Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Reverse Engineering the Faith

“I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Conservative scholars generally date the book of Jude to between A.D. 66 and 90. In his book The Untold Story of the New Testament Church, Frank Viola opts for a likely date of A.D. 68. William MacDonald uses internal evidence to place authorship between A.D. 67 and 70. I have not come across much that would incline me to argue with either man.

All these estimates place Jude as one of the very last books of the New Testament to be written and distributed to the first century churches.

Jude’s reference to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” is perhaps the most memorable and famous phrase in his brief letter. It may be useful to consider what he meant by it.

What It Doesn’t Mean

One thing we can be sure of is that it’s not just another way of saying “our entire Bible as we know it today”. As far as scholarship is able to determine, the book of Revelation (and perhaps one or two other late epistles as well) had yet to be written. Even if they had, it is impossible that these documents could have fully circulated among the churches by the end of the first century, let alone have been collectively referred to “the faith” at the time when Jude wrote to say this faith had been “once for all delivered”. That collection process did not happen until hundreds of years later.

Thus “the faith” does not mean absolutely every word God had to say, and “delivered” does not mean “delivered all at once” or “delivered in writing”. It definitely does not mean “delivered to every believer”. It also does not mean simply “how to get saved” or even “the implications of salvation”, since Jude says he would have liked to write about our common salvation, but necessity compelled him to switch subjects.

So what exactly did Jude have in mind when he used his famous phrase?

Interestingly, he doesn’t come out and tell us precisely what he means by “the faith that was once for all delivered”. For reasons we will shortly point out, he probably assumed the vast majority of his initial readers would be in no doubt. All the same, even we dull moderns can infer some things about the faith and its delivery from the things to which it stands in contrast.

A Few Inferences from Contrasts

If we “reverse engineer” the faith by analyzing its opposites as described by Jude, we get something like this:

Our faith stands in contrast to a “Christianity” that turns God’s grace into an excuse for worldliness and self-indulgence, sexual or otherwise. It stands in contrast to so-called “Christianity” that in any way denies Jesus Christ, whether it be his historicity, his humanity, his deity, his spotless perfection, his resurrection, the efficacy of his sacrifice on our behalf, or his absolute authority over the lives of those who use his name.

Our faith stands in contrast to a “Christianity” that is based on fantasy and speculation rather than revelation, and that dislikes being told what to do or believe by anyone, including God himself. It stands in contrast to a “Christianity” that is self-centered, insubstantial, unprofitable and thoroughly degraded.

Our faith stands in contrast to a “Christianity” that is vocally unhappy, proud, pugnacious, prejudiced and power-hungry, or that arrogantly dismisses its detractors and favors mockery over lucid arguments. It stands in contrast to a “Christianity” that is Spiritless and therefore both powerless and undiscerning.

Does this sound like the Christendom we see all around us? It sure does to me.

Delivered Once for All

The faith, then, is a mode of life and belief that responds to God’s grace in humble, repentant obedience, clings to a literal Jesus who is both Master and Messiah, gets its direction and power from the word of God through his apostles and prophets by way of God’s interpreting and enabling Holy Spirit, rejects the claims of self, feeds the flock, is characteristically grateful and joyful, seeks unity wherever it can be achieved, and deals wisely, graciously and uncompromisingly with its detractors.

This faith was delivered authoritatively by Christ’s own apostles and first century prophets, first orally and then in writing. By the time Jude wrote, God’s people had it all, or at least all that was necessary for life and godliness in their day. Paul could say in truth, “I teach [my ways in Christ] everywhere in every church.” He could speak of what was done “in all the churches of the saints.” Why? Because “the faith” said the same things to all who named the name of Christ, and it demanded the same things of them.

This is what is meant by “once for all”. It cannot be a claim that God delivered the faith to his people in a single moment of time; we know that is not the case. Rather, it stresses the complete sufficiency and utter finality of the body of truth and standards of practice which were delivered. The faith is not open to negotiation or compromise. It does not require the dreams, visions and personal opinions of apostates and heretics to modify, qualify, interpret or supplement it, and it does not need to change with the times (though of course we may need to apply its principles appropriately in our own generations).

If we occasionally see this faith taught and practiced differently from church to church, the fault does not lie with either the faith itself or with its delivery mechanism.

The fault is in the ears and hearts of those who distort it.


  1. 1. If you really immerse yourself in a topic, like you are doing here, you might actually loose track of the fact that most people are not as involved and deeply into it as you are. Actually, I consider that to be natural and the norm. That applies to faith as well. We have to face the fact that we are born into the world as a blank slate which will change due to external circumstance as we grow up. Parenting with faith is obviously the most significant fact in filling that slate. Faith is rarely brought about by self-teaching and mostly by external circumstances initially without our control. It arrives seldom through intellectual deduction without emotional content and, depending on your circumstances, is easily shaped, replaced and supplemented by different types of positive or negative faith in physical externals like science, your own prowess, achievements and experiences or lack thereof. In a sense you can say that life is not an equal opportunity employer where religious faith is concerned. Whose fault is that? And should we, can we even, expect that everyone is obliged to end up where we think they should end up, with faith in the biblical Christ? That faith can come about by parenting, taught habit, life's duress, socialization, but rarely by intellectual deduction and logic. Einstein was deeply spiritual and believed in God, contrary to what Richard Dawkins claimed to whom Einstein was a hero, but Einstein did not belief in a personal God. So, these are just the facts by which this world operates and there is only one entity that knows where the center of mass is heading. I think that should tamp down our expectations concerning individuals.

    1. Hmm. The "blank slate" idea really comes from John Locke, not from the Bible, Q. In fact, the Bible teaches that we are born with a sin nature, not as moral neutrals. That finding is supported as well even by secular psychology, in that it recognizes that our nature, not just our nurture, has an important role in what we become. As for faith, I think it too comes two ways: sometimes parents try to nurture it into their children, but on other occasions, it comes about in the life of someone who has no nurture-background in faith -- and in both cases, it means nothing until the individual takes his or her own responsibility for it, and is born again. But faith is indeed an "equal opportunity" thing, in that while Christian faith can be articulated in complex and academically sophisticated ways, even a child or a simpleton can have saving faith, as Jesus taught. And ultimately (to quote the very RC author David Adams Richards), "we're all children" when compared to the eternal God ... even an Einstein would be. The upshot is that individuals have enough to know how to be saved; how much beyond that their knowledge takes them is a different matter. But I wouldn't be surprised if, when the Judgment comes, some very simple people sit on some very high thrones, and some of us who are presently blessed with more intellect (but perhaps do not do with it as much as we ought) have a much lower place. After all, "to whom much is given, of him much is expected," just at the Lord said. Those who have less, but do all they can with it, may be far greater saints then we will ever be.