This House is Becoming Anxious

Posted by on February 23, 2009 at 5:45 pm.
The audience at the “Justification by faith (in Christ) alone” debate. About 75 people in attendance.

[Correction: today (25 Feb 2009), I spoke with Professor Richard Bell and he kindly let me know that I mis-paraphrased him below.  He was not speaking of anxiety-riddled Catholics in Germany, but Protestants he met.  My deepest apologies for this mischaracterization/misquote.  I have adjusted the paraphrase below to reflect the actual substance of what Professor Bell said.  Part of Bell’s larger point here is to deeply call into question the notion that this is a “Catholic vs Protestant” issue.  I agree, myself being a Protestant Nazarene, Adrian Pabst of the debate described below being Anglican, and we ourselves are still in opposition to the “justification by faith (in Christ) alone” doctrine. — that being said, I do not think the substance of my comments regarding Kierkegaard actually changes any with this ammendation, especially in light of Alex’s helpful comment which displays the flipside of ‘bad’ anxiety of wondering if we have had ‘enough’ faith.]

Last week I attended a debate here at the University of Nottingham entitled “This house believes that justification is by faith (in Christ) alone.”  The sides of the debate represented two people for it (Richard Bell and Martin Street) and two against it (Aaron Riches and Adrian Pabst).  Clearly, the side for the debate represents the usual ‘protestant’ side of the debate, while the side against the measure represents, loosely, the broader c/Catholic/traditional side.

The debate itself was rather interesting, very exciting, and I learned a lot, but I just want to briefly respond to a remark made by Richard Bell in his closing arguments.  Bell presented a case that went something like the following: 

“I have visited Germany and I encountered German Protestants there who were constantly full of anxiety over whether or not they were ‘doing enough’ to ensure their salvation.  They were constantly frought over this issue, but let me present to you that the doctrine of ‘justification by faith in christ alone’ will assuage their angst, because then they will realize that entry into the kingdom of God does not depend upon works, but faith.”

Something like that.  Essentially, the message assumes that 1) those who reject justification by faith in christ “alone”* therefore must fall into a duality of necessarily believing in “works alone” and 2) “justification by faith in Christ alone” aleviates the existential angst caused by this flight into works.

On point #1, clearly, faith is an integral part of the picture, as well as grace and love, but “faith alone” cannot be just a univocal proposition that we are to assent to as believers as a part of the life of faith.  On the night that Christ was betrayed, Jesus did not give his disciples a doctrine, but gave them his body in a Eucharistic practice of partaking his his broken body and spilt blood.  Yes, faith is an integral part of this practice (and they would have had to have some faith initially to drop their nets and follow Jesus), but there is a fuller, richer picture to what salvation and being ‘justified’ means. (This was the general summary of the “opposing” side to the debate, but there are a few more particulars here and there.)

But more importantly for this post, I want to deeply call into question Bell’s account that propositional assent by faith just makes all our worries go away.  There are a few reasons for this, and I hope to employ some more nuanced Lutherans in the debate.

First, the broad point is that we are never promised the easy, non-anxious life as Christians.  The sermans about ‘assurance’ which tend to get a lot of play are really not about the assurance of our salvation as far as I can tell, especially since where it shows up in the Epistle to the Hebrews seems to talk about a more nuanced kind of assurance in light of being “diligent” in the faith so as not to become sluggish (as one example).

Second, and this was my initial thought in response to Bell at the time: doesn’t Kierkegaard/Johannes de Silentio–a Lutheran–talk about Abraham, who is the father of faith, as an incredibly anxious dude?  In fact, Silentio says, “What is omitted from Abraham’s story is the anxiety […]” (28, Hong translation).  Abraham’s anxiety comes from living at that moment in the paradox where the ethical “ought” is suspended by the religious; the contradiction between the murder and the sacrifice is what makes Abraham what he is–anxious, distressed.

Moreover, it is Philippians 2:12Open Link in New Window which says to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” from whence Silentio derives his title.   The life of faith is inherently distressful.  Interestingly, Silentio begins his discussion saying, “only the one who was in anxiety finds rest” (27).  As my friend Alex reminds me, the truth is that we’ve never “done enough” anyway, and we can just get over that fact and realise that that is our condition so we must be diligent and not sluggish on the way to becoming a Christian.

Finally, Dietrich Bonhoeffer–also a Lutheran–is well known for his writings against “cheap grace” in The Cost of Discipleship.  If I may, the way that Bell assumed that his formulation of the justification doctrine so easily provided a solution for the problem seemed incredibly close to something very much like cheap grace.  Bonhoeffer contrasted the notion of “costly grace” against cheap grace, reminding us that the shape of grace is a cruciform one (Kierkegaard/Anti-Climacus’ emphasis on John 12:32Open Link in New Window when Christ said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” also works well here considering his point is that the “lifting up from the earth” is Jesus Christ being lifted up to the cross).  The way of the cross is costly; the path is a hard one.  Any kind of attempt to make the Christian life “easier” should, I think, be suspect; in Kierkegaard/Anti-Climacus terms, we shouldn’t try and slacken the paradox such that the Christian faith is as easy as putting on one’s socks!

Now, as a very serious disclaimer, I would distance myself with such any notions which aim to let the cart push the horse such that we strive toward anxiety, or that we need to make the Christian life hard, as much as I side with Kierkegaard that the Christian life needs to be ‘made’ difficult again.  This would be ridiculous.  My claim, rather, is that this is just what the Christian life is.  The works of mercy, for instance, are not ‘difficult’, rather, they are a gift, in similar way in which love is both a command and a gift.**

Futher even briefer thoughts:

  • Something not brought up in the debate is the “Pistos Christou” issue, about which Richard Hays wrote a book.  I borrowed it once from my pastor in San Diego, but didn’t get a chance to read it at all.  I’m assuming there’s some relevance of this to the debate.  Faith in Christ, or Faith of Christ, what are the implications, blah blah.
  • I haven’t read any Martin Luther at all beyond his stuff on the bondage of the will (which I thought was rubbish).  So, I haven’t read Luther on this issue at all.  That being said, it seemed like there were some slight caricatures of Luther being made in the debate, but I would still side against the general position which Bell and Street represented.
  • I am becoming more and more convinced that the Joint Declaration means not much beyond the fact that finally the the late 20th century were Lutherans and Catholics able to sit down together and attempt to work something out without beating each other up.  Clearly, the issue is still very much extremely divided and real differences persist.  I will need to re-read the document and also the relevant critical literature of it in its wake at some point, but I’ve spent enough time writing this post today.
  • I’m not sure what ‘work’ simply asserting “faith is a work” does.  I don’t disagree per se with this, it’s just that saying this from the univocal standpoint of “justification by faith (in Christ) alone” seems to still discount the narrative of Scripture which introduces some sort of distinction or larger picture than the “faith vs. works” dichotomy (or its flattening) allows.
  • I’ve never really cared about this issue that much because it seemed really boring.
  • I didn’t give nearly as much blog ink to the issue of grace that Aaron and Adrian raised, but I will leave it here.

* “alone” is in quotes because it was an insertion by Martin Luther.  It appears nowhere in the Greek of Romans 3:22Open Link in New Window (I think that is the verse).  Plus, a place where “alone” does appear is exactly where it refutes the doctrine: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (James 2:24Open Link in New Window, emphasis mine).

** On this see Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, p. 169.