Does Correct Belief Make the Christian?

Note to the reader: This posting continues my discussion on the pervasive experience of doubt in the Christian’s spiritual journey that began in my last posting. You may want to read it first for context.

Bible text: Galatians 5:6

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything: the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

 There are different kinds of doubt that may assail us in our spiritual journey as Christians. One is intellectual doubt. We may not be sure that we really believe all the doctrines that we hear Christianity preaching.

As a pastor, I hear this hesitation from many of the people I talk with in my work. They will tell me that they cannot say the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed with any honesty. That fact holds them back from being baptized or joining the church.  

Among despisers of religious faith, intellectual reasons for disbelief often hold first place. That is especially true in our era when many regard it as a truism that religious faith and scientific truth are and must be in contradiction.

I would like to say a couple of things to those who are troubled by intellectual doubts.

Dealing with the Creeds

First, let’s tackle the creeds. The creeds, especially the ecumenical Nicene Creed, express the proclamation of the Church, the Christian community throughout the ages and across the world. In my own church, when we say the Nicene Creed, we begin, “We believe….” Note the plural “we.” The creed expresses our communal belief.

This does not mean that on any one day, I or anyone else in the church can fully say that I believe every single article in the creed. I may not, but I express my oneness with this community of faith that does proclaim this message through the ages.

The late Jaroslav Pelikan, a professor of Christian dogmatic history at Yale University for nearly 40 years, says this colorfully in an interview with Krista Tippett on a broadcast of her show “On Being,” in 2003 (rebroadcast in 2009). Here is what he said:

My faith life, like that of every one else, fluctuates. There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there. And so I’m not asked on a Sunday morning, ‘As of 9:20, what do you believe?’ And then you sit down with a three-by-five index card saying, ‘Now let’s see. What do I believe today?’ No, that’s not what they’re asking me. They’re asking me, ‘Are you a member of a community which now, for a millennium and a half, has said, we believe in one God?’

Interestingly, when it comes to the proclamation about Jesus, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed both ignore completely what Jesus taught and preached and his work of healing, exorcising, and feeding the hungry. They focus instead on his birth, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Why is that? Because, I believe, these creeds do not regard the essential thing about Jesus to be what he taught or did in service to the sick and poor. The essential thing is his saving acts: the acts of his birth, death, resurrection, and ascension. For orthodox Christianity the important thing about Jesus is that he is a Savior, not just a great teacher or prophet.

Is Saving Faith Correct Belief?

That leads to me my second point about intellectual doubt. It is not correct belief that saves any of us. If we have to believe perfectly all the doctrines that the church teaches us, then most of us are lost.

When you read the New Testament carefully, we find that what saves us is not correct belief about Jesus, but a trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

There is a profound difference between believing something about Jesus and believing in Jesus. Believing something about Jesus means Jesus remains an object of intellectual inquiry. He does not, however, necessarily make any claims upon our life or behavior. We can choose to ignore him.

To believe in Jesus, on the other hand, implies a trust in him. That trust issues in a decision to follow him as a disciple. Once we make that decision, then Jesus does make a serious claim upon our whole life—mind, heart, relationships, and behavior.

We recognize that in my own church, the Presbyterian Church (USA). Yes, we have a Book of Confessions that lays out the fundamental beliefs of the Presbyterian Church. Our church stands for specific theological teachings. Those called to lead the church must take those teachings seriously.

But we have not made perfect belief in those doctrines as the basis of church membership. Our Book of Order has historically specified that membership in the Christian Church is based upon a profession of faith [or trust] in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and a commitment to live in a fellowship [or a congregation] under Christ’s rule. (See the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church [USA], 2007/2009, Paragraph G-4.0101. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the wording has been dropped from the most recent revision of the Book of Order.)

For me, what this basic requirement does is place our primary emphasis not on correct belief, but on discipleship. Saving faith is trust in Jesus Christ. It is shown primarily not through the doctrines we profess, but through the life we live, through practices and behavior.

Are we trusting in God as a loving Father, as Jesus did and taught? Are we seeking to live lives of humility and service, as he did? Are we praying to God, as Jesus taught us? Are we sharing our wealth and goods with others in need, as he did?

An Example of a Doubting Disciple

I am reminded here of another great Christian of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer, the missionary doctor to Africa. Schweitzer was a brilliant theologian. He wrote a very influential book on the search for the historical Jesus. In writing that book he also came ultimately, he said, to be unable to accept the New Testament picture of Jesus, the picture that orthodox Christianity had always taught.

Yet Jesus captivated him.  Jesus seemed to call Schweitzer to emulate him in his service by becoming a missionary doctor to Africa. And so Schweitzer did, giving up both a career as a theologian and as a musician. Schweitzer did not have perfect belief, as defined by the creeds. He nonetheless followed Jesus as a disciple. He trusted in Jesus in his own imperfect way.

And so it is for all of us. None of us will ever profess a perfect theology. But we can trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior by following him as a disciple. We may harbor intellectual doubt, but we believe in him by the way we live, however imperfectly that may be. As the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “…the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

An additional note: No one should take my remarks about the creeds as implying that I think the creeds are dispensable in the Christian life. That is not my position. If we are asked to believe in Jesus, then an essential question is: Who is this Jesus you ask me to trust in? The creeds are orthodox Christianity’s answer to that question. Yet, I believe, trusting in Jesus and our decision to follow him as disciples takes precedence in the Christian life over profession of the creeds.


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