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The Nature of the Faith

November 3, 2014
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Two weeks ago I discussed the nature of Scripture with specific reference to the scriptures of other religions. The basic idea that there may be a range of functions that a body of sacred writings can fulfill is workably demonstrated by pointing to other religions. However, these examples are marred by two problems: first, few people are familiar enough with more than one religion to easily characterize how various religions act towards their sacred texts. Second, since my intended audience is Christian, I have to assume that most of my audience will understand other religions through a Christian-tinted lens. If you don’t know how Shinto, say, uses its sacred texts but you are familiar with how Baptists read the Bible you’re likely to unknowingly and unconsciously assume that Shintoism has some sort of Shinto Bible (not true). Given this, I began to think of how else to represent the range of functions a central text could have. This, in turn, opened up several interesting paths to follow in thinking about reading the Bible.

I restricted myself to central texts because it’s obvious that the Bible is a central text. One could have a large body of rather miscellaneous texts that aren’t clearly agreed upon, which nobody reads all of, and which some people ignore altogether but that would not be a useful analogy for the Bible. However, one can have very important central texts that vary widely in their function. To illustrate this imagine two disciplines: the 500-meter sprint and the history of Vietnam in the second century BC. Let us imagine that both have a central text – that there is a single volume that every serious 500-meter sprinter knows contains the best and most comprehensive material concerning the 500-meter sprint and that there is a similar work for the history of second-century Vietnam.

There are some obvious and immediate differences between how these texts will be treated. The history text is the very essence of the discipline – the discipline is a body of knowledge and the collection of that knowledge into a book makes that book the central item in the discipline. If such a book existed for the history of second-century Vietnam no one could do serious work in that discipline without engaging with that book. If the book was authored by a few people rather than being a collection of works by dozens of already-recognized experts those few authors would attain great status in their field by authoring such a work.

Compare this to the hypothetical central text of the 500-meter sprint. The essence of the 500-meter sprint is the act of sprinting for 500 meters. The book neither sprints nor causes people to sprint and is therefore much more on the sidelines. Someone who reads the book or even someone who rigorously tests its claims and extends its methods may still be a terrible sprinter and there may be excellent, world-class sprinters who have never read the book. Authoring the book would be a nice addition to one’s resume but not nearly as impressive as being or training a world-class sprinter.

This is the difference between a field which is centered on a body of knowledge and a field that is centered on the accomplishment of some task. To illustrate this difference more starkly let us consider the illiterate historian and the illiterate sprinter: one is a joke and the other perfectly plausible. But what about the illiterate Christian? Is Christianity a body of knowledge or a thing that one does? (Most people will say that it isn’t exactly either but where does the balance lie?)

Without answering this question let me turn to a question I raised last week: what is the nature of the Church (or of the local churches)? If Christianity is a body of knowledge this is an easy question to answer: churches are universities in which one is taught the body of knowledge that comprises Christianity. The sermon is central and serves primarily to teach (not to inspire any sort of emotion) and the rest of the service is less important. The character of the preacher is also largely unimportant unless it interferes with preaching and learning. So, for instance, a preacher who cannot focus long enough to really ponder a section of text would be more of a problem than a preacher who was mentally sharp and focused but also a jerk. (It does matter whether a student connects emotionally with a teacher but much less so than it does in the case of a client connecting with a counselor. So while no possible role for a minister allows one to be a jerk without consequence in some roles the penalty for such behavior is lower.) In this hypothetical church good works are also relatively unimportant. While it might be odd to have people who claimed to believe that God loves everyone but never gave to the poor what would be important was the intellectual assent to the proposition that God loves everyone and not the actions.

Most people will reject this idea of the Church (although parts of it lie very close to the evangelical standard, especially when it comes to the intellectual frameworks by which people explain how churches function). Given this there are two options: assume that since this is not how churches should be run that Christianity is not mostly a body of knowledge or assume that since Christianity is mostly a body of knowledge then objections to running churches this way are groundless. While the second option is often thought to represent clear, logical thought because it prioritizes theory over current practice it is actually guilty of a major logical mistake. We are not without evidence of how churches were run in the New Testament (nor are we without the qualifications for church leaders in that era). While working from general principles is fine when there is no other data to work with the data we actually have from the Bible tells us that this hypothetical church focused entirely on knowledge is not what the apostles created. When data contradicts theory theory loses.

This circles us back to the original idea through several steps. If Christianity were mostly a body of knowledge (like history, chemistry, biology, or mathematics) the institutions of Christianity (the churches) would function in a way that doesn’t match what the apostles set up. (Incidentally, my examples of bodies of knowledge illustrate the reason I think so many Christians think of Christianity as a body of knowledge – science and math are “serious” and so Christians trying to insist that what they think about is also serious unconsciously mimic “serious” disciplines.) Therefore the apostles were either unclear on what Christianity was (have fun with trying to make that claim!) or Christianity is not mostly a body of knowledge. If Christianity is not primarily a body of knowledge how do we relate to its central texts?

Let’s return to the illiterate Christians I asked about several paragraphs back. How much of the Bible do they need to have someone read to them or explain to them to be good Christians? Would it be possible for a kind, wise, illiterate Christian who couldn’t tell anything more than the basic plotline of the Bible to “out-Christian” a Christian who was so learned that he read the Bible in the original languages and wrote commentaries on theology? I think the answer is yes – many of the early Christians were illiterate and yet when we find pastoral letters to these communities they rarely say, “Learn more Bible stories.” Instead, many of them are focused on behavior.

Now, before someone claims that I’m working around to disregarding the Bible let me point out that when someone like Paul says, “Do X,” (say “include the Gentiles”) they do so by drawing on theology (“because God’s Messiah was always meant to draw the nations to God”). Unlike the 500-meter sprint the doing part of Christianity stems from a body of knowledge that isn’t accessible without spending some time learning in a more “organized” sense than practice. This does make the theology that we draw from the Bible very important – but important in a different way than the knowledge I draw from a mathematics textbook is to math.

It is not easy to think through and explain all the ways this might change the way we view Scripture but I think one easy application is close at hand: there is no reason to learn theology or the Bible just to learn it. Being able to quote chapter and verse of every one of the Gospels is pointless if it doesn’t translate into being transformed by those books. This isn’t a way to say, “You don’t really know the Gospels if you don’t ‘do’ the Gospels,” but exactly what it sounds like: nobody should care if you know the Gospels if you don’t do them. It’s nice that you read a 300-page book on running but if watching the Boston Marathon on TV makes your legs hurt you need to do more than read. Ideally one reads a book on running in order to run better. Similarly, one should read the Bible in order to do God’s will better.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2014 12:41 am

    It’s interesting that “body of knowledge” vs. “practice” cut across the categories that American evangelicalism tends to use.

    At first, it looks like a restatement of “head” vs. “heart.” That is, the thing you do actually represents a change in you, rather than mere knowledge. But it also looks like “sola fide” vs. “works righteousness,” where it’s the acceptance, not necessarily the doing, of the thing that “counts.”

    I’m not trying to criticize any of those concepts, but it does seem like this categorization upsets some of our assumptions about them.

    • Eric permalink
      November 5, 2014 10:47 pm

      My suspicion is that American evangelicalism borrows some of its categories from the world at large. Americans in general believe in head versus heart (although the Hebrews didn’t) and Protestants in general are very interested in faith versus works. I think it’s quite possible to walk into this question asking which box it fits into and not whether there’s another box entirely.

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