Knowing Our Faith (Justo L. González) - A Review
KNOWING OUR FAITH: A Guide for Believers, Seekers, and Christian Communities. By Justo L. González. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Company, 2019. Xiv + 156 pages.
Augustine and Anselm, among others, spoke of faith or belief seeking understanding. That is, we first believe and then over time we deepen that belief through study and experience in the Christian life. In recent years, it seems that this premise has lost its shine. There seems to be a growing aversion to doctrine and dogma. We speak of orthopraxis instead of orthodoxy. I’m all for orthopraxis. What we do as Christians demonstrates the truth and depth of our confession of faith in God. But, unless we pursue a rather anti-intellectualist version of our religion, it will be important to know our faith. We needn’t agree on every point of doctrine, but it is helpful to a healthy Christian life to know a bit about what we profess. Although I hear stories of those who first understood and then believed, I’ve not met them. So, most of start with a profession of faith and then hopefully move toward understanding.
One who believes that the move faith toward understanding is important is Justo González, who is a well-regarded church historian/historical theologian. He is also very committed to orthopraxis, but as a historian and theologian, it is to be expected that he would deem it wise to put some meat on the bones of faith.
KnowingOur Faith was originally written at the behest of the churches in Puerto Rico. González was asked to write a primer on the Christian faith to be used in the churches by lay persons (not clergy). It emerged out of conversations sponsored by the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico and the Association for Hispanic Theological Education. It was prepared in partnership with a number of denominations, including the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Puerto Rico. I note this because I am Disciple and we are a non-creedal tradition. That the Puerto Rican Disciples participated in the project is telling, and maybe it could serve as a witness to their sisters and brothers in the Disciples community in the United States and Canada as to the importance of deepening one’s theological understanding. While González is himself United Methodist, he consulted each of these Puerto Rican churches as to the content of the document. In other words, this is not just Gonzalez's vision, this is one embraced by a community of traditions. It was also originally written in Spanish for a Spanish-speaking audience.
Although originally written in Spanish, González translated (and adapted at points) the book into English for use in English-speaking congregations. He tells us that he adapted the original text where necessary for use in English-speaking congregations, but he notes that he tried to stay as close to the original as possible. He offers it not only as his own work, but more importantly as a "gift from the church in Puerto Rico to the rest of the church in other parts of the world" (p. x).
In an open letter to the reader, González first admits that one need not understand the faith in order to believe. However, if one truly believes, belief will lead to a desire to move toward understanding. He also affirms that the Christian faith "is always lived in community," and thus he assumes this book will be used in community. Therefore, he provides questions for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter.
In his introduction, González takes note of the changing nature of our world. One of these changes involves the fact that people increasingly "have little or no idea of what Christianity is," beyond perhaps "preserving morality and gaining access to heaven" (p. 2). He notes that it is likely that when we join a church, we will be taught more about the polity (church government) of the church than the basic elements of the Christian faith. He also notes that in these changing times churches are "constantly bombarded by strange doctrines and supposed 'discoveries' regard the Bible and its message" (p. 3). In other words, the options are many, but understanding is limited. It is easy to follow trajectories that are less than helpful theologically to one’s faith. Since the culture no longer teaches or reinforces the faith, churches must reclaim their calling to teach the faith.
When it comes to the idea of doctrine, which is a dirty word to some, our author distinguishes between believing in and believing that. This distinction is related to the difference between faith, which is trust in God, and doctrines, which are the teachings that one affirms. He writes "faith saves; doctrines do not." (p. 11). That is a good word for a Disciple to hear. While this is true, doctrine its place. Here is how describes that place. He uses the analogy of a "high, wide, fertile plain." That's where we live out our faith. We freedom to move about. We may prefer one portion of the plain to another, but again there is freedom. Doctrines come into play at the edges of the plateau. If we draw to close to the edge, it might give way and we might fall of the cliff. When something like that happens, a fence is put up warning of danger. The fence he says doesn't limit freedom; it simply warns us to stay from danger. That's the function of doctrines. They don't tell us what to believe (tests of fellowship), but they warn us that "some of the tenets and beliefs that may well be like cliffs that take us beyond the safe limits of the plateau of faith" (p. 12). I personally like that definition.
With this foundation having been laid, we move through the basic doctrines of the faith, beginning with Revelation. This includes, of course, Scripture, which is the primary/normative story of the faith. While this is true revelation can come to us through nature and history (tradition). With Scripture as the foundational form or Revelation, we move to the "Triune Creator God." This isn't an in-depth look at the nature of God, but it is a start. The focus here is on God as Creator. The description of the Trinity is brief. He notes that it is rooted in Scripture, but not fully developed. He finds Augustine’s definition satisfactory. I might want a fuller description, but for the purpose of this book this might be sufficient.
Interestingly he moves to humankind next, before moving to redemption in Christ and the establishment of a New Creation. From there, he moves to the Holy Spirit, whom he speaks of in terms of being the Spirit of Holiness—as a good Methodist would. From there it's the church, worship, sacraments, and finally the Christian hope and last days. A final chapter summarizes what has been explored in terms of the Christian life. It is brief, and thoughtful. It is what a small group looking to lay some foundations for the journey of faith could handle.
As noted earlier, each chapter of Knowing Our Faith includes a set of discussion questions that are designed to encourage conversation. They're not simply content oriented; they also have practical elements, so that our understanding of the faith, as it grows and develops, might lead to action. Again, González may be a historian and theologian, but he understands that faith is of little value if it does not transform one’s life and lead to action in the world. The book is written for use by congregations to help members better understand their faith. The book is not in-depth but it’s not shallow either. If you have studied theology you won't find much that is new, but it is an excellent introductory work, that is the product of a hand who knows the history of the church and has experienced the life of the church as well. For that reason, this book though small should prove valuable to the Christian community. Thus, we receive this gift from the churches in Puerto Rico with gratitude.