Let me begin with a statement that may sound bold at first: Faith is not a matter of static intellectual belief, it is not an ‘absolute knowledge’ of one’s spiritual convictions, and it is not a feeling or even a strictly personal relationship between the believer and God. Faith is rather a dynamic relationship of trust and cooperation between the believer and God and is ultimately a life of communion with God through Christ’s Body. Indeed, as Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick states, “Those who define ‘faith’ as an absolute knowledge are not following in the tradition of the Apostles, but rather in the tradition of the 18th century ‘Enlightenment’ in Europe and America… Nowhere in the Scripture or in the consensus of the Fathers do we see the notion that faith is just an inner, mental knowledge or even a feeling (“Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” p.109).
That this version of faith is found nowhere in Scripture or among the Church Fathers may come as a shock to many who embrace the gospel of effortless-Christianity. After all, the movement, like every movement before it, claims to be the embodiment of the full-gospel; a reflection of ancient Christianity in its bare essentials.
Effortless Christianity and Early Gnostic Faith
However, it’s not as if this version of faith does have ancient roots. It does. The idea that faith is merely an inner assurance or knowledge of one’s salvation was a conviction of the early Gnostic Christians. Of course Gnosticism was one of the first heresies to enter the psyche of the ancient Church and was addressed by name in the New Testament. Even a cursory study of the New Testament reveals a strong rebuke of Gnostic thought.
Far from defending effortless, intellectual faith, much of Paul’s writings seem to reflect an overarching mission to stamp out such Gnostic influences in the Church. Again and again he taught that faith is not in word but in power (1Cor 4:20), that faith is an active life not intellectual wrangling (Gal 2:20, Rom 1:17, Rom 11:22), he relates faith to physical fighting (2Tim 4:7), and he makes special effort to assure that the Church embraced the sacrament of Communion as the partaking of Christ’s actual flesh and blood, something utterly detestable to early Gnostic believers. Elsewhere we find the author of Hebrews describing faith as a race (Heb 12:1), James makes an intrinsic link between the faith in one’s head and the faith worked-out in one’s daily life (Jm 2:22), the Apostle John is perhaps the strongest of them all: “We know that we know Him (Christ) if we keep His commandments” (1Jn 2:3). And why no quotes from Christ Himself? It is difficult to nail down a few isolated Scriptures from Christ’s own mouth on the matter since nearly everything Christ said reflects this understanding of faith. Rather than read it second hand simply begin reading Mathew 1:1 and continue through to John 21:25 and at every turn the reader is confronted not with an intellectual faith but with a faith found only in deep communion with the Spirit of God. Even those who Christ commends for their simple faith operate not from a position of intellectual assuredness, but from profound trust.
Gnostic faith did not require either communion or trust, but rather access to objective salvific knowledge; often a ‘secret’ knowledge that only the ‘truly spiritual’ or ‘enlightened’ were privy to. One finds this notion of faith among many in the effortless-Christianity persuasion. They view faith as a sort of spiritual tool that brings them what they need and desire; something that exists as a static ‘power’ to “call things that aren’t as though they were” (and often quoted Scripture from its adherents). But the primary failure of this approach is the failure to understand what faith is as defined in Scripture. In Greek, ‘faith’ is the word pistis. Greek verb endings reveal how the verb is to be used. In this case, the –is refers to the progressive, ongoing, dynamic reality of faith. The closest English equivalent would be something like “faithing.” In other words, faith is not a single event as many effortless-Christianity believers have imagined particularly as it relates to salvation. This is why one never sees the modern evangelical “salvation prayer” in Scripture as the means for one to “become saved.” Salvation is an ongoing dynamic reality. Scripture routinely reveals salvation as a vibrant relationship with God, often using marriage and parent-child relationships as typologies of our relationship with God. Contrast this with the primarily western idea of salvation as a divine courtroom drama where the acquittal of sin-guilt before the divine Judge is the focal point of salvation – a static, objective, legal event applicable to the believer in purely static, objective, and legal terms.
New Gnostic Faith: Spiritual Consumerism
With the foundation of faith clearly broken down and replaced with a Gnostic version of ‘special knowledge,’ coupled with a European/American infusion of Enlightenment principles (i.e. the elevation of human reason as a means of perfect assurance), the effortless-Christianity movement has effectively reduced Christian faith to another means for the individual to ‘get what he wants’ out of life. And what does the average person want? The same thing we wanted in the Garden: pretty things, tasty things, and things that make us powerful – and lots of them!
Rather than understanding mankind as broken and sick and in need of healing through the medicinal and cleansing blood of Christ, mankind is seen merely guilty of breaking a divine code of conduct and in need of proper legal representation. Since Jesus’ work on the cross is understood as this juridical and/or forensic representation in the court of heaven, the modern western Christian sees no need to undergo spiritual, emotional and physical healing, – which requires much effort on the part of the believer, as do all forms of true healing – instead one is free to go about life as usual with the assurance that he or she is “saved” in the long run. Rarely does it dawn on the believer in effortless-Christianity that salvation begins at the moment of conversion; that one’s entire life is a journey home to Christ; that faith (pistis) is an ongoing dynamic. With the effortless mindset the focus turns from true healing to merely “feeling good” about oneself until he/she can finally shake off the pain of this world and escape to heaven.
For many reasons the proponents of effortless-Christianity show fearful and even hostile resistance to the idea of personal effort in their Christian life. Having lived on a spiritual diet of feel good slogans and twisted conceptions of the Church’s ancient tradition, the modern Christian slips out of view from the Church and joins the warm embrace of western individualism. Many believers eventually discover that this warm embrace, which promised freedom and security, leads to compounded imprisonment of isolation and pathology. It is fairly routine to find those who have broken loose from this movement to be deeply jaded if not completely withdrawn from the Christian faith. In the next article we will look at the emphasis on individualism and the attempt to make Christianity “popular” through the preaching of effortless-Christianity juxtaposed to the preaching of the early Church. Did the Apostles and their direct descendants teach individualism? What was their vision of Christianity? And did it look anything like modern effortless-Christianity?
Thanks for reading!