Reading: James 2:14-18
Have you ever
heard the phrase "to believe implicitly"? "I believed her implicitly." It seems
to mean, "I believed her without question." "It doesn't even occur to me to
doubt her," as when my wife Carol tells me anything. (I might add she has at
least once taken advantage of such implicit faith on my part to spring a
surprise birthday party on me!) The notion of "implicit faith" has a number of
interesting theological implications, as one might guess anytime a phrase
contains the word "faith," after all. I would like to suggest two of them this
Medieval Credulity: In the Middle
Ages, before either the Reformation or the Counter-Reformation, there were a
number of wild, rank growths in theology, baroque and bizarre mutations in a
kind of Christianity gone mad. Soon both Catholics and Protestants would put
these things behind them.
One such was the
idea of the Medieval scholastic theologians that the sinner was saved by
Christ's grace, but nonetheless had to merit Christ's grace before it would do
him any good!
And of course
you know about the business of selling indulgences, which became a license to
But to me
perhaps the strangest was the doctrine of fides implicitas: you guessed
it, "implicit faith." Back then it was an official doctrine, and this was the
point of it: theology had become so complicated and convoluted a matter that the
laity could not possibly be expected to understand it. After all, they were
mostly illiterate. And if they were serfs or guildsmen or farmers, their labors
gave them no leisure for theological contemplation.
But wasn't such
an admission tantamount to saying they had no chance to be saved? I mean, if one
had to believe in all the cardinal doctrines of the Catholic Faith, didn't one
have to understand them first?
practically, no. You see, to their credit, the Church hierarchs didn't want to
repeat the mistake of the scribes condemned by Jesus. They didn't want to bind
heavy burdens on men's shoulders and not lift a finger to help bear them. So
here's how they came to the rescue of the poor laity.
Granted you may
not have the leisure to understand the doctrine of the Dual Natures of Christ,
the Mystery of the Trinity, the Miracle of Transubstantiation and the rest. But
if you believe that those who do understand them, namely the theologians
and priests, are right to believe them, then you will be saved.
distortion of faith, faith as credulity, deserved all the scorn heaped upon it
by Calvin and the Reformers. We have done well, Catholics and Protestants alike,
in putting the doctrine of implicit faith behind us -- at least insofar as we
I would like to
suggest, however, that Medieval nonsense lingers here and there, and even that
some otherwise quite sophisticated people embrace it! Maybe even you!
Once many years
ago I was on a retreat with the church youth group I belonged to. We had an
exciting speaker. Then I thought him a spiritual giant; now I fear he was
verging on insanity. Nonetheless, he made quite an impact. I recall how at one
point he held the Bible aloft and challenged the crowd, "How many of you believe
the whole Bible, cover to cover?" Naturally, we all averred that we did. Then he
parried with another question, "How many of you have read the whole Bible
cover to cover?" This time no hands went up.
Bill Dougherty was chiding was this very idea of implicit faith. How can you
possibly believe the whole Bible if you don't even know what it says?
This was an
effective way to get all of us reading that Bible! But why? So we would be able
to intelligently scrutinize its contents and decide how much of it we believed
and how much we didn't? His challenge, after all, could be taken to mean: "You'd
best read the whole Bible before you say you believe it all, because more than
likely some of it will prove to be unbelievable! You shouldn't sign on to
believe the whole thing before reading it any more than you'd buy a piece of
property sight unseen!
In fact, the
retreat speaker had not seen the implication of his dangerous words! Actually it
was clear he simply wanted us to take up the slack between our formal belief in
biblical authority and a material belief in all the specifics in the Bible. He
assumed we would believe it automatically as we read it, like a baby sucking
The believer in
some religious authority who says in effect, "I am going to accept whatever it
tells me" is in fact abdicating reason just as surely as the medieval peasant
who believed what ever the Church believed. Or to quote
Winston Zedimore in the movie Ghostbusters, "Lady, I'll believe anything
you say as long as there's a steady paycheck in it."
