4.5 Justification

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

The Epistle of James

4.5.1 The Law

The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

The Epistle to the Galatians

The earliest Christians were all Jews bound to the law, which had been set forth in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and then subjected to over a thousand years of interpretation, augmentation, and watering down. By the time Jesus came along, boys were no longer being stoned to death for lipping off to their fathers, nor were girls for failing to produce evidence of virginity on their wedding night. But the law was still very much an ideal to be preached if not fully practiced. As Matthew 5:17-19 tells it, Jesus did not change that, either:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

It was Peter’s zealous interpretation of the law–still of great importance to him even after Jesus’ resurrection supposedly fulfilled it–that made him so reluctant to visit the house of Cornelius.1 Only after Peter did so, having been persuaded by a divine vision, does Acts 10:44-48 tell of the first Gentiles being accepted into the new sect of Jesus followers. A few chapters later, we read about Paul and Barnabus shifting their preaching efforts to the Gentiles (13:45-46). The Gentile conversions marked the beginning of the end of Jewish influence in Christianity. “Christianity generally ceased to be a part of what survived as mainstream Judaism well before the end of the first century A.D.” (McDonald and Porter 2000, 245).

Right away there was a squabble about the new converts’ observance of the Jewish law. Before Jesus, there had been Gentile “God fearers” who respected and worshiped the Jewish God but were not full converts. Those who took the full step into Judaism had to promise adherence to the law. That included circumcision for the male converts, not exactly a pleasant prospect. So when some of the Jewish Christians expected the same treatment of their new Gentile brethren, there was “no small dissension and disputation” (Acts 15:2). A meeting of “the apostles and elders” was convened (v. 5). “And when there had been much disputing,” Peter–who had been so scrupulous as to not even want to meet with a Gentile god-fearer–gave a rousing little speech about the law being “a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.” Rather, he and the Jewish Christians deliberating with him now believed “that through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as” the new Gentile converts (vv. 7-11).2

Ever since, the general idea has been that Christians are under grace, and not the law:3

“We are not rejecters of the law as some believe us to be. The law is spiritual, and we are carnal; therefore we cannot fulfill the law, but we must flee unto the Mediator of the new covenant, in whose wounds we are healed of those wounds which sin has made in our consciences, which the law makes clearly apparent” (Raattamaa, sermon given 1894, from Kulla 1985, 185).

“The question has sometimes risen, does the grace of God alone suffice to give power and to teach the child of God against the temptations of sin. . . . Nowhere does the word of God place any other rule or guide of life for the believer at any time. In God’s wholesome grace it is alone. Every one, whom the law has awakened to the conviction of sin and compelled him to flee to Christ, remembers, how bottomless was the grace of God in Jesus Christ” (Eino Rimpiläinen, Siionin Lähetyslehti, 12/1948, from Greetings of Peace, 3/1949).

The purpose of the law is to preach damnation to unbelievers:

“The law cannot take man any farther than to the knowledge of sin. It cannot pardon and justify a transgressor, for the purpose of the law is to preach of death and damnation” (Taskila 1961, 14).

You won’t find much of that preaching in the writings and statements of the SRK and LLC that are directed to the unsaved public, though. Apparently, “death and damnation” don’t make for good PR. And “the knowledge of sin” with all its seemingly endless, mostly unwritten specifics (4.6.1) is stressed not to outsiders, but to those within the fold, particularly the youth.

† A person only understands that he cannot fulfill the law when it opens up to him “that the law demands from him unconditional obedience and perfection in everything, not only in external deeds, but also in a spiritual mind. . . . Thus the law shows a person his sinfulness and undresses him of his self-righteousness. When the law rebukes of sin it awakens bitterness towards the commands of law and God, and so a person under the curse of the law is made to realize even this other true matter, that he hates God, whom he should love with all his heart, all his soul, all his mind and all his strength. Thus the duty of the law through the letter killeth, for through the law comes a consciousness of sin. . . . Every awakened person, who has felt the fear and distress over one’s sins and trespasses, has also been able to experience how God has through the gospel in His kingdom comforted him” (Päivämies, 1974).

Supposedly God has written the law into the hearts of all mankind, and they are thus “without excuse” (Rom 1:18):

“God gave His Holy Law through His servant Moses on Mount Sinai. God wrote them on tables of stone in the form of the Ten Commandments. They were delivered in the midst of thunder, lightning, and quaking and brought terror and fear into the hearts of those present. . . . Could we say then, that if one had no knowledge of the law that he is excused from it? The answer is no. The Apostle explains . . . that it has been written into the hearts of all mankind [Rom 2:12-15]” (Dan Rintamaki, presentation given 1994).

What about the Pirahã Indians that Daniel Everett tried converting in the Amazon jungle (4.2.4)? “There was no sense of sin among” them, “no need to ‘fix’ mankind or even themselves. There was acceptance for things the way they are, by and large. No fear of death. Their faith was in themselves” (Everett 2008, 271). Are they “without excuse,” because somehow, in some hidden way that Everett could not detect in all his vain efforts to get them to appreciate Christianity, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom 1:18)? Paul’s assertion that “the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen” (Rom 1:20) is no more true of the Pirahãs than it is of the “childhood atheists” who dominate Sweden and Vietnam.

The reality is that the law is neither preached nor effective. It comprises a set of harsh and often baffling commandments (not just the ten that everybody talks about, but page after page of rules strewn throughout the Pentateuch) to a tribe of Bronze Age desert nomads. They have so little applicability to today’s society that they are largely unknown, not least to the Conservatives who claim them to be God’s divine edict.

It won’t do to say that Jesus dispensed with the need for us to concern ourselves with the specifics of the Old Testament rules. What exactly is “the law,” then? It certainly wasn’t about watching movies and wearing fingernail polish. And let’s not forget what Jesus himself said, at least according to the legalistic writer of Matthew 5:17-19:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

One example of how Christians routinely violate the law without having any idea they are doing so is discussed in 6.2. And it’s part of the Ten Commandments!

The idea that the law writes anything like directions for contacting Conservative Laestadians (the only knowledge that really matters, after all) into the hearts of all mankind is simply ludicrous. Only a few million out of the seven billion people throughout the world are even aware of this sect claiming to be “God’s Kingdom.” Of those, only a tiny fraction show any interest in converting to it. And, from the experience of recent years anyway, most of those few converts wind up leaving sooner or later. If “God gave His Holy Law” to awaken people to the knowledge of sin and ultimately lead them to “His Kingdom,” it’s hard to imagine how he could have failed more spectacularly.

Perhaps due to the movement’s Pietist nature, some also considered the law applicable as an instruction book for the believer who was living by grace in Christ. Uljas notes that this so-called “third use of the law”

was a central subject of contention in the discussions at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, when the New Awakened and Firstborn [OALC] separated from the original Laestadianism. Conservativism retained the original understanding of Laestadianism: the Law does not belong to a Christian. [2000, 53]

“During the schism of the 1930s” with those who formed the Apostolic Lutheran Federation, “the third function of the Law was one of the reasons for disagreement, though more covertly.” Then he tries to have it both ways:

“The Law does not belong to a Christian,” but the rejection of “the third function of the Law has not led the children of God to permissiveness of sin. We have received another teacher in place of the law, for God has given us His Spirit to be our home tutor. . . . The wholesome grace of God that brings salvation does not teach one to commit sin but give strength to fight against it. Grace does not teach differently than the Ten Commandment Law” (p. 53).

Uljas plays a word game to have “grace” function as some sort of active agent that “teaches” a believer just like the law does to an unbeliever. It is not just a game, though, when you condemn a whole group of people based in large part on a distinction without a difference. I wonder what Uljas would have thought of my conversation with Carl Kulla in 2010, where I asked Carl to say just what he believes (as a Federation member) about the role of the law in his life. After considerable discussion, neither I nor the Conservative preacher who was with me could find anything doctrinally problematic about Carl’s viewpoint. It is the love of Christ that motivates him to live the life of a Christian; his actions arise from his faith just like the Conservatives say it should.

This next quote describes the first use of the law, to drive a person to Christ:

“The purpose of the preaching of repentance is to awaken the unbeliever to the hopelessness of his sin-fallen condition. The condition of one in unbelief is hopeless, because without faith one is under the law, and the righteous law of God demands perfection. If one sins he comes unto death. Unless he is awakened from the sleep of sin, he will die in his sins and suffer eternal death. But if he can be awakened, he will seek refuge from his burden of sin” (VOZ, 1/2000).

