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Examining the Concept of Faith from an Orthodox Perspective

SINCE THE TIME OF THE REFORMATION IN THE WEST, IT SEEMS THAT AN IDEALISTIC APPROACH TO THE
CHRISTIAN faith has predominated. What I mean to say is that the Gospel and its essential elements
have been confined to those things which transpire in the mind (or perhaps some might prefer to say
the heart). At any length, what is said to be essential to the Christian faith, and soteriology in particular,
has centered on things that can be measured by mental assent, and not in any material or practical
expression. The concept of sola fida (faith alone), very easily lends itself to such mental or idealistic
constraints. What is of utmost importance, in such an approach, is what one believes to be true; what
one holds as the proper tenets of the Christian faith. This sort of approach is very often presented as
antithetical to a practical sort of faith. Such a faith would be called, by the idealist, works-salvation;
which has become the ultimate sin and abomination to the idealist. This has progressed to the point in
Protestantism that to suggest any sort of practical faith has soteriological value equates to “perverting
the gospel” and “denying the finished work of Christ”, or some other pejorative. What is believed is
presented in a sharp dichotomy to what is practiced, with the latter finding precarious positions within a
description of the Christian faith.

It can easily be seen how that morality and right-living take a back seat in such an approach, if
they are even a part of the journey. It seems that the pronouncement of James the Just has been
forgotten. He writes “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also”1. In this
world of faith only the definition of what faith is seems to have moved away from what is described in
scripture. For those who propose such an idealistic approach to faith, St. Paul is often taken as the major
source of proof-texts. Does he not, after all, say that we are justified by faith apart from the “works of
the Law”? But his other statements seem to be forgotten. For instance, in his epistle to the Romans he
writes:

Rom 1:5 But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for
yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who “will render
to each one according to his deeds”: 7 eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good
seek for glory, honor, and immortality; 8 but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth,
but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, 9 tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who
does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; 10 but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works
what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 11 For there is no partiality with God.

Is this really the Apostle Paul? Can Paul here truly be relating “doing good” and working “what is good”
with eternal life and glory? These are indeed his words. Perhaps if this beloved Apostle, to whom the
idealist would most readily appeal, were to give this statement in some public forum, we might imagine
them raising cries to high-heaven about “works-based” salvation and “distorting the gospel.” It is certain
that you or I could not escape such a charge if merely repeating what Paul writes here. But how can this
be? How can it be that the words of Paul himself find themselves in contradiction to the popular

1
James 2:26
soteriology of this day? I submit that Protestantism has misunderstood what faith is in the Apostolic
sense. Protestantism has replaced the faith of scripture with mental assent to a set of facts.

In each Divine Liturgy, and perhaps daily, the Orthodox Christian confesses “I believe in one God
the Father Almighty…”. Then, before taking the Eucharist, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art
truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God…” Someone might then contest that we too have a “list of
things to believe.” This is certainly true. We do, in fact, have a dogmatic theology. We have that which
we hold and confess as true, and that by which we measure all other things. But what I will submit here
is that there is a difference in what is believed, in a factual sense, and faith. St. James seems to point to
this when he writes “do you believe in one God, then you do well. The demons also believe and
tremble.” The demons believe, but can it be said that they have faith? Faith seems to be more. When
Christ heals in the Gospels he many times asks for a reaction, he tells the paralytic “take up your bed
and walk … your faith has made you whole.” In one particular instance we read of a woman who says
within herself “if I could but touch the hem of His garment I will be healed.” What does Christ say to
her? “Take courage, daughter, your faith has healed you.” Her faith had healed her? But what was that?
Not a set of ideals. Rather a motion in the heart that prompted action. She pressed through the crowd
and touched His garment. Not even Him, but the hem of the garment He wore. Here we might suggest
some elements – ingredients - of what scripture teaches about faith. Is faith a matter of the heart,
certainly so. But it is also a matter of action. Further, and perhaps as importantly, faith finds a vehicle – a
means to receive grace. Here it is the hem of Christ’s garment. Christ calls all of this her faith. We see
this sort of thing all through the Gospel accounts. A blind man is told to go and wash, a paralytic is told
to take up his bed and walk and lepers are told to go show themselves to the priest. In each case this is
described as faith. It seems that the way Christ describes faith is utterly ignored in the definition of faith
so very often. Christ identifies faith as something that prompts action – something that is acting and
reaching. Something that is, in fact, coming into contact with Christ.

