What is it to Put One’s Faith in God?

The term ‘faith’ is commonly used in varying, everyday contexts to denote quite different things.  When a father suspects that his teenage son is not telling the truth, he might nonetheless ‘act as though he believes’ his son, describing his own behavior as ‘showing faith’ in his son.  When someone is told that her lottery ticket has little chance of paying off, she might respond by saying, “Well, you’ve got to have faith.”  Magazine articles sometimes encourage us to have faith in principles, institutions, or economic policies.  Within religious contexts, Christians will understand the notion of faith quite differently than will Sŏn Buddhists, who typically deny that faith has any object at all.  Even within the Christian tradition, one finds a host of different accounts (some of them arguably mutually exclusive) of what faith is.  Some Christian writers have sought to define faith in terms of belief—or, at least, belief formed in love—while other writers have emphasized the notion of trust.  Still other writers have been concerned to stress the roles of obedience, confession, or hope.

Many of the differences in accounts of faith within the Christian tradition become understandable as one recognizes that the Bible uses the term ‘faith’—which is the typical translation of the Hebrew aman in the Old Testament and the Greek pistis in the New Testament—to express a host of different ideas.  The term ‘faith’ is used to denote both an authentic Christian walk (Matt. 24:10) and a commitment to an authentic Christian walk (2 Tim. 1:5).  In various places it is linked with propositional belief (Heb. 11:6), with obedience (Heb. 11:17), and with that which makes obedience possible (Rom. 1:5).  It is sometimes used to indicate teaching that is faithful to the apostolic message (Jude 3), and sometimes used to indicate faithfulness to one’s covenant with another person (Mal. 2:14).  Faith is identified as a spiritual gift, along with other gifts such as teaching, prophecy and healing (1 Cor. 12:9); and yet, faith is also identified as that which makes healing and other miracles possible (Matt. 17:18-20).  Faith is sometimes described as something that admits to degrees, or measure (Rom. 12:3).  And while one can confess one’s faith (John 12:42), one can also ‘put one’s faith in’ someone else (John 2:11). 

Following these Biblical references, there seem to be a number of different meanings one might, in a Christian context, legitimately assign to the term ‘faith’.  The understanding of faith on which I want to focus involves the kind of faith distinctive of the redeemed.  The Christian tradition has wanted to identify the people who are reconciled to God—and thus saved from eternal separation from God after their lives on earth—with those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ.  But what is it to put one’s faith in someone else?  The Bible does not provide a straightforward definition along these lines, the biblical writers being understandably more concerned with exhorting their readers to reach out to God than with providing a philosophically subtle account of that in which this reaching consists.  And, as previously noted, various Christian writers have emphasized as lying at the heart of faith in God such varied concepts as belief, trust, obedience, and hope.

Attempts to define ‘faith’ using general concepts such as ‘trust’ or ‘hope’ tend to lack the kind of philosophical precision for which an analytic philosopher might hope.  In this essay I shall spell out my own specific account of the kind of decision that lies at the heart of virtuous Christian faith.  It is my aim to provide the philosophical precision that seems to escape attempts to define ‘faith’ within much of the theological literature.  At the same time, one of the criteria in judging the adequacy of my own account must surely be its faithfulness to historic Christian understandings of the nature of faith.  And I intend that my own account of faith should in a sense simply be a spelling out of what much of the Christian tradition has always affirmed regarding the nature of faith.

One of the central points of agreement within the Christian tradition is the understanding that the redeemed are in fact the redeemed in virtue of a certain kind of relationship they enjoy with God.  The role that faith plays in this relationship is something about which we will need to make certain assumptions before proceeding further.  Some within the Christian tradition have affirmed that God can unilaterally establish a personal relationship with a person; and they have understood faith as that which affirms what has already been unilaterally established.  Against this understanding of faith, I shall assume that a personal relationship between any two agents[1] cannot be unilaterally established by one of the agents.  Instead, I shall assume the theological point that, subsequent to God’s invitation to a personal relationship, a person enters into that relationship through an act of faith.  Having stipulated this point, I shall remain neutral on the question of the extent to which God is involved in people’s acts of faith.  While most all the Christian tradition have affirmed that people cannot come to faith unless they are ‘drawn’ by the Holy Spirit, the Christian tradition has been divided over the extent to which this ‘drawing’ is irresistible.  I do assume that any meaningful act of faith is performed freely, but I shall leave open the more contentious issue of how freedom should be defined and whether it is compatible with causal determinism.  What for our  purposes is important is the assumption that the act of faith establishes[2] a personal relationship with God—as opposed to serving as a sign that the relationship has already been established. 

