I left something out yesterday in the discussion of Universalism. When I said this, ‘It is not because, as Albert Mohler suggests, of “superficial preaching in church pulpits” that most American Christians believe that Christianity isn’t the only way to heaven – it is because their belief in the goodness of God is more real to them than the details of doctrine,’ I left out a major point.

That is that people intuitively understand that “belief” is a nearly useless criterion for separating the sheep from the goats, so to speak. Certainly, some beliefs are better than others – and certainly some are very wicked. And just as certainly, we must take responsibility for our beliefs – wicked ones aren’t excused simply because they are “our beliefs”. The point is that people intuitively understand that whatever basis for “salvation” (however you understand that term) there is must be moral, and can never reduce to what is essentially an intellectual function – the “belief” in (which must preceed a belief “on” – however that is meant) Christ.

Generally speaking, a person’s beliefs are less important than their heart – their good will toward others – their actions in this world.

Biblically speaking again, again with the caveat that I am not qualified nor tasked with working out the Bible but do have some opinions to share, this fact is difficult. It isn’t perhaps as difficult as the issue of Universalism, but it is difficult nonetheless.

If we treat Matthew as it was written – as a unique expression and account of Jesus, rather than as a part of a larger canonical whole which must be harmonized, then Matthew’s Jesus surely expresses the attitude that I express here – that it is our relationship to other people by which we are judged, not by expressions of faith. Matthew 7:21-29 makes this point. Matthew 25:31-46 also shows very clearly shows that righteousness toward other people is the important factor – not belief. (Likely this was the Ebionite viewpoint). Nowhere does Matthew indicate that salvation can come through faith.

James is in agreement with Matthew against Paul and John and couldn’t be more clear that works with respect to others and not faith is the criterion of judgment. James 2:14-24 is adamant:

What [doth it] profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be [ye] warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what [doth it] profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

In short, there is unavoidable tension between Matthew, James, and presumably the “Hebraic” early Christians and the Pauline soteriology of salvation through faith. It is only because of the orthodox view of scripture that any attempt is made to harmonize the competing viewpoints, and only because of the historical emergence of a Pauline orthodoxy that it is harmonized in favor of justification by faith.

In other words, a much stronger Biblical case can be made against the doctrine of faith than against eternal damnation (especially considering Matthew above!) Yet it is still complicated, and there is certainly a strong Biblical witness in favor of justification by faith to set up against the Biblical witness against it.

It cannot be resolved Biblically. Other criteria are important. And of course the criteria that I champion are reason and good-will.

Reason demands that belief is only tangentially related to redemption. If one has nurtured a good heart, then one’s beliefs will likely be in tune with that. And if one has nurtured a wicked heart, then one’s beliefs will be more wicked. But the important thing is the heart, and its expression in relationships with people. A) may believe that ghosts haunt his house, and B) may believe that the strength of gravity correlates inversely with the square of distance. A) may be wrong and B) may be right, but there is nothing about belief that makes A) less worthy and B) more.

Belief simply isn’t a moral quantity. Our intuition that people are judged on moral quantities if anything – and certainly not something as arbitrary as belief – is a good intuition. It serves us well. And we should avoid undermining it by doctrines that proclaim otherwise.

9 comments to Belief

  • RW

    Yet it is still complicated, and there is certainly a strong Biblical witness in favor of justification by faith to set up against the Biblical witness against it.

    If you believe the Holy Bible is the word of God, delivered via mortal man, then Christ is the one and true path to salvation.

    John 3:16. (”For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”) and John 14:6 (”I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”) are pretty much non-negotiable.
    Of course, I’m only speaking as a Christian, but the entire premise of the New Testament is that eternal salvation comes ONLY through Christ. Jesus’ top two commandments (found in Matthew, interestingly enough) shows that love for God outweighs love for man. Well, ya gotta believe in God in order to love him with all your heart & soul.

    It cannot be resolved Biblically.

