripture will not be directed or manipulated by anyone or anything; God functions on His own terms (2).  Further, God’s terms are not based on consumer principles; the God of Scripture is a God of grace and mercy (Exod 34:6-7).  The God of Scripture acts the way He wants to (or has to) based on who He is.

2. Faith as Positive Thinking: The Non-Existent God

Some Christians often confuse faith with the power of positive thinking.  This way of understanding faith is another way the church has adopted a culturally celebrated idea: getting things accomplished through the power of self.  However, there is a difference between faith and trusting in trust (3).  Faith cannot be confused with the self-powered idea presented in the story-line of, The Little Engine that Could (4).

Faith healing is where this misinterpretation of faith is most clearly seen.  If a person can gain enough faith — if a person can believe enough or “pray in faith” enough — she or he will be healed (5).  The power in faith healing is in the faith of the person needing healing or the person attempting to be the healer.  Thus, faith healing is an attempt on an individual’s part to be in control.  Those who subscribe to this idea of faith forget that “the essential ingredient for faith lies not in the ‘believer,’ the one who experiences trust, but rather in a God who proves trustworthy” (6).   It is tremendously important to realize that in all the recorded instances of healing in the Gospels, faith is the goal of healing; healing is not the goal of faith (7).

God is mostly irrelevant and nonexistent in this form of faith.  An individual’s confidence in the power of their own belief is all that is necessary.  That God’s name is ever evoked in this understanding of faith is, sadly, comical.  In contrast, the God presented in Scripture demands that He be at the forefront of all His people’s actions and beliefs (e.g., Exod 20:1-11).  Faith cannot be turned into a god.

3. Faith as a Guarantor of Happiness: The Sadistic God

Some Christians believe that faith is a medicine that makes experiences of suffering change into times of happiness.  If a Christian is not happy, the reason is obvious: they simply do not have enough faith.  Faith, in this misunderstanding, is the knowledge that all things — including times of suffering — happen because God willed them to be and therefore they must be good.  All one must do is look at Christian sympathy or “get well soon” cards to observe the “faith as a guarantor of happiness” misinterpretation.  Jeremiah 29:11, Rom 8:28, and Phil 4:1314 have all been taken out of context to promote a faith where the trials and suffering of an individual are a part of God’s “good and happy” plan for their life (8).

God, in this understanding of faith, is sadistic.  Throughout Scripture, however, God is shown to be caring, compassionate, and heartbroken, if not angry, at the sight of suffering and pain (9).  There is an important distinction that must be made to appreciate why this form of faith is incorrect: joy and fortitude exist in a Christian because of the Christian’s relationship with God, not because, as a Christian, they get to experience situations of suffering (10).

These views are not only incorrect, but more dangerously, they present God as someone He is not.  Donald Miller rightly suggests: “There are two essential problems with believing God is somebody He isn’t.  The first problem is that it wrecks your life, and the second is that it makes God look like an idiot” (11).  Not to mention the fact that these misinterpretations of faith blindly disobey the first commandment: i.e, they are practices of idolatry.

What do you think?  Have you heard these misinterpretations in church?  Have you lived these misinterpretations?  Have you anything to add or challenge?

In my next post I’ll attempt to present what I think is an appropriate biblical theology of faith.  (If you want a head start, check out Psalm 89.)

