Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 16, 2001

What is Faith?
Dr. Marcus Borg
Hundere Professor of Religion and Culture
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon

(This sermon is also available in audio)

Let's begin with a brief centering prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the Light of the World. Fill our minds with your peace and our hearts with your love. In your name, oh Christ, our body and our blood, our life and our nourishment. Amen.

I have decided to preach today on what is perhaps the best known verse of the whole of the New Testament, John 3:16. In particular, to talk about the meanings of believing and faith in the Christian tradition, using that verse as a springboard.

Many of you know John 3:16 by heart. I think it was the first verse that I ever memorized as a child. My recollection is that I was about four years old and that I needed to memorize it in order to recite it in a Sunday school program for my local congregation. The verse seemed impossibly long to me at the time. Now it strikes me as remarkably short. I will quote it for you in the non-inclusive language of the King James Bible, which, of course, was also the language of my youth. We could probably recite it in unison, but I won't ask you to do that.

For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

There are four phrases in this verse, and I am going to comment about three of them very briefly, and then focus on one of them in particular.

I begin with the first one, "For God so loved the world." These words put us in touch with that Biblical image of God as lover and of the world and of us, as the beloved of God. The Vulgate translation of the New Testament (the Latin translation of the New Testament) in many ways puts this even better: "For God so delighted in the world," God so delights in us.

The second phrase, "that God gave the only begotten Son." In John's Gospel the giving of the Son, the giving of Jesus, is not the cross in particular, but the incarnation as a whole. In the language of the first century, God sent God's Son into the world. That is how much God loves the world, that God parted with that which is most precious and dear to God, God's Son.

I am going to cite the third and fourth phrases together and then comment about each separately. "That whosoever believes in him should have everlasting life." "Everlasting life" (eternal life in the newer translations) sounds like heaven to us, but it's not. There is no denial of an after-life in my negation there, but my point is that the author of John's Gospel is not simply talking about something that happens after our physical death when he talks about everlasting life. Rather, it's more than heaven. The Greek phrase, "everlasting life," translates a Hebrew Jewish phrase that means "the life of the age to come." Everlasting life is the life of the age to come. For John, the life of the age to come is already here, has already come.

We see this perhaps most clearly in John 17, verse 3, part of the farewell discourses of Jesus on the night before his death. In John 17:3, the Jesus of John's Gospel says, "This is eternal life," present tense, and then it is followed immediately by, "to know God." To know God is eternal life, to know God in the present is to participate in the life of the age to come, here and now. John's Gospel is the most mystical of the Gospels, as has been recognized from the second century onward, when Clement of Alexandria referred to it as the "Spiritual Gospel," to distinguish it from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. At the center of John's Gospel is this affirmation that it is possible to know God in the here and now, and that knowing is the life of the age to come.

I turn now to the third phrase, which is the main body of my sermon. "Whosoever believes in him shall have everlasting life." What does this mean? What does it mean to believe in Jesus, to have faith in Jesus? What is the meaning of believing, of faith, this notion that is so central to the Christian life, especially, though not only, in its Protestant form? We, as Protestants, speak of justification by grace through faith. We emphasize that we are saved by faith, not works. So what is faith, what is believing? What does this mean?

And so I turn to what I want to focus on this morning, the meanings of faith in the Christian tradition. I use the plural very deliberately, for faith has three primary meanings in the Christian tradition, and I am going to talk about each of these three meanings of faith. As I do so, I am going to use a Latin term for each meaning of faith to show the antiquity of these notions, then I will use a short English phrase to characterize each meaning of faith. I also will talk about the opposite of each meaning of faith, because sometimes we see the meaning of a notion more clearly by seeing its contrast, or its opposite.

I begin with the first of these meanings of faith, and they're not arranged in chronological order, simply the order I've chosen to present them in. The Latin term for this first meaning of faith is faith as assensus. It's like the English word, assent, but instead of a "t" at the end, there's an "sus" at the end. The central meaning of this notion of faith is suggested by the word "assent." This is faith as giving your mental assent to the truth of a claim, faith as believing that something is true. In Christian terms, this is faith as believing the central claims of the Christian tradition, or faith as believing that Jesus is the only Son of God, or faith as believing that the Bible is true, and so forth.

