In some of the parts of the Christian blogosphere that I read, there has been something of a kerfuffle about the meaning of the greek word pistis, often translated ‘faith’, and what it actually means. The kerfuffle became something of a shebang earlier this year.
I’ve recently been reading through vol. 1 of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, which is the start of my big systematic theology reading project of the year. I’m reading the English translation, so I’m already offending the purists, but Bavinck makes some interesting observations about faith (pistis), the word which has been at the centre of some recent debates. Tom Schreiner, whose work I respect immensely, reckons that ‘trust’ or ‘faith’ are the best ways to translate the word. Matthew Bates, whose ‘Gospel Allegiance‘ and ‘Salvation by Allegiance Alone‘ (links to my reviews) seem to have brought this conversation to a head, argues that ‘Allegiance’ is a better word. Scott McKnight seems to want to emphasise the kingly nature of Jesus in our articulation of the Gospel. Amen! This is all well and good.
And it is with that background that I found the following from Bavinck, writing well over a century ago, quite fascinating:
“In the New Testament pistis is totally defined religiously – in its object, basis, and origin; it denotes a religious relationship between a human being and God… Word and deeds are the object of faith only when considered from the divine perspective. But in Scripture pistis,as saving faith, aqquires an even more pregnant reading; its object is not all sorts of words and deeds of God as such but the grace of God in Christ (Mk. 1:15; Jn.3:16;17:3; Rom. 3:22; Gal. 2:20; 3:26., etc.)… it also includes a heartfelt trust in a total surrender to God, who has revealed himself in Christ, and a personal appropriation of the promises extended in the gospel… Christian faith is religiously qualified through and through. It’s object, ground and origin are exclusively located in God… The Christian faith is sheer religion… Those persons are truly religious who believe thus: they are the image, the children, and heirs of God”
What I read Bavinck as saying in this section on Two Kinds of Faith is relevant to the discussion alluded to above as it re-emphasises the beginning and end of faith: “God, who has revealed himself in Christ“. This is the fundamental starting point for any Reformation-inspired reading of ‘faith’, and a vital thing to remember. Further, and I think this speaks to the problem that Bates and McKnight rightly identify, this little word pistis has “an even more pregnant reading“. Salvation by faith alone – or allegiance alone – is not just the joyful acceptance of God’s Grace. It is also an invitation to a way of life, a “sheer religion“, word and deed and a new identity. Whilst I respect Schreiner’s reasons for rejecting Bates’ proposal that ‘allegiance’ is a better translation, his observation on Bates’ book that “His emphasis on submission to Jesus as King, the enthroned Lord of the universe, nicely captures the New Testament emphasis on what it means to be a Christian” is extremely helpful. With that in mind, the linking of saving faith to the animating faith of the disciple, perhaps we are talking about two kinds of faith. The faith that saves us is pregnant with possibility, because Christians are not saved as trophies for a museum, but missionaries to the world.
I think Bavinck’s discussion of faith in two kinds (p. 568-571 of the Baker Bolt translation of Reformed Dogmatics, for the keen beans) helps us by reminding us that all is of grace, specifically the Grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ, and that this is not just a ‘ticket to heaven’, but a roadmap and vocation in the here and now. Because we are saved by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, our allegiance must be to King Jesus alone. And what do we do with that? What does this mean? Well, Bavinck offers us one suggestion: “Faith in Christ in turn affects our belief in Scripture. It binds and fastens us securely to Scripture and causes us to trust it in times of distress and death…“.
This is always a good idea!