Having faith, and keeping faith

by Tom Tredway

My guess is that now and then even Pietists find their minds wandering during church services. Mine has anyway. A while back, during a particularly “doctrinal” sermon on the Trinity, I found myself wondering what the churchgoers in the pews were thinking. What if above each head there was a little thought-balloon — like in the funny papers — with each person’s musing written in it?

Never mind the lady pondering where to go after church for Sunday brunch or the guy thinking about trading his old beat-up Chevy for a new red Toyota. The thought-balloons I was interested in were those responding to the sermon. How did individual listeners have the doctrine of the Trinity figured out for themselves? And what were they thinking while reciting the Creed?

I reckon that those little balloons would have revealed a range of ideas at least as wide as that in the Ancient Church. The Epistle of Jude (1:3) warns the faithful against heretics, deviators from “the faith once delivered to the Saints.” A contemporary translation renders the passage “the faith entrusted to God’s holy people.”

But if you could read the modern Saints’ thoughts during services or if you got them really to open up in an adult Sunday school class, you might soon discover that “the faith once delivered” is held in widely varying forms and degrees. Though we all recite the same Creed, we have our own individual ways of understanding such Christian concepts as the Creation, the Incarnation, the Atonement, Original Sin, or the Resurrection from the Dead.

I have written here before about the views concerning Christian creeds that separated Pietists in the 19th and 20th centuries, in both Sweden and America. Mission Covenanters did without such doctrinal statements, thinking the New Testament was enough; Augustana Lutherans, many of them Pietists too, were loyal to the Augsburg Confession, a creed written in the 16th century. We know that differences over the Atonement, the meaning of Jesus’ death, separated Covenanters and Lutherans, as well. Yet the Covenanters never conceded to the Lutherans that the latter were more “orthodox” than they.

Right now in the 21st century, however, the range of “orthodoxy” or doctrinal loyalty within these two groups, Covenant and Lutheran, is fairly wide (as in many denominations). It’s wider than a century ago, in any case. You don’t even need to check the thought-balloons; people are often happy to tell you aloud during the coffee hour what they think and how it differs from the ideas of other brothers and sisters. It may be that there have always been degrees of reservation about Christian doctrine in the church, but it’s certainly the case that folks feel freer to talk

about these reservations nowadays than they did a half century ago.

The talents of “cafeteria Catholics,” who choose which of the doctrines and teachings of the Roman Church to hold for themselves, have been passed on to Protestants (or were perhaps borrowed from them in the first place). The essence of such talent is to stay associated with a church or denomination while deciding for yourself which of its ideas or creeds you hold. So what does “the faith once delivered to the Saints” look like these days?

I have been helped to think about this question by a recently published historical study that treats “faith” (Greek: pistis; Latin: fides) in the Greco-Roman World. The book Roman Faith and Christian Faith (Oxford, 2015) is by Teresa Morgan, an Anglican priest who is also a professor of Classics at Oxford. Morgan treats both Christian and pagan ideas, writing that for both groups alike religious faith was not primarily an intellectual matter.

Rather, says Morgan, faith was relational, involving a trust of a particular god, a trust which “could only be practiced socially,” i.e. in a community with others who trusted the same deity. St. Paul, she says, saw Christ as the one who was faithful to both God and to humanity and who could therefore be trusted to heal the breach between them, creating a community of those who relied upon his reconciling work. Presumably you could be in the community that trusted Christ without understanding all of his work and meaning.

The view of faith spelled out by Morgan has significance for contemporary Christians who stay in the church though they have questions and doubts about specific doctrines and may even have made up their minds that they do not hold certain of them to be true. I think that the presence in the churches of such people suggests a distinction between “having faith” and “keeping faith.” Having faith might refer to holding creeds or doctrines without reservation, to subscribing to the historic body of Christian ideas or doctrines which are sometimes referred to as “Orthodoxy.” That is the way “the faith once delivered to the Saints” was understood in the Buffalo Covenant Church where I attended services twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday night after I was born again at Mission Meadows camp in August, 1950.

And a year or so later, when I was getting ready to go to college, our pastor told me I should enroll at North Park, then a two-year college, where I could be helped to work out the “theological meaning” of accepting Christ as my Savior. I think that meant coming to understand Jesus’ full divinity, how his death had saved me, and the promise of a resurrection like his after my death.

This was the view of having faith I encountered after transferring to Augustana College, where the professor of Christianity told us in a church history class jammed with 55 students (so much for low student-to-faculty ratios!) that the Augsburg Confession was the fullest expression of Christian teaching, once for all. We ought, all of us — even the fraternity lads dozing in the back row — to understand and accept it!

I remember the college president, Conrad Bergendoff, telling the faithful assembled in (required) chapel that for Luther (and for him) doubt was the opposite of faith, and that our college years ought to firm us in our beliefs. The Protestantism I encountered in the precincts of Swedish-American Christianity during the 1950s was concerned that you believe, and that you believe correctly.

But maybe it’s possible to keep faith, even when you have reservations about some elements of what is represented to you as the full faith that you ought to have. It is on that basis — keeping faith — that many of my friends remain involved in their congregations and denominations while still sorting through the wide range of ideas that constitute what has historically been seen as orthodox. A church publication assured readers recently that “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Implicit in this sort of thinking is a sense of faith as trust rather than thought which Morgan’s 2015 study of pistis and fides in the Greco-Roman world presents.

Folks who hold such views are often active in the outreach ministries of their congregations, believing that works of love, caritas, embody the highest Christian virtue, higher even than having the correct faith. And often these people have deep personal and family roots in the church. Perhaps they have grown up in a company of friends whose memories go back to summer camp or college days and still bind them together. Many readers of Pietisten find this publication, established and maintained as it has been by its two chief editors, Phil Johnson and Mark Safstrom, to breathe a spirit of supportive openness that sustains one in keeping faith. And in the case of these Pietisten readers there may also be Scandinavian-American identity and loyalty that strengthen their ties to a denomination or congregation. In Britain, another Oxford professor, the church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, son of an Anglican priest, writes that he is “a friend of Christianity,” suggesting hesitation about complete identification with the church, but a wish to be near it.

Many people with reservations and doubts concerning the full range of church teaching stay in and near the church, I suppose, because, along with their childhood homes, it is the place where they first learned about the love, grace, and goodness that lie in the middle of our lives. This hopeful view of life has deep roots in their own experience. It came to them from or through Christianity, and it still rings true, in spite of their reservations and doubts.

Such folk often understand that many contemporaries, often friends or colleagues, find this optimism about human existence to be naïve or facile. People seeking to keep faith may themselves understand that a Christian worldview does not, at least for them, fully explain or justify all of the madness and evil that have also characterized human life, especially in modern times.

So some important questions persist. They often come from people within the church who have kept intact “the faith once entrusted to God’s holy people.” They should be considered by those who, on the other hand, want to keep faith with a community rather than having a particular set of beliefs. Both these positions need to address the question of what core of ideas, beliefs, or doctrines does constitute the center of Christian community.

I remember a summer decades ago at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat in the evergreen-covered mountains of central Washington State. There in the course of a month-long conversation about what constituted Christian community, the participants collectively figured out that every group of spiritually inclined people who hang out together are not a lasting Christian community; to be one a core of Christian ideas and values has to be present — even in the Cascade Mountains.

That understanding of Christian community raises other questions. How does any such community survive if it does not maintain its core beliefs and commitments? Can a congregation or a denomination endure through generations without a set of core beliefs, whether directly from the New Testament or expressed in a creed? Is there some fundamental trust in God which is still “Christian,” though judged by centuries of orthodox theology it may be at best a deviation from “the faith once delivered to the Saints”? What is the point at which you have doubted your way out of the church?

But perhaps the key thing after all isn’t to read the balloons above congregational heads so you can learn the congregants’ thoughts during the sermon or the recitation of the creed. Maybe it’s that some of the people there in church are trying to keep faith even though they’re not sure they have it, all of it anyway. This is a distinction or issue that is current in many church bodies, including some of the traditionally quite orthodox ones. It is a distinction that raises important questions about creeds and orthodoxy. It’s also a distinction that makes it possible for some people to stay in church in spite of their reservations and doubts.

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

See all articles by Tom Tredway