Faith must be nurtured and nourished in a community of faithful proclamation and sacramental participation.

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We're commemorating the anniversary by highlighting its five rallying themes: Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura), Faith Alone (Sola Fide), Christ Alone (Solo Christo), Grace Alone (Sola Gratia), and Glory to God Alone (Soli Deo Gloria).

“Ya gotta believe.” These are the immortal words of Frank Edwin “Tug” McGraw, relief pitcher for the 1973 New York Mets. In last place on the last day in August, the Mets went on an improbable run to the pennant, past the heavily favored Cincinnati Reds and into the World Series.

It’s a quintessentially American motto, praising the ability of the individual to “bootstrap” him- or herself into or out of any situation. It stands behind not only more secular entrepreneurial ventures, but also forms of Christianity that reinvent faith as a means to (or a sign of) financial success.

“Confidence in confidence alone” (to quote Rodgers and Hammerstein) presumes too much—and too little.

It presumes too much on the ability of the “rugged” individual who is able, through naked will, to succeed. All the belief in the world wouldn’t have helped “the miracle Mets” had they not been able to put the bat on the ball. It also presumes too little on the importance of background conditions. Some people face invisible barriers to participation in the grand cultural dream: barriers of race, gender, or class. Others are born into security and prosperity, the proverbial silver spoon. Some teams are just plain lucky; their rivals are having a bad season.

The dictum “faith alone” (sola fide in church-speak) is not “faith in faith.” Faith is never truly alone. Faith must be nurtured and nourished in a community of faithful proclamation and sacramental participation.

But even more than this: faith depends on its object. If the object of faith is the ability of the sovereign individual, faith will certainly fail. Faith will become merely another “work.” If the object of faith is the sovereign God, faith will unite an understanding of personal inability to God’s ability. Faith will look not to itself, but to the covenant faithfulness of God made flesh and blood in Jesus. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20, CEB)

This was the underlying concern of the Protestant reformers. Opposing any insinuation that individual ability or social station could make one acceptable to God, they insisted that becoming right with God was dependent on an act of prior divine grace, to which faith was a response. In other words, grace was a divine invasion into despair at failure to establish oneself, a sense that the very coherence of the world was at stake unless God acted, and had acted, in Jesus Christ.

This reliance on grace liberated the Reformers to remake their societies. They didn’t always see the challenge to political power implied in sola fide, and their tenets would soon degenerate into the dialectic of bookish Protestant scholasticism (“the faith” as a system of beliefs) versus non-dogmatic, inward pietism (the seed of “faith in faith”) the following century.

But that’s to cast a shadow on the celebrations. For the genuine insight of the Reformers was that radical trust in a God on whose faithfulness the world depended was the center from which all personal and social transformation proceeded. And the faithful church, that is, the church that lives from the faithfulness of God, is always reforming, never settled. Reformation is not mere “innovation,” for it has a Model. At its best, such a church constantly reforms not only itself, but its members, and indeed its world in faithful conformity with its Lord.

Web Discussion Questions

  1. In what setting have you come across the idea of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps”? How does this fit (or not fit) within the context of Christian faith?
  2. How would you define faith? What are some of the various shades of meaning it might have?
  3. If faith must be nourished in a faithful community, how should that make us understand the role of the church and our involvement in church?
  4. How does radical trust (faith) in God’s faithfulness and grace motivate our own personal transformations as well as social transformation?

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Martin is associate professor of theology at The King’s University College, Edmonton, Alberta.

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Those who are experts on the development of Reformed theology after the Reformation wince at uninformed comments about the era, such as this nonsense: They didn’t always see the challenge to political power implied in sola fide, and their tenets would soon degenerate into the dialectic of bookish Protestant scholasticism (“the faith” as a system of beliefs) versus non-dogmatic, inward pietism (the seed of “faith in faith”) the following century." You will find that old cliche in textbooks formed by 19th c. rationalism, but it has little resemblance to reality. Scholarship over the past 30 years have demonstrated that "Protestant scholasticism" was a pastorally and spiritually vibrant and intellectually robust tradition.