Faith Is More Than Trust

What is faith? Atheist intellectuals will say that it is a substitute for reason, a way of “knowing” something to be true when there’s no (sufficient) reason to believe it--like believing in fairy-tales, or Santa Clause. Christian intellectuals--or, at least, the better ones--will insist that it isn’t a way of knowing at all; that it’s a way of trusting, based on reason, and therefore isn’t like believing in a fairytale at all. Then, muddying the waters, there are the countless Christians--both intellectual and non--who agree with the atheist’s conception of faith as means of knowledge. The result is an intellectual quagmire of equivocations in every direction.

Coming Clean

It’s time to set the record straight. But first, we have to clear up the mess--and it’s going to take some brutal honesty: most Christians do think of faith as a means of knowledge, and thus, are guilty of the irrationality which atheists charge them with concerning their concept of faith. Yes, the atheist is wrong about what faith actually is, according to the Bible, but that’s usually only because most Christians are wrong about it, as well. Correcting the atheist’s conception of faith apart from first doing so with the wider Christian culture comes across as duplicitous; like the Christian intellectual is trying to have his fairy-tale-like faith, and deny it, too. So, the first step to cleaning up this mess is admitting that, by and large, Christians have a faith problem: they tend to not know what it is. They tend to talk about it and act as though it is opposed to reason, or that it is a way of knowing; and as a result, they tend to treat Christianity more like fantasy than fact. The atheist is right about that, and honesty demands that we admit as much.

 

Faith = Trust?

However, honesty also demands that we move on to identify--for the atheist and for the Christian--what faith actually is, according to Scripture.  I say, “according to Scripture,” because that is what the atheist is ultimately arguing against: the actual Christian worldview, according to the Bible--not some contemporary distortion of it. And while the better Christian intellectuals have moved in a good direction on this issue, there’s still work to be done. That good direction consists of their correctly identifying the fact that the Bible does not treat faith as a means of knowledge, and therefore, since Biblical faith isn’t even in the same category as reason, it can’t be pitted against reason in any fashion. However, the consensus among those better Christian intellectuals seems to be that Biblical faith is virtually synonymous with trust. On their understanding of faith then, we exercise faith in almost everything we do: the scientist has “faith” in (i.e. trusts) the scientific method; the airline passenger has “faith” in the pilot’s ability to fly; and everyone has “faith” in gravity as they walk around throughout their day. The problem is that this understanding of faith seems rather trivial. It doesn’t seem to mesh with the way that the Bible talks about faith. They’re right in pointing out that the Bible doesn’t treat faith as a means of knowledge, but it also doesn’t seem to treat faith as synonymous with mere trust.

 

Biblical Faith

The best way to get an idea about the Biblical concept of faith is to examine the most explicit chapter on the subject: Hebrews 11. It begins saying, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” While this isn’t a definition (the Bible doesn’t typically offer definitions), it is the most precise and explicit description of faith to be found in the Bible--and it is very instructive.

There are two fundamental elements of faith listed in that description, each repeated in a different way. The first is the person’s disposition: assurance, or conviction. The second is the object of that disposition: things hoped for, or things not seen. The emphasis with this latter element seems to be that the object of faith is not immediately graspable (things not seen), or easily attainable (things hoped for). There’s some sort of barrier between the person who has the faith and the object he has faith in. This precludes the conception of faith as mere trust in the trivially obvious. There’s typically no barrier between the scientist and the scientific method, or between the jogger and gravity. The sense of difficulty which seems essential to faith in Hebrews 11:1 is missing in such trivial examples.

The other aspect which is typically overlooked is that of having a deep personal interest in the object of faith. This is made evident by the fact that the object is referred to as “things hoped for,” and it is reiterated by the author in verse 6 when he says “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (emphasis added). This sense of deep personal interest in the object of faith is also missing from those common examples of trivial trust.

So, putting it all together, Biblical faith is a strong disposition of belief (“assurance,” or “conviction”), in spite of some serious barrier or difficulty (“things not seen”), regarding something of deep personal value (“things hoped for”). It’s not trivial trust in the obvious. It’s the white-knuckled grip on one’s deepest values, in spite of tremendous opposition. It’s not the scientist “trusting” in the scientific method. It’s the scientist’s refusal to recant his findings, as the world puts him on the rack for them. It’s not getting onto an airplane. It’s being the first person to get onto an airplane (because you know the engineers who built it), while everyone else swears that you’re going to die.

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Reason, Then Faith.

But Hebrews also tells us quite a bit about the relationship between reason and faith. To be more specific, it teaches us that faith is not arbitrary, or based in wishful thinking; that it is based in reason. This is subtly evident in that first verse (11:1) with the usage of the term, “things hoped for” as the object of faith. Contrary to the popular english usage of the word hope as wishful thinking, the Greek word elpis (which is here translated as hope) is typically understood to mean a confident expectation. Thus, in the cultural context of the letter, to have “assurance of things hoped for” was to have assurance of that which one has good reason to confidently expect.

However, we do not need to rely on the subtleties of the Greek in order to see how the author grounds faith in reason. It’s made explicit in the example of Abraham, who is considered the father of faith. The author of Hebrews recounts Abraham’s faith as follows: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead,” (11:17-19, emphasis added). The italicized parts pick out the indicators that Abraham’s faith was eminently based on reason. Those indicators are:

  1. God had sworn promises to Abraham (Abraham is “he who had received the promises”) concerning Isaac--namely, that Abraham’s offspring would be named “through Isaac.” In other words, God had promised that Isaac would have children. Needless to say, when Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed as a boy, Isaac had not yet fathered any children.
  2. Having been the recipient of “the promises,” and having previously communed with God and witnessed His ways (this is the context in which the story of taking Isaac to be sacrificed is told in Genesis), Abraham had ample reason to believe that God would by no means default on His promises.
  3. Abraham rightly considered (or “reasoned,” according to some translations) that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead. Again, knowing what He knew of God, Abraham had ample reason for this conclusion.

Combine all of that, and Abraham had every reason to believe that somehow Isaac would not wind up dead for good. He knew that somehow, God would intervene. And that’s what his faith consisted of: the solid assurance that God would keep His word, even when it seemed like He wasn’t going to--because Abraham knew (by reason) that God must keep His word.

 

Faith in Practice

As the father of faith, Abraham serves as an example for all Christians concerning the way they ought to think about their faith and their relationship to God. Contrary to the contemporary mindset which tries to drum up faith as a sheer act of the will “in obedience,” the Biblical picture of faith is one in which faith is the natural result of knowing God and His promises. This means that the “fight of faith” is a fight, not to close your eyes to reality and reason, but a fight to see and understand as much as possible--especially about God and His character--in order to obtain the genuine assurance and conviction that He will do what He has said He will do, in spite of whatever temptations you might have to doubt it. The best way to bolster your faith is to consider God’s promises; consider His faithfulness to others, as well as to you; and most importantly, consider His faithfulness to Himself, because He who promised is faithful. He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim. 2:13).

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Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.

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