The Analogy of Faith as a Mindset and Ethic

The analogy of faith, or the rule of faith or, to say the same thing, the gospel, is a hermeneutic or interpretive lens which unveils the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures (among many other things). As Paul explains to the Corinthians, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3-4). Apart from these events in the life of Christ, it would be hard to locate such things in the Scriptures, but given the reality of the life of Christ, the Scriptures became a means of understanding these events and these events unveil the meaning of Scripture. As John Behr writes, “Read in the light of what God has wrought in Christ, the Scriptures provided the terms and images, the context, within which the apostles made sense of what happened, and with which they explained it and preached it.”[1] In other words, the object is not simply to understand the historical setting of Scripture, or the intent of the author, but to understand Christ according to the Scriptures.

 Behr expertly lays out the interworking of the apostolic preaching, the rule of faith, and the role of Scripture, but his explanation falls short in explaining how, according to the New Testament and the early church fathers, this rule of faith is at once to be a personal mindset and an ethical orientation organizing, not just Scripture, but one’s life. That is, this rule is more than a proposition or rule in the ordinary sense, but is the means of seeing and measuring all things by the peace and love of Christ. The rule is linked with unity and peace, it is linked with apprehending rightly, and it is linked to making critical judgments, and all of these are linked with putting on the mind of Christ. Which is to say this rule of faith is taken up, cathected (as Freud describes the superego image) into the self as part of one’s character and one’s apprehension of the world.

The analogy of faith is partly understood as an alternative to the law. The law is a definitive measure but where the law could be compared to a tutor, leading a student to school, faith is not an objective rule outwardly coercing, but an inward perspective or critical faculty (Gal. 3:25). This is an obvious point that may be lost where doctrine or creeds or propositional language pushes out the personal, the ethical, or the sense in which faith is a living hypothesis and not a dead letter. There is nothing inherently wrong with doctrine or creeds or propositional language, but where the literal, the fleshly, or the law become primary, the letter displaces the Spirit. Letters, propositions, and doctrines are a necessity but not an end or goal but a means. Just as letters are held together by larger units of meaning, the Word (the Gospel, the apostolic tradition) constitutes the unity of meaning in light of which the world is apprehended.

Paul explains that the analogy of faith works in conjunction with preaching and teaching. He wanted every prophecy and every teaching to be conformed to the analogy or likeness of faith (Rom. 12:6). The application or extrapolation of the kerygma may be the specialty of the prophet, but Paul calls every Christian to “appraise all things” according to the mind of Christ. Putting on the mind of Christ means that the individual is enabled to make authoritative judgments, informed critiques, “so that we may know things freely given to us by God,” so that we combine “spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” and thus come to understand those things that “are spiritually appraised” (I Cor. 2:12-16). This spiritual individual has the wisdom provided by God, where the natural man, or literally “a man of animal soul,” is incapable of discerning things according to the Spirit. Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide into all truth (Jn. 16:13) and Paul seems to be applying this to the individuals in the Corinthian church.

For Paul it is not enough that the Corinthians have an authoritative apostle (himself), or that they have appointed bishops and shepherds, some of whom are apparently abusing their position through an extreme authoritarianism. The Corinthians are eager to submit to various authorities and are pitting one authority against another, with some saying “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos” (I Cor. 3:4). Some would pit their leader, their bishop, or their teacher, against that of others. Paul does not presume to grab a scepter and robe and set himself up as final authority, nor does he allow Apollos such a position. Nor does he say, “Look ye unto Peter, who sits upon the seat of Christ.” Rather, he says, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (I Cor. 3:5–7). God is the one who causes growth, and this growth is not simply corporate or institutional but is personal and individual and very much interconnected with applying the analogy of faith. This analogy or rule is the primary authority Paul is concerned to establish.

Obviously, Paul exercises authority (just in the fact that he is writing a letter) but his is not a coercive authoritarianism, but is one that pleads, persuades, argues, and even in his estimate – uses hyperbole, exaggeration, and bragging (2 Cor. 11:16-12:13). In his challenge of Peter in Antioch, in his acknowledged offering of opinions, and in the very mode of his persuasive letter writing, Paul is demonstrating the very mind-set of Christ that he would instill in the Christians under his care. He would call out Peter, he would challenge the apostolic council in regard to Gentiles, but he feels this confidence not simply because he too is an apostle, but because he is calling the apostles themselves to follow the standard or rule of faith which governs them all. They are all subject to the rule of faith, such that the apostles themselves must not veer from the apostolic tradition in which their authority consists.

In dealing with those who are challenging his teaching and authority in Corinth, Paul explains that they are using the wrong measurement: “they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves,” thus “they are without understanding” (II Cor. 10:12). But where they measure by human, self-established measure (measuring themselves by themselves) Paul “measures by the measure which God has given me.” As he explains to the Ephesians this is “the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). This is the measure that, rather than stirring up human antagonism, is the means by which “we all attain to the unity of the faith.” “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:14-15). This measure and authority is one that each is to take up.

