Three-Part Faith

In academia, it is not uncommon to encounter the attitude that people with religious faith are intellectually dishonest. While possibly excusable for non-intellectuals – the attitude goes – we enlightened thinking-types ought not rely on faith; after all, as Dr. Temperance Brennan in the popular TV Series Bones says, “Faith is an irrational belief in something that is logically impossible,” right?

cropped-fairy-tale.jpg

A fairy-tale wall tower at the Tower of London

Pardon the polemical introduction. I exaggerate slightly to make a point… although perhaps the exaggeration is not particularly far removed from reality in some cases? But as a Christian academic, I ask myself the question, what is faith? Is it really the irrational belief in the logically impossible? Perhaps if I have faith that the world will end on Dec. 21 or that fairytales are historically true accounts, I’m approaching that kind of faith. But what about faith in the Christian God and in his gospel (good news)? Are we crazy and irrational?

Rev. Mick Leary of The Church of the Redeemer, PCA in Cortland, NY recently preached on biblical faith, and its main points stuck with me as concisely capturing what true faith looks like:

What is Faith? 

Rev. Leary suggested that true faith comprises knowledge, belief, and trust.

Knowledge

True faith is first based on knowledge, or, more precisely, justification in its epistemological sense; in other words, faith has good reason to believe. Justification involves both good information or evidence and good reasoning. As Christians, we have good information about God and how he interacts with the world – especially his gospel.

Romans 3:21-26 (emphasis added)

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (NIV)

We have a historically reliable book that claims to be the revelation of God’s word to his people through history: the Bible. Of great importance, then, the content of Scripture reveals much about who and what God is – invisible, eternal spirit, creator of the physical world and universe, sovereign over human beings, holy and righteous, etc. – and about how he interacts with human beings. The Scriptures contain verifiable historical events which demonstrate God’s reality, prophesies fulfilled that demonstrate his faithfulness, and future promises that may be presumed to hold true based on previous information.

At this point, the skeptics will already be ready to pounce, for the previous statements are based on further evidence – historical accuracies and a high level of agreement between manuscripts and archeology – (see Tim Keller’s chapter on biblical accuracy in The Reason for God for an overview of this issue) but also on a worldview that presumes the possibility of a God. This is a circular argument, they may say, but there is no way to argue for a world with God or a world without God without beginning with some given axiom that cannot be proven. Hence this discussion on faith. My point here is merely that the Scriptures are comparatively speaking the most reliable ancient book out there, and that they are considered historically definitive in many respects. As such, what they say about God and his people ought to be considered as worth study.

In addition, reason allows for and supports the existence of God from within the finite realm of human thought. Many have tried and failed to argue for or against the existence of God using merely “pure” reason. However, in approaching the possibility of God in existence, reason is more than compatible with such a possibility and can provide very compelling support. Rather than attempting to set a new argument out here, I will refer my readers to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton; these two books demonstrate the philosophical reasonableness of God. Finally, the historic tenacity of Christian faith and the individual and corporate record of experiences of God provide further evidence in support of the existence of God and his redemptive plan.

Belief

With the solidity of Scripture as our main evidence and reason, tradition, and experience as our epistemological supports, we are then faced with a decision to whether we have enough epistemological justification to actually believe – assent to the truth of – the information presented. It is at this point at which the dividing line is most distinct between those who profess Christianity and those who do not. Many people who explore the information within Scripture and the supports along side it find it intellectually compelling enough that they cannot but accept it as truth (c.f. Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis). Many others are unwilling to accept that the evidence is certain enough to be true. Members of both groups are easily found in both academic and non-academic circles.