It is this understanding of faith that has become dominant in the modern period, and by the modern period, I mean the last three centuries or so. I think it is a significant distortion of what Christian faith really means. I want to show you that by telling you briefly about how this understanding of faith becomes dominant.

Think back for a moment to the Christian Middle Ages. I don't want to romanticize that period of history, but I'm thinking of that time in Western history when Christianity was not only the dominant religion of Europe, but it was really the conventional wisdom of the culture. Everybody in Western Europe basically took it for granted that the Bible was true--that Jesus was the Son of God, that the world had been created in six days--and it was relatively effortless to affirm all of that, because there was no reason to think otherwise. Everybody believed that. In the Christian Middle Ages, faith assensus could be taken for granted. It was effortless. The real issue in the Christian Middle Ages was not whether you believed this to be true, but the real issue was what was your relationship to that God, that sacred reality that everybody took for granted as real.

But with the enlightenment of the 17th Century--the birth of modern science and scientific ways of knowing--suddenly the central claims of the Christian tradition no longer looked like bedrock truth to many people. They became questionable, and so faith as giving your mental assent to the creed, to the Bible, to Christian doctrine and so forth, became the primary meaning, at least amongst Protestants, of what faith meant. Faith increasingly came to mean believing iffy stuff to be true. Believing stuff that on other grounds you would probably reject, or at least put into a suspense account. Faith meant believing problematic statements to be true. Now, that is a very odd notion of faith when you think about it, as if what God most wants from us is believing iffy stuff to be true. That that is what God is looking for; that's what will save us. As if the more questionable the things you believe, the stronger your faith is. It is not only a very strange notion of faith, but when you think of it, faith as believing is relatively powerless. Relatively impotent. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively untransformed. Faith as believing, that has very little transformative power.

The opposite of faith as believing is, in its milder form, doubt, and in its stronger form disbelief. If you think that what God wants from us is believing certain claims to be true, then you will also experience doubt and skepticism as sinful, as something you need to confess, as something you need to try to drive away.

Those of you who have read one or more of my books where I am autobiographical for a while will know that this is the struggle that I went through during my adolescence. I had begun to doubt. I felt those doubts very deeply as sins. I was still enough of a believer to be scared of going to hell because of my doubts, as if doubting is the opposite of faith. So, that very common modern understanding of believing is not only, I think, a major distortion of what Christian faith means, I also think it is a major distraction. Hence, the other two meanings of faith become very, very important, because I think they are rich meanings of faith that are profoundly relevant in our times and for our times. They are also far more relational, and so I turn now to those other two meanings of faith.

The second meaning of faith, and therefore the first of these other two meanings, is the Latin term fidelitas. It's like the English word "fidelity," but with an "as" on the end instead of a "y." The central meaning of faith as fidelitas is suggested by that equation with fidelity. This is faith as faithfulness, or fidelity, to God. Not as faithfulness to certain statements about God, but as faithfulness to the relationship with God. It is like a marriage relationship in that respect. Faithfulness to the marriage relationship doesn't mean faithfulness to certain statements about your spouse, but faithfulness to the relationship itself. We are faithful to the relationship with God when we pay attention to it--when we live deliberately and intentionally within that relationship. I sometimes define Christian Spirituality as becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship to God.

The opposite of faith as faithfulness, of course, is unfaithfulness. In the Biblical tradition there are some harsh metaphors for this. One of the most common metaphors for unfaithfulness to the relationship with God is adultery. Most often in the Bible when the prophets or Jesus talk about adultery, a sinful and adulterous generation and so forth, they are not talking about human sexual behavior. They are talking about a lack of faithfulness to the relationship with God.

An even harsher word, perhaps, in the Biblical tradition for infidelity to God is "idolatry." Idolatry for the most part has very little to do with worshiping statues. Idolatry means being faithful to something other than God, to give one's loyalty or have one's center be in something other than God. Faith as faithfulness to the relationship is profoundly transformative. If we are intentional about a deepening relationship with God, which means, very simply, things like worship and prayer and reminding ourselves of the reality of God in the dailyness of our lives, if we are faithful to that relationship, it will not leave us unchanged.