(1) If purity — being sin-free — is a prerequisite for faith to “work,” then no one stands a chance.  This kind of thinking completely ignores the fact that, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 TNIV, emphasis added).  Further, “The negative counterpart to the idea of religious faith as a prerequisite for healing is the thought that suffering is a consequence of sin.  See John 9:3: Sin and suffering cannot be viewed in a one-to-one relationship.  John 5:14 and 1 Cor 11:30 suggest that sin can be linked to the cause of person’s suffering, but these circumstances cannot be viewed as a universal prescription.  Further, healing does not necessarily indicate a “commendable religious faith.”  See Matt 12:9–14; Mark 1:29–31; John 5:5–13 (Grindheim, “Everything is possible,” 11–17).
(2) Humanity’s interaction with God cannot be self-determined; when an attempt is made to try to do so, it is sin.  God did not stand in front of Adam and ask: “So what would you like to be called?”  God determined — He named and created — Adam’s identity and thus set forth the parameters of their relationship (Gen 1:27; 2:7).  When Moses asked God to name Himself (Exod 3:13–15), God responded by saying, “I AM.”  In essence, God was replying: “I am beyond your ability to name and control.”  Therefore, when faith is viewed as a currency by Christians they are treading in dangerous water.
(3) For example, people can believe as much as they want that a rock will tell them the meaning of life, but a rock will not do so; it cannot do so.
(4) While attempting to pull a train up a steep hill the Little Engine chants: “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can.”  Because of his belief in himself the Little Engine succeeds and congratulates himself by chanting: “I-thought-I-could, I-thought-I-could.”  The story demonstrates a commonly held belief in contemporary culture: “I can do anything if I put my mind to it and believe in myself.”  This belief has obvious, and serious, flaws.
(5) Matthew 9:29 and Mark 5:34 provide ample opportunity for bad exegesis (Grindheim, “Everything is possible,” 11–17).  Mark 11:22–25 must be used to interpret these passages.  “Prayer is unlimited when directed in faith to the Almighty Father.  However, it remains subordinate to the will of God.”  For example, see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane: Jesus wants out, but submits to the will of his Father (Kuyper, “Grace and truth,” 3–19).  God’s will is ultimately that all people would love Him and love their fellow brother and sister (Matt 22:37–29).  Therefore all things, including answers to prayer, are bent to accomplish this end.
(6) Knowles, The Unfolding Mystery, 151.
(7) Grindheim, “Everything is possible,” 11–17.  Grindheim notes: “The power to heal is indicative of the true nature of Jesus Christ: he is the Son of God.”  See John 20:31.  The healing miracles in the Gospels show the significance of Jesus, not of the sick person’s faith.  The fact that Jesus heals people with suspect faith (see Mark 4:35–45; 6:45–52) aptly illustrates this point.
(8) These passages do, at first glance, appear difficult to comprehend, especially during times of suffering.  However, a brief exegesis of each provides information on their purpose and context.  Romans 8:28 must be understood as an eschatological declaration.  The passage does not mean that all things work for the good of all people, or that all things that come to believers are good, or that all things believers experience are results of the will of God.  The remainder of the passage clarifies the verse: the goal, or “good,” specified is ultimately to be conformed into the image of Jesus Christ.  In Jesus “the good” is fully represented because Jesus fully represents God’s will (Hiebert, “Romans 8:28–29,” 170–83).  Jeremiah 29:11 must be read within the context of Israel’s exile.  The plans God had for Israel were bound to Israel’s mission: to be a showcase of God’s goodness and love to the nations surrounding them so that those nations would also know God.  This passage, although it makes for a nice greeting card, has nothing to do with the way it is often used in contemporary church culture.  As for Philippians 4:13, one scholar puts it this way: “Translations that make it sound like Paul could do anything and that nothing was beyond his powers are misleading to the point of being false (ASV, KJV, NASB, NEB, NIV, RSV).”  The proper way to read this passage is as follow: “I can do all such things (what has just been described by the author: good and bad times in the context of living the mission of Jesus Christ) in union with the One who continually infuses me with strength” (Hawthorne, Philippians, 193).  1 Peter is also regrettably used in ways in which the letter was not intended to be used.  See De Silva, An Introduction, 852.
(9) See Exod 3:9; 22:23; Ps 10:14; John 3:16; and 11:17–31 among many examples.  Suffering is a result of the fall.  God’s will is not that creation would suffer.  Suffering is a reality of life brought on by humanity’s “closing the door” on God.  When humanity chose — and continues to choose — to reject God, suffering entered the world.
(10) It would be asinine to suggest that Jesus enjoyed going to, and experiencing, the cross.  It was Jesus’ relationship with God that compelled him, even through suffering, towards the cross.  See Luke 22:42.
(11) Miller, Searching, 21.
De Silva, David A. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods, and Ministry Formation. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004.
Grindheim, Sigurd. “‘Everything is Possible for One Who Believes:’ Faith and Healing in the NT.” Trinity Journal 26:1 (2005) 11–17.
Hawthorne, Gerald F. Philippians. Word Biblical Commentary, 43. Bruce M. Metzger. Dallas: Word, 1983.
Hiebert, D Edmond. “Romans 8:28–29 and the Assurance of the Believer.” Bibliotheca Sacra 148:590 (1991) 170–83.
Knowles, Michael P. The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.
Kuyper, Lester Jacob. “Grace and Truth: An Old Testament Description of God, and its Use in the Johannine Gospel.” Interpretation 18:1 (1964) 3–19.
Miller, Donald. Searching For God Knows What. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004.

How a man I never met inspired this blog

I only saw him once.  I was coming out of a class at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, ON, and he was walking from his hole-in-the-wall office to the men’s room.  I remember thinking that he was quite tall.  Looking back I wish that I’d skipped the remainder of my class, approached him, and asked him to go for a coffee.