Our question, then, is this: Under what account of faith would one, in virtue of having such faith, enter into the kind of personal relationship with God that accomplishes the ends of the Christian religion?  With this question in mind, I wish to defend the following account of what it is to have faith in someone:

Person S has faith in person G inasmuch as S, in response to G’s invitational statement(s) to S, promotes G’s authority in the areas to which this statement(s) indicates that G’s authority extends.

I propose that, when one has faith in God under this description, one enters into the kind of relationship with God commended by the Christian religion.  In unpacking this account of faith, let us begin by examining the importance of G’s invitational statements to S.

I.  The Nature and Role of ‘Invitational Statements’

Any personal relationship involves a mutual recognition of, and response to, the agency of the other person.  Consequently, if S places her faith in G, this act will not establish a personal relationship between the two if G has not already extended an invitation to S to enter into a personal relationship.  Such an invitation to S will come in the form of some type of communication from G to S.  Robert Adams comments,

I think the sin of unbelief always involves rejection of something God has said to the sinner….Butterflies presumably do not believe in God, but they are not therefore guilty of the sin of unbelief.  If we, unlike butterflies, are guilty of the sin of unbelief, it is not because we are supposed to be able to figure out divine truth for ourselves, but because God has spoken to us.[3]

We can acknowledge that there might well be cases in which one person is obligated to respond to another person even if that other person has not attempted to communicate with him.  For example, a father might be obligated to respond to his infant daughter wandering off by searching for her.  However, with respect to humans responding to God, Adams seems correct in suggesting that such a response should not be expected if one has had no communication from God to respond to

The Christian tradition has affirmed with wide accord (and near unanimity for its first 1500 years) that God does communicate to humans and that such communication is fundamental to the Christian religion.  While I think that it is possible to construct a thorough and plausible account of how God can in fact communicate to people through speech acts with propositional content,[4] I shall not attempt to do so here.  Instead, I shall simply take it as a working assumption that God can communicate to people both directly by means of a ‘still, small voice’ and indirectly by means of such things as scripture and gifted preachers.

As already noted, S’s faith in G will establish a personal relationship between the two only if G has already extended to S an invitation to enter into a personal relationship.  Such an invitation is issued to another person, I contend, any time one makes a statement of a certain sort—let us call it an invitational statement—to that other person.  Invitational statements can be, among other things, commands, promises, or assertions that one person makes to another person(s).  Invitational statements differ from non-invitational statements in two ways.  First, in making an invitational statement, the speaker claims that she has the authority-making features that establish her right to make the statement.  Such a claim might be explicitly or implicitly stated.  For example, a military officer may issue a command to his subordinate by explicitly saying, “As your superior, I command you to perform this task.”  On the other hand, a woman may say to her friend, “It’s wrong of you to cheat on your income taxes and it’s clear that you should stop!”  In this latter example, the woman makes an implicit claim to be enough of a moral authority to know what is morally required of her friend.  It is this moral authority, so the implicit claim goes, that gives the woman the right to tell her friend she should stop cheating.  Promising and asserting, when they are invitational statements, also carry explicit or implicit authoritative claims.  If I promise someone that I will meet him for lunch, I am claiming that I am in a position to ensure that that promise is realized.[5]  If I assert to someone that Jerry had salad for lunch yesterday, I am claiming to be in a position to know and accurately to report what Jerry had for lunch yesterday.  It is being in this position that gives me the right to testify to the truth of my statement. 

