Is "Faith Formation" a Good Phrase/Category?


I'm wondering if anyone else has concerns about the phrase "faith formation."

Some of us discussed this at a recent classis meeting. Many thought it was vague and would have preferred a confessional or biblical phrase. My concern is that its ambiguity might encourage or reinforce non-confessional ideas about the role of the sacraments.

"Formation" can either indicate the act of creating or the act of shaping. "Forming" a committee suggests creating something that didn't exist before. "Forming" play-dough suggests shaping something that already exists.

In a discussion of the interaction between sacraments and faith (which is a focus of the "Faith Formation Committee", for example), only the second use of forming is appropriate in a confessional denomination. Both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism are clear on our agreed understanding of what the Bible teaches: the Holy Spirit creates faith through the Word, and afterward shapes it through the sacraments. When discussing what the sacraments do for faith, the Belgic uses the words "nourish" and "sustain" (Article 33), and the Heidelberg uses "confirms" (Q&A 65) — all words that are clear that faith already exists when the sacraments have an impact on it. But "faith formation" doesn't have that same clarity.

And this confessional clarity has practical benefits. Not only does it steer us clear of the dangerous idea that the Holy Spirit ordinarily accomplishes the salvation of the elect without the preaching of the Word, but it prevents our theology of infant baptism from getting mangled in a certain way and helps us navigate through questions about children at the Lord's Supper.

Certainly the work of the Synodical Faith Formation Committee is important, and the discussions in this forum can be very helpful. But, in the interest of clarity, would it be better to use a different phrase or split the discussion into a few parts?

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A healthily challenging question, Nick! I'm glad to let it kick around in my brain for awhile and I hope that my other committee members will do the same.

Personally, I'm not sure that "forming" as "creating" is a very commonly understood way of referring to the work "forming". It usually means taking something that is already and giving it shape, health, and direction. The Spirit gives us "unformed" faith and the ministry of the word and sacraments, as well as the nurturing of parents, is to give this "unformed" substance some meaningful form that will direct a life into discipleship and cope with the tests of life.

When synod came up with this word, I think it intended to catch all the confessions were referring to by "shapes", "confirms", "sustains" and "nourishes".

But I'm glad to hear other perspectives on it. The last thing we want is some misunderstanding that begins a journey in the wrong direction.


Hi Nick, I think the Word as the Holy Spirits tool. The Spirit has many of them to direct our path to Jesus. I think you should look at the early church to relize there are many faith forming tools. After all, they didn't have the written word as we do.