This quote one hints at the second use, as God’s instruction book for the good of mankind:

“God has proclaimed his will in the Ten-Commandment Law. Its outward observance has a positive affect on man’s life, even though the Christian is not under the Law” (Päivämies No. 11, 2004).

But those instructions are impossible to follow:

“Jesus shows how futile it is to attempt to fulfill God’s Law. He explains that not only does the Law condemn one who actually commits an act such as murder or adultery, but it also condemns one who even thinks these things in their mind. . . . because we are all so thoroughly corrupt, we are not able to fulfill the demands of the Law; we are under its condemnation. That is exactly why Jesus came to earth and suffered and died on our behalf. By believing upon Him, we are acceptable to God. We are no longer under the curse of the Law, but under the free grace of God” (VOZ, 7/2007).

The rich man of Mark 10:17-27 showed “the fruits of his self-righteousness. He thought he had fulfilled the commandment, but still lacked the assurance of being heaven acceptable. This is one of the primary results of attempting to make oneself heaven acceptable. No matter how much is done, it is never enough. The Law demands perfection. No mortal can fulfill such demands and, thus, this man was left questioning what more was required of him. He hoped to hear Jesus say that he had done all that was necessary to inherit heaven” (VOZ, 6/2008).

Here is something for Conservative Laestadian men to consider after an outing at the water park, the mall, or the beach. You probably lusted after a woman in your heart at least once, more likely several times. As the first of the above two quotes indicates, Jesus said that doing so is the same as committing adultery (Mt 5:28). And adultery is a “sin unto death”; adulterers shall not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9). Do you really believe you will go to hell if you get in an accident and die on the way home?

In the last quote of this sample, we read that God has given everyone a conscience, and a basic knowledge of right and wrong. Unfortunately, though, we can’t rely on it:

“Even before God gave the Law through Moses, He had given every person a conscience and ‘written into his heart’ the natural law which is a basic knowledge of right and wrong. . . . Through the conscience God ‘speaks’ to the individual. Sin, however, causes one to become spiritually hard of hearing and God’s voice to seem faint and distant. For that reason one cannot depend solely on his conscience as the only guide for making spiritual decisions. In order to remain spiritually alive and heaven-acceptable one’s conscience must be bound to the Word of God, which is unchanging and eternal” (VOZ, 12/2008).

What the quoted writer really means by “God’s Word” is, of course, “What we say that God says.” Hearing that business about God’s Word being “unchanging and eternal” from people who neither know much about nor particularly follow the Bible’s multitude of edicts never ceases to annoy me. Does the quoted writer keep kosher? Would he have his son stoned to death for speaking disrespectfully to him, or his daughter for being raped without crying out loudly enough? Would he kill his wife if she decided to worship a different God? Would he condone the beating of a slave to the brink of his life because he is mere property? Would he check the family history of a new convert to make sure the prospective member was not born out of wedlock, nor his ancestors out to ten generations? Does he object when a woman sits in church with no head covering, speaks up during Bible class or a congregational discussion, or teaches Sunday School? See 6.2, 6.3, 6.4, 6.5., and 7.4.

4.5.2 Works

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?

The Epistle of James

Conservative Laestadianism follows Luther’s lead in siding with Paul’s “salvation by grace, without works of the law” theology. The “faith without works is dead” counterargument of James gets little attention. Laestadius went so far as to consider works “done in faith” good no matter what:

“Christians will be judged, not according to those works they had done in sorrowlessness before their conversion, but according to the works done after their conversion which are accounted as good works, for they have been done in faith. For if God judged the Christians according to their former works which were done in sorrowlessness they would be condemned to hell. But Christians will be judged according to the works which they have done in faith, which are considered good even though they are not good” (Twenty-sixth Sunday after Trinity sermon [1848]; Fourth Postilla, 179).

Leonard Typpö framed the matter precisely in Lutheran and Pauline fashion:

“[T]he merits of the Lord Jesus by the grace of God are the only means by which we are acceptable to God” (Siionin Lähetyslehti, 1915).

Writing around the same time, Matti Suo [1861-1927] relates the matter to the “fruits of faith,” warning those who confess faith through their words but not their actions:

“I am amazed, when in the world so much is spoken of faith and still it does not bear the fruit which it should. Can we call that faith by which nothing is won? Life is as ungodly and sinful as can be, and as I already mentioned with sorrow, in the form of christianity, there are preachers and advocaters of liberty and provision for the flesh. I would like to say a few words in warning, be whom you are, do not allow, mortal man, the enemy to deceive you into believing that you will be saved by just saying that you believe, though your life and works in your every step testifies that your confession of faith only speeds you to destruction and hell” (from Greetings of Peace, 1/1953).

A couple of decades later, Havas had much the same criticism, and referred to the pardoned sinner’s “persistent combat” against sin:

“Whoever confesses salvation by faith through grace and allows his members freedom to indulge in the servitude of sin, is a loathsome liar, a swine that dishonors the blood of Jesus” (Havas [1937], 66-67).

“[T]raveling in the Light is a pardoned sinner’s submission in repentance before God and man, a persistent combat against the intrigues of sin” (Havas [1939], 81-82).

Paul Heideman, with the gentle pastoral manner that comes through in his writings and sermons, allowed readers some comfort about their failings:

“We feel and find ourselves so sinful, so poor even in our profession of faith. Dear young brothers and sisters, do not think for a moment that the fact we have confessed faith for 30 or 40 years that it has made us in ourselves meriting before God and thus claiming heaven. No, but on the contrary, we feel in ourselves we have become poor Christians, weaker Christians, colder Christians . . .” (Greetings of Peace, 6/1954).

Works were to follow faith, not the other way around, consistent with Luther’s expectation that the certainty of God’s forgiving mercy would work joyful obedience to God’s will (Althaus 1963, 235):

“When the grace of God reaches the bottom of the tortured and fearful heart, a desire also comes to walk in truth. It does not happen, as the world fears, that when free grace is preached and all sins are forgiven without any conditions, the result will be a loose Christianity, but there awakens the will to fight against all evil” (Taskila 1961, 15).

“The question about faith and works has always caused a conflict between the Spirit and the flesh. Even many an awakened person being aware of his own ungodliness may think, that if he first be able to correct the manners of his life, become holier and more ardent, then it would be more possible for him to be converted. Yet, the apostle proclaims altogether differently: ‘To him that believed on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.’ . . . [A] man who works for his salvation praises himself, which is despising Jesus’ work of redemption” (Lauri Hakso, Greetings of Peace, 4/1971).

“The righteousness of life follows the righteousness of faith. It is the fruit of the righteousness of faith. It is never before faith or goes before it” (VOZ, 2/1979).

Those phrases “righteousness of life” and “righteousness of faith” took on a life of their own during the early 1980s of my youth. I suspect it had something to do with the demands for spiritual purity associated with the caretaking meetings (4.6.4). It really didn’t matter how well you spoke or acted if it had been “revealed” that a false spirit (4.4.7) was present and the “righteousness of faith” was not the driving force.

In the next several quotes (except for one by Uljas), the timeworn caricature of the “world” being in “self-righteousness” and relying on works for salvation makes yet another appearance. Besides trying to distinguish “them” from “us” (4.2.3), I wonder if these statements conceal some embarrassment about how little Conservative Laestadianism actually accomplishes as a force of tangible, temporal good in society. The question arose for Dennis McDonald when he saw the “apostate” Catholics and Episcopalians, but not his fellow church members, working with the poor in the migrant community of Salinas, California. “Why was it that we fundamentalists, who claim the Bible as our ultimate authority and Christ as Lord, were doing so little to live out the gospel? Something was wrong, terribly wrong” (2003, 111).

In Rom 10:1-8, “Paul writes of two kinds of righteousness–the righteousness of God and the self-motivated righteousness which is called self-righteousness. Although according to the Bible, self-righteousness is not acceptable to God, nevertheless, it has been widely supported through the ages. What is the basis of self-righteousness? It is a product of man’s own thoughts and mentality. . . . The righteousness acceptable to God is that we humble ourselves to believe according to the Word of God” (Siionin Lähetyslehti, 1980).