Before introducing the second common feature of invitational statements, it is worth noting Nicholas Wolterstorff’s comments on the ‘normative’ qualities of speech acts such as promising and commanding.

Speaking consists not in communicating or expressing knowledge (or true belief) but in taking up a certain sort of normative stance, as I shall call it….The intended function of promising and commanding is not to inform us of what we don’t know but to take on duties toward us and to require things of us.[6]

As an example of someone who acquires a normative standing with others, Wolterstorff describes a car driver who signals left by flipping the car’s left-side blinkers.  By flipping the blinkers (which constitutes a speech act, presumably the conveying of an intention)[7] the driver takes on prima facie duties; and those motorists around the driver also find themselves with prima facie duties—namely, to treat the driver “as one who has signaled a left turn.”[8] 

For our purposes, what is important about the car driver who signals left is that she desires that the motorists around her respond to her speech act—i.e., her flipping the car’s left side blinkers—in a certain way.  We noted earlier that, in making an invitational statement, the speaker claims that she has the authority-making features that establish her right to make this statement.  We can now state the second common feature of invitational statements: When making an invitational statement to a given person(s), the speaker desires that that person respond to her authoritative claims in a certain kind of way. 

To illustrate this element of invitational statements, consider the example of a newspaper columnist who gives marital advice.  It may be the case that the columnist hopes that her readers will read the column, realize that the assertions made in the column make perfect sense, and then proceed to change their habits.  It will not matter to the columnist whether the readers even notice who wrote the column.  Her only interest is that the statements in her column resonate with her readers.  If all this is true of the columnist, then her statements do not constitute an invitation to enter into a personal relationship anymore than finding a copy of an ancient poem by an anonymous poet constitutes an invitation by that poet to enter into a personal relationship.  For the columnist is inviting her readers to respond to her statements, themselves; she is not inviting them to respond to her as a personal agent.  Consequently, the columnist’s statements do not amount to invitational statements.[9]

On the other hand, it may be the case that the columnist insists that her newspaper byline carry the inscription: “Ph.D. in psychology with over 20 years experience as a marriage therapist.”  Here, the columnist desires that her readers follow her advice at least in part because of her qualifications as an expert on marriage relationships.  Her statements in her column constitute invitational statements because (a) they carry with them the claim to have authority-making features that establish her right to make these statements, and (b) she desires that her readers respond to this authoritative claim, as opposed to responding merely to her statements, themselves.  The columnist has invited her readers to respond to her as a personal agent.  Her statements are invitational statements; they constitute an invitation to enter into a personal relationship.[10]

But what of the Christian theist’s positive response to what she perceives as God’s directives?  The Christian religion summarizes its core teachings as the ‘gospel’, or (from the Greek evaggelion) the ‘good message’.  And one might argue that it is (sometimes, at least) more natural to think of people responding to God’s message to them than to think of them responding to the authoritative claims that accompany God’s message.  What should we make of the proposal that one’s positive response might be to the good news contained in God’s message—rather than to the fact that it is God who has communicated this message?

To offer a rejoinder here, the crucial factor on my account will be whether the person responds to God’s message within the context of a relationship with God.  In other words, we might ask: Does the person recognize the message as coming from a personal agent who invites her into a relationship?  If so, then the content of the message, itself, might largely be what motivates her to respond; but this fact is not unusual within the give and take of personal relationships.  A man’s spouse may tell him the good news that she is willing to go on holiday with him to his favorite destination.  The thought of going to this destination may indeed be good news to him; but surely his positive response to his wife’s message will be shaped partly because it is the conveying of his wife’s willingness to go with him.  If we suppose that his reaction would be exactly the same no matter who expressed a willingness to accompany him on holiday, then perhaps we will want to say that his response truly is merely to the message, itself.  But surely (or, at least, hopefully) this will not be the case.  Surely the man’s response to the message will be shaped in part because it comes from his wife.  Similarly, the Christian theist’s response to the promises contained in the gospel message—e.g., the possibility of eternal life, forgiveness, peace—are shaped in part because these promises are seen as coming from God.  After all, the theist presumably would not respond positively to these promises if they were made to him by just anyone.  That the theist’s response to the gospel message is shaped in part by the understanding that it comes from God shows that the theist is recognizing and responding to the agency of God.    

