I Believe in God the Father Almighty

IntroductionWhat does it mean to “believe”? Often we simply use the word in a hope so fashion or as a way of affirming something that meets with our approval. We believe in that which we consider worthy of our confidence (i.e, “I believe in the Republican Party” or ‘I believe the Phoenix Suns will win the NBA championship”). Evangelical philosopher Robert Roberts explains that, “We are verbivorous beings, the words we chew, swallow, and digest will determine how we see the world, what we take to be important, how our behavior, our character and our very life are shaped.”[1] This means, among other things, that words are subject to change, often times without sufficient notice. For example you will hear people say things like, “believe in yourself.” What does believe mean in this context? This reflects a psychological worldview that has a powerful influence on our society and upon our evangelical churches. Roberts warns, “The various psychotherapies and personality theories; they are philosophies of life that endorse particular virtues, character traits, or features of personality. These are the traits a person would have if the therapist succeeded in making him or her into a fully functioning and mature person—mature, that is, by that therapist’s reckoning. And they are traits the therapy is designed to foster.”[2]

But what about our beliefs? What about those things in which we put our trust? What is our belief based on? We often labor under the illusion that somehow our individual beliefs are created by sheer volition on our part. Do our beliefs correspond with reality? People believe all kinds of things with little or no evidence upon which to base their beliefs. Blind faith, in this sense, is all too common. Genuine faith, the kind of faith the Bible commends, is never blind. It may be weak, but it is never described as a leap in the dark. “We cannot,” observed Warfield, “be said to believe or to trust in a thing or person of which we have no knowledge–of course, we cannot be said to believe or to trust the thing or person to whose worthiness of our belief or trust assent has not been obtained. And equally we cannot be said to believe that which we distrust too much to commit ourselves to it.”[3] As we read our Bible, the importance of faith cannot be over stressed. We are told in Hebrews 11:6 that without faith it is impossible to please God. In John 6:29 Jesus says that God requires faith and in I John 3:23 faith is something God commands of us.

Perhaps it’s best to first state what faith is NOT. Credulity is not Faith. To abdicate the responsibility of forming a judgment on any matter is not to exercise faith; for faith sees clearly, and grasps firmly, And, Superstition is not Faith. To attribute to common objects qualities which belong only to the spiritual and unseen, and to give to such objects the reverence which we should give only to the Divine, is not only to depart from, but also to deny, faith. And, Conviction is not Faith. To be driven to an intellectual conclusion is not to exercise faith. Until the heart welcomes the Truth, it remains outside us.[4] Old Bishop Pearson pointed out that which we think is only probable or merely possible is not a matter of faith, but only opinion.[5] What does it mean to say with the Apostles’ Creed I believe…?

I. Faith: Its Biblical Description
Various words are used in the scripture to capture the meaning of faith. We read of trusting God or His Word, of seeking and finding shelter in His name, of looking to His mercy or of staying upon Him and cleaving to Him. There are three common Hebrew words for faith in the Old Testament and two Greek words in the New Testament.

A.  HE’ EMIN is the hiphil form of  ‘}MAN (from which we get “amen”). The word has a wide semantic range, but its root meaning is firm or reliable and conveys the idea of confidence in a person or a message.”[6] The verb form is used in Genesis 15:6 where we are told that “Abram believed the LORD and He credited it to him as righteousness.”

B.  BATHACH is the general word use to express trust. It means to confide in, or lean upon in the sense of reliance.[7] This is captured in Psalm 25:2 where we read: “In you I trust, 0 my God. Do not let me be put to shame.”

C.   CHASAH means to seek refuge, flee for protection. Thus it is an expression that figuratively means to put trust or hope in God. To seek shelter or refuge stresses insecurity and self-helplessness. It emphasizes the defensive or external aspect of salvation in God, the unchanging one in whom we find shelter.[8] Psalm 57:1 reads: “I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.”

D.      The two most frequently used words for faith in the New Testament are the noun Pistis and the verb Pisteuein. Pistis is used in two different senses. First it is used subjectively of the act of believing (cf. Romans 3:28). This is captured by the Latin expression fides qua creditur, “the faith by which we believe.” Second, Pistis is often used objectively of what is believed—it is descriptive of the contents of faith, fides quae creditur, “the faith which is believed,” (cf. Jude 3 and Galatians 1:23).[9] “The verb Pisteuein,” writes Hoekema, “may mean (1) to think to be true (Matthew 24:23), or (2) to accept the message given by God’s messengers (Acts 24:14). Most characteristically, however, it means (3) to accept Jesus as the messiah, the divinely appointed author of eternal salvation (John 3:16). In this sense faith includes more than just believing a message to be true; it also involves trusting in Christ, resting on him, and leaning on him.”[10] 

