What Do We Mean by Faith in Jesus Christ?

By Gerrish, B. A. | The Christian Century, October 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

What Do We Mean by Faith in Jesus Christ?


Gerrish, B. A., The Christian Century


CRISIS" IS an overworked word. But few will deny that there is a crisis today in Christology, the doctrines of Christ's work and person. What is not always so clearly recognized is just how long the crisis has been in the making. It is the product, in part, of two characteristics of our modern habits of historical thinking: relativism and historical skepticism.

For Luther and Calvin, there could be only one Savior of the world; outside of faith in Christ, they could see nothing but idolatry and the willful suppression of God's witness to Godself. And they had no serious doubts about the historical reliability of what the New Testament says of Christ. Whether tree or false, neither of these two assumptions--the uniqueness of Christ and the historical reliability of the Gospels--can be taken for granted anymore.

It is astonishing to find doubts on the first assumption as early as the 17th century, in the confessions of a model Puritan.

Here is John Bunyan's testimony in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:

   The Tempter would also much assault me with this: How can you tell but that
   the Turks had as good Scriptures to prove their Mahomet the Saviour, as we
   have to prove our Jesus is; and could I think that so many ten thousands in
   so many Countreys and Kingdoms, should be without the knowledge of the
   right way to Heaven (if there were indeed a Heaven) and that we onely, who
   live but in a corner of the Earth, should alone be blessed therewith?
   Everyone doth think his own Religion rightest, both Jews, and Moors, and
   Pagans; and how if all our Faith, and Christ, and Scriptures, should be but
   a think-so too?

Bunyan's temptation expresses an early tremor of Christian complacency in a world not only of confessional pluralism but of religious pluralism, too: he has looked at the alarming possibility that all religions, Christian and non-Christian, are alike no more than "think-so," none of them having any special right to be set apart as alone tree, or even placed on top as the truest there is. We remember, of course, that according to Bunyan, it was the devil who put these unnerving thoughts into his mind. But what to him was a passing insinuation of the Tempter became for the English Deists, who followed him, a sustained assault on any revelation addressed to all humankind from corners, as Deist Anthony Collins ironically put it. And for the present-day Christian theologian it has become a sober, unavoidable theological question: Is there only one mediator between God and humankind? If there are many candidates, how can we adjudicate between them? Or does religious pluralism necessarily imply a religious relativism, in which what is good and tree for us may not be good and true for everyone?

Theories constructed to assimilate the new data about other religions sometimes adjusted the old theology, sometimes broke with it; either way, a new theological agenda was quietly taking shape. Richard Baxter (1615-91) argued that if all nations of the world have some kind of religion, then all may hope to obtain mercy for their sins. "Those that know not Christ nor his redemption, are yet his Redeemed." A staunch Puritan, Baxter could not suppose that the salvation of pagans nullifies the need for atonement; it must mean, rather, that the efficacy of Christ's saving work extends to some, at least, who have never heard of him. Christian theology thus retains its priority over the evidences of natural religion, which are simply incorporated into the old scheme with a minimal adjustment--an adjustment, by the way, that was not without precedent in the theology of the Reformation era. But the English Deists reversed the priorities: they incorporated Christianity into a general understanding of religion.

The Deists were not all of one mind. But we find repeatedly in their writings the view that a pure religion is accessible to all by nature and that Christianity, like every other historical religion, partly exhibits the religion of nature, partly obscures and corrupts it. …

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