Faith: Pt.1 – Definitions.
Today, let’s look at a few conceptions, and defences of the word ‘faith’, in the ‘religious faith’ sense of the word, to see if it really is anything more than simple ‘belief without evidence’ – as some skeptics might claim.
Firstly we must look at definitions and, of course, the Bible is the best place to start, to try to tease out what is meant by the word ‘faith’. We may find it hard to pinpoint any specific definition of faith, particularly one that won’t draw criticism and argument from theists. Perhaps the best we can hope for in attempting to lock the Bible down in anything, is to have a reasoned discussion, and simply let the passages speak for themselves.
Any discussion on the Bible’s use of the word ‘faith’ must ultimately begin in Hebrews 11:1:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, King James Version, p. 1930)
In the footnotes on this section the editors of this edition of the Bible state that this above definition is not so much a function of what faith is, but rather a description of what faith does. They state that faith provides substance, and in the orignal Greek this would normally mean “assurance”, which is why you may sometimes see this passage with the word ‘assurance’ instead of ‘substance’. Secondly the authors suggest that faith provides ‘evidence’, meaning in the “sense of proof that results in conviction.” (p. 1930) Hence, why you may also see ‘evidence’ substituted for ‘conviction’ in some passages. The authors state:
The difference between assurance and evidence would be minimal were it not for the phrase qualifying each: of things hoped for and of things not seen. The first involves future hope; the second involves present realities not seen. the first includes the hope of the resurrection, the return of Christ, and the glorification of the saints. The second involves unseen realities, such as the forgiveness of sin through Christ’s sacrifice and the present intercession of Christ in heaven. Hope is faith relating to the future; conviction is faith relating to the present. (King James Version, p. 1930)
Under this explanation and definition we can begin to discuss some of what ‘faith’ means to some biblical authors; firstly, to say that faith provides ‘substance’, properly understood as ‘assurance’ can be reasonably interpreted to mean ‘faith provides comfort’. Secondly to say that faith provides ‘evidence’ understood as ‘conviction’ seems to suggest that faith provides ‘strength of will’, or ‘character’ in the sense that one would face the challenges of the world, or adversity, or worldly struggles, under the Christian conception – a ‘stiff upper lip’ if you will.
Going further though, the authors explain ‘faith’ in the first sense as a ‘comfort in believing the resurrection, the return of Christ and the glorification of the saints, as true’, where as in the second sense faith provides a ‘strength of will to endure the hope of unseen forgiveness of Christ’s sacrifice and the present intercession of Christ in heaven.’
If my interpretation of the biblical authors above is accurate (and it may well not be), it would seem that the Hebrews passage both describes a personal feeling of assurance in the works of Christ, so recorded in the Bible (his acts) as well as a trusting in the things not seen (Jesus’ works of salvation).
At the very least we see that the above passage supports our earlier contention that there is a lot of language used to describe ‘faith’ that suggests a lack of rational or epistemic justification for belief in God, and His works, ergo, it seems justifiable to proclaim the ‘belief without evidence’ slogan that some atheists do, even if it is a touch simplistic, at least in this case.
Moving on, this isn’t the only passage that talks of faith in the Bible, John 20:29 states:
Jesus said unto him. Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believed. (John 20:29, King James Version, p. 1654)
These isolated passages certainly seem to revel in a lack of epistemic justification for belief, and as Jesus is the authority of the Christian faith, this implies an epistemology Christians should follow. Moreover, this conception of belief without evidence, is consistent with the Hebrews passage.
Having said that though, there are also many passages (Romans 3:18, 5:1, Galatians 2:16, 2:8, 3:8-12, James 2:17, Revelation 2:12 etc) that discuss faith as a verb, as something you do, or hold, which is consistent with another sense of the word ‘faith’ used by those who define it, both in the Bible (Hebrews above) and without (which we will discuss more in a moment). This should give critics of the word ‘faith’ pause, only long enough to investigate what the proponent means, when they use the word.
Moving away from the Bible, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines faith as:
The conviction of the truth of some doctrine which is the result of a voluntary act of will. According to *fideists who happen to be believers in the same doctrine, this act may be meritorious (and a refusal to make it may be a fault or even a *sin); according to others, it may in fact be just as sinful to ride roughshod over the deliverance of reason (itself a divine gift) when that commands us to suspend judgement. (Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 130, 2008)
Let us unpack this definition a little: it seems as if faith in the above sense, is the act of will over reason. Moreover, those who hold to this dogma, also assert that to rely on ‘evidence’ over faith, may in fact be a negative (“sin”)- we might consider this the ‘common view’ of the word ‘faith’ (in the ‘religious faith’ sense), in that it portrays a lack of respect for evidence and epistemic or rational justification – at least by an atheists perception. It is also a view, as we see from above, that is supported, biblically.
