Wesley’s classic definition of saving faith occurs in the first of his forty-four “Standard Sermons,” that entitled “Salvation by Faith” (i. 4, 5). “What faith is it then through which we are saved?—It is not barely a speculative, rational thing, a cold, lifeless assent, a train of ideas in the head; but also a disposition of the heart.—Christian faith is then, not only an assent to the whole gospel of Christ, but also a full reliance on the blood of Christ;—a recumbency upon Him as our atonement and our life.” How does this view of faith square with some other views, ancient and modern?

We have heard it said that faith is not “propositional.” I remember seeing an old family Bible with an engraved frontispiece. A divine Hand divides the clouds and delivers to earth the Sacred Volume. Some would object to this imagery because it implies that God reveals himself to man by making known a set of truths regarding himself, which are to be reverently accepted. God declares fixed and objective propositions of theology. The critic who calls himself an “existential” theologian passionately says No to this. God makes himself known to man by confronting him immediately, in the secret place of the heart, by His own mysterious presence. To use the hackneyed phrase, revelation consists in the “I-Thou relationship.” As the Bible says: “The Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.”

What has Wesley to say to this? As is usual in these matters, the Wesleyan judgment upon the critics largely depends upon what they mean by their words, and how far they press their propositions. The doctrine is often propounded that in the New Testament we meet not “the Jesus of History” but “the Christ of Faith.” In its more moderate and cautious statement this can mean something with which we may all agree, namely, that the evangelists were not dispassionately recording biographical data for the convenience of future authors of “Lives of Christ.” Their task was evangelistic. They were presenting such of the facts about Christ as were necessary for Christian faith and discipleship, and presenting them in such a way that the believing man might hope to win others to faith in Christ. So far, so good. However, it certainly does not follow that Gospel-facts presented by faith to faith are thereby rendered unreliable as facts.

The more radical critic takes this doctrine of “the Christ of Faith” much further. To him, Jesus of Nazareth was a village prophet, presumably of singularly upright character and striking personality, who made a signally deep impression upon his disciples. He was put to death, and as the disciples thought about these things their hearts told them that those who had met Jesus had been confronted by God, secretly, within the heart. This, we are assured by some, is substantially all there is to know. The Christians then imagined vivid narratives in picture-language to symbolize this “existential experience.” In particular, they could not bring themselves to believe that such a one as Jesus could really be in bondage to death. Therefore the imagination of faith constructed the story of the Empty Tomb convincingly to set forth this conviction—and very fortunately, no one thought of going to look until it was too late, and one could not tell whether the body that lay moldering in the grave was the putrifying corpse of Jesus, or Judas, or John Brown. Furthermore, the Christian prophet, filled with the Spirit, was convinced that he knew the immediate “mind of the Lord.” His consciousness conjured up authoritative “words of the Lord,” which were read back onto the lips of Jesus.

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Thus “the pillar and ground of the truth” is simply the Church, and nothing else. Here indeed is a radical development of the ancient proposition that the tradition of the Church is authoritative for faith. The figure of Christ in the Gospels is not substantial history. Some scraps of the portrait may indeed be authentic historical memory, some critics allowing more, some less. Yet the substantial account of the Lord—his life, his character, his words, and his works—was summoned forth from the religious consciousness of the Church. But at least we know that he was crucified. The old orthodoxy cried out in faith: “My Lord and my God!” The humanist generation modestly reduced this to “Ecce Homo!” The existentialist theologian leaves us with “habeas corpus.”

Beneath The Learned Words

What then is this construction? Strip off the learned verbiage, like so many skins from an onion, and one finds the proposition that men fortified themselves with courage for life, and for martyrdom, from the psychological impact of a victory over death that had in fact not taken place. Scholars may choose to call this the thoughtful modern man’s restatement of Christian faith. The plain man will have a less respectful name for it. To him it is mass-hysteria. And he is right.

As a Protestant I do not wish to have to choose between this system, as the supposed modern heir to the Reformation emphasis upon faith, and the Roman doctrine. However, if I am driven to the choice, I prefer salvation by the Mass to salvation by mass-hysteria.