But in any case, faith requires the belief that the good information is true. For example, consider Romans 4:18-25 (emphasis added):

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead25 He was delivered over to death for our sinsand was raised to life for our justification. (NIV)

Skeptics will immediately notice the phrase “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.” Aha! See the illogical belief here! But notice verse 20-21. In essence, Abraham faced the physical evidence and compared it to what he knew about God – the Creator of the universe, the God who had called him out of his hometown, the One who had provided for and led him every step of the way – and he recognized the faithfulness of God before and reasonably drew the conclusion that God, as the Creator, had the power to work with his failing physical body to fulfill his promise.

Trust

Surely justified belief is enough to constitute faith, right? To return to Rev. Leary’s sermon, the crucial point that transforms belief into faith is the trust that the information is so true that my life can be built on it. This is the toughest part. I may believe for good reason that if I put my money in the a Savings account it will stay there and gain a small amount of interest unless I withdraw it. However, I have to really trust that the bank is legitimate in order to put my money in an account to begin with.

Consider Romans 8:18-30, especially the following verses:

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (NIV)

To borrow almost directly from Rev. Leary, the basis of trust lies with and in God and Christ, in what he did before we knew him rather than on what we are doing. Romans 5:6-8 says, “for while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Trust begins with the recognition that I am weak and that he has done for me what I could not do for myself. He pursues us in love, with grace, in his own timing; in fact, he is often willing to take time when we are not willing to do so. In order to “do” trust, then it behooves us to spend time reflecting on our life in the context of the Scriptures, to look at the way we spend our time on other things (what matters if God is real and his gospel is true?), to gather together and listen to each other as God’s people. We know he is there although we cannot see him. We believe he will act as he has in the past – faithfully, righteously.  We therefore trust in him.

To close, let me refer to Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. (NRSV)

In this brief definition, faith is defined as assurance and conviction rather than mere hope or wishful thinking. While assurance and conviction may be merely asserted by the unthinking person, this verse connotes a confidence that is supported. The NKJV uses the word “substance,” the idea being: faith is well-supported, substantial, evidence-based belief in, yes, the intangible and the not-yet; it is not irrational – or at least no more so than any sensible view of this complex world ought to be.

(See for reference some further thoughts on rationality and its place in human thought in this earlier post.)

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7 thoughts on “Three-Part Faith

  1. Emma,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Let me ask a few questions:

    Granting you the existence or reality of the “God of Christianity” or the “God of the Bible” (these are phrases used by some, not necessarily by you), why should this God be a person’s ultimate concern that governs his/her life? Should not this God and his Bible be challenged and demanded to hold up to our deepest knowledge and sense of goodness? And if so, does this not require no more than a tentative commitment to this God, at least in comparison with our more ultimate commitment to that which is truly Good? Perhaps the “leap of faith” then is a commitment to seek the truly Good in or through God or Christianity or the Bible rather than a commitment to a (possibly) real supernatural being as such.

    I’m not sure. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks again for sharing.

    Aaron V

  2. Aaron,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that it is worth testing God and his Word, but I might ask in return how do we know that our deepest knowledge and sense of goodness are a) true and b) worth listening to? It is commonly recognized by those religious and those not religious that human beings are finite, quite prone to evil, and often mistaken in our thinking. In my mind, that suggests that making my own understanding the absolute bottom line is a dangerous idea. Not that it is worthless – by no means! My points under the “Knowledge” heading above suggest that we should take into account the historical basis and reasonableness of the Scriptures as best we can… that where they fail to match up with our expectations, we should study to discern whether it is we who are mistaken or whether it is the Scriptures. Sometimes it is not clear, and I know you and I have had some discussion on this – how accurate is the Bible? Well, there are many scholars who argue it is quite accurate, others who dispute this claim. They both have evidence. Here’s a place where study is involved. I will confess that I have been doing some renewed research since our conversation and have found continued historical and rational support for trusting that the Scriptures are what they say they are.

