The Gift of Faith

by B. A. Gerrish

B.A. Gerrish is John Nuveen Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Distinguished Service Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia.

This article, the second of a two-part series, is excerpted from his book Saving and Secular Faith, (Fortress Press.) This article appeared in the Christian Century, Oct. 13, l999; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Faith, the author asserts, comes through hearing the testimony of the church–and is not dependent on accurate knowledge of the historical Jesus.

How is the gift of saving faith in Jesus Christ given? To answer this question, we must look closely at the actual phenomena of faith and repentance, the new birth and growth in grace, and ask how the work of Christ is accomplished. How does it happen that someone comes to faith and has faith nurtured and strengthened?

Here I have to make a criticism of a remark by Calvin in which he makes faith depend on a prior acceptance of divine truth, as though the order of experience were this: First I am persuaded of the authority of God's word, and then I come to know thereby of God's fatherly goodwill. This, it seems to me, is untrue to the usual pattern of Christian experience -- and, indeed, out of harmony with Calvin's own concept of faith as "recognition."

That a person can have confidence in God is not a piece of information provided by an authoritative scripture: the confidence is given in the recognition of God's "fatherly face." To be sure, this happens through the word, as Calvin rightly says, but the word understood not as truth supernaturally communicated, but as the instrument of divinely corrected vision. The nature of the revelation must correspond strictly with the nature of faith, as it in fact does in Calvin's own simile of the spectacles of scripture. What Calvin likes to call the historia evangelica (the "gospel story") functions as a lens that focuses a picture: in it the true image of God is presented, and through it God can be recognized everywhere else. And, of course, the simile of the spectacles presupposes that a confused vision was already there before the corrective lenses were put on.

But this is all, perhaps, too abstract. Let's try an example. Take the familiar narrative of the crucifixion. To begin with, it has every appearance of a tragedy or a failure. Thus far Reimarus was right. The messianic hopes that Jesus has kindled end with the cruel joke, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" (Matt. 27:37), and the terrible cry of dereliction, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (v. 46). "Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last" (v. 50). In Matthew and Mark, you might say, that is all (cf. Mark 15:22-37). Why, then, have Christians always found in the story such a powerful source of faith? The first thing one has to say is that no one answer can suffice: the four versions of the story, by their very differences, already invite more than one emphasis for construing its meaning. For all Christians, however, the narrative has always spoken of the cost of redemption; and for all, I submit, it nurtures faith by its powerful statement of a meaning and purpose that incorporates tragedy.

The narrative achieves its effect not only because the passion is seen in relation to the sequels -- the earthquake and the resurrection -- but also because the account of the crucifixion itself has been strikingly amplified by Luke and John, and the different versions are always fused together in the Christian's memory. Luke reports Jesus as saying, "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34), "Today you [the thief] will be with me in Paradise" (v. 43), and, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (v. 46). John adds Jesus' sayings to his mother and the beloved disciple (John 19:26-27), "I am thirsty" (v. 28), and the dramatic last words, "It is finished" (v. 30). In this fashion, the stark picture in Matthew and Mark is transformed: the tragedy is already a victory, before the resurrection, and John in particular wants us to believe that Jesus never quite relinquished control. In short, the crucifixion narrative awakens faith because it has become a story about faith. The face of God is still made out, albeit barely; or, to put it in my other language, the narrative stirs that deep, elemental human longing to be reassured that there is, after all, meaning -- despite the appearances.

Obviously, I would have some difficulty proving that this is what every Christian experiences in reading or hearing the crucifixion story. I can only invite others to think about it, to go to church, and -- most of all perhaps -- to listen to the pastoral experience of Christian ministers.

Well, one other thing I can do is try, as usual, to enlist the support of John Calvin. Calvin defines faith as "steadfast knowledge of the fatherly goodwill of God." But he admits that this faith is always assailed by anxiety and doubt, so that we are tempted to imagine that God is against us. This is exactly what Calvin sees happening to Jesus on the cross, as he bore the penalties that were due to us. The cry of dereliction proves that even Jesus was tempted to think God was opposed to him. But the cry was addressed to God, and Calvin assures us that it was still a cry of Jesus' faith, "by which he beheld the presence of God, of whose absence he complains." Calvin thus perceived in the crucifixion not only the price of redemption, but also the archetype of faith as he understood it: seeing God even in the midst of agonies of body and soul, when every natural feeling cries out that God must be against me. It is impossible to doubt that Calvin's own faith was ratified and strengthened by this conformity with the faith of Christ.