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We can distinguish three possible attitudes to “saving faith.” The first is symbolized by Bishop Butler, author of The Analogy of Religion and the great philosophical defender of orthodoxy in Wesley’s day. By the method of his plea that “probability is the guide of life,” Butler argues for rational religion and for propositional faith. Natural religion is reasonable, for there are very probable marks of the existence of God in nature. From the facts of human life one may argue that it is reasonable to believe in the soul. An air of mystery surrounds even the world known to science, and so it is reasonable to believe in miracles. These propositions are to be rationally accepted, and man is to mold his life in accord with them. But as to the claim for the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the uneasy Butler protests: “It is a very horrid thing, Mr. Wesley; a very horrid thing.” This is objective religion, yet cold and academic, which in effect declares: “True faith is not a disposition of the heart. It is a speculative, rational thing, a train of ideas in the head.”

At the other extreme is the “existential” faith; that is to say, the faith that despairs of reason. The classic figure of the philosopher is Plato, “listening to the music of the spheres.” Herein is the assumption that embedded in the very nature of things there is a rational and intellectual plan, which may be divined by the awakened human mind. The existential philosopher despairs of this aspiring flight of intellect. All that man can do is to stand in the dark and take “a kick in the pants” from immediate experience. It is doubtless possible to use this philosophy, the supposed mental outlook of the modern man, as a means for expounding the Christian faith, just as other philosophical systems have been used in the past. It is possible, as it is doubtless possible to set “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” to Chinese music. Yet the medium of expression is not very suitable.

So we throw away natural religion. Rational argument for the existence of God and the soul is a fruitless strife, for the heavens do not declare the glory of God to him who has learned a little astronomy. We throw away miracles, for science, it is affirmed, now understands the physical universe and declares miracles to be impossible. If it is to survive in the modern world, Christian faith must therefore conduct a “strategic withdrawal to prepared positions,” away from any event that could be verified by physical science, into the secret and non-material world of the mind—until materialistic science explains away the thinking mind as itself an illusion. Thus the “modern” theologian in effect says: “True faith is not a rational thing, a train of ideas in the head. It is a disposition of the heart, generated from the life of the emotions.”

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Faith Of Head And Heart

In conclusion, examine the wisdom of the third and central position. This is the word of Wesley: the judicious; the cautiously rational; the ardently spiritual; the truly catholic; the authentically evangelical. Faith “is not barely a train of ideas in the head, but also a disposition of the heart.” First there is “the faith once committed to the saints,” which is the most august body of rational theological propositions that has ever entered into the heart of man to conceive. Here is a witness to an actual and objective saving work of divine grace, performed in history, written in Scripture, and interpreted in the long experience of the Church. Yet it is not by itself enough reverently and thoughtfully to accept this “train of ideas.” By the inward operation of the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace, the faith must come home also with power to the secret inward man of the heart and the imagination. To employ an old-fashioned term, saving faith is “experimental,” and “experiential.” It is objective, but not barely objective and academic. It is personal, imaginative, and charged with healthy emotion, but not purely subjective. It is the actual, the outward, and the rational brought home to be heart by the working of the Spirit.

Certainly, as the critic observes, it is not enough for Christian faith to provide a complete demonstration of the historical fact of the Empty Tomb. Annas and Caiaphas presumably had a better demonstration of this sort than we can ever hope for, and yet did not believe. One must also walk with Christ on the Emmaus road, and receive the heart-warming “opening of the Scriptures,” and the discovery that He is known “in the breaking of the bread.” Yet this work in the heart could not have arisen in the first place, and would not have been sustained down the centuries, apart from the objective divine saving work of grace, performed in this very world and witnessed even by physical signs.

John Lawson is associate professor of church history at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He holds the B.Sc. from London University and an honors M.A. in theology from Cambridge University. Cambridge also conferred the B.D. for his published dissertation on “The Biblical Theology of S. Irenaeus.” Before coming to Emory in 1955, he was a pastor in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in England.

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