I thought about entitling this “The Upside-Down Tripod of Faith,” but that just doesn’t have the same hook or punching power.
I didn’t pick this title just for its click-bait appeal, though. I sincerely believe we are apostate. “Christianity” as we commonly know it in the United States (and elsewhere in western society) is a perverse, hollow caricature of the Christianity taught by Jesus and the apostles.
I almost want to say it would be unrecognizable to them, but that isn’t quite true. They were all too familiar with the assumptions, attitudes and practices of which popular American religion is now comprised, because (as we’ll discuss in what follows) they’re the same forces they fought in their own time.
Of course, telling people they’re living a lie and are invested in a false version of Christianity is a pretty tough sell, and it’s not likely to make me very popular. I get that, and I’ve prepared myself for all the rocks that are about to be hurled my way (and I’ve developed pretty thick skin from all the rocks that have already been lobbed at me).
And it’s difficult for most people to see, I realize. By all appearances, our beliefs are “Scripture-based,” and there are a great many clever arguments (“But the church is a hospital for sinners!”) for why most of the statistics we could look at – divorce rates, teen pregnancy and STD-infection rates, abortions, domestic violence, debt, poverty, addiction, etc. – demonstrate that Christians, in general, don’t really live any differently or better or holier than our “lost” neighbors.
However, I think the nature and extent of our apostasy – as well as our path to repentance and restoration – can be clearly illuminated in terms of three main categories:
1) Epistemology (how we know things).
2) Soteriology (how we’re saved).
3) Ecclesiology (how we understand the role and function of the Church).
These three areas together encompass the entire life of the Christian religion, and each informs and is informed by the other two.
They’re a tripod, and our concept of “faith” is the hub at which the three legs intersect and support each other, and everything we call “Christianity” rests atop that hub, supported by the three legs.
If our concept of “faith” is faulty, the tripod collapses and our understanding and practice of Christianity falls with it.
And, in fact, that’s precisely how we’ve strayed into apostasy, and correcting it is how we turn back and become a functional, faithful and effective Church.
Stop Lobotomizing the Church
The Church has effectively lobotomized itself through Fideism.
Worse than that, even – through Fideism, the Church actively prevents people from placing their faith in Jesus Christ. Christians are sabotaging their own cause and working directly against the purposes of God through Fideism.
Fideism, for those unfamiliar, is an epistemological approach that contrasts faith with reason as a path to knowledge.
If we’re “saved by grace through faith,” reason doesn’t factor, according to Fideism.
This is in contrast to Evidentialism, which is an epistemological approach that says a belief or conclusion is only valid if it’s supported by sufficient reason and evidence.
Because Fideism holds sway in most of the Church, Evidentialism is often eschewed as something antagonistic to faith and loyalty to God. And, even, credulity about the miraculous and supernatural is often held up as a virtue where Fideism holds sway, because “blessed are those who believe without seeing.”
“Just believe,” says Fideism, because “faith is the evidence of things unseen.”
Ask a fideist Christian why he believes God exists, why he believes the Bible, why he believes Jesus is the Son of God and rose from the dead, he’s likely to say something like, “…because it’s what I’ve put my faith in.”
But that’s not an answer, obviously. That’s just a restatement of the question.
But, he has plenty of scripture verses he can reference to reinforce his Fideism as the more biblical epistemology over Evidentialism.
He didn’t get his Fideism from the Bible, though. Like every other popular error presently rotting the Church from the inside, he got it somewhere else and projected it onto the Bible. To put it in seminary-speak: he did eisegesis, not exegesis.
The Bible actually knows nothing of Fideism. At least, not as a virtue to be taught and encouraged.
When we use the word “faith” in every other regard besides religion – when we tell another person, “I have faith in you,” it does not mean, “Here’s a blank check guaranteeing my credulity.” It doesn’t mean blind faith.
No, it means, “I trust you – I believe you’ll do what you promise, you can accomplish what you say you can, and you won’t disappoint or betray me.”
And, we tend not to trust strangers – not to the extent that we trust a best friend or a faithful spouse, because we base our faith in people on the evidence of our prior experience with them. Unless we’re fools, we put our faith in people who have proven themselves, who have shown themselves worthy of our faith.
And, in fact, that’s exactly how the Bible uses the word as well.
When it reads “Abram believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15), let’s not forget that Abram had seen God. God had spoken to him, appeared to him, and directly intervened to help Abraham on multiple occasions. Abraham had faith, but it wasn’t blind faith.
The same is true for Moses and the Israelites. When they were condemned to wander the wilderness for 40 years in punishment for their faithlessness, it wasn’t God’s existence they questioned. His existence and power were beyond dispute at that point. It was His character and intentions they distrusted. (Deuteronomy 1:26-36)
And that’s the pattern throughout both testaments of the Bible: when the Israelites were expected to trust God to uphold His side of the covenant, when they were expected to trust that He would fulfill His promise to send the Messiah, that faith was not a blind suspension of disbelief despite all evidence to the contrary; it was a faith based on the evidence of what God had done before.