II.         Faith: its Theological Character

Recently the Evangelical world has undergone an earthquake of seismic proportions. The document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian mission in the Third Millennium” carried the signature of a number of high profile evangelicals. In order to establish a common theological base upon which to bring about unity, the document quietly dispensed with the Reformation’s key doctrine, sola fide–justification by faith alone.[11] Evangelicals have historically always (sometimes in war-like tones) maintained the critical importance of sola fide. It seems that in the minds of many professed Evangelicals that this is no longer an important issue. Why disrupt the need for unity over the word alone? Again this comes back to the true nature of faith. The historic Roman Catholic position defines faith as mere credence and docility. In other words, assenting to the teachings of the mother church.[12] Indeed, as J. I. Packer points out, “Rome actually distinguishes between ‘explicit’ faith (belief of something understood) and ‘implicit’ faith (uncomprehending assent to whatever it may be that the Roman church holds), and says that only the latter—which in reality is just a vote of confidence in the teaching church, and may go along with total ignorance of Christianity—is required of laymen for salvation! It is evident that faith, as Rome thinks of it, is at best only the content of faith without its proper form. For knowledge, much or little, divorced from any corresponding exercise of trust, is not faith in the full Bible sense, and it is precisely the due exercise of trust that is missing from the Roman Catholic analysis. Faith, according to Rome, is just trusting the church as a teacher.”[13] The Reformers, on the other hand, argued that saving faith has three inseparable elements.

A.  Knowledge. True faith rests on knowledge. Notitia was the term used to denote this. How much knowledge is necessary? This is not easy to say–but in terms of saving faith we must have enough knowledge to realize that we are, in fact, under judgment for our sins and that only Christ, the God-man, can save us by His death, burial and resurrection. R. C. Sproul made this clear when he said, “Saving faith involves content. We are not justified by believing just anything. Some have said, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” That sentiment is radically opposed to the teaching of the Bible. The Bible teaches that it matters profoundly what we believe. Justification is not by sincerity alone. We may be sincerely wrong. Right doctrine, at least in the essential truths of the Gospel, is a necessary ingredient of saving faith. We believe in the Gospel, in the person and work of Christ. That is integral to saving faith. If our doctrine is heretical in the essentials, we will not be saved. If, for example, we say we believe in Christ but deny His deity, we do not possess the faith that justifies.”[14] In the beginning this knowledge may be very slender, but it will grow (cf. II Peter 3:18). One older theologian wisely wrote, “That which Christian faith realizes and grasps is expressed in doctrine. Faith is not a separate and self-dependent grace. Its existence and growth arise from those things, which are believed, and therefore it is necessary to study and understand, as far as we can, the doctrines of the Christian faith before we can possess or manifest belief. It is important that we should have a definite knowledge of these doctrines; that we should study them in relation to the Scriptures upon which they profess to be founded, and that we should be in a position to defend them against assailants. Thus faith will gather strength, and believers will be “ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh them a reason of the hope that is in them with meekness and fear”[15] (I Peter 3:15). 

B.  Assent. This is the activity of accepting and affirming the truth of what we have come to know. Assensus, as far as the Reformers were concerned, involved the whole person–and not merely a kind of token assent that simply agrees with a vague notion of truth. “Faith is an assent,” writes Yonge, “not to things evident (e.g. snow is white, iron hard), which is knowledge: Nor to things demonstrable (e. g. mathematical truths), which is science: Nor to things inferred from balance of reasoning, which is opinion: But to what is presented upon testimony; that testimony depending for its value upon the knowledge and integrity of the testifier (1 Jn. 5:9).”[16] 

C.  Trust. “This is,” as Warfield has noted, “the most important element in the Reformers’ understanding of faith.”[17] Fiducia was indeed Calvin’s favorite word for defining Biblical faith–which looks away from ourselves and our efforts and looks only to Christ.[18] This trust is at once reverential (Exodus 15:31) and rests in loving confidence that God is trustworthy in what He promises (Colossians 1:23). 

Conclusion: Perhaps no better picture of true faith has found its way into our understanding than that given us by Augustus Toplady in his justly famous hymn, “Rock of Ages”. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; Naked, come to thee for dress, Helpless, look to thee for grace. 

References
 

[1] Robert C. Roberts, “A Wash In a Sea of Psychobabble: Biblical Discernment in an Age of Therapies,” Christianity Today (May 16, 1994), pp. 18-24.

[2] Ibid. Elsewhere in the article Roberts writes, “Small-group Bible studies have a distinctly encounter-group air about them, what with all the sharing of feelings and “needs” that goes on there. We hear about “sensitivity” and “openness” and “being in touch with our feelings.” We learn to accept ourselves and to get in touch with our unconscious or the child within. We class ourselves as introverted or extroverted, feelers or thinkers, sensers or intuitives… We are “self-interpreting animals.” As selves, we do not live by bread alone but by the “words” in terms of which we interpret ourselves, whether these proceed from the mouth of God or the mouth of our Jungian analyst or our Marxian political science professor or Carl Sagan or the pop Darwinians who write for Time. All these thoughts, these words, these understandings are out there floating around in our social environment, inside and outside the church, and they constitute, in significant part, a kind of spiritual junk food. They tell us what it is to be a person, what it is to be fulfilled, what kind of world we live in, what truth is, and how we are to think if we are to be rational.”