    Faith in goodness is another kind of faith – and it follows the same three-pronged approach, if you will. You have good information about what goodness is written on your heart, manifested in others, apparent in your thinking. What makes it good? You can choose whether it is Plato or my God or the universe or something else… But you have good information and there is evidence enough to believe it. If you trust that seeking the Good is the absolute best way to live, then you may employ the third prong, although the abstract “goodness” is not capable of doing anything, so you are essentially trusting in yourself (that your goodness is worthwhile and will benefit you and others) and in the universe (that it is good). A lot of assumptions here… but it does not follow that they are bad.

    The main difference is that in choosing to believe what I find to be compelling evidence, reason, and information, I do not have the luxury of a tentative commitment to the God of the Bible. And neither do you if you choose not to believe it. Why? Because Scripture is very clear on this point (as I’m sure you are aware): If God is who he claims to be, then he demands your allegiance. If Jesus Christ is who he claims to be and not insane or a liar, then choosing not to believe him is the equivalent of turning your back on the only goodness that has any worth before God at all. In other words, Christian faith cannot be tentative. A person may choose to believe or not to believe, and choose to trust or not to trust. But in that choosing, the tentative must give way to the decisive. So you can choose to have faith in the Good or in God himself, but not a little of both.

    For what it’s worth. 🙂 I appreciate your continuing conversation here.

  3. Emma,

    Thanks for your thorough response. You ask: how do we know that our deepest knowledge and sense of goodness are a) true and b) worth listening to?

    a) We don’t know if our deepest knowledge and sense of goodness is true in any absolute sense, but this is the nature of finite existence. And it seems to me that our deepest understanding and experiences of God (through the Bible, through divine revelation, and through the community of Christians) are at least equally flawed.

    b) This question is easily answered if we know what is good and what is true in an absolute sense. But since we don’t, life experience becomes one of the many ways we determine the worth of any path. I would say that life experience can warrant some kind of Christian theistic outlook on life, but it can also warrant legitimate non-Christian or non-theistic perspectives as well.

    You mentioned the importance of allegiance to Jesus Christ. But is not this commitment simply a trust within a tradition and within our particular life experiences of God? If so, what is getting accomplished through this commitment other than some concrete embodiment of our deeper commitment to God and/or the Good? And if this is the case, should we not then understand it as being simply (yet beautifully) that?

    But if this is an absolute life commitment to Jesus Christ as a spiritual being rather than as symbol of God or the Good, then are we not running the risk of idolatry by granting ultimacy to that which cannot be legitimately ultimate? Does not our utterly finite understanding of who/what God is and what is Good exclude the possibility of worshiping any specific representation of God or the Good in itself? (This same criticism could be made of other religions including secular ones.)

    For me, Christianity ceases to be reasonable if it says that it has access to a special kind of revelation that will always be above the criticism of our deepest understanding and sense of what is good and true. This is not to deny the possibility of revelation, but only to say that such revelation must become incarnate in our own understanding and must be tested through reason and life experience against our deepest understanding and experience of the Good to become part of our ultimate concern.

    Okay. I’ve run on a bit too much. I need to do music theory now. Sorry I didn’t get to respond to all of your points. Another time maybe.

    Aaron V

    • Aaron,

      I hear what you are saying (hark, do I hear Professor Dunsby?), and I think I need to make clear one thing that I am not saying: this post is not meant to argue a case for Christian faith. It is merely trying to explain that our faith is more than an illogical assent to some irrational set of statements. Others have “argued” Christianity more or less well, and that is simply not what I am trying to do here. Thus, your statement “that life experience can warrant some kind of Christian theistic outlook on life, but it can also warrant legitimate non-Christian or non-theistic perspectives as well,” makes sense and is certainly not opposed to my point here.

      Your responses to my first couple of questions highlight the main problems of ethics and morality, especially when addressing them with the goal of coming to some absolute conclusion. I do not feel the need to dispute those points in general. Clearly, the question of whether or not the absolute exists cannot be decided on the basis of pure reason.