I’d read some of Clark Pinnock’s books before seeing him that day, the first being A Wideness in God’s Mercy.  The book intrigued me on several levels, but most notably I felt like I was reading into the heart of a man who was truly grappling with the profoundness of the God of love, grace, and mercy.  Soon after that I read Most Moved Mover, one of Clark’s contributions into the foray of openness theology.  Now, say what you will about openness theology, but what struck me throughout the book was not so much the claims therein, but the foundation from which Clark made the claims — God’s love — and the clear love for God and love for the discussion about God which Clark demonstrated through his words.  This was a man who was deeply in love with God.  And subsequently he was deeply in love with the ongoing discussion concerning God: theology.

As those in the world of evangelical theology know, Clark took a beating from many because of his openness theology hypothesis.  The word “persecution” is not too strong as several voices in the evangelical world came down hard on Clark.  Clark, in many circles, was anathematized.

During my time at McMaster Divinity I became friends with some professors and students who were close to Clark before his death in August, 2010.  What I learned from them about Clark did not surprise me.  Clark was a soft-spoken gentle man.  He loved his wife.  He lived a simple life.  And he was very involved in his small local church.  Those in his church didn’t think of Clark as “the theologian,” they thought of him as simply Clark, the caring man who consistently demonstrated his love for Jesus and the church.  I was told that at his funeral it was made very clear that the service was a time for Clark’s family — his church — to celebrate his life and mourn their loss.  And though the academic community showed up by the dozens, the service itself reflected the life of the man for whom everyone was gathered to remember: it was simple; it was about the church; it was about Jesus.

One of Clark’s good friends described for me the years of attack that Clark endured during the heyday of the openness debate.  Clark’s faith was questioned; he was called a heretic; and it was said that he obviously did not love or know Jesus.  Clark was crushed.  My friend put it like this: “Imagine that someone told you, Aaron, that you didn’t love you wife, when the truth is you love her more than life.  That’s how Clark felt when people told him that he didn’t love Jesus.”

The preface and introduction in Most Moved Mover have never escaped my mind.  Here are a few excerpts:

Over the course of my life as a theologian, I have been a pilgrim and have sought to grow as a hearer of God’s word.  Theology has been for me a journey of discovery and, though I have respected them, I have not regarded traditional views as beyond reform.

One’s theology is a work of human construction, even when based in divine revelation, and interpretation requires strenuous effort.  Our interpretations are provisional and truth is, to some extent, historically conditioned and ultimately eschatological.  To paraphrase St Paul,“Now we know in part; then we will know fully.” (1 Cor 13:12)

I think there is always a place for asking questions and for challenging assumptions.  Our God-talk is always open to re-evaluation because mistakes can be made and need correcting.

Responsible faith always asks questions and theology is done when the community takes a real interest in the truth.  Every believer is a theologian at some level and together we can engage in the search for the fullness of the truth made known in Jesus Christ.  It is not enough to repeat traditional formulations of doctrine, which may be adequate or inadequate.  We must persist in searching for the truth to which our traditions point but which they only partially express.

Every generation needs to think about its conception of God — is it true to the gospel, does it communicate and is it adequate for living?

God is not dead, but some of the ways we have presented God are dead.

Clark’s words inspire me, encourage me, and challenge me.  Although I never met Clark, I resonate a great deal with what motivated his task as a theologian.  Clark loved Jesus.  And Clark’s love of Jesus compelled him to never stop figuring out how to put words and actions to a life of following Jesus.  He wasn’t afraid to question the theological status quo, not because he was a rebel, but because to stop figuring it out would have been like never going for a romantic walk with your wife again.  The journey — the theology in process — was both the demonstration and experience of Jesus’ love.

Sadly, Clark’s words also haunt me.  I wish that I could say “sorry” to Clark — sorry on behalf of evangelicals who didn’t process theology very well, who questioned your faith, who questioned your love for Jesus, and who never took ten seconds to get to know the man behind the words.  I pray that Clark’s story haunts me in the best of ways — that I will always remember the importance of process and that I will respect and love those who are also on the journey of figuring it out.

We don’t ever get our theology figured out.  It’s always in process.  And for me, like Clark, the process is both how I find and fall in love with Jesus.

So thanks, Clark.  Thanks for your writing, your witness, and your willingness to process in front of us all.  I can’t think of a better person to honour as I kick this blog off, and  I can’t wait to have that cup of coffee with you someday.