Doubts and loves and faith: what’s right in Christianity

Michael Spencer has had some helpful things to say in the past couple of days on the subject of doubt, certainty and belief. He talks of those who equate faith and certainty, and who imply that “you can’t consider yourself a true believer until you really really really believe with absolute undoubted undaunted infallible certainty”:

The “I believe more and better than you do” contest is the equivalent of pulling off shirts and comparing muscles. Who’s really really really been in the gym.

Sola fide? Simple faith? The faith of a child? The faith of a sinner? The gift of faith to imperfect human beings? Existential faith that meets doubts? Not allowed. Absolute, unwavering certainty or here’s your sign, you pomo sissy.

But as Michael points out, the creed does not require us to confess:

I believe, with absolute certainty, in God the Father…

This is a liberating insight. It’s so easy to get bullied into accepting the proposition that “faith == certainty”, and that any admission of uncertainty is tantamount to unbelief.

Now, I tend not to think of myself as someone who (like Mr Prendergast in Decline and Fall) has Doubts. And on an intellectual level, I generally don’t. Give me a copy of the Nicene Creed or the Small Catechism and I can happily subscribe to every word. But on another level, there are times when I find myself haunted by the words of the doubting bishop in Father Ted: “Ah, Ted, it’s all bollocks, y’know”.

That may sound like I’m trivialising things, but that phrase captures the general, unfocused fear that there might, after all, be nothing and no-one there. That death is simply extinction (and my fear of death is a large driver for this), that Christianity is simply all one ghastly mistake, and that the picture of an impassive universe stretching on into future billions of years for no purpose will prove to be correct.

What is it that brings me back from this? Well, it’s certainly not being told that “faith == certainty” and that I should jolly well buck my ideas up and start being more “certain”. Instead, it’s the process described in Article V of the Augsburg Confession, which follows immediately on from Article IV’s confession of justification by faith:

So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel…

In other words, faith isn’t something we are to try to work up in ourselves. It isn’t some inner state of certainty to which we somehow attain. God, in his mercy towards us, does not require us to hold within our heads at one moment the whole truth of Christianity, and to assent to it. Rather, he comes to us with concrete, audible promises: “Your sins are forgiven”; “Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ”; “This is my body, given for you… this cup is the new testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins”. Faith is believing the promise we are hearing right now.

This is why it is so important that the church is clear in proclaiming this promise. For those who (as Boris Johnson once put it) find that their faith “is like Magic FM in the Chilterns: it comes and goes”, how crucial it is that, when they do find themselves in church, they hear a clear promise to which their wavering faith can attach itself.

Alert readers may have spotted that the title to this post alludes to the title of Richard Holloway’s book, Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity?. Well, doubts and loves are fine, but we need faith as well. The tragedy of someone like Bp Holloway, with his rejection of almost every Christian doctrine, is that he silences the promises on which faith depends. Doubt (as in a lack of 100%, cast-iron certainty) is not the enemy: false teaching, a pulpit that denies the gospel rather than proclaiming it, is.

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17 Responses to Doubts and loves and faith: what’s right in Christianity

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  3. Dan says:

    That may sound like I’m trivialising things, but that phrase captures the general, unfocused fear that there might, after all, be nothing and no-one there.

    A good description. I know the feeling – and feeling it is, a temptation to entertain doubt. But feelings and temptations do not make sin. I think that so often (here in the States at least) people justify their faith by how they “feel”. Therefore, if they somehow feel confused or afraid, they interpret it as lack of faith.

    I find that such feelings are immediately dispelled by doing something really unusual – praying and reading the Bible. Ok, no surprise here! In the Word of God we encounter his words of comfort to us, and indeed fear is cast out.

  4. R Keyes says:

    I’m a conservative but missions-oriented Lutheran in the states (colonies, USA, etc) and have come across your blog these past couple of days.
    Thank you. I’ve made it my home page.
    R Keyes
    Michigan, USA

  5. …that the picture of an impassive universe stretching on into future billions of years for no purpose will prove to be correct…

    Christianity can but this world-picture by definition can’t prove to be correct, post-life. Pascal’s wager in another form.

