Saturday, February 24, 2007

N. T. Wright on Faith in 1st Century Palestine

Some of the debate in the sola fide controversy (especially in more recent years) has been semantics to be sure. The Church condemned Martin Luther's heresy of teaching that by merely believing in Christ, you were forgiven for all sins; past present and future. In his epistle, St. James points out that even the demons believe in that capacity. So faith, in that sense, is certainly not enough for salvation.

As I understand it, Calvin came along and modified the Protestant definition of 'faith'. Reformed theologians these days seem to assert that faith (intellectual assent) comes first and if it is genuine, good works will follow.

But if we are to talk about faith, in a biblical sense, it isn't to Martin Luther or to Calvin that we should turn. It is important to understand faith in it's original context. What did the average Jewish peasant understand when he heard the word faith as Jesus spoke about it? Did he understand that it meant to believe that Jesus was real? That he died and raised from the dead? That He was God? All of these seem decidedly inadequate. Listen to what N. T. Wright says on the subject:

'Faith' is thus not simply to be understood, within the world of first-century Judaism, in terms simply of religious interiority. Nor is the vital question the one which occupies so much twentieth-century writing on the subject, namely the shape of 'faith' and its role within religious experience as a whole.(1)
For all of us in the discussion, I think it is imperative to remember that faith, when left in it's proper historical context, encompassed a great deal more than we often mean when we use the word. In other words, it certainly carried more weight than a mere 'intellectual assent" or even an "emotional assent" (in case you want to bring the word 'heart' into the discussion to somehow validate this reductionism).

Therefore true faith is not merely the initial cause of good works, but is inseparably intertwined with a fruitful life of obedience to the gospel. Or to quote the Scripture: 'faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead'(2).


1) Wright, N.T. "
Jesus and the Victory of God" pg 261


Prairie Princess said...

I grew up in an environment in which James' devils were cited often. The point I always heard made from them was that we need more than just mental assent - we need works, too! The application was always Pelagian - work harder, make yourself better, etc. For several years I've believed that saving faith (Biblical faith) is better described for our modern understanding as trust. This still needs to be understood as active. But even intellectually, it's more than just assent. The demons know Christ is real and they know he is really the Messiah. They even obey Him when pushed to it. (He cast them out of many people, but they never liked it.) But they don't trust Him. They prefer setting themselves against Him over submitting to Him in trust. I believe Biblical faith, trust, leads to action (works) and mere mental assent does not. IMO, James is contrasting two different kinds of faith, one which stops at mental assent, and one which goes on to trusting action.

Although I'm a Protestant, I've been told recently that my view of faith, works, and salvation is more Catholic than Protestant.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Prairie - thanks for the comments.

I agree that trust is an integral part of faith and certainly part of what Christ had in mind when he mentioned it.

Wright makes a similar point as you do on page 250 of the same work:

" 'repentance', in this sense of abandoning revolutionary inclinations, is found elsewhere in the same narrative; so, for that matter, is 'belief', in the sense of trust in and loyalty to a leader."

He had just quoted from the 'Life of Josephus' and his encounter (around 66 AD which is about the time the first gospel was written) with a brigand. Josephus said:

"I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me."

Wright argues that it could just as well be translated: "if he would repent and believe in me".

So it seems like he concurs with your overarching point. Consider the historical context they were surrounded by when Christ said that to His followers. He is saying, 'you're not going to bring about the kingdom of God by fighting Rome with swords. Repent & believe in Me'. Faith, in this sense, can be rightly understood as having 'trust' as it's key component.

However, I still argue that there is more substance to the word within it's historical context (especially as you continue on in the New Testament).

The word in Latin is 'fide' which is where we derive our word fidelity of course. Faith is also the root word of faithfulness. It's not merely a coincidence, but the historical roots of these words give us strong indication that they were of the same essence (historically).

These days, they seem to have been reduced (the word faith anyhow) to something much less than they originally conveyed.

So I agree, biblical (and salvific) faith certainly encompasses trust but it also entails fidelity; faithfulness.

I believe that obedience to the gospel is an integral part of true faith and not a subsequent result.

The word which we usually have difficulty with in the dialogue is "works". Since Paul is intent on showing a separation of "works" & "faith". Catholics generally understand "works" in this context to mean ritual adherence to the Torah as opposed to say, giving alms to the poor or any other act of genuine obedience to the gospel of Christ.

It would be a bit anachronistic to assume Paul is talking about obedience to the gospel when he says "works".

And of course you know that the entire reason 'Pelagianism' is a known word is because the Catholic Church rejected it as a heresy. So we certainly don't believe in salvation by works.

Thanks for stopping by and for your points.