    If you’re talking about the Holy Bible, then, again, not only is it resolved but it’s non-negotiable.

  • If you’re talking about the Holy Bible, then, again, not only is it resolved but it’s non-negotiable.

    Oh, I strongly disagree there, and can witness Christian sects that honor the Bible but resolve the disharmony I mentioned more in favor of Matthew and James and less in favor of the passage from John you bolded and other examples of Pauline soteriology to support my contention.

    My personal view is that Matthew and James should each be read independently and that it makes no more sense to harmonize them with Pauline doctrine than it does to try to put Mill and Marx in the same volume and insist that they both mean the same.

    But, I understand the variety of orthodox views that do take a harmonizing approach, and my point is that it is very reasonable to harmonize them in a way that takes the focus off of belief.

    I’ll add that you are right – all Christian scripture insists that Christ is the one point of access to salvation (and as I stated yesterday that makes it more difficult to support a universalist doctrine from the Bible) – but there is no such Biblically unequivocal stance in favor of “belief” as the mode of salvation.

  • RW

    Yeah, I (stupidly) left off the part that there are many different interpretations of the bible (hence the different denominations, all seeking to gather the largest number of hypocrites into their flock so they can pass larger plates around for donations).

    Even if one doesn’t believe that he’s the savior, the words of Jesus are…just…so…fascinating, beautiful and cut-to-the-bone. Talk about your radicals!

  • Well, now I think you are being a little too hard on the denominations. Interpreting the Bible is a tough job even if you neglect the problems of canonization and textual history. It’s no wonder that there are so many different views. I think the insistence on treating it as a unified whole only compounds that difficulty. But, yeah – I see where you are going.

  • Chris Jones


    You have a fascinating weblog. I found it by following your trackback at Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog. Your perspective is very different from mine but you raise a lot of interesting issues and make good, substantive points about them.

    I’d like to make a couple of points about this post, one exegetical and one theological.

    The exegetical point is about your contention that the different books of the New Testament ought to be read on their own, without being forced into (a possibly false) consistency with one another. Certainly it ought always to be remembered that the Gospel of Matthew was written independently of the rest of the New Testament, as its author’s particular recollection and understanding of Jesus. Matthew almost certainly wrote his Gospel without any expectation that it would be collected with 26 other books into a larger book called the “New Testament” and venerated as Scripture. He simply wanted to record the Good News of Jesus as he had received it.

    Nevertheless, what Matthew wrote was ultimately collected with other books into the New Testament and “published,” as it were, as Scripture. And while the Gospel of Matthew and the other books did not have a conscious harmony in the minds of their authors, those who actually did the collecting and publishing, and who began to venerate these books as Scripture, did have a coherent body of doctrine which they believed that they had received from Jesus through the Apostles; and they saw (or at any rate believed that they saw) that body of doctrine in Matthew and the other books which they came to recognize as “Scripture.” It is that core of teaching that gives unity to the New Testament, not any conscious intent on the part of its human authors (who probably had no idea at the time that what they were writing was going to be “Scripture”).

    My point is that, however interesting and useful it is to treat the New Testament books individually, if we are going to deal with them as the source writings for normative Christianity, we will have to take account of the doctrinal standard which gives those books their unity. Otherwise we are dealing with those books simply as historical sources; sources which are hardly objective and dispassionate and are therefore, on a strictly historical level, not that useful.

    So far my exegetical point. My strictly theological point is this: the word “belief” in the way that you are using it (e.g. “belief” is a nearly useless criterion for separating the sheep from the goats) is not what the Bible means when it uses the word “faith.” When we say that we are “justified by faith” we are not speaking of (in your words) essentially an intellectual function. “Faith” in this sense is not intellectual but relational. He who is justified by faith is not saved by assenting to a discrete list of historical and theological propositions; rather, he is saved by trusting and relying upon a person: Jesus Christ. To be sure, having faith (in the sense of trust) in Jesus Christ depends on believing that he is who he says he is and that he is still alive. That is, I am sure, what you meant by the “belief in” which must precede a “belief on” … Christ. Nevertheless, while propositional belief is important, it is not the same as the faith by which we are justified. “Justifying faith” must go beyond the propositional to the relational, in which we trust in Christ and “bet our lives” on him. Propositional belief is not enough, which is why James says that “even the demons believe, and shudder.”

