Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Faith AND Obedience

I've been struck recently how polemics have upset a tendentious balance in our rhetoric about belief and practice. These polemics see an overuse of a term in their opponents and so overcorrect on the other side (the opponents can be anyone from liberals to conservatives to modernity itself). The problem with these over-corrections is that they ignore a very important logical dictum and its corollary, a dictum, by the way, which I think is more wisdom than logic:

Abuse does not bar use.

The solution to abuse is not disuse but proper use.

In the polemics (generally between liberals and conservatives) there is an over-emphasis on either Faith or Obedience to the point where, rhetorically, it's stated, rather baldly, that one could be had without the other. Such a patently absurd statement is not what most of the polemicists actually believe, but they continue along their rhetorical path because they haven't heeded the above rules. Examples: since all those 'orthodox' talk about is faith, then we can't talk about belief, only practice, or belief subsumed into practice, OR since all those 'liberals' talk about is social justice, we should stay away from talk about justice, only faith, or practice subsumed into faith.

What both sides miss is the inherent relationship between faith and obedience, one that's typified in a relationship of unity and distinction. For the Christian, faith and obedience can be distinguished from one another, but they cannot be separated. Faith without work is dead (see James). Work without faith is meaningless.

And all this was prompted by the Psalm (119) from the Daily Office today:

98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are ever with me.

99 I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.

100 I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.


Alan said...

I heartily agree with this post, but I wonder what you mean by "upset a tendentious balance" (emphasis added) in your first sentence. Do you mean tenuous balance? Judging from the context, I almost wonder if you mean proper balance.

Unknown said...

You're exactly right, Alan. Thanks for the correction!

W. Travis McMaken said...


Pull CD 2.1 off your shelf and check out pages 12-13. Barth there talks about the various 'determinations' of faith, which are determinations not in part but in the whole. That is, these various things he mentions (knowledge, trust, obedience, love, etc) are each ways of talking about the whole of faith. He goes on to mention briefly, however, that it is knowledge that binds these various determinations together in something like a unity-in-distinction, although he doesn't specifically use that language.

In any case, that could shift your analysis a bit (not that I think its wrong!) because it makes 'faith' (by which, as you well know, Barth means something like faithful human response to the address of God) a master category and makes things like doctrinal confession and obedience complimentary modes of discussing that faith.

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