In my previous post, I presented a case that we should understand faith in the Apostle Paul, and even the New Testament, as being understood diachronically rather than synchronically. In other words, faith is understood about how it leads and guides the person over the course of time, rather than referring to any specific cognitive state of faith held at any one moment.
When one looks at the three most responsible for shaping Protestantism as it is today, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, I would suggest we can see a difference in their theologies that are reflective of this synchronic vs. diachronic manner of understanding faith. Compare these three definitions:
Faith is a work of God in us, which changes us and brings us to birth anew from God (cf. John 1). It kills the old Adam, makes us completely different people in heart, mind, senses, and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. What a living, creative, active powerful thing is faith! It is impossible that faith ever stop doing good. Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done, but, before it is asked, it has done them. It is always active.1
Luther seems to much more attuned to the element of change in a person’s life. He doesn’t explicit understand faith over the course of an extended period of time, but that he includes change in his understanding of faith means he fits more with a diachronic view of faith.
We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit. 2
In contrast to Luther, Calvin understands faith here more in terms of a very specific state of the mind, particularly as it pertains to the nature of the knowledge a person has. Just as epistemology is usually understood from a synchronic point of view, so too is Calvin’s definition of faith rather synchronic.
‘The right and true Christian faith is, not only to believe that the Holy Scriptures and the articles of our faith are true, but also to have a sure trust and confidence to be saved from everlasting damnation, through Christ.’ Perhaps it may be expressed more clearly thus: ‘A sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that by the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God.’3
Wesley is a bit more complicated here. On the surface of it, Wesley seems to have a definition faith that is closer to Calvin’s synchronic construal of faith. This is not to be unexpected, as Wesley considered himself as hair’s breadth away from Calvinism. However, at the same time, there is a slight diachronic element with Wesley’s definition as he makes faith pertain to one’s future fate is being saved from eternal condemnation. This is slight, but elsewhere we do see Wesley express the importance for change in the person of faith:
And however such a man may have behaved in these respects, he is not to think well of his own state till he experiences something within himself, which he has not yet experienced, but which he may be beforehand assured he shall, if the promises of God are true. That something is a living faith; ‘a sure trust and confidence in God, that by the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God.’ And from this will spring many other things, which till then he experienced not; as, the love of God shed abroad in his heart, the peace of God which passeth all understanding, and joy in the Holy Ghost; joy, though not unfelt, yet ‘unspeakable, and full of glory.’4
While Wesley’s repetition of “a sure trust and confidence in God, that by the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God” highlights a synchronic understanding of faith, Wesley relates this synchronic definition of faith with a diachronic recognition of change over time.
What is going on here? Both Luther and Calvin were studied in law, but whereas Luther also studied theology, Calvin did not. This is significant because law in is usual sense has to think about matters in a synchronic sense, as the application of the law depends on meeting specific definitions about certain types of actions. Law is rooted in provided precise and clear definitions and characterizations of human activities and the rules that govern them. Luther, on the other hand, turned back against his study in law and became a monk, during which a prevailing struggle of his was to be free from the sin that seemed to bind him. When Luther happened upon justification by faith, he experienced a dramatic change in his own life that characterized his understanding of faith and was instrumental in bringing about the inspiration for the Protestant Reformation.
Meanwhile, John Wesley was deeply influenced by Luther’s account of faith in Luther’s preface to Romans, and may we suggest this moving account from Luther about the transformation of the person seem to speak to Wesley, who himself has experienced similar struggles with faith and confidence before God. Nevertheless, Wesley’s studies in logic and affinity for Aristotelian logic in particular made his much closer to defining faith synchronically, similar to Calvin. To that end, we can say that Wesley was somewhat mixed in how he construed faith: preferring a synchronic definition, he also place an emphasis on the change that occurred in people’s lives, bringing forward a diachronic element to his understanding of faith.
This brings to my hypothesis: given the importance of faith to Protestant theology, the shape of various theologies are strongly influenced by whether faith is primarily understood synchronically or diachronically. I want to take Calvinism as the prime example of this.
