B. A. Gerrish’s “Saving and Secular Faith”

The concept of faith is obviously of great importance in Christianity, but there’s not necessarily agreement on what it means. Faith has been defined as intellectual assent to certain propositions (such as those taught by the church or contained in the Bible). But it has also been interpreted in a more “existential” sense as “trust.”

In Saving and Secular Faith, his short “invitation” to theology, Reformed theologian Brian Gerrish tries to steer a middle course. He rejects views of faith that define it as simply assent to a set of revealed truths, but he also maintains that faith must have some cognitive content. As a working definition, he ends up adopting John Calvin’s account of “saving” faith as “steadfast knowledge of the fatherly goodwill of God.” He later elaborates on this, saying that it “is both (1) perceiving one’s experience under the image of divine benevolence (fides) and (2) a consequent living of one’s life out of an attitude of confidence or trust (fiducia).” For Christians, this gift of faith is given through Christ–specifically through the impact of the narrative of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

For Gerrish, Christian faith is a particular instance of faith defined in a more generic way: the perception of meaning and purpose in one’s life through commitment to an object of ultimate loyalty in which one finds security (p. 33).  Faith is a “construal” or a “construction” of the meaning of reality: our experience is interpreted through a particular lens. (Calvin compared revelation to a corrective lens that allows us to see reality more truly.) This doesn’t mean that the faith one adopts is arbitrary, but there is an irreducible element of subjectivity. Our construal of reality is one that we typically absorb from our community, such as a religious community.

Gerrish argues not only that Christian faith shares resemblances with other types of faith (somewhat awkwardly, he refers to these, religious and non-religious alike, as “secular” faith), but that virtually every approach to reality requires what he calls “elemental” faith. At a minimum, he says, nearly everyone, even a hard-bitten scientific naturalist, assumes that the world exists independently of our minds and that it displays a certain order and regularity. Similarly, when push comes to shove, almost all of us recognize a moral order–duties that we have whether we like it or not. There is a sense in which we are–all of us–practically committed to things we can’t prove.

He goes on to defend creeds and confessions as tools, not for persecuting heretics, but for establishing and maintaining the identity of a community and its construal of reality. But he is equally insistent–in good Protestant fashion–that these must be open to revision. Gerrish also considers, briefly, how religious pluralism and the quest for the historical Jesus affect Christianity’s confession of Jesus as Savior. In short, “saving faith” as Gerrish has defined it does not exclude the possibility that such faith can be mediated through traditions other than Christianity. Nor is it dependent on the results of the latest historical research. What has historically mediated this faith is the “image” of Jesus contained in the New Testament and passed down through the ages by the church, and this is not falsifiable by historical research.

I have some reservations about Gerrish’s argument. In particular, I think his understanding of faith would have been more persuasive if he’d demonstrated more concretely how it would apply to non-Christian traditions. And I’m less comfortable than he seems to be with historical agnosticism about Jesus. But I still found it a winsome approach to theology and faith standing within the venerable liberal Protestant tradition exemplified by Schleiermacher: that is, one that is open to modern thought and experience but which takes Christian uniqueness and tradition seriously. (This is not terribly surprising, since Gerrish has studied Schleiermacher and wrote a very illuminating study of his theology.)


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