Milk and Meat, Pistis and Gnosis, Doubt and Faith: Why We Need Both

ImageClement, the early Christian teacher and founder of the philosophical school in Alexandria, liked to talked about the two kinds of faith: pistis and gnosis. For Clement pistis represented that initial faith that formed the groundwork of our religious and philosophical apparatus; while gnosis represented the mature faith of one who had investigated and formed his or her thinking. Both were gifts of God; and neither represented a difference in one’s standing in terms of salvation. Yet his writings again and again were designed to encourage the wise believer to add onto the scaffolding of pistis to form the truly solid and beautiful gnosis.

This ideal for Clement was grounded in the Aristotelian philosophy of ethics and virtue. For Aristotle and many other Greek philosophers virtue was not simply something one possessed by the accumulation of knowledge about what stances were ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ No virtue was the lifelong pursuit of enacting virtue in one’s life by the establishment of knowledge, and behavior. Virtue was not in how one thought, but in how one lived. Virtue was not a piecemeal program of pulling stances together; but entailed a holistic and organic process of becoming and being.

I was thinking about this today in relation to how we in the modern church have come to do church. This thought process was part of a continued engagement in a column by whose provenance I cannot remember (sorry this is the second time this month that my bookmarking system and newsfeed have let me down). I really respected the author’s attitude toward many of the same people who have called him horrible names. Rather than going back on the attack, he salutes their faith, and wishes them well. He then asked his readers to love and honor the ‘simple’ faith shown by these Christians.

I commend this way of life and see in it an example of Clement’s call to honor pisitis. We should not get all Pharisaical on those whose practice of the faith may seem less something or the other than our wizened faith. In fact when the temptation to do so strikes we should realize that this ‘better than you’ mentality shows how small or virtue really is. We should take that moment to seek forgiveness and humility rather than vainglory.

Yet I also hear both the call of Clement and that of the writer of Hebrews:

“Concerning him [Jesus Christ] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”

When you are an infant milk is great, and when you get older milk is still good. I’m an adult and still enjoy a good cold glass. I try to make it a part of my diet; but it is only a part of my diet. I also look to eat lean proteins, fruit, nuts, and vegetables. You give an infant a steak and it will do no good; but give a growing teen a steak and you build muscle.

And here is the problem with much of the American Church, we are a bunch of milk drinkers. We love milk, and this is good to a point. I will never forget sitting in the room with my pastor in college. We had just had a really great service, and to use some Pentecostal jargon “had really entered in and experienced the spirit of God.” Yet as we sat there waking up back to the mundane reality of earth, he looked over at me and said, “this is all great, but it does not last. There is going to come a time that faith gets harder. You’re going to have to work for it.” (paraphrased). He was right. I didn’t. I did. I do.

Yet this is our bane as Americans we typically do not have to work for much of anything (really). We are so used to customer service, automatic everything, and instant anything that we truly do not know what it means to persist, to work. Even as we complain about those dread liberals ruining the church by importing bad culture, we in the Evangelical Church have bought into this quintessential American fallacy that life should be easy and happiness should be sought and easily found. In fact many of our most famous pastors have achieved success by promising shortcuts and sure-fire methods to bypass difficulties. In fact many of these have preached a gospel that said “if it is hard, difficult to understand, or involves work” then you, the believer, are doing it wrong.

In order to maintain these types of churches, we the church have subsisted on a milk diet. Therefore we have not developed the kind of digestive system that can tolerate the least bit of subsistence. It is not a surprise then that any exposure to the meat of scripture and / or life has then been deadly. When our students face the challenges of college, they flail and fail. When our graduates experience job turmoil, they fail. When friends and relatives die, we fail. When the coworker we are trying to ‘save’ brings up a difficult topic like evolution, abortion, homosexuality, or politics, we fail. We may have all the pithy answers and the certainty that we are right, but it is an adolescent type of certainty that given time will fail us.

In the Evangelical Church we love certainty. We love those charismatic individuals that brim with confidence as they stride across the stage. Blessed Assurance is our theme song. We give millions of ‘likes’ to any meme that boldly expresses our certainty that we are right. We castigate and make anathema any individual who expresses the least measure of doubt. We love to talk about Peter’s confidence, and bemoan Thomas’s doubt. We sermonize mercilessly on Gideon’s fires; but neglect his lambskins. My Pentecostal youth was far from “name it, claim it” Oral Roberts territory, but from an early age I knew the term “negative confession.” We like to think that this unthinking, uncritical, optimistic, positivism is the top of the faith heap.

Yet one day I came across this diagram of belief (from of all places the self-help world, go figure). There the author stated that the true faith experience went like this: certainty, doubt, doubting faith. There is a certain Hegelian logic going on here; that even Barth might approve. There is thesis (certainty of knowledge), antithesis (doubt), and synthesis (doubting faith). It is interesting to note that neither the certainty of the American Evangelical or the doubt of the American atheist should be seen as the pinnacle of religious or philosophical development. The two need each other and need to be tied together to form the type of mature faith that the early church called their followers to become. To believe Hebrews, we need both milk and meat.

This year I would like to challenge you to get out of your comfort zone. To find challenge. To embrace doubt. To find that place where faith and doubt collide and coalesce. But as you go out on the lonely road, do not forget to pack your milk.


If you are in the Birmingham (AL-US) area, I will be facilitating a small group book club geared toward broadening our faith and discussing what it means to be Americans and Christians; to be doubters and faithers.  If you would like to participate in this discussion email me.

I will also be participating online in the reading in transit book club. Look for more here, but join us here.

If you are interested in reading a full-length argument for the weakness of modern Evangelicalism, I recommend  Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity.

For a great discussion of ancient virtue ethics and how that might make a difference for modern believers, I recommend N.T. Wright’s After You Believe.

It is out of print and hard to find but Elizabeth Clark has written about Aristotle and Clement in Clement’s Use of Aristotle: The Aristotelian Contribution to Clement of Alexandria’s Refutation of Gnosticism.

To find the discussion of faith as I alluded to it, check out Dave Schmelzer’s Not the Religious Type.


One Comment

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  1. This was so good. Thanks. Looking forward to reading more from you

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