The third meaning of faith in the Christian tradition is faith as in the Latin term fiducia. It's like the English word "fiduciary" but without the "ry" at the end. The English equivalent of faith as fiducia is faith as trust. Faith as radical trust in God, not trust in statements about God, but trust in God. We perhaps see the meaning of this notion of faith most clearly by going immediately to its opposite.

The opposite of faith as trust is, of course, mistrust. But more interestingly and provocatively, the opposite of faith as trust is anxiety. And so the measure of how much faith as trust there is in your life is how much anxiety is there in your life. I mention that not so that you have yet one more thing with which to beat up upon yourselves, but because faith as trust casts out anxiety, and who of us would not want the anxiety-free life?

This meaning of faith is perhaps seen most clearly in another very well- known passage attributed to Jesus. It's that passage in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel in Matthew six, also found in Luke twelve (therefore, very early Jesus material). It's that passage where Jesus says to his followers:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
Matthew 6:26, 27 NRSV

Jesus invites us to see reality as characterized by a cosmic generosity. Five times in that passage he says to his hearers, "will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry…" Little faith and anxiety go together.

Growth in trust, in radical trust in God, is radical trust in the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Put in quite secular language, radical trust is what can free us from that self-preoccupation and anxiety that mars our lives and confines our lives. It frees us for that self-forgetfulness of faith, for that willingness to live our lives in a way that is spent in the name of a larger vision, that willingness to spend and be spent. That's what comes out of faith as trust.

I want to return for just a couple of minutes to faith as assensus, because I've been pretty hard on it. Assensus is, as you may recall, faith as believing that something is true. It does play a role. Three very quick comments about it: There are truth claims involved in the life of faith in the Christian life. One of the most central ones is, Is there a "More"? This is William James' term for the Sacred, for God. He tries to find a term that is not linked to a particular tradition. Is there a More? The Bible, of all of the enduring religions of the world, unambiguously affirms that there is a stupendous, magnificent, wondrous More. Do I believe that? Do I think that's the way it is? Christian faith in particular means seeing Jesus as the decisive disclosure of the More, and of what a life full of God is like.

For Christians, faith means affirming the utter centrality of Jesus. It also means a commitment to the Bible as the definitive of Christian faith--a commitment to an ongoing, critical dialog with the Bible itself. Christian faith means to believe this deeply but loosely. By loosely, I mean we need to try to avoid our tendency to excessive servitude and excessive precision.

Christian faith is not about getting our beliefs exactly right. I realize that assensus has played a big part in my life, too. I realize that I have spent a very large part of my life working on faith as assensus, on coming up with a way of seeing Christianity that makes persuasive and compelling sense to me. Out of all that effort over the years, I have drawn the realization and the generalization that we cannot give our hearts to something that our mind rejects. So, faith as assensus does finally matter.

I move to my very brief conclusion that brings me back to the relational dimensions of faith. I want to comment very quickly on the ancient meanings of "credo" and of "believe." Credo is the word from which we get the word creed, and it's also the opening word of the Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed. Very strikingly, the roots of the word in both Greek and Latin do not mean, I agree with my intellect that the following statements are true, but rather mean, I give my heart to, I give my self at its deepest level to. To what, to these statements? No. I give my heart to God. Which God? The creator of Heaven and Earth. I give my heart to Jesus. Which Jesus? The one who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate and so forth. These are statements of what I give my loyalty to.

The pre-modern meaning of the word "believe." I've already mentioned that for many modern people it means believing something to be true, though there are reasons to think otherwise. If you go back to the English language before the Enlightenment, Shakespeare and before, the word "believe" invariably means "love." You see this in the Middle English word believen. That is where you get the modern English word "believe." Believen means to belove, so that ultimately, what you believe really means what you belove.

And we're back to John 3:16.

For God so loved the world that God gave the only beloved Son of God that whosoever beloves him shall not perish but experience the life of the age to come in the here and now.

That is the invitation as well as the promise of the Christian Gospel.


Copyright 2001 Dr. Marcus Borg

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