II. Faith as the Promotion of Another’s Authority

When G makes an invitational statement to S, any response by S to the authoritative claims that accompany this statement will establish a personal relationship with G.  The question we must now consider is this: What kind of response on the part of S would establish the kind of personal relationship with G requisite for Christian faith?  I suggest that we should characterize the needed response in terms of S promoting G’s authority.

Let us invent a fictional country of Aarvak and suppose that Sue is preparing for a meeting to discuss whether a communiqué should be issued condemning the recent overthrow of the Aarvakian president by the Aarvakian military.  Suppose further that, before the meeting, Gary tells Sue that the former president’s administration was corrupt in ways that do not seem to be appreciated by most members of the media who have reported the overthrow.  As discussed earlier, for Gary’s assertion to Sue to serve as an invitational statement,[11] Gary must desire that Sue respond to his assertion because Gary, himself, made it.  In other words, Gary must desire that considerations of his own authority play a part in Sue’s decision to respond to his statements.  When Sue responds to the authoritative claims that accompany Gary’s assertion, she establishes a type of personal relationship with him.  She may choose to undermine his authority, in which case she will help to establish a kind of ‘negative’ personal relationship with Gary.  However, with respect to the kind of response that signifies faith in Gary, Sue will need in some way to promote Gary’s authority. 

I use ‘promote’ here in a very wide sense of the term.  Advertisers are sometimes described as promoting a corporation’s product when they launch public campaigns to generate favorable name recognition of the corporation or product.  However, my use of the term is wider; and Sue’s promotion of Gary’s authority may or may not include helping others recognize Gary’s authority.  To say that Sue accepts or submits to Gary’s authority is close to what is needed here, although these notions may not carry the important implication that Sue performs some act that constitutes a positive response.  As I use the term, ‘promote’ denotes a contextually appropriate, positive response.  Defined in negative terms, we may think of ‘promote’ as an antonym of ‘actively resist’. 

In promoting Gary’s authority, Sue might perform any number of actions.  She might vote a particular way at her meeting based on what Gary told her; or encourage others to vote the same way; or relay to others the statement Gary made; or decide to rethink her policy of generally not questioning the accuracy of media reports about foreign countries.  All these actions might well be examples of promoting Gary’s authority.  The ways in which Sue might legitimately promote Gary’s authority will be limited by two factors.  First, the nature of Gary’s testimony will narrow the range of ways in which she can promote his authority.  If Gary tells Sue that she is morally obligated to vote a particular way at the meeting, then she cannot promote his authority by urging others to vote this particular way while not doing so herself.  Second, how Sue seeks to promote Gary’s authority will vary according to the type of authority she recognizes Gary as having.  If Sue recognizes Gary as an authority on the workings of the former Aarvakian government, then she might seek to promote Gary’s authority by acting in ways that assume that most of the media really do not know the full extent of the Aarvakian government’s activities.  If she recognizes Gary as an authority on the true moral insidiousness of government corruption in general, then she might seek to promote Gary’s authority by acting in ways that assume that the media, when it reported the government’s actions, did not fully understand just how immoral those acts truly are. 

In stating that S’s promotion of G’s authority must be in ‘the areas to which G’s statements indicate that G’s authority extends,’ I mean to suggest that there must be a kind of ‘meeting of the minds’ between G and S as to the type and extent of authority that lie behind G’s statements.  Put another way, the authoritative claims that accompany G’s statements to S must to a certain degree correspond to the claims of authority S understands G as making.  The relationship Gary seeks to have in making statements to Sue may be of any number of kinds.  He may seek a relationship with her where he is a mentor or a protégé; where he is a peer or a parent; where his advice is expected to be taken with a grain of salt, or seriously considered, or unquestioningly followed.

