Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What I'm Learning This Summer: Faith "in" or Faith "of"

“They say the same creed but do they share the same faith?”

With that question I was hooked. The teacher was John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. The setting was the Christian Life Conference at Montreat, North Carolina, the opening plenary session on Saturday night.

The question came after an exercise in imagining two people who attend the same church every week where they regularly recite the same statement of faith, “The Apostles Creed.” One person is easily irritated, often caustic and unkind in their speech, a bit self absorbed, rarely generous with what they have, rarely evidencing joy in life, often proud and careful about impression management.

The other person is experienced as kind in both manner and speech, patient with others, frequently an encourager, genuinely interested in things and people beyond themselves, always eager to give or serve, always laughing or making others laugh.

They say the same creed, but do they share the same faith?

Ortberg eventually made this distinction:

There is faith “in” Jesus: usually presented as what one must believe about Jesus in order to be saved and go to heaven.

And then there is the faith “of” Jesus: this is the faith that Jesus himself had; it means believing as he believed so that we live the kind of life he lived.

The gist of the message that night was that the Christian life is really about living as Jesus lived; it is just that – a life. A way of being in the world. This life comes from having the faith of Jesus. It comes from believing and living in communion with God in such way that we internalize the life Jesus lived. What Ortberg called our “mental map.”

The Christian life is not about meeting the bare minimal entrance requirements to get to heaven. Here Ortberg acknowledges his indebtedness to the work of Dallas Willard. Simply giving assent to statements about Jesus (it was implied) will not produce the kind of life that Jesus lived. That’s why two people can state the same creed but have a different faith.

I agree with that. I am drawn to the distinction between “faith in” and “faith of.” And yet, now at a distance of more than a week from the conference, I sense some anxieties about this. My anxiety boils down to this: too many churches do not do a good job of teaching doctrine. In fact, too many churches don’t teach doctrine at all. While Ortberg would not intend this, his distinction feeds our proclivity to be dismissive of doctrinal language and ideas.

What would it take to present doctrine in such a way that it produced transformed lives that increasingly resemble Jesus? That’s what doctrine ought to do. In canonical scripture, the gospels are neighbor to Romans and Hebrews. The didactic voice harmonizes with the narrative voice. Teacher and story-teller, thinker and exemplar live side by side in the pages of the Bible.

Yes – there is a difference between “faith in” and “faith of.” And yes, I’ve heard far more in my lifetime about having faith in Jesus than I’ve heard abut having the faith of Jesus. And yes, my personal shortcomings have more to do with my life than with my knowledge.

But in my calling to live the Jesus way, I’m almost certain I’ll continually struggle with getting it right. The Christian life then becomes an exercise in frustration . . . unless we know some good doctrine that makes sense of it all.