Archive for May 6th, 2010

Saving Faith

May 6, 2010

In a recent post I quoted Vladimir Lossky on the nature of faith. Several have asked me to expand on the Orthodox understanding of faith. I begin with Lossky’s quote:

What one quests is already present, precedes us, makes possible our question itself. ‘Through faith, we comprehend (we think) how the ages have been produced’ (Heb. 11:3). Thus faith allows us to think, it gives us true intelligence. Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship for which the catechumen prepares himself, and through which baptism and chrismation are conferred upon the faithful: gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man. (From Lossky’s Orthodox Theology).

As I noted previously, Lossky is notoriously thick to read. I will offer a small amount of exposition.

Lossky begins by noting faith as a gift. It is what we seek (quest) and is already present and precedes us and even makes our questions possible. Quoting Hebrews he notes that we “comprehend” or “think” by faith – it allows true thought, true understanding. Thus faith is a mode of perception, not simply a side-action of our intellect. When we say, “I believe,” in ordinary conversation, we are not using the word belief in a manner that means the same thing as belief or faith (pistos) in the Scripture (it’s all one word in Greek).

Lossky defines faith as “our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself.” It is a very interesting phrase he uses, “participatory adherence.” And, I think, it goes to the heart of what he is saying about faith as well as the Orthodox understanding of saving faith.

I have written numerous times about the importance of communion or participation (koinonia) in both New Testament usage and in subsequent Orthodox thought. Salvation is not mental or volitional, though our mind and will are also a part of our salvation. Salvation is not metal or volitional because this is not the nature of our problem. We are not fallen because we fail to think correctly (that would be the heretical contention of Christian Science – of the Mary Baker Eddy type). Nor are we fallen simply because we choose incorrectly. According to the fathers, there is something “fractured” about the human will as a result of our sin. Making correct choices is insufficient for salvation.

St. Gregory of Nyssa said that “man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.” The proper end of our salvation is union with God – true participation in the life of God.

Faith became a diminished term of understanding as the nature of our salvation was diminished – particularly in the developments of medieval Western theology – most particularly in the debates that surrounded and followed the Reformation. Some will point out that there is a distinction made between salvation and sanctification in Protestant thought – but such a distinction is neither necessary nor Biblical.

Saving faith is more than mental or even volitional assent because our problems are not addressed by such an understanding. Only if salvation is an external reward would such an understanding of faith make sense. Salvation as external reward fails to rise above a child’s Sunday School class in its comprehension of the gospel.

Lossky turns our gaze to a deeper place and a deeper understanding of our salvation. A “participatory adherence” speaks both of an action of our will (adherence) as well as a true participation in the Reality which is our salvation. It is difficult to find simple words to describe such an existential reality – but that reality must be expressed. It is inferred occasionally in New Testament phrases. One of the first that comes to mind is St. Paul’s statement: “…I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Phil. 3:12).

St. Paul is reaching out for something that has already grasped him. Faith is not an objective acceptance of certain facts, but a “participatory adherence” in that which has laid hold on us. Even faith is the gift of God. It is true that we must respond – without a response it would not be our own selves that adhered to Him who has offered Himself to us.

In a fairly scandalous statement, Dostoevsky, following his deep conversion in prison, said that it was Christ Jesus who was everything. His scandalous statement was to say that even if someone should prove to him that the “truth” was elsewhere, he would choose Christ. Of course, Christ is the Truth, so such a choice is not put before us. But it speaks of the nature of the great author’s heart and to the heart of any Christian. Christ is not secondary to the truth. Faith is not an intellectual exercise. Christ is He who has “laid hold” on us. And apart from every mental perception, every hesitancy, the heart finally says ‘yes’ to Him, or there is nothing more to be said.

Saving faith is a “participatory adherence” – both a surrender of our heart – but also a living reality which has grasped us and made us His own.