Suppose that Gary, in making statements to Sue about the media’s under-appreciation of the Aarvakian government’s immorality, means to convey to her that he is—in addition to being a knowledgeable person in the areas of Aarvak and the media—a moral expert in a way that Sue is not.  Here, Gary’s statements might be described as an invitation to have a relationship with Sue where he assumes the role of a spiritual mentor in virtue of his moral expertise.  However, if Sue understands Gary only to be making the implicit authoritative claim to be one who knows about the media and governments, she will misunderstand the type of relationship into which Gary has invited her.  If Sue responds to Gary’s statements by promoting his authority simply as one who has knowledge of the media and governments, does she thereby establish a personal relationship with Gary?  This would depend primarily on whether Gary is willing to accept a personal relationship with Sue in which she recognizes his authority as a knowledgeable person but not as a mentor.  Perhaps Gary will go on to state explicitly to Sue that he wishes their relationship to be one of spiritual mentor and protégé.  If Sue nonetheless refuses to recognize his authority as a mentor, but still seeks to promote his authority as a media expert, then Gary will need to decide whether he is willing to accept a personal relationship with her on these terms.[12]  Of course, we can also imagine a case where Sue recognizes Gary as making more claims to authority than he intended to make.  For example, Sue might recognize and seek to promote Gary’s authority as a moral arbiter—where Gary had only meant to convey that he knew a bit about the media.  In such a case, Gary will have to decide whether he is willing to ‘offer’ that part of himself to Sue by relating to her on a ‘deeper’ level than he had initially intended.

Turning now to the thought of God making invitational statements, it seems telling that, throughout the books of the New Testament, the writers refer to Jesus Christ as ‘lord’.  Whatever else this term may mean in the context of the New Testament, I understand the term to carry the following implication.  To relate to God as lord is, roughly, to allow him to make (if he so chooses) all the final decisions that a created human is obligated to allow her creator to make regarding how she lives her life.  If God does want us to relate to him as lord, then presumably any invitational statement he issues to us will carry the invitation to relate to him in that way.

Of course, on the Christian understanding of the universal nature of human sin, it would seem that no one promotes God’s authority as lord with perfect consistency.  As to the question of whether a positive, personal relationship with God is established when a person promotes God’s authority as something less than absolute lord, the answer is: It depends on whether God is willing to accept a relationship with the person on these terms. 

I certainly do not want to attempt to provide a definitive analysis of God’s decision-making process in such a matter, but a natural enough starting point would involve the question of whether an ongoing relationship with God would help achieve the purposes a person has decided to pursue.  The Christian religion describes an everlasting relationship with God as a very good thing.  But to a person whose purposes remain such that an everlasting relationship with God will not achieve them, such an everlasting relationship will prove more a source of frustration than joy.  If God honors people’s free, self-determinative decisions as to which purposes they seek to achieve, then it seems that God could refuse to accept a relationship with someone on the grounds that such a relationship will not, given their decisions, be a source of fulfillment for them.

This emphasis on one’s purposes in God’s decision-making process need not undermine the essential role that the Cross plays in the Christian understanding of human redemption.  In deciding whether to accept a relationship with someone who promotes his authority as lord with less than perfect consistency, God would surely look at whether that person had availed herself of Christ’s atoning work by pleading Christ’s passion.  That much seems clear from the Christian understanding of how reconciliation with God can occur.  Still, the Christian tradition has always held that public professions of Christian faith are not necessarily always accompanied by proper internal motivations.  Put another way, it is possible for one publicly to plead Christ’s passion and yet not offer the kind of response to God that establishes a proper relationship with him.[13]  Thus, with respect to God’s decision whether to accept a relationship with a person on less than ideal terms, we seem to come back to the question of whether that person is engaged in the pursuit of those purposes that make participation in the heavenly community possible.[14]

