The Difference Between Belief and Ideology
Beliefs are a basic component of the everyday human experience. We can’t go one day without them. In fact, we need them. Belief is a confidence or trust in someone or something. As in, to believe an individual reliable. It is also the acceptance of something to be true in light of evidence. As in, we believe the sun rises in the east.
Our beliefs can be mundane; When I sit down I believe my chair will hold me up. We can take them for granted; When I drive to work, I believe I will make it there safely. And, our beliefs can be life altering; I believe the God of the universe exists and loves me enough to become human like me in order to die and rise for the forgiveness of my sins and win for me eternal life. As baptized sinners still at war with our Old Adams and Eves, we live in constant danger of transforming our beliefs, especially those of the life-altering variety, into ideology.
Ideology, in contrast to belief, refers to a system of ideas. The ideas, however, show little concerned with epistemology (how we know what we know); rather, ideology, even religious ideology (which we assume immune), is primarily concerned with human progress, particularly by political means. And this human progress is founded on and measured by human reason.
Where we see the rubber of ideology meet the road of Christianity is in the way we Christians have distinguished ourselves from one another for the majority of the last 100 years. Most distinctively along the political spectrum of right, left, and center; as either conservative, liberal, or moderate in ideology.
Robert Farrar Capon, in his helpful book, The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of Church History, takes a less emotive approach to these three distinctions. He opts for terms of geographical and atmospheric divisions. Conservatives are those who prefer the air at sea level. Liberals are those who dwell in the thin air of the mountaintops. Moderates are those who take up residence in the middle, in the uplands. One thing Capon diligently reminds the reader of is that when it comes to belief, there is no “us” vs. “them.” Though we Christians love to slander other Christians who live beyond our airspace, if we believe in the catholicity of the Gospel, that is, that the Gospel applies to all people, at all times, and in all places no matter their current ideological conviction and in spite of their past and future sins, we must concede the truth: we’re all breathing the same air of grace.
There are concerns in each of the three atmospheres described by Capon. But, what should concern us Christians more than which part of the political spectrum we should or shouldn’t be on — which air we should or shouldn’t breathe — is what Capon points out: All three ideological positions within Christianity are “bereft of ‘Gospel-centered’ astonishment” (p. 14). When we Christians shoehorn Creedal Christianity into any of these ideological positions we obscure the Gospel mingling it with the Law and strip the Good News of its catholicity. As Conservatives, we can easily place particular periphery doctrines at the center of Christianity; as liberals, we tend to place the trendy “-ism” of the day over searching for the truth; as moderates, we fall privy to trying to make peace and bring unity by appealing to the reason of both sides.
The Truth about Ideology
Ideology, no matter where it lands on the political spectrum, is a bottom-up approach to human advancement. It looks to achieve heaven on earth, utopia, by means of human effort, both mental and manual. This approach is antithetical to the Gospel.
When applied to Christianity, ideology always relegates the person and work of Christ to the sphere of conversion. It insists we work together with God synergistically to improve our lives and thereby save ourselves. Said another way, Christ’s work gets us in; but our work (including our work of relying on God for help to do our work) keeps us in.
Ultimately, ideology sets about to determine who qualifies to receive the unconditional Gospel of Jesus Christ. Notwithstanding the contradiction, it makes its determination by measuring moral improvement in obedience to the Law. This transforms the Gospel, what God has done for us, into the Law, that is, what God demands of us. This plays out politically in attempts to legislate salvation by means of right moral living.
Two things worth noting. First, right and wrong are realities of this world. We should make laws against those things that are wrong. But we can’t legislate people into heaven. Trying to do so only adds the Law to the Gospel and results not in improving the Gospel or making better Christians, but more Law, more sin, and more death.
Second, one of the functions of the Law is to curb evil and preserve peace. The Gospel can flourish in a just and secure society. However, a just and secure society does not necessarily cause the spread of the Gospel, as evidenced by the rapid growth of Christianity in countries where it faces great persecution and the measurable decline of Christianity in the generally stable west.
The primary function of God’s Law is to drive us into the arms of the Gospel. But because according to ideology, salvation is always defined by means of human effort, it never drives the holder of the ideology to the Gospel. Instead, it throws them back onto ideology, that is, the holders own works and how they measure against the Law.
This means our work is never done. If our work is toward our salvation, then it is never finished or secure. Luther succinctly puts it in Thesis 26 of his Heidelberg Disputation, “The Law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done.” But (praise the Lord!) Luther doesn’t stop there. He continues, “Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”
Christian ideologies make idols out of reason, politics, and zeal. Ideology directs our hope to reason and magisterially applies it to Scripture, instead of allowing reason to serve Scripture ministerially. Ideology directs us to the “right” system of ideas and places our hope in such a system delivering a better tomorrow.
In the end, ideology becomes nothing more than fideism, or putting one’s faith in faith itself! If we just stay committed to the prescribed set of ideals, toe the party line, defend the system with all we’ve got, and believe hard enough, all will be made right in the world.
The Truth About Belief
Biblical belief, on the other hand, is something altogether different. To believe, in a Biblical sense, is more than mere intellectual assent or acknowledgment of something to be true. It is more than deep-seated feelings or a “special feeling” with a quality that differs from unbelief. Biblical belief is to place a trust or confidence in the object of belief. It is, in another word, faith.
“Faith,” as John Warwick Montgomery reminds us, “is a relational term, always involving an object” (Tractatus Logico-Theologicus, 2.171). Scripture says that this object is none other than God as He reveals Himself most fully in Christ crucified and risen for sinners. And this belief, this faith in Christ, is not our doing, but rather, a gift from God Himself, which He works in us by His Holy Spirit (John 6:28–29; 1 Cor. 2:14; 12:3; Eph. 2:8–9).
The Holy Spirit does not work faith in us by means of some ideology, by some bottom-up system of ideas that calls us to get our act together. Rather, the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel (2 Thess. 2:14). The top-down, free-for-all gift of forgiveness and life despite not having our act together. The unconditional endowment of mercy and grace in the face of our disobedience. The merited-on-our-behalf handout of steadfast love and eternal favor even though, in our sinful state, we couldn’t have cared less.