Paul’s main concern is not that the Corinthians obey him, or that they revere his letters; his main concern is that they put on the mind of Christ and become spiritual minded in their thinking. The Corinthians and all Christians are to judge by the measure of faith. This measure breaks down the inherent hostility contained in human measure or in the measure of the law. The law requires a wall of hostility as part of its function. It is inherently divisive but Christ as measure is peace: “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Eph. 2:14-15).

The turn from the rule of faith, which is Christ, to ordinances, creeds, doctrines, etc. has not only produced unending division in the church but has given rise to violence, in which Christians participate in bloodshed against one another and against the enemies declared outside the bounds of Christian love.

Paul had predicted as much to the Galatians, explaining that those who insist on the law “bite and devour one another” as they are judging according to the flesh (Ga. 5:15). “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Ga 5:18). The singular principal Paul invokes is neighbor love, “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’” (Ga. 5:14). This is a measure to be lived out, and by its very nature it disrupts what Paul sees as the desire undergirding the law: becoming “boastful, challenging one another, envying one another” (Ga. 5:26) and ultimately “biting and devouring one another.” In contrast, the rule of faith is a means to peace and unity, and by definition is a promotion of the love and peace of Christ. He himself is our Peace as the measure by which we attain to the unity of the faith.

We have two measures or two rules to choose from: the human measure and the measure of Christ. The human measure, the law, or the law of sin and death, is inherently a violent measure and the measure of Christ is inherently peaceful. It is in the life of Christ that we see these two measures set against one another. By the rule of man Christ dies, so that human measure ends in deicide. The force that killed Christ, namely the law or the measure of man, is countered by Christ and Christian witnesses (martyrs). That is, the peace of Christ embodied in nonviolent love and nonviolent resistance, is the counter to the human rule and is the goal and means of the rule of faith. The earliest accounts of the rule of faith outside of the New Testament link the rule of faith to this peaceful nonviolence.

The Didache (written in the first century A. D.), provides instructions for the Christian life, which in the first part is entitled “Two Ways, the Way of Life and the Way of Death.” It may have served as basic instruction to catechumens or those studying to be baptized, and it is focused on the doctrine of love and Jesus’ ethical teaching. The way of life is characterized by loving God, loving one’s neighbor, and loving one’s enemies by following Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence. The text (as do most all of the early explanations of the rule of faith) references Matthew 5:39-44 (containing Jesus’ commands of nonviolent resistance, or radical subordination) and sets forth a “way of life,” which sums up the point of part one. In other words, the Didache provides a measurement for Christian living that is founded upon Jesus’ own teaching.

Justin Martyr (100-165) in his First Apology also speaks of the rule of faith. Writing to emperor Antonius Pius, he describes Christian nonviolence as offering no threat to Rome, as Christians serve a heavenly kingdom: “For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.”[2] He describes the kingdom established among Christians as bringing to pass the prophecy of Isaiah 2:3: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” As a result, “we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”[3] He points to “the case of many who once were of your way of thinking, but have changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being overcome either by the constancy which they have witnessed in their neighbors’ lives, or by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their fellow-travelers (Christians) when defrauded, or by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted business.”[4] These proofs he puts forward are people, Christians whose lives are governed by a rule of enemy-love and non-violence. The rule is not simply an objective rule, but the means to grow in love and peace.

Tertullian (160-220) likewise, addressing “rulers of the Roman Empire,” explains that Christians are persecuted unjustly because they love their enemies and are forbidden to retaliate. “If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves: who can suffer injury at our hands?” He asks, “banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to.”[5] This nonviolent form of life, in which Christians are charged to love their enemies, Tertullian explains, “is the rule of truth which comes down from Christ by transmission through his companions” (the apostles).[6] Christians have exchanged the law of retribution for the law of truth and nonviolence, and as a result Rome gains more than it has lost.

In Ignatius of Antioch’s (died 108) letter to Polycarp, Ignatius explains how the law of nonviolence replaces the weapons of war with those of peace: “Let your baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply.”[7] Human law calls for violent preparation through weapons of war, but the law of peace taught by Christ exchanges military equipment with the equipment of love, patience and faith.

The analogy of faith is not simply a measurement or rule aimed at sorting out propositions, setting up creeds, and establishing doctrine. The rule of faith is an ethic and a characteristic way of thinking which is to govern the life of the mind and body of the Christian.


[1] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 27-28.

[2] Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 11.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Tertullian, Apology 37.

[6] Ibid., 47.

[7] Ignatius, To Polycarp 6.2.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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