Incarnate Faith

A great difficulty with which American Christians need to struggle is the separation of religion and “real life” into airtight compartments. Religion is accepted as a purely subjective idea, but is not considered either true or false in an objective, public way. As a Lutheran interested in apologetics, this situation has always posed a special challenge. I am not altogether surprised that Kierkegaard—the philosopher often credited with introducing this separation into modern thought (though he no doubt would reject the extent to which it is now taken)—was raised nominally Lutheran. Of course, neither Luther’s own thought nor our confessions necessitate such separation; they express real salvation from real sins through a real Savior. Nevertheless, the central doctrine of the Christian faith—justification by faith alone apart from works—and many of its corollaries such as the fact that we cannot believe “by our own reason or strength” make strong distinctions which can be easily perverted into utter separation of faith from a daily life which inevitably involves our works and reason. Luther’s comments on “incarnate faith” in his Galatians commentary (AE 26: 265-70) represent a beautiful way of expressing Christianity in the realm of “real life” without in any way betraying its most essential doctrines.

In explaining those passages of Scripture which seem to describe God offering us eternal life by virtue of our good works, Luther retains the centrality of faith to our salvation by drawing an analogy to Christ’s two natures. Luther states that “when Scripture speaks about rewards and works, then it is speaking about faith as something compound, concrete, or incarnate.” (AE 26:264-5) He goes on to defend this through the analogy: “Why should Holy Scripture not speak in these different ways about faith when it speaks in different ways about Christ as God and man?” (AE 26:265) Just as we can call Christ the babe the creator of all things by virtue of His divine nature, we can call our works good and pleasing to God by virtue of the justification granted to us by faith alone. Just as the Son’s incarnation filled the word “man” with new meaning, our faith fills our works with a new meaning. This kind of incarnate faith leaves room in religion for my daily works and efforts—not as means by which I am saved, but as sanctified parts of a Christian who is saved already. Many Lutherans suggest that because good works flow spontaneously from faith, they necessarily require no effort–that we are not just passive, but inert.  On the contrary, sanctification ends up involving my own real effort not because my efforts are achieving sanctification, but because my efforts (along with the rest of the real me) are what is being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

This idea of incarnate faith provides similar help in the mental arena. In part due to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” talk, faith is often seen as something that is contrary to and utterly separate from our reason. Among Lutherans, this idea can be exacerbated by a common misunderstanding of the means of grace. I have seen many Lutherans who see the preaching of the Word as a magic spell. When the Word is proclaimed, they imagine the Holy Spirit working coincidentally with their utterance to immediately create faith in the hearer, bypassing their hearing, reason, and intellect altogether. Some go so far as to suggest that the preacher’s spoken language need not be known by the hearer so long as he quotes the Bible. Luther, on the other hand, describes a believer grasping Christ “by a reason or an intellect that has been illumined by faith” (AE 26: 287). Our God-hating “reason,” like “man” in Christ’s incarnation, is filled with new meaning by a justifying faith. Preaching thereby remains a very real and tangible means through which the Holy Spirit acts to create faith—not an event which merely coincides with His action. Because of our incarnate Lord and the incarnate faith He gives us, the Christian faith, rather than being relegated to a small corner, remains involved in our entire real lives.

2 Responses to Incarnate Faith

  1. Apocryphon says:

    Great piece, I like how it illustrates that reason must not be held separately from faith, that we cannot compartmentalize our lives into neat boxes marked “secular” and “Christian.”

    A question, while Kierkegaard’s philosophy may be problematic and at times counter to Scripture, do you believe that he himself wasn’t Christian? Or was he merely mistaken in his philosophy?

  2. Matt says:

    Though Kierkegaard was wrong on important things, I haven’t seen anything to say he utterly rejected the faith. And to be fair to him, I doubt that he either expected or intended his thought to be taken to the extremes that lead to this separation. People are almost always logical, but they tend to be logical slowly. It can take decades or even a new generation before some logical implications of current beliefs are readily accepted.

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