#24  Who We Believe In is More Important than What We Believe

FOR MOST OF MY life I have been interested in Christian theology. I have a doctor’s degree in Christian theology and taught theology for decades. Consequently, theology is not something I can cavalierly criticize or dismiss lightly.

It is understood and described in many different ways, but theology generally concentrates on the study of Christian beliefs, which are sometimes called doctrines. In some circles, the heart of theological study is called dogmatics, which is defined as the “branch of theology that seeks to interpret the dogmas of a religious faith,” and the same dictionary defines dogma as “a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church.”[1]

Doctrines, or dogmas, are expressed in words, and those words, or propositions, are considered to be either true or false. And, in keeping with what we saw in the previous chapter, those who believe “correct” doctrines are considered orthodox and those who believe erroneous doctrines are, to varying degrees, considered heretics. As we saw, being orthodox, that is, believing the right things has had a prominent role in the history of Christianity, at least since the fourth century.

The theological disputes through the ages, beginning before the fourth century but characterized by the disagreements that led to the so-called First Ecumenical Council in 325, have been almost exclusively about what people believed. The Council of Nicaea, as the meeting of bishops in 325 came to be called, was partly about politics, particularly in the eyes of Emperor Constantine who convened it. At least on the surface, the dispute centered on the opposing beliefs of Athanasius and Arius, two prominent Christian leaders in Alexandria, Egypt.

From then until modern times, church (and political) authorities have considered what Christians believe to be of great importance, and many Christians have been martyred by other Christians simply because of what were considered erroneous beliefs. In spite of all this, however, we need to recognize that who we Christians believe in is more important than what we believe.

I Know Whom I Have Believed

In 1 Timothy 2:12 we find this noteworthy declaration: “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (NKJV) Whether written by the Apostle Paul or by a later author who put these words in the Apostle’s mouth, that is a statement of faith in Christ by one who was suffering in prison because of being a preacher and an apostle.

Based on those words from the New Testament, Daniel W. Whittle wrote the words to a hymn that we often sang in my home church in northwest Missouri. The first verse and refrain goes like this:

I know not why God’s wondrous grace / To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love / Redeemed me for His own.

But I know Whom I have believèd, / And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed / Unto Him against that day. [2]

Both Paul and Major Whittle seem to have known that who one believes in is more important than what one believes. That certainly does not mean that beliefs are unimportant. Much of the doctrinal teaching of the New Testament comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul and his followers who wrote in his name. Paul could even be adamant about the content of what was believed. In writing to the Christians in Galatia, Paul acknowledges that “there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7). But then he goes on to exclaim, “. . . even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (1:8).

There was, to be sure, important content in the gospel message that Paul had proclaimed. Yet even in this letter to the Galatians, Paul emphasizes the central importance of faith in Christ. In the second chapter he declares that “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ” (v. 16).

Belief that Jesus is the Savior and that one can be justified through belief in Christ are important beliefs. But still, belief that is not nearly as important as belief in.

Confession of Faith

This book’s ninth chapter was about the meaning of confessing Jesus as Lord. Indeed, as mentioned in that previous chapter, it seems quite clear that the words “Jesus is Lord” was the earliest confession of faith, the essential profession new believers would make before being baptized. In the tenth chapter of Romans we find these important words: “. . . if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (vv. 9-10).

In those pivotal verses, there is significant reference made to what is believed, particularly about Jesus’ resurrection. But what is most important is that one believes in Jesus, confessing him as Lord. That simple confession by itself was sufficient in the beginning, seeing that it was a “radical” decision to call Jesus Lord. On the one hand, it was radical for those who had been a part of the Jewish community as Lord was used as a form of address for only the Creator God. It was also radical for those who lived in Roman society, as Caesar expected his subjects to address him as Lord.

In short, belief about Jesus was included in a confession of faith in Jesus—but it was the latter which was decisive. Gradually, though, church leaders came increasingly to emphasize the content of the Christian faith. There developed what is now known as the Apostles’ Creed, which originally was likely an expanded statement of beliefs that persons were expected to confess at the time of baptism—and its use for that purpose is still seen in some churches today.

With the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, there began to develop diverse confessions of faith in the various Protestant traditions. It became necessary for the various groups to state publicly, and clearly, what they believed. One of the first such statements was the Schleitheim Confession (1527) by the Anabaptists who were being persecuted in Switzerland.

Three years later, the first Lutheran document was penned, and it came to be known as the Augsburg Confession. That confession of faith was drafted by the followers of Luther in response to the call of Catholic Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who asked the “Lutherans” to explain their religious convictions in an attempt to restore religious and political unity in the Holy Roman Empire. What the “Protestants” believed seemed, and was, at odds with what was believed by the Roman Catholics at that time. Not surprisingly, their Confession failed to bring about unity.

The Confession of Basel (1534) was one of a series of confessions of faith that was issued by the Reformed branch of the church which began in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1520s. In that same tradition, the Scots Confession (1560) was normative in the Reformed/Presbyterian branch of the Reformation until the adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1648.

Reference could be made to many other confessions of faith drawn up in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But the point is this: in the development of the Christian church through the centuries, there was a proliferation of confessions expressing the content of Christian beliefs. The Protestant understanding of Christianity was quite different from the Catholic understanding in numerous ways. And within Protestantism, the doctrinal understanding of the Lutherans and the Presbyterians, of the Anabaptists and the Anglicans, and then, later, of the Baptists and the Methodists was not at all the same.

The various confessions of faith acknowledged many similarities, to be sure, but they also made it apparent that there were many differences among the various groups. And what people believed often had serious social ramifications. Some Protestants were executed by Catholics because of their beliefs. At other times there were Catholics who were executed by Protestants. And even within Protestantism some were martyred by other Protestants because of what they believed, beginning with Felix Manz in 1527.[3] Manz’s main “crime” was his rejection of infant baptism, which he and the other Swiss Brethren did not consider Christian baptism at all, and his insistence on believer’s baptism.

So, especially in previous centuries, what Christians believed or didn’t believe was certainly of grave importance. Still, I insist that who one believes in is more important than what one believes.

Belief in Jesus Christ

In recent years it seems that there has been an increasing shift away from the centrality of Jesus Christ in the thinking of some Christians. It would seem that for Christianity to be considered as primarily about faith in Jesus would be a foregone conclusion, but there are now some Christians who seek to downplay the significance of Jesus for the sake of fostering better relations with people of other faith traditions. (I deal with this issue to some extent in a chapter of my book The Limits of Liberalism.[4])

Those who seek to demote Jesus, denying his divinity, place emphasis on faith in God (known by many different names)—although some even deny that God is a personal Being. Christ and Christianity are largely relativized.

It is a shameful historical fact that Christians have often mistreated those of other religious faiths, and the move toward a position of respect for those who embrace different views is highly commendable. But to what extent can one downplay the divinity or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and still be a Christian in any meaningful sense?

As I was working on this chapter, I just happened to read (again) the story of Augustine’s conversion. Upon hearing a child’s voice saying, “Take and read, take and read,” Augustine picked up the Bible and opened it at random to Romans 13:13-14. Those verses renounce the type of profligate life Augustine had lived for years. But they also, significantly, contain the words, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Augustine went on to become a committed Christian and then a great theologian. Some call him “the father of Western theology.” But his conversion experience was not nearly as so much in what he believed as in whom he believed. His faith was “putting on” the Lord Jesus Christ. It was not his belief about Jesus but rather his belief (trust) in Jesus that formed the foundation for all he later wrote about belief about Christ, defending doctrinal orthodoxy against those he considered heretics.

When I was a teenager, I remember hearing Baptist preachers emphasize, fairly often it seems, the difference between believing in and believing that. The latter, of course, is about what we believe, but the former is about whom we believe. Believing that has to do with intellectual assent to statements or propositions. Believing in has to do with trust in a person. That was, and is, an important thing to emphasize, and people today still need to recognize that difference.

Belief as Trust in Christ

In many of those church services where believing in was emphasized, “Trust and Obey” was often sung as a congregational hymn. The words of that old hymn were based on a testimony given by a young man in an evangelistic meeting led by the famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody.[5] It was quite apparent from the young man’s words that he knew little about Christian doctrine, but he finished his testimony by saying, “I’m not quite sure—but I’m going to trust, and I’m going to obey.”

I used to hear it said that a person could be as straight as a gun barrel doctrinally and just as empty spiritually. There are people who give all the “right answers” when asked about the great Christian doctrines. They would acknowledge that they believe all of the creedal statements about Jesus Christ. But close examination of their daily lives would lead one to conclude that there was distinct discrepancy between their way of living and their faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus.

Belief that is merely intellectual assent and often has little relationship to how one actually lives. Belief equated with trust, however, is much different: it means commitment to the one in whom that trust is placed—and when belief is trust, it includes obeying. So this chapter is, obviously, closely related to the previous one emphasizing that what we do is more important than what we believe.

What I am emphasizing here is that Christian belief is trust in Jesus Christ and in the God revealed by Jesus. Thus, Christian faith is not belief in a generic God, one who is worshipped by adherents of all religions. There are similarities and overlaps, of course, but there are also important differences. Those differences have been admirably explained by Stephen Prothero in his book God Is Not One.[6]

As Prothero points out, the goals of the different religions are not the same. Thus, indeed, it makes a great difference in how we live and, potentially, in what we experience after death, according to whether we believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ or whether we believe in the God, or Absolute, depicted by one or other of the great leaders and teachers in other religious traditions.

For Christians, what they believe about Jesus—and the many other doctrines of the faith—is important. But as human beings, whether people believe in Jesus or in some other savior, teacher, guru, or whomever is of the greatest importance.

Truly, who we believe in is more important than what we believe.

[1] Miriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Further, as related to the above definition, doctrine is defined as “a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief.”

[2] Whittle (1840-1901) was injured in the Civil War and became a Christian during the time he was recovering from his wounds. Several years later he wrote this hymn, which was first published in 1883.

[3] Manz (b. c.1498) was executed by drowning in the Limmat River in Zurich by the city officials under the influence of Huldrich Zwingli, the pastor of historic Grossmünster Church and the main instigator of the Reformation in Switzerland.

[4] (4-L Publications, 2010). Chapter Six is “The Limits of Liberalism’s Understanding of Jesus Christ.”

[5] The lyrics of “Trust and Obey” were written in 1887 by John H. Sammis (1846-1919), who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1880.

[6] (HarperOne, 2010). Prothero is Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University. The subtitle of his book is The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.