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July 2020 Credo

The Prince of Wales caused quite a furore when he said that he would like to be known as the ‘Defender of Faith’ rather than the ‘Defender of the Faith’ when he is crowned King. He has since clarified that he will stick to the traditional path and take the latter title. Be that as it may, the heir to the British throne may have unintentionally brought to the fore the two distinct senses in which the word ‘faith’ has been used. What these senses connote and how they interrelate deserve our careful attention.

The first sense in which the word is used is as a shorthand for a body of beliefs which characterises a religion like Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, to name a few. The royal title—the one with ‘the’ in it—reflects that usage; as do the New Testament instruction ‘to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people,’ and the self-incriminating report cited by St Paul that ‘the man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy’’ (Jude 1:3; Gal 1:23).

Such use of ‘faith’ to refer to a body of beliefs has been quite standard since early times. The reason for this is not hard to see. Religious adherents regard the set of beliefs which their religion teaches or holds to be true in what they claim about the divine, about the adherents themselves, and about the world. It is often the case that such belief systems have a normative role, calling forth religious trust and commitment. Given the use of ‘faith’ in the sense discussed here, some thinkers like Paul Tillich, have argued that atheism too qualifies as faith since it has a set of beliefs, even though included in this set is the denial of God’s existence.

The second sense of the word ‘faith’ indicates the response that an encounter with the divine elicits—that of trust, confidence, and conviction. This involves not only emotions but a commitment to the truth intellectually received. Faith in this ‘personal’ sense is central to the New Testament, figuring prominently in the teaching of Jesus. Such faith is what Jesus requires of those who come to him. To his disciples, he regularly exhorts, ‘Have faith in God’ (Mk 11:22; cf Mt 17:20, 21:21; Lk 17:6). Unsurprisingly, the lack of faith on the part of Jesus’ followers invites his rebuke (Mt 8:26, 14:31); and where it is absent, he is said to be unable to do many miracles (Mt 13:58). In other New Testament writers, the centrality of faith is a regular theme. St Paul, for instance, insists that it is through faith, and faith alone, that one is justified and made right with God.

At this point it is important to note that the distinction of the two senses of faith is not a watertight one. Indeed, they are interconnected. For a person’s faith does not only concern the content of beliefs which he or she confesses and trusts in; faith involves thoughts, emotions, actions, and the like. One may ask why then the distinction? The answer is that it is to help us better explore the idea of faith and understand how faith affects or is appropriated in the believer’s life.

There is a tendency among some religious people to assume that what matters is to have a ‘personal’ faith, of the sort that gives rise to trust and commitment, and not of the sort that implies the content of what is believed. The two senses of faith which we have distinguished are thus set against one another, with ‘faith’ in ‘the faith’—the belief systems comprising dogmas, creeds, doctrines and so on—deemed of secondary importance.

It is true, as has been pointed out by James (2:19) about the demons also having belief, that a merely cognitive faith is inadequate. Yet, faith in God must involve and rest on right beliefs about God. For as Paul tells us, ‘faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ’ (Rom 10:17).  It is through the word that faith is sown. Hence the frequent stress on orthodoxy (i.e. the holding of right beliefs) by Paul, and his rebuke of those who preach a gospel other than the one he has preached. (Gal 1:6).

This leads us to consider an error in the opposite direction of which we may be susceptible. It is to think of orthodoxy as the whole of faith. Accordingly, assent to the church’s doctrines, creeds, and statements of faith is simply mouthed or read off with little or no understanding. The suggested corrective is that we do well to place our trust not merely in the words uttered but in what they denote or express. All this involves a measure of understanding on the part of the believer, even though he or she can never attain complete comprehension. But the attempt to seek more understanding will enhance the whole experience of faith.

We may perhaps come to appreciate that the treatment of faith as having a content and as calling forth a response is helpful. The two aspects are essentially about one thing. An oft-quoted verse by the writer of Hebrews neatly encapsulates the idea of faith as follows: ‘And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him’ (Heb 11:6). What is being insisted upon by that writer is that one must assent to the fact that there is God in order that one can approach or engage him.

Dr Lim K Tham, PhD (University of Edinburgh) is the dean of Discipleship Training Centre, Singapore. He has served as general secretary of the Bible Society of Singapore and the National Council of Churches of Singapore, and as a member of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony.