Sunday, June 03, 2012

Lutherans, The Gift of Faith, Acts 17:31, etc.

Over on the CARM boards there was a heated discussion about the Lutheran concept of baptism. It's not the baptism of infants that bothers me (I am not a baptist), but rather if Lutherans believe the "gift of faith" is given to infants during baptism.

I've been through this before with a few Lutherans here on this blog. The basic answer of those who participated was that baptism does indeed give saving faith, but that faith needs to be nourished by the Gospel in order to grow and flourish. If not, it will whither and die. I mean no disrespect for my Lutheran friends (the few they are!), but what the Lutheran position appears to be to me is simply another form of synergism, or perhaps simply a different and limited version of prevenient grace without calling it prevenient grace.  I don't believe the Lutheran construct (if indeed what I've described accurately is the correct Lutheran construct) is correct. For Lutheranism, at least how it's been described to me, the faith given to infants in baptism is only monergistic in its inception. It ultimately lives or dies by how a person is nourished with the Gospel, and that nourishment appears to be a human work and human tending. In the final analysis, salvation is not monergistic, it's synergistic.

From a Reformed perspective,  the word "faith" has deep and nuanced meanings throughout the New Testament. In regard to soteriology, I'm fond of Ephesians 2. There Paul describes the universal plight of humanity by singling out the testimony of the Ephesians. Formerly, like all of humanity, they were dead in their transgressions and sins. But by grace they were saved through faith, and that not of themselves- it is the gift of God. That's the paradigm I find expressed in the Scriptures. I don't see any sort of construct that infants have been given some sort of faith at baptism, simply waiting to be acted upon by their own wills.

Now here's where the CARM discussion comes in. A Lutheran presented me the following argument (here abridged, taken from various CARM posts). He argued that in actuality, the Scriptures teach all men have been given faith, based on Acts 17:31, particularly based on the Greek word "pistis". This word most English translations render assurance or proof in Acts 17:31, but the word most often elsewhere is rendered "faith" throughout the New Testament. Here's how he argued:
"So Scripture says GOD has given faith unto all men that He will judge them through Christ through His resurrection. "Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance [pistis, faith] unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead." Acts 17:31."
"Well, if Luther's translation is considered then it could be considered Lutheran since he translates pistis, faith, in Acts 17:31 as Glauben. There is a consistent unwarranted bias in the English translations of Acts 17:31. If a person has no trouble with "...has given assurance unto all men..." then there is no reason for that person to have trouble with, "...has given faith unto all men..." since the word being translated is pistis, faith. Have you ever come across Matthew 8:10 translated as, "When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great assurance [pistis, faith], no, not in Israel?"
"GOD will judge all men through Christ and He has given faith to all men of that through His resurrection. The body of Christ, the church, brings that faith or assurance to all men, i.e., they Go! baptizing and teaching all men..."
"The faith or assurance is Jesus is the savior of all men. Unfortunately, and mysteriously to me at least, some men just won't have it be so."
"In the two passages cited, Matthew 8:10 and Acts 17:31, the word faith is a noun and it is a direct object. The KJV use of the word assurance to translate pistis in Acts 17:31 is fine because faith and assurance are synonymous. The point of contrasting the translation of the two passages (It could have been a contrast of Acts 17:31 with many other pistis passages.) was to demonstrate an unwarranted translational bias and the mental gymnastics people are going through to support their ideas of Christian faith, or support other doctrines, or maybe only to support the conditioning they've received through that English translation. If a person accepts the word assurance as an accurate translation of pists/faith in Acts 17:31 and the passage makes sense to that person without mentally inserting the article then the meaning doesn't change nor is a mental insertion of the article desirable or warranted when pistis is translated as faith. Some people receive this GOD given faith/assurance, some people reject it, and others are yet to hear of it."
"It is the theological bias of the hoop jumping theologians of glory which leads them to a special pleading in translating pistiv in Acts 17:31 as something other than faith."
I did a little poking around with my lexical sources and have come to the following conclusion on Acts 17:31. The meaning of pistis is probably "proof" rather than "faith." While this isn't the most typical meaning of pistis, I see it as the most applicable meaning in context. There are examples of pistis being used as "proof" in relevant extra-biblical Greek sources.

I'm certainly not any sort of Greek scholar, but I certainly don't have any problem consulting Greek scholars. Gerhard Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says the phrase in question "has the Gk. sense 'to give a pledge,' 'to offer proof." (Vol. VI, p. 204). See also Mounce, "faith" entry, point 3- "Pistis can refer to an assurance or proof. God has given us assurance that he will send Jesus back to judge the world by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31)."

31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

I wonder if perhaps those whom Paul was preaching to used the word pistis in regard to proof / assurance? That is, Paul throughout this section uses their capital to preach the gospel. He quotes their poets and philosophers, and appeals even to their idolatry. It would not surprise me at all to learn that that is how the word was being used by Paul's hearers. The concept of the bodily resurrection was seen as ridiculous (Acts 17:18-19). By the end of this section, the very thing those listening to Paul thought was ridiculous is the very proof that God has the right to command all people everywhere to repent.


Brigitte said...

This is a new episode, it seems.

Faith is always in the word of promise which gives what it promises. So baptism is a promise. As I grow with this promise it keeps nurturing my faith. Daily.

Andrew said...

I've never heard a Lutheran say that faith has been given to everyone. I have been reading Mueller's "Christian Dogmatics". I shall keep an eye out for that. That would seem a very odd thing to say.

James Swan said...

I've never heard a Lutheran say that faith has been given to everyone. I have been reading Mueller's "Christian Dogmatics". I shall keep an eye out for that. That would seem a very odd thing to say.

The Lutheran putting forth this argument is a knowledgeable Lutheran that I've posted back and forth with for over 10 years. While I have been edified and challenged by many of his comments over the years, the comment, "It is the theological bias of the hoop jumping theologians of glory which leads them to a special pleading in translating pistiv in Acts 17:31 as something other than faith" probably would have more impact if it could be demonstrated this interpretation is typically and historically "Lutheran." It appears to me (at least at this point), to be his personal view of the text. That's my guess, but perhaps there is some Lutheran pedigree behind it I'm not aware of.

Brigitte said...

I am beginning to think like some people I've met on Facebook: this hairsplitting makes us all look like fools.

As I am born to my parents in the first birth and in experiencing their love and care, it is evident to me that I belong to them and that they take care of me. So in baptism, if it is explained properly, something actually happens, which is the receiving into the fellowship and the attendant love and priviledges. I get to believe that this is true, even in spite of discipline which may not suit me, or my own failings which could potentially disrupt the fellowship. But as we know, normal parenthood loves and loves and loves.

steelikat said...

Obviously, as Kittel explains more specifically, the word "faith," like any word in a natural language, has multiple meanings. There is no reason to think that that one isolated verse in Acts proves that literally everyone has been given faith. When we are born again we are given faith. Not everyone is born again--not even most people.

Faith must be nourished, but since that nourishment is precisely Sacrament and Word, it is God's work not a human work. Maybe you are caught up in the idea that since God uses ministers to distribute and proclaim word and sacrament to his people, it is the work of those ministers that is operating. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are merely instruments that God is using. It is God who works faith and salvation through the ordinary means he has ordained.

(and of course through whatever extraordinary means He may or may not sovereignly choose--but those speculative extraordinary circumstances is not where our hope is grounded--rather, we trust in the promises He has given us in scripture).

LPC said...


Firstly I do not agree with that Lutheran that says everyone has been given faith.

However, to understand why in Lutheranism, the faith that is nourished is still monergistic, one must understand the means of Grace. God in Lutheran theology though sovereign has bound himself through the means of Grace. This is the what God uses to produce faith. If your friend did not explain this to you then he must be some synodic UOJ Lutheran.

Because the means of grace is owned by God and it is the instrument of faith, then by its very fact, when a person believes or continues to believe it is through God through his means of grace which he own, hence, still monergistic.

Definitely he has some American SynodicLutheran pedigree that I probably disagree with.

Between Calvinism and Lutheranism, I pin point it is the concept of the means of grace that fundamentally differentiates between the two. In my view, the means of grace goes or if you tag along everywhere Lutheranism goes. This is the reason that Lutheranism considers Baptism is also tied up to JBFA.

Lastly, Jesus wont say to us, unless we have faith like a little child we can not enter the kingdom of God means that Jesus too believed that children have faith. I hope that is no longer at issue here.

