Theological Straw Men

Fred Phelps, Pat Robinson, Jeremiah Wright, Gene Robinson, Robert Duncan, Marcus Borg, John Spong, Steve Pankey.  All of these men have two things in common.  First, they have declared themselves as followers of the Jesus movement in some way, shape, or form.  Second, they have all been used by their detractors as nothing more than theological straw men, useful only such that they help to prove a point.  Truth be told, each of these men has also been guilty of using others in the same way.  In the post-Twitter world, where almost nothing happens that isn’t public within about 15 minutes and where snark and vitriol are used as currency, it is easy to think that this is a rather recent phenomenon, but the reality is that theological squabbles have utilized straw men from the very beginning.  Think of names like Galileo, Nestorius, Pelagius, and Pope Clement VII.

Even before the Church existed, and long before the Christological debates of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there were theological debates that utilized straw men to prove one point or another.  A prime example comes in our Gospel lesson for Sunday where Jesus’ own disciples see a blind beggar on the side of the road and use him to start a debate.  As if he isn’t even there, or at the very least, as if he doesn’t have ears to hear and heart to feel, they ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  From there, he gets used by his neighbors, the crowd, the Jewish leadership, the Pharisees, and to a certain extent, even his own parents, to wage a battle between Sabbath law abiding Jews and this Jesus character.

It is only Jesus who sees the Man Born Blind (MBB) as a human being.  He answers the disciples question, as he stoops down to make mud and heal the man.  When the MBB is ultimately expelled from the Synagogue, Jesus seeks him out and invites him into the Kingdom.  Of course, that’s what Jesus is all about, reminding us of our humanity in a world that would rather label and dismiss us.

What Exactly is Faith?

“Increase our faith!”

As our Gospel lesson for Sunday opens, we find the disciples imploring Jesus for more faith, but that leads me to wonder, “what exactly is faith?”  My wondering has been exacerbated by a question from a friend and regular commenter here at DT, WEV, who is in his fourth year of Sewanee’s Education for Ministry program.  The early part of this year’s program is dealing with faith, including reading a book by a guy with the best theologian name ever, Diogenese Allen, called Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.  His question came from the text provided by Sewanee, and I took as snapshot of it to remind myself of what was going on (you’ll have to pardon any inherent copyright violations, and if you get bored with academic wrangling over language, jump down to the *).

2013-10-01 18.02.08

The first thing that comes to my mind is, “why is Sewanee quoting a book copyrighted in 1979 that isn’t the Book of Common Prayer, and don’t say ‘because Urban Holmes was once the Dean of the School of Theology,’ because my brain will explode.”  The second thought was, “And why are we looking at the Latin forms?”  It is always best to go back to the original language in matters of Biblical study, so why this extensive block quote of a tertiary source evaluating a primary source based on a secondary one?

So, I dug deeper.  That one time that “belief” appears in the Authorized Version, it comes from 2 Thess 2.13, “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.”  The argument of Holmes and Westerhoff is that this is somehow different than the 233 times that “faith” is used.  Except, when you look at the Vulgate, the Latin word isn’t “opinor,” but rather “fide,” which Holmes and Westerhoff already translated as faith.  Digging deeper, assuming we’re using different Latin versions (I don’t have an LXX handy), the Greek root is “pistos,” which is the same word used for faith all throughout the Greek New Testament.

As the New Testament made its way from Greek to Latin, translators attempted to put nuance to the Greek word “pistos” and chose to translate either as “fide”, as in fidelity or “credo”, as in creed. (Side note: my ability to search the Vulgate brings no mention of “opinor”).  In English, translators have attempted to do the same thing by using variants (something Holmes and Westerhoff ignore in their text) of “faith” and “belief,” but even in that most famous line from John 14.1, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God.  Believe also in me.”  Both times the Latin word is “credo” and the Greek “pistos.”

Marcus Borg, a man much smarter than me, has written a whole chapter on this subject in his book The Heart of Christianity, and I suggest you check out chapter two, “Faith: the way of the heart”, in which he expands on “fide” and “credo”.  Suffice it to end this digression by saying that there seems to be some real difficulty in getting into the mind of the Greek authors as we try to nuance their language for ourselves.

* Which brings me back to my original question, “what exactly is faith?”  The disciples ask Jesus to “increase their faith” (Gk “pistos” and VUL “fide”), so what are they asking for?  Do they want a stronger conviction that Jesus is who he says he is?  Do they want to be more loyal to him?  Do they seek a deeper relationship with him?  I’m pretty sure they are asking for all of the above, but most importantly, they want to know that they’ve got the chops to be his disciples.  To borrow from Marcus Borg a bit, they’ve given their heart over to Jesus, they have trusted him this far, but as Jerusalem looms, they’re pretty sure they’re going to need a double portion of faith.

Who of us can’t relate to that feeling?  Which of us hasn’t said, at one time or another, “God, I need you a little bit more today”?  As Saint Paul famously wrote, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is what carries us through when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Faith is giving our heart (And everything else) to God: credo, fide, pistos, or otherwise.  Faith is a relationship with the Lord.