“Many people are counted as ‘good and honorable’ human beings in life. Many churches teach listeners to give to the poor, live a clean life, refrain from drinking, pray to God, attend church on a regular basis, and be nice to people, to name a few good works. False religions and the carnal mind teach that this is the road that leads to everlasting life. Even to the carnal mind of a child of God, these teachings can sound reasonable. In spite of our carnal thinking, it is through the grace of God, that the child of God is enlightened by the power of the Holy Spirit to comprehend the righteousness of faith” (VOZ, 9/1998).

“The believer does not become perfect; he commits sin every day in thought, word, and deed. We are both sinful and righteous at the same time. However, the direction of life changes. The first sign of this is love. The relationship to God changes to one between a child and a loving Father. The children of God, brothers and sisters, become dear. The heart begins to be ruled by the wholesome grace of God, obedience of faith, and the correct fear of God” (Uljas 2000, 48).

Matthew emphasized the importance of works and Jewish law. That’s not how it comes out in this exegesis of Mt 25:31-46, though:

“The people of the world live thinking, they do works to justify salvation: they build huge churches, they give money, they listen to the speeches of their blind guides. Believers, on the other hand, feel weak and poor, and that they have done nothing worthy of such a great reward. But Jesus answers them that you have fed me with the living word spoken from one believer to another. You have offered my peace and safety to strangers looking for a home and the promise of life. You have clothed seeking ones with my robe of righteousness through the proclamation of the Gospel. Those sick in sin, you forgave, and those bound in the shackles of death and unbelief, you freed through proclaiming that they can believe all sins forgiven in Jesus’ name and precious shed blood. In this way God’s children have served the Lord of Life” (VOZ, 11/2002).

Matthew says absolutely nothing about any “living word spoken from one believer to another,” “promise of life,” “robe of righteousness through the proclamation of the Gospel,” “sickness of sin,” etc. This interpolation of Pauline and Lutheran “grace and forgiveness” meaning into Bible passages about works is commonly heard in sermons, but isn’t it a bit dishonest? (See 4.3.5.) Imagine the reaction if the words “you, Peter, and your successor popes and their priests” were explained as being an implicit part of Jesus’ giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples for the remittance and retaining of sins. (As discussed in 7.1, that Roman Catholic interpretation of Mt 16:18-20 is not nearly so far-fetched.)

“There is nothing a person can do in his own behalf in order to be acceptable to God and merit salvation. It is alone by God’s grace that one can believe. When a person feels distress over sin in his heart and hears and believes the gospel of Christ, he is made heaven acceptable” (VOZ, 9/2003).

“Cain offered as sacrifice the works of his own hands–which he felt would be good and acceptable. His own works were rejected by God. Abel offered the unblemished lamb, which represented the Lord Jesus. Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable by faith . . . [N]othing man does on his own can be pleasing to God” (VOZ, 7/2007).

Note the emphasis in the following quote on not doing things:

“Believers are sometimes asked, ‘What is it about you that makes you different?’ or ‘Why don’t you do these things that everyone else does?’ There may be other similar questions and observations that reveal God’s light that shines forth from His children. We, God’s children, are as Moses–small and helpless in ourselves. The light emanates not from our mortal flesh and blood, but from the Holy Spirit of God” (VOZ, 6/2008).

There are no visible efforts by Conservative Laestadians to perform works of charity on behalf of those outside the group; even the humanitarian aid work of recent years is directed specifically to the new believers in West Africa and Ecuador. There are no Conservative Laestadian soup kitchens or shelters for the homeless or battered women, nor is there any real encouragement for individuals to work with “worldly Christians” at such efforts, at least not in North America. This situation has been publicly addressed a couple of times; see a quote from the July 2000 Voice of Zion and one in 2002 by Matti Kontkanen in 4.2.3.

In the U.S. at least, the political mindset of almost all individual Conservatives is, well, conservative, and not given to much sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. I disagree with but can respect an honest political stance that it is not the place of government to do charitable work. But those who take that position and yet do nothing as individuals or a church to care for their neighbors have reason to consider just what they stand for, I think.

The New Testament is quite a socially liberal collection of writings in many ways, with Jesus’ admonitions to care for the least of his brethren (Mt 25:34-40), the sharing of all things in common and parting to all needy men in Acts 2:44-45, and the criticism of the selfish rich by James, who raised Luther’s ire by saying “faith without works is dead” (2:20). James offered the specific example of a brother or sister who is “naked, and destitute of daily food.” If one says unto them, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” (James 2:15-16). Perhaps the words of Irenaeus in the fourth of the Fragments attributed to him would be worth remembering as well: “As long as any one has the means of doing good to his neighbours, and does not do so, he shall be reckoned a stranger to the love of the Lord.”

4.5.3 Faith

Faith is a thing in the heart, having its being and substance by itself, given of God as his proper work, not a corporal thing, that may be seen, felt, or touched.

—Martin Luther, Table Talk

Going back to Laestadius with his many references to “dead faith,” Conservative Laestadianism presents faith less as an act or viewpoint of piety or belief, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1) than as a spiritual possession, essentially equivalent to the Holy Spirit itself. It is actually quite rare to define faith as a belief in anything. Rather, as the SRK website states on its Thus We Believe page, “Faith is a gift from God,” which he “has given to each child born into this world.” (Unfortunately, it is a gift that stops working as soon as the person reaches the age of accountability.)

There is some scriptural support for treating faith as an object apart from belief:

• 2 Cor 4:13 (gifts of the Spirit include words of wisdom and knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, etc.);

• Gal 5:6 (faith works through love);

• Eph 2:8 (“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God”);

• 1 Tim 1:19 (“Holding faith, and a good conscience”);

• 2 Pet 1:1 (addressing “them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ”).

More often, however, the New Testament refers to faith in the context of belief. In Jesus’ references to faith as an object, it is clearly an act of belief in God’s power:

• Mt 17:20 (mustard seed);

• Mt 21:21 (move mountains);

• Mk 10:51-52 (“thy faith hath made thee whole”);

• Lk 7:7-9 (the centurion’s plea for his servant);

• Lk 18:8-9 (criticism of those trusting in their own righteousness).

• Acts 11:24 says that Barnabus was “full of the Holy Ghost and of faith,” but that implies that the two are not equivalent, and one can be “full of faith” in the same way one can be “full of doubt.”

• Rom 10:17 is often cited for the proposition that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God,” but the previous verse makes it clear that the writer is referring to an act of belief: “[T]hey have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?”

• Rom 12:3 encourages every man “to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith,” indicating faith to be a gift but intertwined with thought and a “renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2).

• Gal 3:22-23 talks about the promise by faith and the coming of faith, but as a gift “to them that believe.”

• What Gal 5:22 refers to as “faith” in the KJV is faithfulness (NASB) or fidelity (Price 2006a), one of several fruits of the spirit.

• Eph 3:16-18 encourages the reader to have Christ “dwell in your hearts by faith” for comprehension of the breadth, length, etc.

• Hebrews 11 describes the faith of various Old Testament figures in terms of their trust in God.

Conservatives also often refer to faith as something that a person is “in,” with a believing church member being “in faith” and an ex-member having “left faith.” This essentially uses “faith” as a synonym for the true church, which also has scriptural support:

• Acts 6:7 (“a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith”);

• Acts 13:8 (a sorcerer sought “to turn away the deputy from the faith”);

• Acts 14:22 (“continue in the faith”);

• Rom 1:5 (“obedience to the faith”);

• 2 Cor 13:5 (“Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith”);

• Gal 6:10 (those “of the household of faith”);

• Eph 4:5 (“One Lord, one faith, one baptism”);

• 1 Tim 1:1, 4:1 (“Timothy, my own son in the faith,” “some shall depart from the faith”);

• Titus 1:13 (“rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith”).

Note, however, that the last references–from Ephesians, 1 Timothy, and Titus–were probably written not by Paul, but others in Paul’s name. It is a significant distinction. For the later author of the Pastorals (including 1 Timothy and Titus), faith “means the body of teaching that makes up the Christian religion,” which had coalesced into a hierarchical church by that time. But for Paul, faith “refers to the trust a person has in Christ to bring about salvation through his death” (Ehrman 2011, 99).

