But the garden-variety type has crept into evangelical experience and practice.

Protestantism, with its great attention to personal faith, started as a popular movement because the Reformers were convinced that Christianity was not functioning effectively for salvation in the lives of the people. Forgiveness of sins could be obtained without the personal involvement of faith. The people could merely observe the Mass. The Protestant emphasis on faith made Christianity functional since such faith required the people to participate.

Characteristically, Luther may have overstated himself in asserting that gospel preaching was more important than the salvific events in Christ’s life. Without the gospel, he reasoned, no one could benefit from what Christ has done; questions of importance are relative and frequently depend on the current situation.

The function of faith in connection with the sacraments created a chasm that has divided Christendom since the Reformation. For Catholics, the sacraments effectively work forgiveness without faith. Lutherans stress the validity of the sacraments apart from faith, but insist that without faith there is no personal efficacy. The Reformed generally connect sacramental validity and forgiveness more closely to faith. Faith’s sacramental function among various Christian groups is so complex that any simplistic generalization, including the one just offered, deserves any severe criticism it receives.

Without settling all the traditional quarrels over faith’s function in the sacrament, there are some points on which nearly all ought to agree—for example, the radical evil and threat to biblical faith posed by modern “functional” views of Christian doctrine.

Albrecht Ritschl (1822–89) introduced so-called functionalism into the world of theology. He taught that the validity and importance of a doctrine was dependent on its religious value for the believer. His prime interest was not in determining whether doctrines were useful for faith. To be sure, Ritschl recognized Jesus as God, but not in the sense of the homouisios doctrine of Nicea (that Christ shared the Father’s deity). Jesus was God only in the sense that he revealed God’s love to us. He is God in the same sense that the picture of Martin Luther hanging on my office wall (composed of oil paint and canvas) is Martin Luther. Ritschl supported his position by stressing the pronoun “me” in Luther’s explanations of the Apostles’ Creed: “God has created me and all creatures; … Jesus Christ has redeemed me …; the Holy Ghost … has called me by the Gospel.…”

Apart from faith’s personal awareness of God, there are no philosophical or theological absolutes. More simply put, God has no objective existence outside of the function of faith. This was the raw, now somewhat matured, philosophical subjectivism of Kant set forth in theological dress. Ritschl’s making the deity dependent on personal faith is functionalism with cruel vengeance, but he may have only developed a continually latent, but forceful current in Protestant thought.

Conservative Christians repudiate such blatantly destructive functionalism. The unified defense against such forms of functionalism has given conservative Protestantism a unity not experienced since the Reformation. But what about that garden-variety type of functionalism to which even more tradition-minded Christians can succumb?

First of all, Christian believers do not make salvation happen by their faith. Salvation is something that happens outside of and before faith. It is God’s act alone, accomplished and completed in Christ. Faith simply receives Christ and thus receives salvation. It neither constitutes salvation nor contributes to it. The biblical imperatives to believe can never be understood as making the believer’s decision a part of salvation’s process.

Second, there are hardly any corners left in Christendom where the pastoral office has not been dissolved into a general function that all Christians can and are duty bound to exercise. Consider church bulletins and bulletin boards that proclaim loudly and clearly: “Every church member is a minister.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons do it best of all. The basic Reformation doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers was never intended as a replacement for the pastoral office, though one suspects that this is now the common understanding. Roman Catholics are also moving in this direction.

A functional view of the ministry means that behind the pastoral functions there is no divinely mandated office. Ministerial responsibility is reduced to free-floating functions detached from a divinely mandated office. But the clergy should refer to themselves as pastors of congregations instead of pastoring them. The office should be stressed as well as the functions.

Third, the divisive issue of the sacraments cannot be totally avoided, even if the final solution is not attempted here. All should come to that minimal agreement that the New Testament simply does not know of any sacramental action that is not targeted to faith for its benefit. Of course, sacraments are more than just church functions. They should be recognized, however, as God’s work and not merely as community functions demonstrating that faith is at work there. Just as the function of gospel preaching is ultimately meaningless without the foundational realities of the Cross and the Resurrection (vs. Ritschl, Barth, Bultmann), so the sacraments have their foundation in the same realities.

Article continues below

The necessity of an active, lively faith for personal salvation should be beyond dispute within the Protestant context and the common Reformation heritage. However, without the acknowledgement of the permanent, concrete reality behind the church’s message and actions, the Christian is left only with an autonomous functionalism, hanging unsupported in midair. Such functionalism is philosophically indefensible for the intellect, emotionally unsatisfying for faith, theologically meaningless, and ultimately doomed to sheer uselessness.

All functions or values of the gospel must ultimately be derived from objective reality. Only where Christianity is presented as an objective reality in all of its parts can it actually function usefully for faith.

Dr. Scaer is professor of systematic theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.