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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

What is Faith? A Proper Understanding

Photo courtesy Richard MacDonald.
What is faith? As I discuss issues like the existence of God I find that much of the time people have misunderstood the Christian concept of faith.  Bertrand Russell, the famous early 20th century atheist defined faith as, "the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of 'faith.' We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence."1 Sam Harris defines it this way: "Religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern."2 Both of these definitions miss the mark, erecting a straw man instead of a robust understanding of what faith is.

This misunderstanding is not limited to unbelievers, though; many Christians are also confused on what biblical faith means. They have an underdeveloped view of faith, assuming that it is some kind of trust without evidence or they think that faith is exclusively defined by a single Bible verse, like Hebrews 11:1. That verse reads, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  While the writer to the Hebrews was trying to give one aspect of what faith means, this verse is no more an exhaustive definition of faith than the statement "God is a consuming fire"—which is found in the following chapter—defines all aspects of who God is.

The Biblical Understanding of Faith

When you look at all the different ways faith is mentioned and expressed in the Bible, you'll find that faith in God encompasses three components: a proper understanding of the object of our faith, an assent or agreement with the claim of faith, and an exercise of trust that is the outworking of that assent.

First, in order to have faith, you must properly understand what it is you're asked to have faith in. The Christian no more believes in a cruel, vindictive God than the atheist does.  This is not the kind of God a Christian could have faith in. True faith in God means that one must at least understand what we mean when we say "God."  God has certain attributes and qualities.  Christians believe in an eternal God, a God from whom all goodness stems. The Christian God is not capricious, but unchanging, gracious, long-suffering and holy. If one doesn't understand these concepts, then the faith that one has would rightly be suspect. This is where many atheists go wrong.  They hold to an image of God that is inaccurate and they then reject that type of a God.

Beyond the mere understanding of the object of faith, the believer must give intellectual assent or agreement to the claims of faith. So, in our example, once you understand what the concept of God entails, then it is necessary for you to hold that such a being either exists or doesn't exist. Thus, faith is tied to belief. To have faith in God is to believe that He exists. But belief is not enough, for James said that even the demons believe in God and tremble!3To have faith means we must go beyond mere assent and exercise a level of trust in Him.  Trust is a necessary feature of faith.

The Evidence for Faith

All these components, understanding, assent, and trust, don't happen in a vacuum. We take the propositions we know to be true, such as everything that begins to exist has a cause, the universe shows evidence of design, for absolute moral values to exist they must originate from a moral lawgiver, and we use our reasoning ability to weigh them as evidence for the Christian God. We also have the internal witness of God and we have historical testimony such as the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead. Because we have all of this, we can more easily place our trust in God as not only being real, but as one who is trustworthy to guide our lives. As J.P. Moreland states, "Belief in rests on belief that."

Even in Hebrews 11, this pattern shows itself. To clarify his definition of faith, the writer to the Hebrews follows up verse one with over thirty verses of examples of how God actually worked in the lives of those who had trusted Him in the past. He recounts how those in the past trusted God and their faith was rewarded, as they  "conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight."4He then says in the first verse of chapter twelve that these examples provide evidence for the faith that we should have. He exhorts the Christian, writing "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us."5

Christian faith is not a leap in the dark.  The concept of "blind faith" is completely foreign to the Bible. Instead, when the Bible speaks of faith, it means a trust based on past history and evidence. Christianity has always grounded itself to a specific historical event, hanging the faith of its followers on the actuality of Christ's resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 Paul says that Christianity should be dismissed if the resurrection is not a reality. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the Christian view of faith is more measured and rational that others may have you believe.


1. Bertrand Russell as quoted in Introducing Philosophy of Religion by Chad Meister.
(New York: Routledge, 2009). 158.
2. Harris, Sam. The End of Faith.
(New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2004). 65.
3. James 2:19. ESV.
4. Hebrews 11:34-35. ESV.
5. Hebfrrews 12:1.ESV.

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