I was glad to see that the Gospel Coalition published an article this week addressing Jesus’ teaching on faith in the Gospels. When scholars talk about faith, they almost always mean faith as presented in Paul’s letters, not as taught by Jesus. For example, out of the approximately twenty-four pages Bultmann spends on the New Testament in his article on faith in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the majority of the Synoptic Gospel references are found in a single paragraph. Ceslas Spicq in his entry on faith in the Theological Lexicon of the New Testament gives no coverage of at all. The top study that gives space to faith in the Gospels is Der Glaube im Neuen Testament by Schlatter from 1885, which has never been translated into English.
With the explosion of the Prosperity Gospel globally, scholarly work on faith is essential. Too often mainline Evangelicals simply dismiss Prosperity Gospel teaching without addressing the interpretations that give rise to it. Unfortunately, Schreiner’s latest article doesn’t help either those wanting to dialogue with the Prosperity Gospel camp or those wanting to understand Jesus’ teaching.
There are two key issues with Schreiner’s article: his interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on faith and his discussion of healing in the Bible. On the first point, Schreiner writes,
In the stories recounted in both Matthew and Luke, the disciples long for more faith. Then they could do great things for God. Then they could cast out demons and forgive a brother or sister who’s especially annoying. Jesus tells them they don’t need great faith; they need just a little faith.
Biblically, “a little faith” is exactly what they don’t need as that is precisely the deficiency Jesus accuses the disciples of in the passage Schreiner cites. This phrase “little faith” is tricky because it sounds quantitative but is used qualitatively in the Gospels. To have little faith is to have some doubt mixed in with your faith, which renders faith inoperative. Schreiner is correct that the size of one’s faith isn’t important, but to leave out discussion of doubt when talking about faith is to leave the topic only half covered. See my Master’s thesis on this subject for details.
Later in the article Schreiner says, “Faith isn’t abstract; we put our faith in the promises of God, in the truth he’s revealed. Scripture never promises believers they will be healthy or wealthy.” This sort of statement is typical in Evangelical discussions on healing but not helpful. Why not? Because the Bible sure seems to promise healing. To cite a few examples,
Exodus 23:25 “You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you.”
Psalm 103:2-3 “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases…”
James 5:14-15 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.
The problem we have when talking about healing and suffering is that there is a dissonance in the Bible that no one knows how to resolve. Instead of acknowledging this dissonance, people camp out one side or the other, either exclusively teaching the healing passages and never the ones on suffering or vice versa.
Evangelicals need to put themselves in others’ shoes. Imagine someone said to you, “the Bible never says we are justified by faith.” After you showed them where the Bible does indeed say that, what would your response be if they replied, “it doesn’t mean that?” You probably wouldn’t take them too seriously. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect those in the Prosperity Gospel camp to take us seriously if we aren’t willing to deal with the passages they are preaching on. Evangelicals must teach both health and suffering passages faithfully.