My sampling seems to indicate a slight difference in how faith was viewed at different intervals in Conservative Laestadian history, too. I don’t see why that would be the case, and am not convinced it is significant. In any event, my review of the sample is without sub-groupings, with all the quotes here in a single chronological sequence. The first of them is by Leonard Typpö [1868-1922]:

“The sinner is not justified only by having the doctrine with all its truth nor the works that are ordered by it, but the sinner is justified according to the doctrine of Christ by faith in the core of the doctrine which is the Christ. One should not stop to an outward crust, for there is no power of life, but he should be able to go through the crust to the open fountain, the forgiveness of sins which is in the blood of Jesus. There God pours out the innocent righteousness of his Son into sinners’ believing hearts. This is the righteousness by which one is acceptable to enter into the kingdom of heaven, and he is becoming a partaker of all goods of the house of the Father. Then the poor sinner has righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost” (from Greetings of Peace, 8/1970).

The believer is to have faith not just in Christ, but “in the core of the doctrine which is the Christ.” Is God in his three persons being forced to share the stage with “doctrine” as an object of worship? Contrast this with:

• Mk 11:22 (“Have faith in God”);

• Acts 3:16 (“faith in his name”);

• Acts 20:21 (“faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ”);

• Acts 24:24 (“the faith in Christ”);

• Rom 3:22 (righteousness of God “is by faith of Jesus Christ”);

• Rom 3:25 (“faith in his blood”);

• Rom 4:20 (Abraham “staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith”);

• Eph 1:15 (“your faith in the Lord Jesus”);

• Col 2:5 (“your faith in Christ”).

The following quotes taking us up to 1984 all have what seems to me like an appropriate emphasis on the object of Christian faith:

“A living faith in Christ is the power by which the fleshly desires are suppressed, and obedience to God’s will obtained. ‘Who is he that overcometh the world but he that believeth.’ By faith, then, we conquer the world both inward and outward. Faith is not an empty saying, but believing the gospel brings also God’s power” (Matti Suo [1861-1927], from Greetings of Peace, 1/1953).

“It is impossible for a believer to continue in faith, without every moment looking unto Jesus. . . . If you ask what is meant by looking to Jesus, the answer is, the exercise of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith unites us with God, we walk by faith and live by faith, depending every hour on Jesus to feed us, clothe us, lead and guard us” (John Nelson, Greetings of Peace, 8/1950).4

“God’s Holy Spirit, with the word, gives us strength, comforts us and testifies of the blessed faith, the teachings of the truth, and the faith of Jesus Christ, in whose faith we are going forward and through strength derived from faith we are believing” (Ville Suutari, Greetings of Peace, 9/1954).

The letter to the Hebrews says “how faith is the substance of things hoped for: the evidence of things not seen. Jesus says, blessed is he who has not seen, yet believes; Believes what? Believes that God, the Creator of all things, has given His only begotten Son for payment of our sin debt. Believes these promises of God, that [Jesus] is the propitiation of our sins. That it is He who on that final day of judgment will claim His own and bring His own before the Father” (VOZ, 3/1975).

Despite our longing to have “warm spiritual feelings,” we “know that we are not saved by feelings but by faith. Our faith is not based on our feelings but upon that rock which is the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jon Bloomquist, sermon given 1984).

Remember, though, how important “high and living feelings” were to Laestadius, who considered them “the essence and subjective foundation of living faith,” and wrote that “if faith is only in the understanding without corresponding blessed feelings, it is dead faith–faith without sufficient foundation” (VCW, 83). Man will not become saved by “just knowledge in understandings alone,” he preached in his Third Rogation Day Morning sermon of 1853, “but man becomes saved by feelings of living faith in the heart” (Fourth Postilla, 218). There is some similarity to Luther’s view that a man’s faith is not just a belief in Christ being sent to act on behalf of sinful men, but an affirmation that he is one of those men, with confidence about his own personal salvation (Harran 1983, 119).

These quotes from 1986-2000 treat faith as an object, something that is received as a gift:

“We would continue this walk in faith even though this faith is so small and so weak. Yet as even the former Saints have often said, a little faith will be sufficient to heaven, why would we desire much. We are taught in Scripture to be content with that which God has given us and to walk in this precious faith. . . . We cannot learn faith. We cannot find it as some people in the churches of this world say. But how does one receives faith? It is given as a grace-gift of God to the seeking one who seeks the kingdom of God and that righteousness. Then faith is established into the heart. Not by man but by the Lord God. Then begins the travel as a child of God to preserve that faith which God has given into the heart by and through His Son our Lord and Savior. This faith is so important that without it, we can do nothing” (Reino Kuoppala, sermon given 1986).

“Coldness and dryness are very familiar feelings, along with better times of good and fervent feelings. Faith is never founded on how it feels or seems. The foundation of faith is always the same: Jesus Christ and that which He has done for us. Faith is a gift of God from the beginning to the end. Salvation is never to be measured with an amount of good feelings” (Päivämies, 1989).

Faith is a gift that “dwells in the heart of a childlike believer. No merits or works of man, no thoughts or works of the mind can open and gain this gift from God. It is by the love of God, as He has first loved, called, gathered, and enlightened by His Word, that one receives such a precious gift in the heart–the gift of living faith” (VOZ, 2/1990).

“Faith is not a deed of man, but it is a gift of God. Therefore, faith is not a merit, on the basis of which we are declared righteous, but man owns the perfect righteousness of Christ through faith. The righteousness of faith is righteousness that has come from outside of us” (Uljas 2000, 29).

To praise and treasure faith as a “gift of God” may seem an entirely appropriate expression of gratitude for someone who views it as a ticket to heaven, and an incredibly rare one at that. But I see a couple of troubling aspects to that viewpoint. First, it diminishes the view of faith as an aspect of belief or trust. Rather than having faith in God, we just have faith in the same way we might have a birthday present. I think the mindset of being the passive recipient of the gift of faith is much the same as “defining ourselves as slaves to God” that Price criticizes evangelical Christianity for emphasizing:

It is a holdover from the ancient societies that gave birth to our religions. In them, the mass of people were slaves and serfs, and power lay in the hands of tyrants and monarchs whom one hoped might be feeling benevolent on any particular day. God’s grace was not much different from Nero’s–sometimes he gave the “thumbs-up” sign, and you praised him for his gratuitous magnanimity. [2006b, 278]

This leads to the second issue I have with the gift of faith: You cannot turn it down. One LLC preacher who is particularly effusive in expressing gratitude for “this most precious gift of living faith” has made some pretty inflammatory statements about those who would dare to reject it. I sat in the pews stunned one Sunday morning as he said that doing so is the worst possible thing imaginable, that the act of leaving the faith is worse than anything else a person could ever do. The next time he spoke, he repeated that assertion, adding for emphasis that yes, it was even worse than murder to give up one’s faith.

We see that kind of talk for what it is when spoken by an outsider. Consider your reaction to Charles Simpson being told by a Church of Christ preacher that attending a Baptist church made him “no different in the eyes of God than a child molester or rapist” (2009, 31-32). A hundred years ago, Ingersoll observed that the “denunciations that once blanched the faces of a race, excite in us only derision and disgust” (Lecture on Gods). It may still be a long time before that happens in certain congregations of the LLC.

Although I wonder what kind of a father he could possibly be to any children who might decide to leave the faith (“Hey murderer, thanks for the father’s day present. Why don’t you come to church with us today?”), I suppose the preacher is just crudely expressing the implications of some pretty harsh theology. You are faced with a pile of unresolvable dilemmas (most of which the average believer doesn’t even know about) and told to profess belief no matter what. Too bad if “the cogs of your poor brain simply lock,” as Rupert Hughes lamented about his failure to understand the theory of vicarious atonement (1924).5 If those parts of your brain that make decisions based on the weight of evidence in every other aspect of your life behave the same way when it comes to religion, if after hours of research and desperate soul-searching you simply cannot leave a check in the box marked “faith” in your mind, then the creator of that brain and mind has an eternal torture chamber waiting for you. You have offended the divine benefactor by rejecting his “gift.” For making the honest choice guaranteed you by the Constitution of a free nation and an enlightened age, you are condemned as being worse than a murderer. In the face of this, all those words of praise in the quotes above seem less like genuine gratitude than the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, “the pathetic transfer of affection to one’s captors and tormentors (Price 2006b, 279).

