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And the greatest of these is… Faith?

Invariably, soteriological discussions will surface the concept of “true faith”—generally sooner rather than later. Why does James say that we are justified by works and not by faith alone, even though Paul writes that we are justified by faith? Because James wasn’t talking about “true faith.” Why do some people fall away after professing faith in Christ? Theirs was not “true faith.”

But what does this term really mean?

This question plagued me as a Calvinist, and I never found a good answer to it. I now think this is because a good answer does not exist. In this post, I will not attempt to explain or defend Catholic soteriology (something I have partially attempted herehere, and here). Instead, I will examine the Reformed dichotomy between “true” faith and “dead” faith, and attempt to show you why I reject it now.    

As far as I can tell, there are two possible ways of defining the phrase “true faith”, and both have to do with the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. One possibility is to define “true faith” as that faith which leads to hope and love; the other is that “true faith” means “a loving, hoping belief.”

Both of these definitions, however, are rife with theological difficulties. If “true faith” is faith that produces hope and love, then we really haven’t solved the problem; we are defining “true faith” by its effects rather than by its essential nature. The inherent qualities of such faith remain mysterious. Unless these are clarified, the “true faith” hypothesis risks turning into a “no-true-scotsman” fallacy, becoming a concept that is defined only by its rhetorical avoidance of counterexamples and not by any objective description. To avoid this fate, a defender of the “dead faith”/”true faith” distinction must seek a more specific definition.

However, anyone who holds that “true faith” produces hope and love, rather than encompasses them, is necessarily limited in the range of possible definitions by their exclusion. In other words, it might not be possible to create a distinction between intellectual assent (“dead faith”) and saving faith that does not make “faith” include hope and love by definition.  

For occasions such as this, I turn to the Ligonier Ministries website, a popular Calvinist resource, which references Hebrews 11 and explains the concept thusly: “Faith is an assurance of the future” which “gives an objective reality to what we know is coming.” This gives the reader specificity, but does not provide a clear delineation between true and dead faith. After all, the counterexample that James uses to demonstrate dead faith—the belief of demons—still seems to satisfy Ligonier’s definition. The Satanic Host is assured of its future, and their shudders indicate that their belief is, in fact, very real and objective to them. Therefore, without further qualification, I think we will have to reject this approach.

The dual failures of the first possibility—either reducing to a “no-true-scotsman” fallacy or yielding a concept that does not adequately distinguish itself from the dead faith in James—render it untenable. The second option, which takes “true faith” to mean “a loving, hoping belief,” at least satisfies these requirements. It is an understandable meaning of the word that surpasses the type of faith displayed in James.

However, this second definition presents other difficulties. It turns traditional Calvinist soteriology on its head; now, instead of faith preceding regeneration, which in turn enables love, love and faith are combined as the first act, which then justifies (and presumably regenerates) the individual. Calvin and Luther feared this kind of soteriology because they saw it as too works-based. They insisted that love (which is indistinguishable from works in both Catholic and Reformation-era theology) was a fruit, rather than a cause, of true faith. In other words, the soteriology that would result from the second definition would bring one far too close to the Catholic view.

Moreover, while Paul is the primary expositor of justifying (read: true) faith, his own description of the three theological virtues undercuts such a treatment of “true faith.” By defining Pauline faith as “a loving, hoping belief,” one creates a sort of mega-virtue: “faith” includes “hope and love” and can stand in for them if necessary. Therefore, if this view is adopted, “faith” is not really a distinct virtue alongside the other two; it encompasses the others definitionally.

Paul’s discourse in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 patently excludes that kind of interpretation. Paul here reveals that he considers faith to be a virtue that, while crucial and justifying, is definitionally distinct from hope and love:

“Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

The keystone for this text are the final words: “the greatest of these is love.” From this conclusion we can draw two truths: first, the three theological virtues do not all include one another, because in that case it would be impossible for one to be the greatest; second, faith does not encompass the other virtues, because that would make faith the greatest virtue.  

The quest for a “true” faith is quixotic. If it merely produces hope and love, it is either a fallacy or a device that cannot adequately explain James. If it includes hope and love, Protestant soteriology is struck by a mortal blow and Paul’s understanding of the virtues is rejected. This concept, while necessary for a Reformed understanding of salvation, is fatally flawed.

The alternative is a Catholic understanding of faith, which I will perhaps write more about at a later time. I understand that this is a bit unsatisfying, but it is also natural: the truth can only shine forth after the clouds of error have been dispersed. In the meantime, I appreciate feedback and will gladly attempt to answer questions or respond to objections in the comment section.

Photo by Tim Green. Original found here.

Christian McGuire

Christian McGuire

Christian was raised in an evangelical, Calvinist family with a deep love for Christ. However, his conversations with members of other Christian traditions gradually led him to question some of his preconceptions. After six years of research into Scripture, Church History, miracles, and philosophy, he was confirmed into the Catholic Church. His favorite Christian thinkers include G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, and Saint Augustine, his confirmation saint.

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