Although I have taken a narrative as my example, the power of the narrative, it seems to me, lies in the words of Jesus. What the soldiers did to him makes its brutal impact on the reader, but it is the words "Father, forgive them" that leap out and seize the attention. The story is in fact read from saying to saying.

I can well understand another of Luther's provocative judgments: that if he had to do without either the works or the preaching of Jesus, he would rather do without the works. "For the works do not help me, but his words give me life, as he himself says [John 6:63]." And that, Luther tells us, is why John is the best Gospel. By the "works" of Jesus, Luther no doubt intends the miracles he performed -- such as the feeding of the 5,000, which in John (chapter 6) provides the occasion for the discourse on the bread of life. But a careful look at other narratives in all the Gospels will show how often the power lies in Jesus' words. In short: If the work of Christ is the gift of faith, then we must surely add, as a matter of plain observation, that he gives it through his word.

Naturally, when one moves outside the Gospels to other New Testament writings, it is the apostolic word about Christ, rather than the words of Christ, that mediates saving faith. One additional saying of Jesus, not mentioned in the Gospels, is indeed quoted in Acts: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). But in the Acts of the Apostles, as in the Pauline epistles, faith is imparted by the proclamation about Jesus -- the kerygma, as we call it, that points toward the second article of the Apostles' Creed. Recurring items in the kerygma include the statements that Jesus was the promised messiah; that he was crucified, died and was buried; that he was raised from the dead and exalted to Cod's right hand; that he will come again as judge. Through the "foolishness" of this kerygma God has decided to save those who have faith (1 Cor. 1:21).

It is interesting that in Romans 10:17 Paul seems to think )of Christ himself as speaking through his messengers, who proclaim the kerygma: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ." In this sense, we might simply include the apostolic kerygma in the expression "the word of Christ." Or we could perhaps subsume both the word of Christ and the word about Christ under the term that has been so influential in modem theology since Schleiermacher: the "picture" (or "image") of Christ. In any case, I have taken a narrative from the Gospels, rather than the apostolic kerygma, as my illustration of how faith is generated mainly because the Gospels pose the problem of historical veracity much more acutely.

It may seem obvious enough to conclude that saving faith, which is the work of Christ, is given by the image of him that the New Testament evokes through its account of his words and deeds and of the apostolic word about him. But this invites the questions: Is that the only way in which faith is given? and, Can the Christian know for sure that the New Testament image of Jesus shows Jesus as he actually was? We have now lent some greater precision to the problems of relativism and historical skepticism -- and, we may hope, have shown the perspective from which they may be faced and resolved.

My intention thus far has been to bracket the problems of the other religions and the historical Jesus and simply to describe what makes a Christian believer. I have followed what I take to be the general logic of classical christological reflection, using the crucifixion narrative of the Gospels to illustrate the way this faith is generated and nurtured. I took the text just as it lies before us, neither comparing it with the scriptures of other religions nor asking which, if any, of the seven words from the cross may have actually been uttered by the Jesus of history. Now, an objector might grant that I have given a plausible enough account of how saving faith normally occurs, and still want to ask: Would it work like that if the brackets were removed?

It should be easy to remove the first brackets without disaster. To say that the Christian receives saving faith through the New Testament image of Jesus need not imply that faith cannot be had in any other way, or that no other religious faiths confer salvation. Hence it does not preclude or impede open and honest interfaith dialogue but simply states the point from which, for the Christian, the dialogue begins. While genuine conversation is certainly inhibited by absolute and exclusive claims, there cannot be a conversation at all if the Christian has nothing to say, or no Savior to confess.

Christians will begin the dialogue convinced that what has been given to them through Jesus Christ is for all humanity. But Jesus Christ may not be humanity's sole access to it; there is no way to know that in advance, before one has listened to the other parties in the conversation. Obviously, Christians need to pay attention to what the adherents of other religions are saying if it is to be decided whether the language of "saving faith" has its counterparts outside the church. And that is something I cannot even begin to talk about here. For now, it is enough to have shown how, in my opinion, the dialogue can be genuinely open.