The next quotes ascribe all kinds of characteristics to “faith,” which seems to become a devotional luggage cart that believers wheel around, onto which preachers can pile every conceivable aspect of Christian piety. “Faith” has blessings, is something “we are left to live by,” is “not of every man,” is owned and has priority over other matters, and “comes through the realization” of one’s own unworthiness:

“The first and most precious blessing of faith is the forgiveness of sins, whereby we receive the Holy Spirit and the righteousness, or holiness of Christ” (VOZ, 2/2000).

“Our day-to-day human feelings are not a measure of our love toward God, the Lord Jesus, or the children of God. At times the darkness of human reason makes us fearful of Jesus’ question, ‘Lovest thou me?’ (John 21:15-17). When grace feelings have fled we are left to live by faith. Man’s love toward God falters or fails because of the effect of original and actual sin” (VOZ, 6/2001).

“Faith is not of every man. Not everyone in this world has the gift of faith. Even though they once owned it when they were born, most lose it because of unforgiven sin and transgressions” (VOZ, 10/2001).

“If the only justification before God is by faith, then shouldn’t faith be the most important matter to us? The believer owns faith as a gift of God, but also carries this old portion which would put other matters ahead of faith.” For the “nourishment of their undying souls,” believers “hear words of instruction and exhortation from God’s kingdom as God himself reveals through the Holy Spirit.” Those “outside of God’s kingdom” also need to hear because “faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” And because “there is no justification without faith, they also need faith to be saved” (VOZ, 11/2002).

“A person does not receive faith and God’s blessings in life through his position or power, no matter how great he is. Rather, faith comes through the realization of his own unworthiness, of how his sin separates him from God, followed by believing the gospel of the forgiveness of sins” (VOZ, 1/2007).

Luther characterized faith as “a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1); it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Ghost. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly” (Preface to the Epistle to the Romans [1522]; PE 6, 451). Similarly,

“Faith is not some separate entity, but it gives direction to a person’s whole life” (VOZ, 4/2008).

Note what a significant distinction that characterization creates between those who supposedly have faith (and, consequently, the Holy Ghost) and those who don’t, which is discussed further in 7.5.

Here “faith is a mystery,” somehow coming before even doctrine or understanding:

“Correct doctrine is a necessary fruit but is not in itself sufficient for salvation. Faith is the salvative factor, and thus it needs to come first; doctrine, understanding and life then follow. . . . Faith is a mystery, a matter not opened to our understanding. Yet, we know something about faith [Heb 11:1; Mt 7:15-20; Gal 5:22; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 4:7-10 cited]” (VOZ, 9/2008).

In other words, you have to “believe” even without understanding what it is you’re supposed to believe! Clement of Alexandria thought of faith in much the same way: “[F]aith is discovered, by us, to be the first movement towards salvation; after which fear, and hope, and repentance, advancing in company with temperance and patience, lead us to love and knowledge” (Stromata, Book 2, Ch. 6).

This is what Dennett calls “belief in belief.” It is the nodding of the head that is valued, not what might be going on inside the head. Dennett notes that scientific experts understand their methods and can explain “the amazingly accurate results” of those methods. “In religion, however, the experts are not exaggerating for effect when they say they don’t understand what they are talking about. The fundamental incomprehensibility of God is insisted upon as a central tenet of faith, and the propositions in question are themselves declared to be systematically elusive to everybody.” Theologians “insist that they themselves cannot use their expertise to prove–even to one another–that they know what they are talking about. These matters are mysterious to everybody, experts and laypeople alike” (Dennett 2006, 220).

What Dennett offers is the hard-headed critical observation of a philosopher and atheist. But theologically speaking, the idea of faith as a mystery seems problematic, too. It shares an element of “secret knowledge” with Gnosticism, which was rejected as heretical by what eventually claimed itself as orthodox Christianity. “The Gnostic religions taught that some of us have a spark of the divine trapped in our bodies. Salvation will come to the spark only when it learns the truth of where it came from and who it really is. In other words, the inner element of the divine within us needs to acquire the true and secret ‘knowledge’ that can set it free” (Ehrman 2011, 96, emphasis added). There was much more to it, but initially, the secret knowledge or gnosis was identified with faith, “closely connected with the reception of the Spirit, illumination, deification and the beatific vision” (Kirk 1966, 211). “The spirit of gnosticism was always esoteric, always mysterious and secretive” (p. 212).

In the last quote of my sample concerning faith, it is associated with belief rather than being treated as an object. Unlike the earlier quotes, the emphasis is not on belief and faith in God or Jesus per se, but in God’s “word,” e.g., doctrine:

“All that is required of us is to simply believe–faith and trust upon his word, into a heart of a child. Living faith is so simple . . . We don’t have to have great wisdom and understanding. All we need to have, dear brother and sister, is to believe the gospel. And even at this time, dear brothers and sisters, be assured, and be encouraged: all sins and doubts are forgiven in Jesus’ name and precious blood” (George Koivukangas, sermon given 2010).

That also provides a reliable point of distinction from all the thousands of other Christian faiths in the world. They of course do not believe in what they probably have not even heard of, and which excludes them in any case.

4.5.4 Reason

Mental slavery is mental death, and every man who has given up his intellectual freedom is the living coffin of his dead soul.

—Robert G. Ingersoll, Lecture on Individuality

In the ironic tone he so often used, Laestadius spoke of “theological science” and of man who feels that he “need not be responsible to anyone, other than to his own divine intellect, for his deeds.” Making a prediction of near-atheist liberal clergy like Bishop John Shelby Spong, he continued,

“The science of theology may yet advance to such a degree that there is no God, only nature and natural forces” (VCW, 164).

Intellect and wisdom “of the world” have been unwelcome from the movement’s earliest days:

“According to our Lutheran doctrine, God’s Word must be the only guideline for man in doctrine and life. Thus, the light of the intellect is not acceptable here. The wisdom of the world is not acceptable here. He who thinks that man can be saved without the Scripture and God’s word, but only needs to follow his intellect, travels in darkness” (Laestadius, Third Rogation Day Morning sermon [1859]; Fourth Postilla, 223).

“[T]he nearer we are to the sun of grace, the darker we find ourselves. We observe there, how dark we are in ourselves and how sinful in ourselves and how little we comprehend. Our own wisdom appears foolishness and we are ashamed, that, I dust and ashes have thought I am something on myself, although I am nothing. When our own blackness is evident, we cannot get too wise in our own mind, and holiness cannot accumulate, since our sinfulness is apparent in the light of the Sun” (Matti Suo [1861-1927], from Greetings of Peace, 9/1961).

“The human mind cannot understand those things which are of God. The wisdom which has become darkened because of sin cannot see the wisdom of God nor explain it, for the prophetical word has always been revealed through the Holy Spirit. Also, it can only be explained with the help of the Holy Spirit, with that wisdom which God gives from above” (Erkki Reinikainen, sermon given 1959, from The Storms Will Cease, 107).

[T]he kingdom of God, at all times has been strange upon this Earth. The human brain will not accept it” (Ahti Korkala, sermon given 1975, from VOZ, 3/1979).

“It is truly so that when man tries to reason matters of salvation with his own mind, he cannot understand the mysteries of God” (VOZ, 12/1979).

In a 1984 sermon, Jon Bloomquist cited Noah’s “foolish preaching” as part of the apparent foolishness of spiritual things that the world has always ignored. As I’ve said unhesitatingly in 4.3.2 and will say again in 6.1, the Noah story is a myth. Treating the story as an event of actual history is what seems foolish to me:

“Certainly, to the carnal mind, this preaching of the gospel is foolishness; but it was so also in the time of the apostle Paul and he has written of this to the Corinthians. It was so also in the time of Noah. They [the world] did not hear this foolish preaching of Noah. When Christ was here upon this Earth, they thought also that he was a fool. The carnal mind cannot understand or accept this but it is only by faith that we are able to believe.”

The Methodist Bishop Mouzon’s 1923 statement about biblical inerrancy comes to mind: “We make unbelievers out of intelligent people by saying things about the Bible which are not true” (from Babinski 2003, 40). It certainly doesn’t help matters to disparage a “carnal mind” that is just recognizing provably false statements for what they are. “If you do not let people think within the church they will think without it” (p. 40).