Unless you have
thought it over, scrutinized a religious statement as Luke's Bereans did,
"examining the scriptures to see whether these things were so," then your belief
in them is no more your own faith than it would be if you said to John the
Baptist "We have Abraham for our father; we don't need to repent." It's just
not good enough.
Some of you may
shake your heads in disbelief at such uncritical belief. You may smile
indulgently. But I wonder if you have come up with anything better.
What in fact do
you think about the great religious questions? About the great doctrines of the
Don't get me
wrong: I'm not pressing you for a decision for some particular answer. But I
ask: is it even important to you? I mean, unless you have at least some kind of
educated guess about who Jesus Christ was and is, about eternal destiny, about
God, what's the alternative?
Now you may not
have even a guess because you're still struggling with the issues. Fine! I'm not
trying to hurry you on. I think you're under no schedule. If, God forbid, you
were to die today with any or all these questions as yet unresolved, I don't
think it would affect your eternal destiny in the slightest.
But if you don't
have your own opinion, or aren't trying to form one, does that mean you have
what amounts to a whole creed of tabled issues? Or is it after all possible that
you are secretly abdicating to the authority of the tradition? I suspect most
Christians do this at least in the case of the doctrine of the Trinity. "I have
no idea what it means, so whatever the church says is fine by me."
Implicit in Works: I know some of you
well enough to know that you must at this moment be thinking. "I've got news for
you, pastor. I've thought it through, and I have an opinion on the great
verities of the Christian faith: I don't believe 'em!" That's not why I
come to church! I come because I want to be associated with a group of people
who are concerned about moral values, and who express those values through
things like the Human Needs Ministry and the Film Series. I want to live a moral
life; I just can't buy the whole nine yards."
I know you feel
that way. Some of you have told me. Others perhaps haven't said so, but that's
the way they feel about it. Some of you don't feel that way now, but you
wouldn't be surprised if that's the way you ended up.
Well, of course,
you're welcome in this church if you feel that way. Perhaps the thing I've
valued most about this church through the years is that it has always welcomed
the doubter and the questioner, whether on this or that side of the pulpit!
A couple of
weeks ago I preached on the saying of Jesus, "Why do you call me Lord, Lord, yet
do not do what I say?" It was while writing that sermon that the idea for this
one came to me. It occurred to me that one might turn the saying around and
contemplate this possibility: "Why do you do what I say, yet not call me Lord,
That is, there
are certainly plenty of people to whom the doctrines of the Christian faith do
not commend themselves, yet the sort of life and action that Jesus of Nazareth
spoke of and died for do commend themselves to them. It may be that these people
learned some of this way of living from Jesus but do not feel moved to make him
the central symbol for their spiritual lives. It may be that they learned their
morality and priorities elsewhere, but they are pleased to find that they
correspond in the main with the teaching of Jesus, and that is why they come to
They, you, may
not want to worship Jesus but are proud to bear the banner he bore, to pursue
the cause he followed.
You can pick
your favorite saint to emulate, you know! You can follow Mother Theresa, who
certainly calls Jesus Lord, whose piety is very traditional, and who does what
Or you can seek
to retrace the footsteps of Mohandas Ghandi, who read the Sermon on the Mount
with much profit, but who declined to become a Christian. He did not call Jesus
Lord, yet he did what he said.
Or, have you
considered my personal favorite, Albert Schweitzer? As a New Testament scholar
he concluded that Jesus was a deluded enthusiast who died in despair, yet for
all that, Schweitzer was a Christian. He plunged into the jungles of French
Equatorial Africa to found a hospital where medical care had been but a rumor.
And all in order to give up his life for Jesus' sake and the gospel's!