On the one hand, Calvinism understands God through a diachronic lens, where God’s decrees of election from eternity past leads to the salvation and perservance of the elect to live forever into the eternal future. However, when they start to think about humans, they favor a synchronic approach of looking at the person’s faith at a specific moment. While perservance of the saints does provide something of a diachronic element to their understanding of believers, they do not tend to define faith itself diachronically. The end result of this relative compartmentalization of diachronic and synchronic approaches between God and humans is that in order to understand how God and humans interact with each other, there is a need to look to specific events where God’s actions from eternity overlaps with human’s response at a specific moment. For Calvin, this specific event in the event of revelation, which pertains to the successful communication of God to the person’s mind and not simply God’s actions to make information and understanding about Himself available.
The end result is that the human journey of faith is consistently understood by what happens in specific events. We see this come to fruition with Karl Barth, whose theology is grounded upon a construal of the event of revelation as a self-contained event, sufficient in itself to bring about faith in the human person.
By contrast, Wesley’s back-and-forth between the default synchronic view of faith and the more diachronic understanding of what happens as a result of faith makes Wesleyan theology somewhat dynamic, speaking positively, or chaotic, speaking negatively. Within the Wesley tradition, the left-wing tends to embrace a much more diachronic version of faith, although one that does not embrace the specific type of faith that Paul talks about that is rooted in specific communication between God and persons. For instance, it was James Fowler, a left-leaning United Methodist, who developed a developmental theory of the development of faith. On the other hand, evangelical-leaning Wesleyans tend to embrace a much more synchronic view of faith, defining it terms of the content of revelation/Scripture, making them look closer to Calvinists in regards to what faith looks like and how it is practiced, even as they offer different theological rationales, than with left-leaning Wesleyans.
Meanwhile, Lutheranism has been largely inclined towards liberal/left-leaning/progressive theology that the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions. There is something about diachronic view of faith that presents a radical challenge to political, social, and religious traditions, as one can not neatly fit such a definition of faith into any well-defined conceptualization, as well-defined concepts are almost intrinsically synchronic by nature. By analogy, Marxism’s theory of economic and political emergence of the Communist state was diachronic compared to the often more synchronic. law-like approach of “orthodox” economics, as well as Michel Foucault’s genealogical method, influnced by Nietzsche, was a strikingly diachronic way of addressing changes through history that was often a radical departure from traditional histories.
However, it should be stated that now all diachronic approaches to key concepts, whether it be faith, economics, or history, are the same. Modes of thinking that are influenced by diachronic reflection are highly sensitive to the telos that those engaged in diachronic thinking are focused upon. That is to state that there is a lot more potential for diversity in various forms of diachronic approaches that synchronic approaches do not have.
In my own reflection upon myself, I have come to the conclusion that my theological reflections has been undergirded by a more diachronic understanding of Christian faith, but with a telos directing towards the hopeful realization of God’s revealed promises in Christ, rather than some simply self-constructed idea of what I think God should be working towards, which that makes me look much closer to evangelicals than progressive Christians. For instance, while studying at St. Andrews, I remember trying to figure out what my differences were with Barthian theology, and one of a few things I noticed is that I have a marked preference for understanding revelation as a process that unfolds over time, and not just simply an event, which made me essentially diachronic in my theological reflection. However, due to my drive to keep faith grounded in God’s revelation, particularly via Scripture, I too can embrace a synchronic approach at times that considers how we as people relate to and respond to what God has made known. To that end, I am a lot like what I understand Wesley to be when it comes to understanding faith, as I can go back and forth between the diachronic and synchronic perspectives. Yet, it is my marked preference for a diachronic view of faith, increasingly due to exegetical work and convictions in the Apostle Paul, that means I sometimes rub up against some of Wesley’s ideas, even as if I find Wesleyan theology to be the best of the traditionally Protestant traditions to begin to understand the Scriptures from in my opinion.
In conclusion, I do wonder how much the shape of Christian theology, particularly Protestant theology, is determined by the way each traditions prefers the synchronic or diachronic frames for understanding faith.
- Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.7.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 8, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 473–474.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 1, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 215.