“The persistent enemy of fundamentalism is education,” writes the professor of philosophy and religion studies Joe Barnhart. “Today fundamentalist preachers regularly denounce the seminaries for undermining the faith of students, but the ultimate enemy of fundamentalism is still literacy in an open environment, one in which people are at liberty to think without fear of intimidation” (2003, 235). It certainly seems to be a concern in the following quote from the January 1990 Voice of Zion:

“Philosophical discussions about the creation of the world, the existence of God and the problem of the suffering, etc. may lead a child of God into great temptations. Young people who are studying come in contact with such many-faceted trends. In this way speaking about matters of faith may decrease and become an attempt, with the help of ‘philosophizing,’ to reach false depths. Then can appear the aspiration for uniqueness, harshness, superficiality from which the obedience to God’s Word is lacking.”

Human reason is not just warned against, but disdained as “ignorant, blind, and perverse”:

“Although man’s reason or natural intellect still has a dim spark of knowledge that there is a God, as well as of the teaching of the law, nevertheless, it is so ignorant, blind, and perverse that when even the most gifted and most educated people on earth read or hear the gospel of the Son of God and the promise of eternal salvation, they cannot by their own powers perceive this, comprehend or understand it, or believe and accept it as the truth. On the contrary, the more zealously and diligently they want to comprehend spiritual things with their reason, the less they understand or believe, and until the Holy Ghost enlightens and teaches them they consider it all mere foolishness and fables” (John Lehtola, presentation given 1995).

That certainly fits with Luther’s viewpoint. In his sermon “The Twofold Use of the Law and Gospel,” he wrote that,

when it comes to the knowledge of how one may stand before God and attain to eternal life, that is truly not to be achieved by our work or power, nor to originate in our brain. In other things, those pertaining to this temporal life, you may glory in what you know, you may advance the teachings of reason, you may invent ideas of your own; for example: how to make shoes or clothes, how to govern a household, how to manage a herd. In such things exercise your mind to the best of your ability. Cloth or leather of this sort will permit itself to be stretched and cut according to the good pleasure of the tailor or shoemaker. But in spiritual matters, human reasoning certainly is not in order; other intelligence, other skill and power, are requisite here–something to be granted by God himself and revealed through his Word. [The Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 8, 228]

The problem is that nobody really discards reason when considering matters of faith. They just fail to realize that they are using it and create artificial distinctions between “reason that supports faith” and “reason that questions faith”:

People of faith naturally recognize the primacy of reasons and resort to reasoning whenever they possibly can. Faith is simply the license they give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail. When rational inquiry supports the creed it is championed; when it poses a threat, it is derided; sometimes in the same sentence. Faith is the mortar that fills the cracks in the evidence and the gaps in the logic . . . [Harris 2005, 233]

Luther’s own use of reason is attested by the volumes of discourse he wrote over his theological career, in which he argues his points by reasoning out the scriptures and even appealing to common sense and knowledge of his day, much of which the modern reader can find quite amusing. His Lectures on Genesis, for example, has page after page of details about the creation of the world in six literal days, right down to Eve being made during the evening of the sixth day, while Adam was asleep, and the Fall occurring the next morning (Vol. 1, Ch. 2, §3). And he has the gall to criticize some ideas about astronomy that didn’t match his conception of what Genesis taught by calling them “rather silly and rationalistic ideas,” and “stupid thinking” (Ch. 1, §6). It’s not much different than the uninformed attempts to argue against evolution by Taskila and Reinikainen in 4.3.1.

Christians of all types argue their various points of doctrine based on their interpretations of selected proof texts and what they have read and heard from their predecessors. As the quotes collected in this book make plain, Conservative Laestadianism is no exception to that. But what theologians do with reason is to slam a gate in front of it whenever a doctrinal problem comes up that cannot be dealt with any other way than to assert a reason-versus-faith paradox. The rough edges of unreasonable beliefs can thus remain obscured in what the philosopher Daniel Dennett has eloquently called a “pious fog of modest incomprehension” (2006, 10).

“A dogmatic religion,” according to Winell, “is one that does not truly honor the thoughts and feelings of the individual” (1993, 5). There’s not even an attempt to do so here:

“No human ability or knowledge brings us to know God. We lack the means of thought, feeling, or will requisite for association with God. We can learn to know God, because He himself has made known His essence and will in His wondrous works, His mastery of the world, His Word, and above all in His Son Jesus Christ” (VOZ, 9/1998).

“Because the natural mind or carnal wisdom belongs to our earthly part, it cannot be used to comprehend faith” (VOZ, 2/2000).

“The Gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins as preached by the believers is difficult for a man’s mind to comprehend. It is too simple. . . . The Gospel message cannot be understood with carnal reason. It can only be understood by faith” (VOZ, 6/2006).

Here the paradox is stated with bald simplicity:

In Romans 8:7, “Paul describes the battle between the rational mind and the Spirit of God. He shows that faith is not rational. When faith becomes rational, it is no longer faith” (VOZ, 9/2006).

Try maintaining that position and telling the Mormon how unreasonable his beliefs are that Native Americans are descendants of a lost tribe of Israel, contrary to archeology and DNA evidence, or that Joseph Smith translated what turned out to be mundane Egyptian funerary texts into a book of Mormon doctrine by sticking his face into a hat containing a seer stone. Without rationality, there is no reason for them to disregard the “burning in the bosom” of emotion they feel, against all evidence, when affirming their “testimony” that Joseph Smith was God’s prophet. Indeed the irrationality of those beliefs would be, according to that last Voice of Zion quote, grounds for considering them to be based on faith.

Paul himself made ample use of this reason that is supposed to be the antithesis of faith, at least according to the Book of Acts. He went to a synagogue of the Jews “and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures” (17:2). “He reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks” (18:4). He “came to Ephesus, and left them there: but he himself entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews” (18:19). Before Felix, “he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come” (24:25).

An article from the May 2008 Voice of Zion repeats the point that “Faith and reason contradict each other.” Then it states something whose opposite formulation I think is equally valid:

“He who trusts in his own reason will quickly find himself traveling away from the living God” (VOZ, 5/2008).

He who trusts in the living God–or more precisely, what he has been told about God by people who avoid thinking too deeply about God and advise doing the same–will quickly find himself traveling away from his own reason. Many believers claim that’s just fine with them. Reason won’t get you to heaven, after all, even if you are expected to use it for everything but your religion. I’ve always found it somewhat maddening to be part of a subculture that looks down on someone who pays too much for a used car yet expects complete credulity when it comes to the most important question of one’s life.

One friend calls that prevalent attitude in the LLC a “burka for the brain.” Harris writes, “Ignorance is the true coinage of this realm–‘Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed’ (John 20:29)–and every child is instructed that it is, at the very least, an option, if not a sacred duty, to disregard the facts of this world out of deference to the God who lurks in his mother’s and father’s imaginations” (Harris 2005, 65). Even disregarding Harris’s atheist crack about God being imaginary, he makes a valid point about the nature of religious faith, which he says “obscures uncertainty where uncertainty manifestly exists, allowing the unknown, the implausible, and the patently false to achieve primacy over the facts” (p. 165).

My sample for this section concludes with an article from the April 2008 Voice of Zion. There an SRK minister writes of his discussion with a confirmation student, who

“pointed out that knowledge has increased immensely, and that has changed people’s view of the world. The teachings of the Bible are questioned, and the mind of man and knowledge is put above all else. In our time, a believer’s childlike faith and trust in God dumbfounds our contemporaries and is even ridiculed.” The minister “related how the thoughts of this young person spoke to him powerfully, especially when the student concluded by saying, ‘regardless of all this, I believe.’”

According to the pagan critic Celsus, who wrote around 180 A.D., that sort of intellectual surrender is actually nothing new. Origen quotes him as saying of Christians that “some do not even want to give or to receive a reason for what they believe, and use such expressions as ‘Do not ask questions; just believe,’ and ‘Thy faith will save thee’” (Contra Celsus, Book 1, Ch. 9, from McDonald and Porter 2000, 260).