To remove the other brackets may seem, at first glance, much more troublesome. For suppose the preacher admitted in the course of her sermon on the passion narrative that, to be honest, we really don't know what Jesus said on the cross. Would it matter? Most Christians undoubtedly assume still that the Gospels give a generally accurate account of the words and deeds of Christ. The question is how far the efficacy of the New Testament's image of the crucified and risen Christ is dependent on preserving the assumption.

Experience shows that believers are, as a matter of fact, sometimes anxious about bad news of the quest for the historical Jesus. But do they need to be? And is the remedy for them to pretend that they know more than they do about him? Like the man born blind in the Gospel, the Christian may be uncertain who this is who can restore the vision of the blind, but still say: "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see" (John 9:25). To shift the attention from the healing word to the historical quest is to risk distracting faith from its actual foundation. If the believer's anxiety needs any further reassurance, beyond the experience of healed vision, it might be wiser to recall that Jesus evidently did give saving faith to his first disciples, and that their picture of him as the Christ has continued for two millennia to pass on the same gift to others. It is again simply a matter of observation that the efficacy of the healing word is partly dependent on the ecclesial context in which the "word of faith" (Rom. 10:8) is proclaimed. To change the metaphor: the race is run in the presence of the "cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1),

In her book Christ Without Absolutes (1988), Sarah Coakley takes issue with my views on the historical Jesus. She speaks of "the desire to recover what one can about [Jesus] through accurate research." Historical "realism," she thinks (in agreement with Troeltsch), requires us to ground Christology "in verifiable facts about Jesus of Nazareth."

That invites the question, "How many facts do you need, and what do you need them for?" Even Rudolf Bultmann, of whom Coakley is also critical, linked Christology with one assured fact, that Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, but he did not ground the present decision of faith in his one fact. Coakley wants more, and for a different reason. She speaks approvingly of Troeltsch's supposition "that the Christian believer only attains real 'strength' and 'certainty' from the ideal presented in Jesus if he knows it as a real possibility," and this "demands contact with a historical actuality." In response, I assert that what is crucial for the picture of Christ, if it is to qualify as an "historical" symbol, is not that it corresponds to the life once lived by a particular individual but that it exists, embodied in the corporate life of the Christian community, as the sacramental word by which the community is continually re-created. This is what makes it possible for faith to happen, to occur as an event of the present.

Theological questers for the historical Jesus are not mistaken in seeking an historical anchorage for faith. The problem is that they look for it in the wrong place and hold faith captive to historical science, as the old doctrine of creation once held it captive to natural science. The historical anchorage is to be found in the life of the church, the confessing community in which the gospel is proclaimed -- the body of Christ.

My view too, then, is that history mediates religious truth. The question is: What history, and how? Troeltsch, followed by Coakley, makes the security of faith rest, albeit only in part, on what the biblical scholars can reconstruct behind the Gospel picture of Jesus Christ, whereas I take the picture itself, as transmitted in the church, to be the actual medium that evokes faith; and I believe Troeltsch did, too, in his clearer moments.

Perhaps I would think differently if I were more sanguine about the results of the quest. It is interesting that Coakley herself, having insisted on faith's need for verifiable facts about Jesus of Nazareth, does not display much optimism about the possibility of obtaining them. She admits that the sort of things most likely to be important to Christians, such as Jesus' agony in the garden and his "demeanor" during the crucifixion, are not likely to be substantiated by historical means. This is surely right, and to my mind it focuses the theological question of the actual ground of faith, which has always been imparted by these two segments of the Gospels and presumably always will, whatever the New Testament scholars decide about their historical veracity. Historical studies since Coakley's book have concluded that none of the seven words from the cross could have been uttered by Jesus, and that his crucifixion -- very likely part of a mass execution -- would not have been witnessed by any of his disciples. If so, then the words tell us not how Jesus died but what his death meant to his followers, and this is the medium by which faith is transmitted in the church.