III. The Role of ‘Promoting God’s Authority’ in Action Explanation; and the Augustinian Objection to Idolatry

In describing what it is for S to promote G’s authority, I have given examples of actions S might take that would constitute, in the appropriate situation, the promotion of G’s authority.  But it would be too quick a move to conclude that S, upon hearing G’s invitational statements, simply makes a decision whether or not to promote G’s authority.  Things are not so simple.  For it would be quite implausible to suppose that the promotion of G’s authority is the ultimate purpose S seeks to achieve whenever she performs those actions that constitute the promotion of G’s authority.  Returning to a previous example, suppose that Sue’s ultimate purpose in voting against a communiqué condemning the overthrow of the Aarvakian government is the furthering of justice in the world.  Let us suppose further that her action of voting is explained in terms of (a) this ultimate purpose and (b) her belief that by promoting the authority of Gary—who has advised her how to vote and whom she recognizes as an authority on government corruption—she will achieve her ultimate purpose.  In this case, Sue’s promotion of Gary’s authority would constitute an intermediate purpose as she seeks to achieve her ultimate purpose of furthering justice in the world.

Similarly, it seems plausible to suppose that a person might respond positively to God’s invitational statements as a means to some other, ultimate goal.  For example, a person may respond positively to Jesus’s statement, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,”[15] because she wants to be free from certain burdens that have become unbearable.  Likewise, a person may follow Jesus’s instructions to take Holy Communion with a repentant attitude because she can no longer live with feelings of guilt and wants to experience forgiveness.  In these examples, one’s positive response to what one takes to be God’s directives constitutes the pursuit of an intermediate purpose as a means of achieving other, ultimate purposes.

But is it theologically acceptable to suppose that a person might exercise faith in God—that is, promote God’s authority—as an intermediate purpose as she seeks to achieve some further purpose?  Certain writings of Augustine suggest a possible objection to such a scenario.  Augustine affirmed that God created all the good things of this world, but he cautioned that we “should love none of these things, nor think them desirable for their own sakes.”[16]  He added that, “when you consider things beneath yourself to be admirable and desirable, what is this but to be cheated and misled by unreal goods?”[17]  For Augustine, God constitutes the one ultimate good worth pursuing.  After citing the Biblical imperative to love God “with all thy soul, with all thy heart, and with all thy mind,”[18] he asked rhetorically how it cannot be concluded “that our chief good which we must hasten to arrive at in preference to all other things is nothing else than God.”[19]

Preference for God above all other things, Augustine explained, has implications as to how we are to love other people.  Augustine affirmed that “we are commanded to love one another,” but he pressed the question “whether man is to be loved by man for his own sake, or for the sake of something else.”[20]  His answer is that, while “God is to be loved for His own sake,” “every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake.”[21] Augustine even remarked that no one ought “to have joy in himself, if you look at the matter clearly, because no one ought to love even himself for his own sake, but for the sake of Him who is the true object of enjoyment.”[22]  In distinguishing how loving someone for his own sake differs from loving someone for the sake of something else, Augustine commented that, “If it is for his own sake, we enjoy him; if it is for the sake of something else, we use him.”[23]

Returning now to the account of faith as the promotion of God’s authority, is it theologically acceptable to suggest that a person might promote God’s authority as an intermediate purpose as she seeks to achieve some further, ultimate purpose?  Does this amount to ‘using’ God in the pursuit of other purposes—e.g., one’s own well-being and happiness—that one considers to be a greater good than God, himself?  The Westminster Shorter Catechism represents well the Christian tradition in affirming that the “chief end of man” is to be in a relationship with God where we “enjoy him forever.”[24]  Accordingly, the Christian theist will plausibly want to maintain that the kind of relationship with God for which we were created is one in which we are motivated to respond to God simply by our love for him.  Should we acknowledge, then, that love of God must be one’s ultimate motivation and purpose when one promotes God’s authority and thereby puts one’s faith in him?