Celsus also addressed the sentiment that the Truth is hidden “from the wise and prudent,” and revealed “unto babes” (Lk 10:21), that God is to destroy “the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent” (1 Cor 1:19). As Luther would put it over a thousand years later in his exposition on Psalm 8, the invisible “Christ was magnified in the fall of all visible pomp; and that, not by giants, by men of fame, of learning, of wealth, or of nobility, but by fishermen, by fools, infants and without any appearance of power or wisdom” (Lenker, Standard Edition of Luther’s Works, Vol. 1, 433). Celsus characterized the Christian injunctions as being “like this. ‘Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near. For those abilities are thought by us to be evils. But as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly.’” In a withering fashion, Celsus then states the unflattering but inevitable logical consequence: “By the fact that they themselves admit that these people are worthy of their God, they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women, and little children” (Contra Celsus, Book 3, Ch. 59, from McDonald and Porter 2000, 260).

Harsh words, certainly. But they should be kept in mind by those who denigrate human wisdom and yet take offense when the wisdom of what they say is questioned.

4.5.5 Doubt

I also know how much effort it requires to be a fundamentalist. It can get tiring. You must constantly fight not only the skepticism of those around you, but the doubts that arise within yourself.

—Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith

Here is my definition of spiritual doubt: the disconnect between what you are supposed to believe and what you suspect might actually be true.6 It is the sinking feeling, the hollow in the stomach, the noise that grates in the mind when, time after time, weighty doctrinal assertions grind and scrape against the rough edges of inconvenient facts. And in so many cases, they are facts–undisputed by anyone who does not labor under the weight of theological imperative. Evolution is true, for all its troubling theological implications. The Bible does contain errors and contradictions–lots of them, and about important things. Jesus did expect to return within the lifetime of those standing there with him, and was in some sense a false prophet. Luther did teach things that are in serious conflict with important points of Conservative Laestadian doctrine. The proclamation of absolution was not the means by which the founders of the movement entered into what it calls “living faith.”

Although she is no doubt completely unaware of Conservative Laestadianism, Ruth A. Tucker certainly understands Christian doubt: “I understand the unbelief. I read the stories, and I say, ‘Me too.’ But unlike these who have abandoned the faith, I will not–if for no other reason than the mysterious fact that God has a grip on me” (2002, 25). She comforts herself with the thought that her salvation does not depend on the strength of her faith, but only on God’s grace. Still, it is a difficult road to walk:

I sometimes envy those who have an unwavering faith–people who, in many cases, are a lot smarter than I am. I desperately wish I did not have to fight and struggle for every little bit of faith I have. I wish the big question was not, at least unconsciously, ever before me: Is there really a God out there, or is my faith tradition a concoction of men, as the sociologists of religion would say? But I accept the conflicts and questions as part of my psychological and spiritual makeup, which allows me to humbly reach out to those with similar struggles. [p. 26]

Tucker concludes that “God knows and understands my often-wavering faith. God can handle the honest confession of my heart” (p. 28). Laestadius, as usual, was not so understanding:

When “Jesus dies in the hearts of the Christians[, they] fall into unbelief and doubt. They remain behind locked doors. They have not the strength to speak to anyone. But Jesus’ true disciples do not go along with the flock of the world to blaspheme the Crucified One” (Confirmation Sermon [1852]; Fourth Postilla, 251)

In an 1898 sermon, Antin Pieti takes a very different stance that sounds a lot like what Paul Tillich said about the true theologian (quoted by Robert M. Price in his foreword to this book):

“[I]f you ask of the person who truly has the Holy Spirit, ‘Have you the Holy Spirit?’ He will reply, ‘I do not know, dear friend, for my heart feels so wretched. But my soul yearns and longs for the peace of the Holy Spirit.’ Such a person has the Holy Spirit, for he answers with truth and fear according to the Word of God” (Sanomia Siionista, from Kulla 1993, 84).

I can certainly relate to the feelings of yearning and longing that Pieti describes. But I think he risks overgeneralizing believers just as Laestadius did (though in the opposite way) when he implied in the earlier quote that doubt is something experienced by Christians in whose hearts Jesus has died. There are believers who are genuinely untroubled by doubt, perhaps a good deal more of them than might be apparent from reading this book. Some of them have managed to remain blissfully unaware of the issues that cast doubt on Conservative Laestadianism, or even Christian faith in general. Some of those who have learned about the issues have never taken them too seriously, assuming that they are the complaints of bitter apostates or defensive atheists who really just want to feel better about the real reason they don’t believe, the desire to live a life of sin. Or, the “unbelievers also must secretly believe,” but “are bitter against God or God’s people and are merely taking out their frustration by denying God” (Daniels 2010, 81).

Most difficult of all for me to understand are those Conservatives, including friends of mine, who acknowledge the issues honestly and fairly but somehow remain untroubled by them. One friend points to the blessings of his Conservative faith and, despite some problems of his own with the church’s clannish social scene, has not the slightest inclination to leave or even really question it. He is quite happy to let himself be carried along with the tide of tradition, a lifetime of church upbringing, and the fact that so many others in church are believing these things. (The sincerity of those professed beliefs is of course another question, but not one he is inclined to ask.) The issues that exact such a toll on other believers, from nagging doubt to complete loss of faith, are only amusing theological distractions to him. Frankly, I’m jealous.

Generally, doubt is acknowledged as part of a believer’s life, albeit an unwelcome one and more about the believer’s own shortcomings than any of the religion itself:

“When we view our feelings, many times we carry sorrow and painful burdens of doubts. We find ourselves so very lonely, strange and foreign in this world. This results from that, that we stray to gaze into ourselves and forget that we are holy members of the body of Christ” (Havas [1938], 17).

“[Y]ou felt yourself so dry, so black, that you could scarcely believe for yourself. Even though in the name and blood of Jesus sins were preached forgiven, we asked, ‘Is it true?’ It happened to many that the Bible was plodded through, the Book of the Blood was opened and they were shown that it is true. Many times along the way the heart has seemed to be so dry and chilled that we have asked, ‘Have I any faith? Can I still own the gospel?’ But we have experienced that when the grace of God has kept us humble and empty, that God has always to such beggars preached the gospel and broken the bread of grace” (Veikko Pentikäinen, Greetings of Peace, 4/1951).7

“There are those who are struggling on this narrow way who perhaps have come here besieged by many doubts and who are fearful and timid because of their weakness. Remember, through faith we have life! The just shall live by faith. Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, it is a blessed privilege that even today we may believe the gospel” (Kalle Timonen, sermon given 1951, from Greetings of Peace, 9/1956).

“Many times doubts can come very heavy–you might feel that you can’t go any further; feelings of oppression, sin, corruption and your own poorness press your heart very low–to you echoes the joyous tidings of the Passover, ‘He is not here, for he is risen’” (VOZ, 3/1975).

Although doubts are clearly viewed as common and understandable, there is still the viewpoint that they are sin that must be “taken care of” like any other. For example, a children’s story appearing in a 1976 issue of Päivämies has a boy’s mother scolding him, saying,

“Listen Peter, we don’t have permission to doubt God, that would He hear us or not, since He has asked us to call [upon him in prayer]. Doubting has always been preached as sin.” The story continues, “In the evening there were services, and at them even doubts were preached forgiven. When they arrived home, Peter asked mother to go into the kitchen with him, and explained his doubts of the day, and begged to have them forgiven.”

When preachers proclaim the general absolution in sermons, they often say, “You can believe your sins and doubts forgiven.” When I have had a particularly bad time of it with what the preacher has just said in his sermon, noticing one problem after another as I often do with the quotes in this book, I must admit to being less than receptive to the offer of having my doubts “forgiven.”

“If there is yet even one who has sat through these services still doubting of his faith, perhaps feeling coldness and emptiness, remember our faith is not based on these feelings” (Eric Jurmu, sermon given 1990).

“In times of uncertainty and doubt, it’s important to ask for ‘the old paths.’ Visit with the believing elders in the congregations, ask board members or ministers for advice, seek instruction at camps and congregational discussions, or visit with a trusted brother or sister in faith. Pray for understanding. If God doesn’t give understanding, be obedient and trust the advice of the Spirit in the congregation as God’s Word encourages. . . . God will reveal all things in His time; if not in our time, then in eternity” (VOZ, 11/2009).