[3] B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (rpt. Presbyterian & Reformed, 1968), p. 402. Many years before the acclaimed Dutch Theologian Herman Witsius made a similar observation, “No one can at all believe a doctrine, of which he is entirely ignorant; and all are bound to exert their best endeavours, that their faith may not be implicit, but as distinct as possible; which becometh those who are “filled with all knowledge” (Rom. 15:14). The more distinctly any person perceives in the light of the Spirit, a truth which God has revealed, and the more clearly he discerns the rays of divinity shining in it, the more firmly will he give credit to that truth.” The Apostles’ Creed I (rpt. P & R, 1993), p. 40.

[4] cf. the discussion in W. Graham Scroggie, Christ In the Creed (Marshall, Morgan & Scott LTD.1930), p. 3. The well-known commentator William Barclay, who had a tendency to let slip with some unorthodox statements from time the time, made this egregious remark, “ In reciting the Apostles’ Creed a man is affirming, not so much his own faith, as the faith of the Church. A man will therefore be guilty of no intellectual dishonesty if he unites with God’s people in the affirmation of this statement of the faith, even if there are parts of it about which he has doubts or reservations or even denials.” The Apostles’ Creed for Everyman (Harper & Row, 1967), p. 10.

[5] John Pearson, An Exposition of the Creed (Scott, Webster & Geary, 1842), p. 4.

[6] cf. the lengthy discussion by Alfred Jepsen in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament 1, eds. G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren (Eerdmans, 1974), pp. 298-309.

[7] cf. R. B. Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament (rpt. Eerdmans, 1974), p. 104.

[8] cf. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament I, eds. R.L. Harris, G.L. Archer, B. K. Waltke (Moody, 1980), p. 308.

[9] James T. Bretzke, in his Consecrated Phrases: A Latin Theological Dictionary (The Liturgical Press, 1998), defines the term this way, “Fides qua refers to the act of faith, that is, the personal commitment by which or through which an individual and/or community believes; Fides quae refers to the actual content of the faith, that which is actually believed.” (p. 43).

[10] Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved By Grace (Eerdmans, 1984), p. 134. This is an outstanding book. It deals with the doctrine of salvation in a most comprehensive way and is written in a style that the ordinary Christian can easily understand.

[11] The first document, abbreviated with the initials ECT was issued in March of 1994 (cf. Evangelicals & Catholics Together: Towards A Common Mission editors Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus (Word, 1995). A second document sought to clarify fuzzy statements in ECT, was christened ECT II (cf. “Evangelical and Catholics Together: A New Initiative,” Christianity Today Dec. 8, 1997, pp. 34-38). Although ECT II attempted to mute the criticism over the failure of ECT to address the issue of sola fide, it also ended up with a very truncated understanding of what the Reformers meant by sola fide.

[12] The official position of Rome is set forth in the canons and Decrees of The council of Trent (1563). Faith is assenting to God’s truth as defined by the church. However, since the common Christian cannot understand all the teachings of the church, he is only required to give assent to what the church teaches. cf. The Creeds of Christendom With a History and Critical Notes II, ed.  Philip Schaff (rpt. Baker, 1983), pp. 77-206. The Catechism of the Catholic church (Liguroi Publications, 1994) echos the position of Trent by defining faith as follows: “Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace” (p. 42).

[13] J. I. Packer, God’s Words: Studies of Key Bible Themes (IVP, 1981), p. 129.

[14] R. C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Tyndale, 1992), p. 188.

[15] James Dodds, Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (Westminster Press, 1896), p. 9.

[16] John Yonge, An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (Hodder & Stoughton, 1888), p. 9.

[17] Warfield, Ibid.

[18] One standard reference work reads, “fiducia, trust, or apprehensio fiducialis, faithful apprehension, which appropriates savingly, by an act of the will, the true knowledge of the promises of God in Christ. Saving faith, therefore, cannot be merely intellectual; it must also be volitional.” R. A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker. 1985), p. 116.

 
 

To Learn More We Suggest

 

Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional

 

by Martin Luther (edited by James C. Galvin)

 

Timeless insights from one of the most important people in church history. Resounding across the centuries, Martin Luther’s prolific writings as a pastor, theologian, scholar, Bible translator, father, and more, remain powerful and richly relevant. Faith Alone is a treasury of accessible devotionals taken from Luther’s best writings and sermons from the years 1513 through 1546. This carefully updated translation retains the meaning, tone, and imagery of Luther’s works such as this gem:

 

Some people value good works so much that they overlook faith in Christ. Faith should be first. It is faith—without good works and prior to good works—that takes us to heaven. We come to God through faith alone. —Martin Luther

 

Through daily readings, Luther’s straightforward approach challenges you to a more thoughtful faith. Read one brief section a day or explore themes using the subject index in the back of the book. Faith Alone will deepen your understanding of Scripture and help you more fully appreciate the mystery of faith.

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