John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme. Here he reflects on faith, the difficulties we can have with the language of justification and reminds us of the importance of grace and the love of God.
“The idea’s everything. Have you faith? Then a splinter from an old door becomes a sacred relic. Have you no faith? Then the whole Holy Cross itself becomes an old doorpost to you.”
I was reminded of this extract from Zorba the Greek both by a phrase in this week’s New Testament Reading and by the story of the Belgian Railway worker who held the points rod apart at risk of his own life so that the trains didn’t crash head on, which, together with people’s knowledge or otherwise of it, was offered as a parable of what God in Christ was doing on the cross. The quote and the story raise questions: questions about how to help people to know for themselves what salvation is. Questions about whether the crucifixion is just some mechanistic operation on God’s part. Questions about whether we have a common language with which to talk to people who are either confused in general or simply indifferent to what is so crucially important to us.
The phrase from the New Testament reading, which is related to all this, and which rang the Kazantzakis bells, is so that we might be justified by faith. This phrase is of crucial importance for many Christians. “Have you faith? Then a splinter from an old door becomes a sacred relic. Have you no faith? Then the whole Holy Cross itself becomes an old doorpost to you.”
We Anglicans stand in a tradition that is both Catholic and Reformed; and for all that I’ve been brought up within a more catholic tradition, this doctrine is a part of our Reformed inheritance which I want to honour. Luther, after all, said it was the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. For central to our Christian being and life is the grace of God justifying us. And what a difficult concept that has become.
One of the reasons for this, it has to be said, is because the English language doesn’t have the right words to convey the connotation of the Greek as Paul uses it. E P Sanders, the American biblical scholar, wants us to make the noun into a verb, and to get us talking in terms of “to righteous”, and “being righteoused”.
Others want us to resurrect the long lost Anglo Saxon verb rihtwisian, to rightwise. The reason is that neither of these ideas convey the juridical connotation that the French derived words “justify” and “justification” carry with them, juridical concepts that on the whole were developed in a feudal age, and are alien to our more democratic age which no longer sees God first and foremost as judge and lawgiver.
Another reason, of course, why this concept has become problematic is that for so long European protestant Christianity has read the great passages in Galatians and Romans through the lens of Martin Luther, as those seeking (and finding) relief from guilt. Many people no longer have this starting point; or if they do, no longer seek a religious answer to their quest.
We have emphasised the justifying, the quasi-juridical, and have forgotten the grace, the grace which is appropriated by us by our faith. Justification by faith is not just a sola fide principle; it is about God’s grace at work, grace which is appropriated by our faith. Understood thus, being made right by God and with God cannot but be central to what it is that makes me a Christian. It is not something I do of myself; it is something which God does for me, a gracious act which becomes real for me because of that same grace activating faith in me.
Which brings us to the question of whether it’s just a mechanistic activity. And clearly, if it is to do with our response to God’s grace then it isn’t just a mechanistic activity. In the gospel story of the healing of Legion there is a note of fear. The people were as afraid of Jesus as they were of Legion, and so they came and asked him to leave; and he did so, underlining the fact that whatever Jesus has done for us, or can do for us, if we don’t want him to do, then he won’t and he can’t. The response of faith to grace is imperative.
And I guess I’m not alone in sometimes being afraid of God. Often we are afraid of what might happen if, in faith, we respond wholeheartedly and openly to God’s grace at work (because we are afraid of losing control of our lives); and we live in an age in which we see ourselves as autonomous, independent individuals; who simply don’t like the idea of surrendering to something greater than ourselves.
(Which is why - in passing - quite a lot of relationships breakdown. It’s not just that we want to pursue our own desires - however strong or overwhelming these may seem at times; it’s actually that we are also afraid of a power which is greater than us, a power which is released by our loving somebody else, not just in a sentimental, emotional sort of way, but as an act of the total will and commitment.)
How to conquer that sort of fear in ourselves, and help others to conquer it, then becomes one of the most important Christian questions for our age.
But if we’re afraid of giving way to God, it’s no wonder that we’re afraid of giving voice to our faith, and so end up with the cocktail party invitation rather than with the word spoken without nervousness. But it’s also partly that we don’t have a common language. The Christian concepts seem to have lost their content to other people, and we’ve actually got to begin to find ways of respeaking the gospel.
There have been many attempts to do this during this twentieth century. I have often found inspiration from what I take to be a classic modern re-expression of the idea of justification by faith which comes from the writings of Paul Tillich, the German theologian who ended up teaching in the States. Tillich talked about the courage to be as the courage to know oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable. Interesting, isn’t it, that this definition makes no mention of God. Though, of course, lifting it out of context is not an altogether useful exercise, for then you lose the profoundity of the scheme of Tillich’s thought, in which God is only and nothing other than being-in-itself, and which constantly locates God as the ground of all being.
But is the lack of God in that particular definition significant? Even if the majority of people in our country still espouse some belief in God, is that the same as faith, and do the God languages of those within and without the Church actually touch? Is our lack of common language - and maybe common meaning - that basic?
If so, then the use of our imagination and our senses in art, poetry, drama, literature and so on has to be just as important as finding the right theological language for the twenty first century. But it too needs to find contemporary expression. And here we enter into that disputed territory of what is ephemeral and passing, and what is truly useful and lasting. I have no clear cut answers; perhaps it is in the nature of living in God’s ever changing world that we won’t and shouldn’t have. All I know is that in Jesus Christ the loving God has opened wide his arms on the cross, appealing to me and to you, longing for us just to reach out and touch God’s grace, grace that releases us from fear, that assures us of reconciliation, and that sends us out to grow in Christlikeness, made right with God, for God, by God in Christ, Christ both on the cross and in us.