    Interesting and worthwhile post, though. I started reading Richard Holloway’s Doubts and Loves, and found it a frustrating book (in the I can’t believe it’s not better sense). The experience of looking at it confirmed me as post-liberal rather than just, you know, liberal. There’s some interesting critique there, certainly, and some illuminating insights, but not enough heart; it’s the kind of book which would detain a bored Guardian reader on a rainy Saturday afternoon but not the kind of book which would encourage a Christian youth worker trying to hold the line on a troubled inner-city estate. (Neither of those would be self-descriptions, incidentally. I never have time to read the Guardian on Saturday afternoons these days, and I’m a non-proselytising secular youth worker and counsellor struggling to hold the line in one of Britain’s most affluent towns. A bit of a doss, quite frankly). The bibliography also tells you something about the book – scrolling through it, I noted references to the Portable Marx and the Portable Nietzsche and thought, aha!, so that’s what Radio 4-friendly Church of England bishops are for. It’s a way of getting published without actually being an expert on anything.

  6. John H says:

    Christianity can but this world-picture by definition can’t prove to be correct, post-life. Pascal’s wager in another form.

    Good point. I must tell my nameless, formless dreads to be more logical in future. 😉

    I started reading Richard Holloway’s Doubts and Loves, and found it a frustrating book (in the I can’t believe it’s not better sense).

    I know what you mean (not that I’ve done more than flip through the book in Waterstones). What a waste of a superb title. Mind you, the author’s name on the cover was a bit of a giveaway.

    Radio 4-friendly Church of England bishops

    Church of England? That’ll be the former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church to you, chum. 🙂

    (Reminds me of when Deutsche Grammophon – having apparently had enough of being a serious record label – dropped Sir John Eliot Gardiner from their roster of artists. A spokesperson for DG, when asked why they had done this, said something along the lines of, “We feel that Mr Gardiner has completed his available repertoire”. Mr Gardiner? Miaow!)

  7. brandonmilan says:

    Faith that is completed in works is the only faith that is worthwhile, according to James. And maybe I’m reading a little too much into it, but faith that is riddled with doubt but is still being completed in works would seem to be worthwhile. Its when faith is so covered up in doubt that it ceases to produce any sort of faithful behavior that is the problem. I guess when faith fails because of doubt, that is a huge problem. But when faith stands in spite of doubt, that is just a testimony to the power of God and the faith that he gives us.

  8. John H says:

    Brandon: thanks for your comment. Not sure I’d want to say that faith is completed in works. I know James uses describes Abraham’s faith as being “brought to completion by the works”, but there is a danger in adopting that same wording out of context. It’s so easy for us to go from saying “our faith is incomplete without works” to saying, “our justification is incomplete without works”.

    It is not that faith is inherently incomplete without works, but that a faith that is “work-less” is a faith that is incomplete in the sense of being “dead” and “barren”, as James says in the preceding sentences – i.e., not true faith in the first place.

    But I entirely agree with your final sentence, which is what I was trying to say in my post. The question is what we do with our doubts: if we turn to Christ (as he presents himself to us in word and sacrament) and say “Lord, help my unbelief!”, all well and good. If our doubts lead us away from that, however – for example, if they lead us to an attempt at intellectual self-sufficiency, of seeking to resolve the doubts intellectually before we resume the life of faith – then we are in serious trouble.

  9. brandonmilan says:

    John: I see the danger in that, I just didn’t bring it out, because that wasn’t my point. But I agree with your post, it is easy to say that our justification is completed by our actions.

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  15. John H says:

    This thread has been getting heavily spammed, so I’m closing comments on it. If you are an actual human being 🙂 with a comment to make on this post, then please use the Open Discussion thread linked at the top of the page. Thanks!

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