“There has not been doubt, that is this vast multitude that we’re in the midst of [at the annual LLC Winter Services], that is this the kingdom of God. No, we believe as a child that we are here in the midst of Zion, the living kingdom of God upon the earth. We don’t doubt that. What do we doubt? What do we fear? We fear, ‘Will I get to heaven?’ That is the doubt and the fear that arises in your heart and mine” (George Koivukangas, sermon given 2010).

That last quote emphasizes the “sanitized doubt” that centers around personal failings rather than doctrinal incredulity. We can’t begin to entertain the thought that the religion is subject to scrutiny–that part or all of it might not actually be true–so we shift the blame for our mental distress onto ourselves. It is a defense of the church at the expense of our own psyche, and MacDonald says that defensiveness is “the curse of credulity.” At the fundamentalist university he attended,

it was clear that nothing must be allowed to challenge the system. Its world was too fragile and had to be protected at any cost. No theological domino so carefully stood on end could be allowed to fall. All of life had to fit into place; no ambiguity could be tolerated; mystery was outlawed; doubt exiled. [2003, 114]

The cognitive dissonance takes its toll, something I know all too well after years of being a Christian “who suppressed similar misgivings” like Karen Armstrong in her struggle with Catholicism. We have “stamped on [our] rebellious thoughts, and felt all the while a sinking loss of intellectual and personal integrity” (2007, 230). Diane Wilson is another person who suffered “internal anguish,” the “result of years of ignoring my feelings and thoughts” as a Jehovah’s Witness. It finally “had become too great to ignore, yet it was difficult for me to see beyond the immediate pain that leaving the organization would cause. Thinking about breaking away from the organization struck terror in my heart” (2002, 123). Jack Worthy writes that his questions about Mormonism “made me miserable because I couldn’t reconcile my beliefs with reality. There was a huge mismatch, and that depressed me” (2008, 114).

In recent years, I have heard quite a bit about this hidden, internal anguish from a number of Conservative Laestadians, both longtime friends and new acquaintances. There are people sitting in the pews–perhaps even some behind the pulpit–whose doubts venture all the way into unbelief. Yet they are–like Wilson was for many years–frozen in place by the terror of leaving, with its threatened eternal consequences and all too real social ones. “Rather than take a life-threatening chance, believers take pains to remain faithful and suppress unorthodox thinking. To do so, however, can require a highly developed ‘tunnel vision’–forcing all outside information to fit the framework or be denied” (Winell 1993, 66).

Usually the dilemma is addressed not by drastic action or even publicly expressing doubt, but by rationalizing it somehow. The motivations and reinforcements for doing so can be nearly irresistible:

When people are socialized in a relatively isolated or self-contained religious community and are not directly exposed to alternative lifestyles or worldviews . . . there is little reason for them to, or little chance that they will, examine their religion critically. Everyone they know, respect, and love and who loves and cares for them, accepts the religious worldview, so why should it be questioned or challenged? Even if they begin to note certain discrepancies between some of what their religion teaches and the reality that they experience, the religion usually has ways of explaining these discrepancies from within the system itself. [Schimmel 2008, 169-70]

Just as strong a force for rationalizing doubt or ignoring facts that trigger it is the stubborn nature of our brains. “[C]ognitive dissonance tends to be resolved in favor of feeling over reason. Internal bias and a misplaced feeling of knowing routinely overpower and outsmart the intellect” (Burton 2008, loc. 1383-84). Tavris and Aronson point out neuroimaging studies showing that

the reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when participants were confronted with dissonant information, and the emotion circuits of the brain lit up happily when consonance was restored. These mechanisms provide a neurological basis for the observation that once our minds are made up, it is hard to change them. [2008, 19]

Solomon Schimmel observes the phenomenon from the perspective of a non-believing Orthodox Jew: “When someone’s religious beliefs and values are threatened, he will go to great lengths to protect and preserve them, allowing his emotions to overcome or distort his reason–no matter how rational and logical that person might be in his other pursuits including scientific ones” (2008, 72). When all else fails, one can resort to the “claim that ‘simple, innocent faith’ or ‘the incomprehensible mysteries of the divine’ or ‘leaps into the absurd’ trump reason, and that they can live with the irrational if their faith is incompatible with reason” (p. 29).

As discussed in my Introduction to the June 2010 Edition, my personal standby has long been to compartmentalize my thinking using the figure of Luther’s “whore of reason,” who will never accept the mysteries and contradictions of faith. Lately, however, it seems that she has moved out of her closet and demanded quite a bit more more respect. As difficult as it has been for me to maintain this sort of compartmentalization in my head anymore, I have a lot of understanding for those who can make it work for them. One who does so is this “devout and extremely intelligent Christian woman” with whom Schimmel corresponded:

The doubts of the intellect are real, but the part of me that God has touched–which I call my spirit–has to allow these doubts a voice . . . [F]aith and reason sometimes battle, but my being assents to one above the other. If I try to reverse their order, I am overwhelmed with loss, and in the end run back to my Father whose face was obscured by my experiments with thoughts that do not place everything in the context of Him. I can no longer live without Him, and have lost the desire to do so. From the point of view of the intellectual, I have sold out. Reason is not the ruling principle in my soul. But I would not have it any other way. [from Schimmel 2008, 26]

But I also can relate to how Bart Ehrman felt “compelled to leave Christianity altogether,” though “kicking and screaming, wanting desperately to hold on to the faith I had known since childhood and had come to know intimately from my teenaged years onward.” He finally came to a point where he simply could not believe: “I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life” (2008, 3). He felt there was no other choice but to “deconvert”:

What can you, or anyone else, do when you’re confronted with facts (or, at least, with what you take to be facts) that contradict your faith? I suppose you could discount the facts, say they don’t exist, or do your best to ignore them. But what if you are absolutely committed to being true to yourself and to your understanding of the truth? What if you want to approach your belief with intellectual honesty and to act with personal integrity? [p. 126]

If I had an easy answer to that, I wouldn’t have spent over a year of my life writing this book.

1 Deuteronomy 7:2-6 is an example of how the Old Testament was not exactly a textbook for tolerance and warm community relations: “[T]hou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.”

2 This is all, of course, from the perspective of the writer of Luke/Acts. Had the writer(s) of Matthew been telling the story, we might be reading a very different account with a lot more deference to the Law.

3 Clement of Alexandria makes an interesting point that would seem to oppose any such distinction: The “law is not at variance with the Gospel, but agrees with it. How should it be otherwise, one Lord being the author of both?” (Stromata, Book 2, Ch. 23). He veers far afield from Pauline Christianity, though, when he asserts that “there are two paths of reaching the perfection of salvation, works and knowledge” (Stromata, Book 4, Ch. 6).

4 The Nelson family has had remarkable exposure to the various factions of North American Laestadianism. John Nelson was originally with the Federation but joined the Conservatives in the 1930s after his move to the Midwest from the West Coast (Kulla, personal communication 2010). He remained a Conservative until his death in the early 1960s (Lehtola 2010), but his three sons, who all became preachers, went with the group surrounding Walter Torola in the schism of 1973. Then, decades later, two of the sons found themselves alienated from Walter’s son Peter Torola and one of them wound up in the Federation (Pieti, Reconciliation).

Oddly enough, it appears that John Nelson switched sides from the Federation to the Conservatives without making any public repentance from his association with that “heresy” (Palola 2010).

5 “Whatever my fault may be, the cogs of my poor brain simply lock when I try to understand the central theme of Christianity: the theory of vicarious atonement. I can’t even understand the beginning of it. God created a man, then a woman, and forbade them the fruit of a certain tree, which when his children ate with childish curiosity and at the suggestion of a snake (which God never warned them against) eternal damnation was apportioned to them and to all their descendants for thousands of years. I could not tolerate such a god and his revolting sense of persecution. I could not understand his logic: because Adam sinned, we are all born in sin and as Cotton Mather says, ‘man’s best works are a stench in God’s nostrils’” (Hughes 1924).

6 Probably inspired by Mark Twain’s cynical comment that “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

7 As often occurs to this day in Conservative Laestadian sermons, the preacher felt his own shortcomings and touchingly asked the congregation, “I, too, at this place feel myself so hungry and thirsty that I beg would the children of God still bless me”? It is not a show, but a sincerely felt and welcome expression of the preacher’s position as just another sinful member of the flock who has been entrusted with the responsibility of his office (4.2.7).