We often hear about how important relationship is in today’s religious climate, and this is
contrasted with “religion.” What is meant by that? This rather ambiguous notion seems to imply that
there is something inherently wrong with religion. But what is religion? Religion is what we practice, in
its most basic definition. The term is used in general language to describe that which is repetitive about
our lives. We might say that someone checks his phone each morning religiously. We are describing
more than a random and arbitrary action. We are describing something that has become the very fabric
of that individual’s life. When we consider this, we can see that this sort of religion is very common to
human experience. We sit in the same chairs, go to the same restaurants and most have a daily and
weekly routine that shapes their life. This routine of life is, in a basic way, our religion. Or course when
we are addressing the dichotomy of relationship vs. religion, the idea is applied to the routine and
custom of the Christian faith; those things that have marked Christian identity for centuries. And here, if
the idea is that going through a routine with no heart involvement is empty and in need of the
invigoration of the Holy Spirit, then such is understandable and true. But if the idea is that religion is
unimportant to such a relationship, then nothing could be further from the truth in regards to the
Christian way. It is certainly not the way faith is described in scripture. We see the sort of faith that we
described earlier related in scripture. It is those who are baptized into to Christ who “put on Christ”.
Those who partake of the bread and wine of the Eucharist “participate in the body and blood of Christ.”
The anointing with oil and confession will “save the sick, and if he has committed any sins God will
forgive him.” Scripturally the dichotomy of relationship vs. religion, of ritual vs encounter, does not
exist. They are the same thing. There is no faith without action, according to the inspired writers. James
asks if we can even call such a thing faith at all?

It is because of this divorce of faith and practice in Protestantism that many have lost the sense
of incarnational theology in the west. It is preached that God became man, but what is left beyond this
is nothing that can be really touched. Nothing that can be encountered with the senses. The Apostles
could proclaim that they had “handled the Word of Life”, but those who succeeded them could not
make such a claim. Sacrament is reduced to symbol, in its weakest sense. Baptism is only a sign of an
“inward work”. The Eucharist is only to remind us of the blood and body. There is no Church, which is
His body and no worship that is revealed from heaven. What remains is ideals, fruit of the imagination.
Like a sweet memory of some long-past historical event that is important, but evermore distant. Christ
came, but He does not come. Faith, in this context, is little more than reciting this long held memory.

But the Apostolic faith is not the recital of a past memory, but the encounter of present reality.
It is Christ in His Church. Christ that may be touched, seen and we even encounter His sweet fragrance.
The sacraments, the holy mysteries, of the faith serve as vehicles of grace. Like the hem of Christ’s
garment they are conduits of virtue – of holy energy – that impart something to the believer. When
Peter encountered the lame man at the Beautiful Gate he says “silver and gold I do not have, but such as
I have give I thee.” He was going to give him something. Something was going to be imparted,
something that Peter had, and that this man who could not walk would receive. This something would
change him. He would walk – no rather run and leap into the Temple praising the God who heals. Peter
was not going to share a cherished old story with him. He was going to impart a living and present
reality. He took him by the hand and this grace was imparted. This is the nature of the Church and the
nature of faith. Not the memorization of proper ideals and arguments, but a motion of the heart that
compels to action and finds a vehicle of that grace that is desired.

But isn’t this taking away from the “finished work of Christ?” If we suggest that acting in faith,
through sacrament imparts grace then are we not suggesting that Christ’s work was not sufficient? Not
at all. Water, oil, bread and wine have no inherent power of themselves, they may be the most common
elements of human experience. Yet in Christ they become vehicles of grace – the hem of His garment.
They have power because of Christ, and without Him they would be dead; as was all creation before He
came. Yet when the Logos became flesh, the constitution of the creation was forever changed.
Somehow He who no man has ever seen was expressed with cells and atomic particles, the elements of
the material world. Could it be that one atom was God, and another not? Could it be that one human
cell was God and another not? It is precarious to speak of such mysteries, but we may say this: if God
was made flesh, then the whole of the cosmos was assumed with the human nature of Christ. Heaven
and earth joined in His body. What we are saying is that it is because of His incarnation that the common
elements may express Divine reality. It is within the worship of the Church that we find those elements
particularly assigned to the dignity of allowing us to touch – to handle – the Word of Life. Christ says “I
will not leave you orphans, I will come to you.” We are not left with a memory, we are overcome with
His presence. Christ is in our midst!

So what is this faith then? This faith that makes us whole? That justifies us before God? It is not
a mental assent to sacred facts; even though to confess with the mouth is sacramental in its own right. It
is not the capturing of a correct ideological structure. Rather it is to participate in the Divine life that
flows forth from the Church, the body of Christ. Christ describes us as branches that are attached to the
stock. Through this connection, we receive strength from the stock. It is through our connection to the
Church, the body of Christ, that we receive strength. It is through her prayers and sacraments that our
hungry hearts find a vehicle, a means of grace, and through which faith finds it pure and holy work. This
is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of scripture and this is the faith that saves all who come to
Christ.