Such a requirement seems unwarranted.  We can affirm the Christian understanding that the most mature of Christians in the heavenly realm, stirred by the beatific vision, may be solely motivated in their actions by an unadulterated, agapeistic love of God.  At the same time, there is, I think, no good reason to suppose that a person whose motives fall short of full Christian maturity cannot still exercise faith in God by promoting God’s authority as a means of achieving some further purpose.  In support of this claim we need look no further than the recorded words of Jesus, who, in urging others to respond to God, repeatedly appealed to the self-interested (though not selfish) motives of storing up treasures for oneself in heaven and avoiding the miseries of hell. Take, for example, Jesus’s recorded teachings from the Sermon on the Mount.  Why should I not judge others?  Because “in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”[25]  Why should I consider myself blessed if persecuted by others because of Jesus?  Because “great is your reward in heaven.”[26]  Why should I not take undue pride in my own good works or give in to things like anger and lust?  Because these are paths that can lead to hell.[27] 

Of course, the Christian scriptures also describe Jesus as encouraging people to love God and others in the purely agapeistic way in which he described God as loving us.[28]  So we should not think that God’s acceptance of less than fully mature, Christian motives in a person who begins to exercise faith in him means that God is not at the same time intent on helping that person grow in her relationship with him and come to be motivated more and more by the kind of agapeistic love representative of full Christian maturity.  Still, the crucial point is that, while unadulterated love for God may well be the mature Christian’s motivation in promoting God’s authority, there seems no good reason to insist that this motivation must be the sole or ultimate motivation in everyone who promotes God’s authority.

All this is not to say that the exercise of Christian faith is compatible with any ultimate purpose one might seek to achieve.  Suppose a person has as a goal the achievement of financial prosperity at the expense of others from another ethnic group he happens to dislike.  Reading the Bible, he may selectively consider certain Old Testament passages involving Israel’s achievements at the expense of other nations—while dismissing the possibility that such passages are part of a greater, progressive revelation culminating in the teachings of Jesus Christ.  He may make what he takes to be a positive response to these selected passages by asking God to bless his plans to swindle others from the other ethnic group in question—just as, he reasons, God blessed Israel at the expense of other nations.

In such a case as this, the Christian theist will, I think, want to maintain that the person’s response to God’s statements (i.e., the selective Old Testament passages) does not establish a positive, personal relationship with the Christian God.  For the person so misunderstands the character and purposes of God that a personal relationship simply is not possible.  The phenomenon of people relating to the person they mistakenly take someone else to be is not uncommon.  We interact on a daily basis with acquaintances, co-workers, and even close friends who have incomplete or distorted understandings of who we really are.  We realize that, strictly speaking, they are responding to whom they take us to be—rather than to who we really are.  Sometimes we are willing to accept a personal relationship with them on these terms, interacting with them in ways that remain possible.  Other times their misunderstanding of who we are makes a meaningful relationship impossible.  To illustrate, a person may end a friendship by saying, “If you think I would be interested in being your partner in this shady scheme, then you really do not know me after all.”  Likewise, a person may break off communication with a co-worker by saying, “There can be no meaningful conversation between us as long as you continue wrongly to interpret everything I say to you as an attempt to undermine your position with the company.”  Returning to the example of the person who asks God to bless his financial plans, the Christian theist will surely want to maintain that God’s purposes are so at odds with the purposes the person imagines God to have that a personal relationship built on the person’s positive response to selected Old Testament passages is simply not possible.  The person’s own ultimate purposes in responding to these passages are thoroughly at odds with the purposes God is intent on pursuing and helping others pursue.  He can promote God’s authority as a means of achieving his own ultimate purposes only if he profoundly misconstrues the character of the person in whom he purports to put his faith.  So there are limits to the kinds of ultimate purposes that are consistent with a person’s decision to exercise Christian faith as a means to those purposes. 


I have proposed the following as an account of what it is to put one’s faith in someone else:

Person S has faith in person G inasmuch as S, in response to G’s invitational statement(s) to S, promotes G’s authority in the areas to which this statement(s) indicates that G’s authority extends.

Under this description, when one puts one’s faith in God, one enters into the kind of personal relationship with God commended by the Christian religion.  I acknowledge that the promotion of God’s authority will not always constitute one’s ultimate purpose when one responds positively to God’s invitational statements.  Still, I contend that the promotion of God’s authority as an intermediate purpose seems consistent with some exercise of Christian faith.