    Finally, I must dissent from one of your assertions: Nowhere does Matthew indicate that salvation can come through faith. On the contrary, in Matthew Jesus says Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole (Mt 9.22). While Jesus was speaking of the woman’s physical health, at the same time he was using physical health as a metaphor for salvation (as, a few verses earlier, he described his own salvific mission using the metaphor of the physician: They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick … For I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance Mt 9.12-13). Quite often in Matthew Jesus pairs physical healing with the remission of sins, using the one as a metaphor for the other (e.g. For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. Mt 9.5-6).

  • Jeff

    Reading over the comments sparked some thought. I’m willing to believe that Jesus may be the one way, but I’m not up to believing that Jesus gives up on loving and helping people at the instant their heart happens to stop beating, especially if they’ve never even heard of him or what they’ve heard has been delivered in such a distorting, obnoxious way that it was impossible to accept. If that’s the real meaning of the Bible, then it makes Jesus into nothing more than a narcissistic fan-club leader, rather than an eternal, truly loving savior with power over this life AND the next life as well. And it makes God into a failed deity and dysfunctional father for setting up a world that functions in a manner to ensure nearly all his own children end up in horrible, soul-searing agony for all eternity.

  • @Chris Jones – well said. I suppose I should have been less severe in my criticism of the habit of automatically harmonizing scripture. I do see your point – I just wanted to plead the case for letting each text speak for itself. WRT your discussion of relational as opposed to propositional faith, I may not agree (my link to Father Stephen’s post expressed criticism) but I think we have common ground here. I hope you will glance through this old post where I talked about relation being the firm grounding of a rational and healthy religion.

    @Jeff – The notion of after-life reconciliation is an interesting one to me – one that I discussed briefly in a biblio-blogger’s comments just last week. I personally don’t even believe in an afterlife, but I have a strong interest in universalism. after-life reconciliation is one plausible route to a Christian doctrine of universal reconciliation.

  • Jeff

    If you’re not convinced of post-mortal existence, let’s just keep the discussion on the topic of harmonizing the different teachings of the Bible and making Christianity make sense.

    It it not possible for all of the following statements to be true:
    God _loves_ all of God’s children
    God _has_ vast power
    God lets _nearly all_ God’s children, historical and contemporary, roast forever in eternal hellfire because they didn’t believe in Jesus in a way that accords with a particular dogma during their short mortal lifetime

    The question is, which of these statements do Christians wish to implicitly abandon? They can never be harmonized through any degree of tortuous logic, nor any marshaling of Biblical texts.

    The love that some Christians assign to God always sounds like narcissism. Among people, we consider the truest love to be that which loves another purely, for who they are, not because they love us back and flatter us. But this level of love, which even some human beings can achieve, is not considered attainable by God. This suggests God is a poor, pathetic creature with little more capacity for affection than a well-fed dog (not meant as an attack on dogs). Not a very inspiring deity. Since this version of God’s own followers themselves show little in the way of altruistic love–whether they intend it or not, the face they show to the world is one that cares for others only if they belong to one’s own cliche or are likely to join–it is no wonder that this God and this reading of the Bible are so unconvincing to people who have a richer faith in God’s love and a deeper trust in Jesus.

    No matter how many Bible texts they cite out of context, or how much angry threat they invoke, it is just not possible for them to make me believe that God is such a loser, or that God would reject me for having _unbounded_ faith in God’s love.

  • Jeff

    That last post was meant to say “God’s own clique” not “God’s own cliche!” Maybe a meaningful slip, though?

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