And that’s the sense meant by the writer of Hebrews when he wrote “faith is the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11).
All of the “things unseen” referenced in the passage pertained to promises for the future (except for creation, which no one was around to witness or document). It wasn’t a blind faith – it was based on what God had done in the past, as reported by the “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1). That verse is often interpreted out of context to mean a cloud of departed spirits watching the individual believer, but that’s upside-down and backwards. The “great cloud of witnesses” to whom the writer referred were the litany of biblical heroes referenced in the “faith hall of fame” immediately preceding that verse, who were bearing witness to the reader about God’s faithfulness. They were “surrounded” by those witnesses because they were steeped in Jewish culture and raised on those stories.
The writer of Hebrews was not holding up what we would call a Fideist approach to belief in God. He described what we would call an Evidentialist approach to Israel’s history, which was the evidence on which their faith in God was based.
When Jesus told Thomas “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who believe without seeing” (John 20:29), that was only after Jesus explicitly told them he would rise from the dead, and that was only after Thomas had personally observed Jesus giving sight to the blind and raising the dead himself.
It wasn’t credulity and blind, unqualified acceptance of unsupported extraordinary claims that Jesus wanted from Thomas. He wanted him to trust him. And he’d proven himself worthy of that trust with what should have been overwhelming evidence.
In other words, faith is a relationship claim, not a knowledge claim. There might be some knowledge claims that are corollaries to the relationship claim – just as we have outside of religion when someone we trust tells us something we might not otherwise be inclined to believe. But, primarily, faith is not a knowledge claim, but a relationship claim.
And the apostles were perfectly consistent with that Evidentialist epistemology when they preached the gospel. They never asked for blind faith or suspension of disbelief. They argued, they proved, they persuaded:
“Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22)
“As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2, 3)
“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17)
“Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:4)
“(Paul) went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.” (Acts 18:19)
“He vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 18:28)
“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)
The central feature of their message – the lynchpin for all of it – was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
They never asked anyone to believe the resurrection because they had faith. They asked people to have faith because they believed the resurrection: the resurrection was never offered as an article of faith; the resurrection was the source of faith.
“For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice through the man he has appointed; he has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)
“Through (Christ) you trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:21)
In contrast to the original Church, today’s Church sees apologetics as an add-on. Apologetics and evangelism were one and the same for the apostles and the early Church fathers, but for us, it’s entirely optional. And, within our Fideistic paradigm of belief, I’ve too often seen it discouraged as an unhealthy distraction: “You can’t argue people into the kingdom of heaven,” they say.
Except, nobody told the apostles that, and Paul insisted on argument (in the sense of debate, not quarreling) as central to the function of the Church: the Church is at war with the forces of darkness for the soul of humanity, and argument and ideas are the weapons we use to bring people from darkness to light (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
So, to say, “Christians shouldn’t argue with unbelievers” is to say, “Christians should lay down their arms and abandon the war.” Consequently, today’s Church has been asleep on the front lines of that war, and an enemy that encounters virtually no resistance has overrun our position, and now our temple lies in ruins.
The Christian life – the genuine Christian life – requires absolute, unreserved commitment. Theoretically, we all know that – we’ve all read the passages about the all-or-nothing nature of discipleship. But we don’t really see that in practice.
Largely, that’s because we have an entire nation of “believers” who don’t actually believe.
How could they?
They’re rarely if ever taught why Christianity is true. And however earnest and well intentioned a person is, nobody can actually believe something they don’t, well… believe. We have plenty of people who believe that they believe, but what they’re calling “belief” just isn’t. It’s wishful thinking. It’s suspension of disbelief. It’s superstition. But it’s not belief. And affirmation of belief is not the same thing as belief, because (as we’ll discuss in the next two installments) there are plenty of inducements within the Church to affirm beliefs other than being persuaded of the truth of those beliefs.
Without good reasons rooted in strong evidence, it’s simply impossible to believe something so far beyond our normal, natural experience as the resurrection. The reasons and evidence are there, but much of the Church neglects the learning and teaching of those reasons, and even inoculates many against learning them because we prefer the easy path of indoctrination to the hard work of education, which doesn’t lead to the absolute, unreserved commitment needed to follow Jesus.
We have to crucify our Fideism. We have to denounce it and condemn it and eradicate it wherever we find it and make Evidentialism the epistemology of Christianity again. In so doing, we’ll restore apologetics to its rightful central place in our message, and the Church will be filled with believers again.
That’s not to say I think I’m the lone believer in a sea of apostates and phonies. There are other believers out there, too, and there is a growing emphasis on apologetics within the Church today.
It’s not growing fast enough, though, and it still seems to be relegated to the status of an “edifying hobby” instead of an essential, central feature of our message.
Even those of us who embrace it are just as much apostates as anyone else, though, because… What are we to do with all of this unreserved commitment arising from true belief?
What outlet do we even have for it within today’s collectively apostate Church?
To answer that, we need the other two legs of the tripod restored, which we’ll discuss in the next two installments.