[1] I understand an ‘agent’ to be, very roughly, a self-conscious center of beliefs and desires that can perform intentional actions aimed at achieving specified purposes.  Under this broad definition, both God (or, perhaps strictly speaking, each member of the Trinity) and humans can rightly be viewed as agents.

[2] ‘Establishes’ not in the sense of setting the parameters of the relationship, but rather in the sense of marking the final activity needed for the relationship to begin.

[3] Robert Adams, “The Virtue of Faith,” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 16.

[4] For a thoughtful defense of God’s communication through speech acts, see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[5] If ‘promising’ is construed widely enough so that the statement, “I promise that England will win the World Cup”, constitutes a promise instead of an assertion, then the guarantee is not that one can ensure that the promise is realized, but rather that one is in a position to know that the promise will be realized.

[6] Wolterstorff, 35.

[7] It seems best not to describe the act of flipping blinkers as a promise, given that one needs the other person’s permission to go back on a promise.

[8] Wolterstorff, 83. 

[9] Of course, there is a minimal sense in which most any statement carries a claim to authority.  Even a poet who purposefully writes from anonymity may hope that his readers recognize that the marks on the page they read come from a thoughtful person with typical human experiences.

[10] If the readers do respond to this invitation, a question looms as to whether, and what kind of, a personal relationship is established if the columnist never knows that her readers have responded to her invitation.  However, this question becomes moot when discussion turns to the case of an omniscient God’s invitation

to enter into a personal relationship.

[11] The fact that Gary’s assertion serves as an invitation to enter into a personal relationship does not necessarily mean that the issuing of such an invitation was the sole, or even a primary, purpose he sought to

achieve in making the assertion to Sue.

[12] Such kinds of decisions are not uncommon.  A mother may find herself with a teenage son who responds to her commands as though she is a peer and not a parent.  The mother may decide that she is willing to accept a less-than-ideal relationship with her son in which he promotes her authority as a peer.  Alternatively, she may threaten to kick her son out of the house, stating, “You may continue to live here only if you’re willing to obey my rules without question.”

[13] Cf. Matthew 7:21-23 in which Jesus, in speaking about “many” who prophesy and perform miracles in his name, declares that he “will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’.”

[14] One reason the earnest decision to plead Christ’s passion with the proper motivation is rightly seen as a good indication of one’s moral direction is that it reveals the purposes to which one is committed.  Earnestly to turn to God and plead Christ’s passion is to perform an act of repentance, in which one commits to be a follower of God in the future and accepts God’s revealed way of reconciliation from the state of estrangement brought about by our past sins against him.  In short, to plead Christ’s passion as an act of repentance is to commit to pursuing those purposes God has revealed that he wills for us to pursue.

[15] Matthew 11:28.

[16] Augustine, “On the Morals of the Catholic Church,” in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4 (Albany, OR: Sage Software, 1996), chpt. 21.

[17] Ibid, chpt. 21.

[18] Ibid, chpt. 11.  Cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37.

[19] Ibid, chpt. 11.

[20] Augustine, “Confessions,” In The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Albany, OR: Sage Software, 1996), bk. I, chpt. 22.

[21] Ibid, bk. I, chpt. 27.

[22] Ibid, bk. I, chpt. 22.  Augustine’s rather extreme view here becomes understandable when we take into account his Platonic background.  For Platonists, having a property consists in participating in an ideal form.  Thus, having the property of goodness consists in participating in ideal goodness—i.e., God.  On this understanding of what goodness consists in, it would not make sense to love ourselves as good or for our own sake.

[23] Ibid, bk. I, chpt. 22.

[24] Westminster Shorter Catechism, reprinted in The Confessions of Faith: The Larger and Shorter Catechisms (Glasgow: John Roberson, 1756), 359.

[25] Matthew 7:1-2.

[26] Matthew 5:11-12.

[27] Cf. Matthew 5:22; 5:27-30; 6:2-3; 6:16.

[28] Cf. Matthew 5:43-48; 22:37-39.

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