      If I am reading this correctly, you are arguing that the Christian faith is irrational or lacks the right to reasonable assent because it claims to be above the criticism of our deepest understanding of goodness and truth. In essence, our faith claims something even more offensive – that God shapes our deepest understanding of goodness and truth. If that were true, you would expect that our understanding of God would line up with our deepest understanding of goodness and truth. To lay this bare at a personal level, whenever I do struggle with something in Scripture or the character of God, I do tend to do some soul-searching: is it me or is it God? Is the case in question a “sense of goodness and truth” that has clearly been shaped by my post-modern culture? Does it follow that it is wrong? (Not necessarily.) Why does God’s word offend me? Generally, it doesn’t… but in the cases where I have questions (especially in some of the Old Testament places where God commands the destruction of his enemies), I do have to ask myself these questions. I have found satisfactory answers not only in my own reflections, but also in the “tradition” that you mention. Does it follow then that these answers are not valid because you are not convinced?

      The danger with making our own personal understanding of good and truth the basis of belief in God or the Good is that we may fabricate something that we can live with but that denies many aspects of reality. It also denies the access we have to the collective experience, thought, and revelation of creation and Scripture to people throughout time and space.

      Finally, you argue that having faith in the specific doctrines of Christianity is not necessary. I do not argue that it is logically necessary by any means. But it is not logically necessary to believe in the Good, either, as Nietzsche (among others) has argued. Instead, we might merely believe in some sort of civil assent to a common moral code and call that “good” enough. It is also not logically impossible or even improbable to believe the specific doctrines of Christianity, nor to put my trust in them. In my encounter with the Scriptures – an encounter shaped by my upbringing, by my doubts, by my experience, by my training – I have faced them and found it illogical to read them as merely a “symbol of the Good.” God himself claims that what good we can know or accomplish is not enough.

      An old philosophical argument (which has its detractors) goes like this: we can imagine a far better good than we can ever achieve; ergo, it must exist. If I might borrow this and tweak it a bit: there is a sense in which if God is there, and he is good, he is the most good. Therefore, his revelation to his people ought to reveal the best good. It ought also to match up with our experience of the sin (if you will allow me to use that term) and the brokenness of the world. And in fact, Scripture claims that we are not good enough on our own, that God alone makes us good – that in sending his Son (fully divine and fully human) to die in our place and to conquer death by returning to life, he washes away the taint of our brokenness and conforms us into his likeness – the most good. He claims that this is what we were made for – to be his. I cannot read that as merely a symbol of a general good. But this comes at the dividing point of justification and belief. I cannot help but believe that God is the Good… rather than that the Good is represented in the gods of many religions. Why should goodness rather than God himself be the more absolute source?

      This is not to argue that faith in a general Good is logically inferior to believing in the Christian God. It is merely to argue the opposite. Your faith that goodness as a general foundation on which to build life is logical, well-founded, and worthwhile in our finite lifetimes. I would simply suggest that a specific faith in God and Christ and the Holy Spirit is no less so… and for what it is worth, it also addresses the spiritual desires of our hearts.

  4. Emma,

    Let me briefly respond to this statement:

    “this post is not meant to argue a case for Christian faith. It is merely trying to explain that our faith is more than an illogical assent to some irrational set of statements”

    and follow up on my own statement:

    “I would say that life experience can warrant some kind of Christian theistic outlook on life, but it can also warrant legitimate non-Christian or non-theistic perspectives as well.”

    Just to clarify…Though it may sound like it, I am NOT trying to say something like, “secular life is legitimate too, so leave us alone.” On the contrary, I think that the Christian church has potentially more to offer than secular society as it is today. Nevertheless, I feel that a Christianity worthy of itself must become post-theistic in some sense. Obviously, I need to follow up on that, but I can’t at the moment.

    Thanks for your careful responses and thoughts.

    • Rather than respond to this, for the time being (especially since you don’t have time to elaborate), I will merely say – thanks for the discussion! Best of luck on papers and grading. 🙂

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