Strictly speaking, of course, there is not one image of Jesus Christ in the New Testament; there are several, and they range all the way from the wandering teacher, who had nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20, Luke 9:58), to the Cosmic Christ through whom and for whom everything in heaven and on earth was created (Col. 1:15-17). The image a religious community or a devout believer forms of Jesus Christ is always a construct, in which some particular characteristics the New Testament ascribes to him become dominant: he is the master in whose footsteps we are to follow (Mark 1:17, etc.), the Savior who loved me and died for me (Gal. 2:20), the Eternal Logos that enlightens every man and woman (John 1:9). These may not be exclusive or contradictory images of Jesus Christ, but they are not likely to be given equal rank in, say, a Baptist, a Lutheran and a Greek Orthodox church. And other portraits of him may not be as firmly tied to the biblical witness at all.

Here, no doubt, lies one reason for the theological interest in "verifiable facts about Jesus of Nazareth: "they are needed, it will be said, to regulate the christological pluralism of the New Testament, and, still more, to restrain the subjectivism that imposes fantasy on the text. The history of the church abounds in demand-and-supply Christologies, which make the long-suffering Christ the sponsor of whatever program or platform is currently in fashion. True enough.

But the problem with which we began is that the historical quest for the real Jesus has itself produced variety, not consensus, and hardly provides the norm for measuring the images of Christ entertained by theologians or naïve believers. No one pretends that the quest has been free of subjective bias: often it has mirrored the quester's own thoughts on Jesus, religion and the church. George Tyrrell's (1861 -- 1909) familiar gibe about Harnack was that the Christ he saw, as he looked back through 19 centuries of Catholic darkness, was "only a reflection of a liberal Protestant face seen at the bottom of a deep well."

Unfortunately, it has proved much easier to detect theological bias in other people's images of Jesus Christ than to be wholly free of it oneself, despite professions of innocence. But the number of possible images is not infinite, and the image-forming mechanism is not merely willful or subjective. The possibilities are limited by the text, by the common mind of the individual community, and by mutual exchange between one community and another. The ecclesial context not only confirms the experience of faith but also restrains belief from becoming too eccentric. It is hard, perhaps finally impossible, to define the unity in all the portraits of the Christ. But, as Troeltsch put it in a striking simile, no one familiar with the series of testimonies to Christ in Christianity can doubt that the heartbeat of a powerful personality goes through it all, like the vibration of a ship's engine throughout the entire vessel.

In conclusion we can say this about the church's confession: saving faith, which is confidence in God through the perception of a parent-like goodwill in all the events of one's life, is the gift of God given in the presentation of the New Testament picture of Jesus Christ.

Here I would make a sociological retrieval of the old high-church motto, "Outside the church there is no salvation." The Christian need not invoke it to assert that there is no saving faith outside the church -- much less that there is no salvation outside my church. Rather, it attests to the crucial importance of holding faith and community together. The church is the essential link between the Christian believer and the Jesus of history: the church is the work of Christ, part two.

To the question whether it is necessary to move on from the benefits of Christ to the Holy Catholic Church, Calvin's catechism answers: "Yes, indeed, unless we want to make Christ's death ineffective and count as nothing all that has been related so far. For the one effect of it all is that there should be a Church."

An unintended work of Christ, it may be! As Roman Catholic historian Alfred Loisy (1857 -- 1940) observed: "Jesus foretold the kingdom, and it was the Church that came." But Loisy's elegant aphorism rightly affirms that there is continuity as well as discontinuity in the move from the proclamation of the kingdom to the existence of the church. A better formula for the continuity between the Jesus who inspired faith in the hearts of his disciples and the Christ who still gives faith today would be hard to devise.

I do not mean that this is the only possible way of establishing the link between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. Logically, perhaps, faith could live with the news that there is a radical disharmony between the church's Christ and the real Jesus, or even -- the ultimate bad news? -- that Jesus never existed. But it doesn't need to. The extreme hypothetical cases are of interest only insofar as they provoke the theological question: Is faith really at the mercy of the latest report on the quest for the historical Jesus?

If my argument has been made good, then just how much we know of the Jesus of history can be left to the early church historians as an open question. The history that saving faith depends on is the life of the church, which confesses that grace has been revealed "through the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Tim. 1:10). Whatever the historians decide about the event so confessed, it is the confession itself that mediates faith. The Christian assertion that saving faith is the gift of God in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-10) is not a claim to know more about the past than historians can know, any more than it is a claim to possess a salvation from which the greater part of humanity is excluded. It is the outward attestation of an inner conviction nurtured in the communion of saints.