It bothers me when a good word is ruined. I understand that such a phenomenon is a product of the post-modern world we live in. And I understand that “by any other name, a rose smells just as sweet”. No matter what you call it, truth is still truth, morality is still morality. However, in the case of the word “faith”, my frustration is compounded by the fact that I can’t simply abandon the word entirely because it is too deeply infused into the Christian vocabulary.
The problem is that, nowadays, the meaning of “faith” in no way resembles what Biblical authors were talking about. Just to be clear, here is what faith means today: wishing. Faith is, apparently, the opposite of reason and knowledge. Faith picks up where thinking leaves off.
The standard “christian” picture is this: when a person responds to the Gospel, they know very little about God and what they don’t know is supplemented by faith. So, if you were to quantify it, the average new believer has single digit percentage – say 5% – of knowledge, and 95% faith. But here is where things get tricky.
According to the Scriptures, the christian should seek to increase their knowledge. They do this by hearing the Word preached, reading on their own, and using logic and reason to come to conclusions. However, if faith is really the opposite of knowledge, a very unfortunate truth emerges: the more you know, the less faith you have. As you increase in knowledge, the opposite must necessarily decrease. We can only add up to 100%. When a person has 50% knowledge, they’ve lost almost half of their faith. Where can one go in the Scrptures to support the idea that as one matures they lose their faith?
So, the response to the faith vs knowledge debate for many elders is to avoid knowledge altogether. These are the christians who balk at any form of evidence in favor of their position. In fact, they go so far as to say that evidence is dishonoring to God because it destroys faith. Though this position is incredibly wrong, there’s something to say about the consistency of it. At least they understand that if reason and knowledge increases, faith must decrease – per their definition anyway. They have, for some reason, fallen prey to a misunderstanding of the word “faith”. And, to be honest, I have no clue why. I admit I am no church historian so I have no idea when this phenomenon began to take place. I wish I did and that I could point to some faulty reasoning along the way to show why this is so wrong. Instead, I will go back to the source – God’s Word – to show that this understanding is wrong.
But, before I do, allow me to point out something very significant about the Scriptures. High-brow theological types like to say that the Scriptures are God’s “Propositional Revelation.” To put it precisely: “God supernaturally communicated His revelation to chosen spokesmen in the express form of cognitive truths, and that the inspired prophetic-apostolic proclamation reliably articulates these truths in sentences that are not internally contradictory” (Henry, God, Revelation and Authority). In other words, God didn’t just make the authors of Scripture feel what they ought to say, and then hoped that the end product was intelligible. He made sure that they knew what to say in a way that is logically consistent throughout the entirety of Scripture. God used propositions – statements that, by definition, are either true or false – to communicate. Furthermore, in many cases, God ordered those propositions to form arguments. And, in case you don’t know, arguments rest upon the foundation of reason and logic.
A wise woman I know likes to say that God is “not a God of confusion.” She is quoting from 1 Corinthians 14, a passage I’d like to quickly examine just in case you are doubting what I have to say. In this section, Paul is giving the Church instructions about order in relation to those with charismatic gifts. There were many in the church speaking in tongues and prophesying and it seems that a sort of pietistic/spiritualistic competition had arisen among them. Order had dissolved as everyone was seeking to speak at the same time and over one another. So, beginning in 1 Corinthians 14:29, Paul addresses the order to be observed when prophets are speaking:
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. -1 Corinthians 14:29-33
Paul assumes that the prophets are speaking as ones given the spirit (or special charismatic gift) of prophecy from God. He orders them to speak, one at a time, so that all may be exhorted by God. Then comes the phrase in question – but first take note of something. That last phrase is given as a reason! If reason is so evil, why did Paul give one? Why didn’t he just say “do this and have faith that what I’m saying is true and good” and leave it at that? Because that is not how Paul, or God speaking through him, choose to operate.
