Fides Qua and Fides Quae, by Klemet Preus

At the recent convention of the MNS district I listened carefully to the debate surrounding the question of whether or not a congregation should be welcomed into the synod which does not use the name Lutheran on its sign, its bulletins, its web site or its stationary.

Here’s how the prevailing argument was formed. “The Alley Church is a cutting edge church which is reaching people with the Gospel who have lost interest in the organized church. These young people, in their 20s and 30s, have been disillusioned with the church and with traditional expressions of Christianity. They do not respond to denominational labels or to the accoutrements of organized religion such as liturgy, pastors with robes, church buildings etc. We want to make them Christians without scaring them away by words such as ‘Lutheran.’ After all, it’s not essential to be Lutheran but you must be Christian. Let’s start by making them Christian and then we can teach them the Lutheran doctrine.”

Such reason seems to confuse the fides qua with the fides quae. What does this mean?

The expression fides qua means “the faith which believes.” Here faith is saving faith which receives and holds the riches of Christ’s atonement. He has won for us the favor of God through the merits of Christ. He gives this salvation to us through the word and sacrament and we grab it and hold it by faith. This faith is what the theologians call fides qua – the faith which believes. It’s the fides qua which makes you a Christian.

The fides quae is a short-hand way which theologians use to talk about, “the faith which is believed.” Here the word faith is like when the pastor says, “let us confess the faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.” The faith which is believed does not so much refer to the grasping quality of saving faith but to that which faith clings. Fides quae is THE faith. So we could say that Christians have faith in the faith. Although it is usually a bit less confusing to say that we have faith in the gospel.

Fides qua without fides quae is emotionalism with all sorts of heartfelt sentiments but no understanding of precisely what Jesus is all about. Fides quae without fides qua is heartless theological abstractions – what my father used to call “theological ivory – towerism” and logomachists.

Usually when someone says that they are a Christian they are referring to the fides qua. They are saying that they have faith in Christ and trust in Him for eternal life. That’s usually what I mean when I identify myself as a Christian. Maybe they are defining themselves in contrast to Buddhists or Jews but even then the contrast is not so much as to the content of the faith but it is a reference to the trust a Christian has and directs toward Jesus.

On the other hand, when someone says that they are Lutheran they are typically referring to the fides quae. They are not referring to their faith in Christ but to the content of their faith. They are referring to the gospel and all its articles as the Confessions of our faith teach. A person who calls himself a Lutheran is referring not so much to faith as he is to the faith. That’s usually what I mean when I call myself Lutheran. It is often in contrast to false churches or false confessions of the faith.

That’s why we typically would not say that people should be made Lutheran so that they can go to heaven. We say that people should be made Christians so that they can go to heaven. And we typically do not say that people should be made Christians so that they can join our congregations. We say that they should be made Lutherans. In fact, a 1983 document of the synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations notes that “Church fellowship (in the sense of external unity in the church) is constituted by agreement in the faith with is confessed (fides quae) and not by faith in the heart (fides qua).” [p. 14]

Someone might say, “I’m not Lutheran I’m Christian.” What does this expression mean? Such an assertion seems to be claiming that you can have the fides qua – the faith which believes – without the fides quae – the faith which is believed. It’s like there is saving faith without any confession of the faith. It’s like faith without the word or at least faith without a system of theology.

I am trying to think of a context in which the expression “I’m Christian not Lutheran” can mean something different than an apparent confusion of the fides qua and the fides quae. Perhaps my readers can provide a different interpretation.

Of course here in Minnesota there are countless cultural Lutherans for whom the name Lutheran means little more than someone who likes hot-dishes, eats Lutefisk during the Christmas season and wants to have church at a convenient time for baptisms and weddings. Are these the Lutheran from which The Alley wants to disassociate itself? That’s not the argument I heard for the last three months. I wish I had.

I fear that the reluctance of new congregations to use the name Lutheran – and these are cropping up all over the place – are not simply reflective of a new outreach strategy. Rather they seem to be a desire to have faith without THE faith, to be committed without any serious doctrinal content, to want the fides qua without the fides quae.

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