PS. We can talk off line, as I have emailed you.

Brigitte said...

Dear James,this stuff matters, so bear with me. Attached find a video I watched recently on why someone became an atheist. It struck me that in this genre of Youtube videos there is so much that seems hyped and unreasonable, but this man's seemed genuine.

And the other think I noted in the video was how many sentences he spent on the confusion over faith and predestination. Please, have a look at it. We must not put our faith in our faith or in our efforts of knowing we are elected/ predestined.

James Swan said...

Hi Brigitte,

I'll have a look during the week.

Keep in mind, really, the major thing that concerns me in this particular blog post is the interpretation of Acts 17:31. If Lutherans believe collectively that all of humanity has been given the gift of faith, this is simply not Biblical.

The Lutheran holding to this is quite convinced I don't "get it" because I have "Calvinist glasses" on. Let's put it this way: I can understand why people abhor limited atonement. I can understand why people think that Baptism regenerates. I can understand why Roman Catholics think the body and blood of Christ are transubstantiated. I can even understand why people in the middle ages venerated the bones of saints. I simply can't fathom though why someone would say that Acts 17:31 and Ephesians 2 say that all people have been given the gift of faith.

Do you have any particular view on this verse? Is it typical of Lutheranism to say all people have been given the gift of faith? I don't get it. Glasses or not.


steelikat said...

"Is it typical of Lutheranism to say all people have been given the gift of faith?"

No! The person you are talking to is either confused or not making himself understood, I bet.

Brigitte said...

No, I don't think I have ever heard it said, that all people have the gift of faith. Obviously, they don't all have it.

The sacrificial death of Christ, however, does not exclude anyone and therefore, it should be said to each person that their salvation has been earned by another and is available also to them. And they should not doubt it. This is faith.

LPC said...

Is it typical of Lutheranism to say all people have been given the gift of faith

Well JS, you know my answer to that question is a very loud NO!!!

That guy who says so must be some quasi-universalist and is giving Lutherans a bad name.
That guy must be confused about the means of grace, on one hand he may hail it with his lips but on another he chops it off, i.e., an anti-Means of Grace just like the anti-Christ - who externally lauds Christ but behind the scenes actively works against Christ.


steelikat said...


Right. And I sense that James might be puzzled that he didn't get an immediate dismissive "that guy doesn't know what he's talking about!" from Lutherans.

It seems to me that the problem is that we are touching on an area where Christians can naturally expected to be often talking past each other because they aren't asking the same questions and have a different focus.

I like your brief comments in response to this article. They succinctly put into words a particular kind of christocentric focus that is different than what some Christians might be used to. They are worth a couple of thoughtful re-reads and I hope people reading this can see that you were being responsive to the questions. As you say, our faith is not in faith.

James Swan said...

it seems to me that the problem is that we are touching on an area where Christians can naturally expected to be often talking past each other because they aren't asking the same questions and have a different focus

I don't have the time to post it, but in the CARM discussion my immediate thought was terms are being used differently, so we were talking past each other. Then, when Ephesians 2 was said to be saying the same thing- that all men are given the gift of faith, I realized that perhaps a completely different theological paradigm was being put forth. That's when I started asking Lutherans what was going on here.

So far, the best answer seems to be what LPC has put forth. The discussion with me over on CARM seems to have ceased, which is fine. I certainly have a learned a bit about Lutheranism.

Ps for Brigitte: I started watching that YouTube link but was interrupted, multiple times. I'll try again at some point.

PeaceByJesus said...

It a old post, but i came across it looking for definitions of pistis.

For while steelikat rightly said, ...

as Kittel explains more specifically, the word "faith," like any word in a natural language, has multiple meanings,

yet for atheists it can only mean one thing, blind, unwarranted faith without any empirical evidence, and even against evidence.

Even though the latter may describe how some people seem to vote.

This totally unwarranted idea of faith is pretty much what dictionaries say, never allowing that it can mean belief based on a degree of evidence providing warrant. Even WP only had the former in its articles on faith and faith and rationality until someone added to it.

As if Israel followed Moses because he looked like Charlton Heston, , or disciples followed Jesus without Him providing evidence to take a step of faith.

Or someone gets married by blind faith, etc.