Perhaps the most obvious component of Christian spirituality is faith. In general, the virtue of faith refers to considering something to be true and therefore worthy of trust. In the Christian tradition faith is a theological virtue because it has its origin and object in God. We believe and trust in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Christian virtue of faith has both subjective and objective dimensions.
When the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith, they were most likely asking not for a primitive version of the Apostles’ Creed but rather for deeper trust in God and in Jesus their teacher. The kind of faith they (and we) needed most was faith like that of Abraham, who according to Genesis 12 set out on his journey to the promised land with little knowledge of what lay ahead of him. He did so with trust and fidelity that somehow God would be faithful to him and show him the way in accord with God’s own promise.
The Old Testament readings can help us grasp the subjective dimension of biblical faith. The prophet Habakkuk, on the eve of the Babylonian invasion and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, is reassured that “the just man, because of his faith, shall live.” While Paul takes this reference to faith objectively (see Rom 1:16-17), the prophet and his audience surely took it subjectively, as a promise that those who remained faithful to Yahweh would survive the coming onslaught. Psalm 95 traces the exodus generation’s failure to enter God’s “rest” (for them the promised land) to their lack of trust in God. The author of Hebrews (see 3:19) also characterizes it as “lack of faith.”
In the context of Luke’s Gospel, the apostles’ request (for an increase of faith) and Jesus’ response come toward the end of the long journey narrative. Along the way Jesus has been instructing them (and us) about the kingdom of God and about himself and what it means to follow him. The demands on the disciples (and us) are building up. In the immediate context (17:1-4) the disciples are warned against giving scandal and causing others to stumble spiritually, and are urged to correct those who sin and to be willing to forgive them repeatedly. To carry out all these demands they (and we) recognize the need for even greater faith than that which first led them to follow Jesus. In reply Jesus offers a short parable about the extraordinary power of even a little genuine faith (like a mustard seed).
The line between the subjective and objective dimensions of faith is admittedly fuzzy. But the pastoral epistles (of which 2 Timothy is one) tend to stress the objective aspect, that is, the content of faith. To them we owe the image of the “deposit of faith” and many brief summary statements describing what Christ has done for us, especially in his death and resurrection.
In the narrative framework of 2 Timothy, Paul as the wise and experienced apostle now in prison for his service to the Gospel, instructs his younger friend and co-worker about how to carry on their work. He gives particular attention to the deposit of faith (“this rich trust”), that is, the Gospel that Paul had received and preached. The basic content of this Gospel is that in Jesus, God was present in a special and definitive way; that through his life, death and resurrection God has made available to all humans the possibility of right relationship with God (justification); and that through the Holy Spirit we live in the hope of fullness of life in God’s kingdom. The church’s task is to guard and hand on this deposit of faith with the help of the Holy Spirit. But the Gospel also demands a positive response from us (the subjective dimension of faith) and needs human beings who embody and exemplify it. We bear witness to the objective dimension of faith every time we recite together our traditional profession of faith as an accurate representation of what Christians have believed and still do many centuries later.
In case the apostles (and we) might imagine that they were doing something heroic, Jesus tells a parable about a master and a servant. There are many such parables in Luke’s Gospel, and it is obvious that God is the master and we are the servants. In this parable, however, we are invited to identify with the master. Suppose you hired someone to paint your house or mow your lawn. Would you be expected to serve them dinner or be effusive in your thanks? No, because they were doing only what they had agreed to do and for which they were being rewarded. From this parable Jesus draws the conclusion, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” The parable is a lesson in theological humility. As followers of Jesus, we are God’s servants.