I think that,
among the many options, more than you might think, it is possible to do
what Jesus said, yet not call him Lord, and that if one felt one had to choose,
certainly it would be the better choice to refrain from any Christian creed so
long as one walked the Christian walk, whether one called it that or not._
I have long
recalled one of the Hadith of Muhammad that bears nicely on this point. Abu
Huraya told the tale that "Someone told the Prophet of a woman famed for prayer,
fasting, and alms-giving, who however often injured people with her tongue. 'She
is bound for Hell,' the Prophet declared. The same man then told of another
woman, notorious for neglecting prayer and fasting, but who was in the habit of
giving milk to the needy and never injured anyone. 'She is bound for aradise.'"
But I can go
closer to home. Let's take a look at the eminently practical Epistle of James.
In our New Testament reading this morning we have a famous line from James: "You
have faith and I have works. Well, show me your faith without works, and I will
show you my faith by my works."
I think there is
some confusion in the text at this point, but here is what I think the writer
means to say. He challenges the person who would argue that religious belief
alone is required. As long as he has faith, he thinks, all will be well. He
does not need to complicate the picture by introducing good
startlingly like a modern logical positivist, challenges the cogency, even the
meaningfulness of such a claim. He asks what it is that the pure-faith believer
is referring to? He thinks he has faith, but how would he know the genuine
article? What does it look like? How can one tell one has it in the first place?
What effects does it have, so that you might judge the tree by its fruits?
say it has no fruits? You say it doesn't look like anything? Well,
then pray tell, how do you know there is such a thing or if there is,
that you have it?
I don't know if
any of you are familiar with the parable of the gardener formulated by John
Wisdom, but its point is very close to James's. Two explorers come to a clearing
where the flowers show a surprising degree of order. One man reasons that there
must be people around, for a gardener has surely been here. The other is not so
sure, so they decide to conceal themselves and await the possible arrival of the
gardener. They put up a trip-wire so that, should the gardener arrive while they
are asleep, the clatter will awaken them.
Time goes by and
no one appears. But the believer in the gardener will not give up his thesis
easily! He says, "Maybe the gardener is very stealthy, or even invisible! He
makes no sound and gives off no scent! And his handiwork is exceedingly subtle."
The other explorer, growing exasperated, finally says, "But how does your
invisible, inaudible, intangible gardener differ from no gardener at all?"
How does your
pure faith, uncontaminated by works, differ from no faith at all? If you
suddenly chanced to lose this so-called faith, what would you have lost? How
would anything be different in the slightest? How is faith without works any
different from no faith at all?
"But I by my
works will show you my faith." Actually the word means something like
"demonstrate" my faith. If I say I have faith, and I believe that faith is a
tree that produces the fruit of moral growth, I have given you a criterion for
observing whether or not I have faith. I am telling you what difference it
would make to have faith, and so if you observe no difference I must not have
the faith I lay claim to.
But I wonder if
we may not push James's point farther still. I would suggest that even where
someone professes to have no religious faith, where there is no claim at all to
confess Jesus as "Lord, Lord," but where the person does what Jesus said, then
there is nonetheless a faith implicit in those works.
Whether you mean
to or not, whether you want to or not, you are calling Jesus Lord when you live
as he lived. When you help a prophet you receive a prophet's reward, Jesus says.
But I say it is no less true that when you give the help a prophet would give,
you lay claim to a prophet's reward!
You say you have
no faith, but you have a strange way of showing it! It looks like you do indeed
have faith! It is faith held in the heart, even if not confessed with the lips.
It is implicit faith, even if not articulated faith.
Out of the heart
the mouth speaks, says one proverb. Actions speak louder than words, says
another. What is it that they speak of? Implicit faith. And it works both ways!
Jesus also says,
"Men will give account of every idle word they speak. By your words you will be
justified, and by your words you will be condemned." Why is that? Because as
Freud saw centuries later, it is the idle, that is the unguarded
utterance, the word spoken off guard, off the record, that reveals who and what
you really are. Not the rehearsed word, not the repeated creed.
Do you have the
faith Christ requires? Look not at the creed, but rather at the deed. Listen not
to the word spoken in season, but rather to that uttered out of season. Then you
will see what faith or unfaith they imply.