Go ahead and read any other epistle or any other didactic passage of Scripture and you will see that God gives reasons all the time. He uses them so that His people would increase in knowledge. Why would we seek to operate by a different standard? If the Scriptures contain reason, how can we say that the average Christian shouldn’t? If we are called to grow in knowledge, how can we abandon the tools God has given for the pursuit of it?
So, let’s return to the word in question: faith. We have to get rid of the idea that faith and knowledge are opposites. The opposite of knowledge is ignorance and the opposite of faith is unbelief. These two things are related, but they are not opposite sides of the same spectrum. Because I know it will be difficult to change this definition, I suggest you use the word trust instead. There can’t be trust without something to trust in. Furthermore, you can’t trust in something you don’t know. There can’t be trust without an object (in this case, Christ) and you can’t trust without knowledge of that object.
Consider this: when Paul gives his famous sermon on Mars Hill, he gives his audience lots of information about the unknown god. If knowledge doesn’t matter, why did he do this? Why didn’t he just say:
So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. ’ Repent and believe in Him.”
If knowledge doesn’t matter, this would be the expected response – this scenario requires the most faith. But, instead, he says:
Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children. ’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. -Acts 17:22-31
Depending on how you count, he gives at least fourteen pieces of information about the unknown god: the True God. In fact, he has the audacity to even furnish proof! If knowledge is the opposite of faith, why provide a single piece of information? He provides all of this information so that his audience has an object for their trust. Faith in an unknown god is no faith at all. Faith – or trust – in the God that Paul describes is what must accompany the repentance that Paul declares.
Before I finish, I must address at least two objections to what I’ve been saying. First, if God wants faith based on knowledge, why was anyone upset with doubting Thomas? John records this story in chapter twenty of his gospel:
But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “ Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “ Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed. -John 20:24-29
This passage is used by some to prove that knowledge is not necessary. If someone has knowledge, that’s okay – but if someone has no knowledge and still believes, they receive extra special blessings. But there’s a problem with this interpretation: it doesn’t take into account the context of the situation. Think of it this way: Thomas was one of the twelve. He spent almost three years going around with Jesus hearing him teach and seeing Him perform miracles. He also, like the rest of the twelve, abandoned Christ when He was handed over to crucifixion. But unlike the others, he would not believe anyone when they said that Christ was risen. He wouldn’t believe the women. He wouldn’t believe the accounts of those who said the tomb was empty. And, worst of all, he wouldn’t believe the other ten who had seen him. It wasn’t that he required evidence that Christ was risen because they all required information to come to their conclusion – even Peter had to go to the tomb to see it empty for himself. His problem was that he wouldn’t believe in light of overwhelming evidence that Christ had risen. It’s not faith vs knowledge, it’s reasonable evidence (like, say, the Scriptures) vs unreasonable evidence (like seeing Christ Himself).
Second, I have to make it clear that the Scriptures describe that certain things must simply be believed. God doesn’t give the reasons for His own existence. He doesn’t fully explain how man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty work together (who are you o man, that answers back to God?). And, though the Word contains reason and argument, they avoid a worldly type of argument. Paul makes it clear in his first letter to the Corinthians that he was not seeking to be clever or persuasive as the world is persuasive. He makes it clear by saying:
And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.-1 Corinthians 2:1-5
We have to understand exactly what Paul is arguing against. He isn’t arguing against knowledge and reasons, which he makes clear by saying that he preached Christ, and Him crucified. He did give them an object for their faith and reasons for them to believe that He is the correct object. However, he didn’t play games and seek to persuade them by speaking cleverly or rhetorically or deceptively. He wasn’t attempting to persuade them with lots of form and very little substance – the wisdom of the age. He relied simply upon the facts and the power that comes with those facts to give knowledge and, with God’s help, faith based on that knowledge.
Faith isn’t wishing. It’s trust. When you were born again you had faith based on the knowledge you had at the time. But, as one grows in knowledge and maturity, that faith should only grow. As you better know your God – the only true God – your trust in Him should be bolstered and established, not diminished. Reject the deadly idea that faith is the opposite of knowledge and trust the God whom you know.