Friday, February 19, 2010

What Is Faith?

"Where we have reason for what we believe, we have no need of faith…"1

"To 'choose' dogma and faith over doubt and experiment is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid."

And my personal favorite:

"Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

This is how the skeptical community, almost without exception, views religious faith. Are they right?

I cannot speak for other religions, but here I want to provide a Christian definition of faith--one that is rooted in Scripture and the history of the church. I think this will be very valuable for the Christian and the skeptic alike. For this post , I want to deal with the misunderstanding that is so common among critics: that faith is, in essence, blind.

The word generally translated as 'faith' in the New Testament (NT) is the Greek pistis (πίστις). It may surprise you to learn that this was a term sometimes used for 'forensic proof.' For example, it is used in this sense in Acts 17:31, where the NASB translates it as 'proof.' In many more instances, the NT uses it to mean something closer to 'faithfulness' or 'loyalty.' These include the idea of trust in the object of faith (God), as well as fidelity.

This is, like it or not, how faith is used in the Scripture and what it has always meant to the church. My question, then, is where does the idea of its 'blindness' fit into these definitions? All of these concepts--faithfulness, loyalty, trust, fidelity--assume ipso facto that there is a known basis that justifies the act of faith. There is something to which we are faithful, someone to whom we pledge our loyalty, trust, etc. And this is always rooted in--not contrary to--evidence.

Speaking of Christ's resurrection, Paul said it this way, "'I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner."

It is important to note here what Paul did not say. When charged by his judge with madness, he did not reply "But I have faith! Why do you require evidence? How dare you criticize my faith?!" Rather, he pointed to the evidence in which his faith was grounded, in this case Jesus' resurrection.

Similarly, when Thomas famously doubted the report of Jesus' resurrection, it is important to note what Jesus did not say. He didn't say, "But Thomas, faith is blind. Why must you demand proof? Have faith anyway, my child." No, He said, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

It should be clear to anyone who looks at this honestly that Christian faith was never intended to be blind in the sense of 'contrary to evidence.' Sadly, I do not exaggerate when I say that this is probably the principal criticism offered of religious belief by the popular atheists, whose writings have reached millions of people. It is a tired objection, and it has no basis in Scripture. Instead, the NT writers understood faith as 'believing what is known to be trustworthy.' Of course, the question of whether or not the evidence actually is trustworthy is still open, but this is a separate issue.

Next time, I will discuss how this more nuanced understanding of faith affects the Christian. Stay tuned...

P.S. For a more in-depth discussion of this, see J.P. Holding's article here.



1 Sam Harris. End of Faith. pg. 225.

2 Christopher Hitchens. god Is Not Great. pg. 95.  Always the joker, that one.

3 Richard Dawkins. Lecture from 'The Nullifidian.'  The theist can generally count on Dawkins to play right into his hands. Here is a prime example.

4 Acts 26:25-26 (NASB). Emphasis mine.

5 John 20:27 (NIV).

4 comments:

  1. I am impressed with your instance on bringing light to the facts that we like to ignore as Christians. So many times we want it to be enough that we believe, but to the World that's never been good enough. I particularly like the light you shed on the use of the word "faith." That's the kind of information that should not only support our arguments but change our lives. When our faith is "blind," we don't need to necessarily be changed by Scripture or the Truth found there. When we realize that faith is more than just saying "Sure, that's the truth," we have to start living the appropriate response.

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  2. Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

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  3. That's a good verse Jeff, and one that I plan to mention in the next post. Wanna elaborate on what you mean?

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  4. I agree with Sarah Q. I honestly had never heard this before. I cannot say whether I was told this or just assumed that faith is to just have trust that God is there, I always thought that was enough."The word generally translated as 'faith' in the New Testament (NT) is the Greek pistis (πίστις). It may surprise you to learn that this was a term sometimes used for 'forensic proof.' For example, it is used in this sense in Acts 17:31, where the NASB translates it as 'proof.' In many more instances, the NT uses it to mean something closer to 'faithfulness' or 'loyalty.' These include the idea of trust in the object of faith (God), as well as fidelity." I love that you mentioned different definitions. When I've tried to reach out to people, I tend to get that question of "how are you so sure He is real?" I've never been able to answer with more than the word "faith" in the sense of being sure that God is with us.

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