For a more in-depth analysis, let us move to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church which gives us far too long a quote to list here, but paraphrased the author, Livingstone, suggests there are 2 ‘distinct senses’ in which the word faith is used, under the Christian conception. (1) The body of the Christian faith is found in the “Creeds, the definitions of Councils, etc., and especially in the Bible.” (p. 213) The teachings of which are said to come from Christ and are to be rejected at your own peril. (Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church, p. 213, 2006)
Under (1) we see that perhaps what is meant by ‘faith’ in the apparent objective sense implied is that the Christian creeds, dogma and tradition is simply labelled as “faith” (this is the second kind of usage of the word ‘faith’, that we talked about above, mentioned in the Bible). This is confusing though, why would a term be given, that certainly implies belief held without appropriate justification, when in fact, all that is simply meant is ‘tradition, creeds and the Bible‘, which is seemingly the justification for the belief system, or worldview known as Christianity? In essence, Christians have used a word that commonly means ‘belief without evidence’ to label their worldview, which they deem to be ‘belief with evidence’. This is intentional obfuscation, or intentional revisionism, I’m not sure which is better. But let us continue with our definitions before we make too loud a pronouncement.
Livingstone continues providing (2), accompanying the ‘objective’ standard for faith given in (1), there is also an apparent ‘subjective’ faith which is the individuals response to the divine itself, “depicted in the NT as involving trust in God rather than intellectual assent.” Livingstone states that according to theologians this acceptance is not a natural act, but rather, something given by, and is dependant solely on, God’s “action in the soul.” Livingstone continues stating that in the Middle Ages the term was slightly re-defined to select between those truths accessible by the human intellect via reason (for example: the existence of God), and those truths that could be understood only by faith alone (for example: the Trinity).
Under (2) we get a more traditional definition of what most of us atheists understand ‘religious faith’ to be, with words and phrases used like ‘trust’, ‘act of will’, ‘those truths that could be understood only by faith alone’ – something like what we saw with the Hebrews, and John passage. It seems the Christian ‘faith’, at least on the subjective level, viz. Livingstone, Hebrews, John 20:29 et al, is based on a series of words and phrases, which override epistemic justification, and rely simply on accepting the word of dogma, irrespective of evidence or rational justification. Which seems to support the contention that, at least in some respects ‘religious faith’, it can be argued, is ‘belief without evidence’, or rather, ‘belief irrespective of (counter) evidence’. After all, why do you need trust, or faith, in a conclusion that you have rational justification for? You merely (tentatively?) accept it, and your acceptance is proportional to the evidence, and changes with the evidence – if you care about what is true, and having good reasons for belief.
Moreover under (2) there is a fine line drawn, that may in fact be outright question begging: according to Livingstone Christianity finds its justification through faith, which also comes from, and relies upon, God. How is this not circular? It amounts to saying: “God exists, and Christianity is true, because God tells me it is so.”
It seems from the 2 senses Livingstone gives above, that (1) implies simply the catalogue of Christian ‘evidence’ for the belief system, which itself, is simply titled ‘faith’ without actually implying what the word is commonly meant to imply (belief without evidence). And under (2) the common view of the word ‘faith’ is given, in that it is an act of will, over the light of reason, a ‘trust’ in the dogma, tradition and creeds provided by the Christian ‘faith’ that is not dependent on reason (re: evidence?), but rather is dependent on God’s grace. Livingtone’s definition provides a conflicting message, on (1) the Christian ‘faith’ seemingly has its evidence in the Bible, yet under (2) the ‘faith’ is defined as trusting in the supernatural works of God. We are left to ask, if (1) does not provide rational justification for (2), then there is seemingly no rational way to accept (2) or (1). From this we can conclude that if the ‘tradition, creeds and the Bible’ is not enough to provide rational justification for the Christian faith, if epistemic leaps are being made, then we might be justified in inferring, yet again, that in some senses the Christian faith is based on ‘belief without rational justification.’
In our next post we will discuss what popular apologists have to say regarding faith.
It seems in the end, based on our very cursory examination of what ‘faith’ means, that the word has 2 meanings, or senses in which it is used. (1) appears to denote a kind of ‘belief without evidence’ in the sense that, it involves a trust, belief, or even hope in a god or god’s works and existence. None of these words inspire us to much confidence that what the authors mean is “epistemically or rational justified true belief’, but we need not make assumptions. The definitions above seem to imply that while there are portions of the Christian ‘faith’ that are accepted based on evidence (natural theology for example) there are aspects that are not (salvation, the Trinity etc), which can allow us to conclude, that any simple rhetoric about ‘belief without evidence’ might need to be unpacked in discussion, before simply being bandied about.
Then there is (2) in which faith is the experience of being a Christian, that the system is simply entitled a ‘faith’ without adhering to what we might naturally think the word means. This isn’t simply a modern delineation either, as we see there is biblical precedent for the definition of ‘faith’ as ‘belief that goes beyond the evidence’. Under (2) faith becomes the traditions, creeds, the Bible and doctrines that make up the Christian faith.
This analysis should give us pause, from making any simple pronouncements about the word ‘faith’ and to get us thinking about the context with which it is used. It should be noted, and possibly stressed, that in our discussion of the word ‘faith’, and deciding whether the ‘belief without evidence’ slogan is fair, that Christians actually do offer a rational defense for their faith, with evidence, argument, and logic – hence why they certainly wouldn’t see their ‘faith’ as being ‘belief without evidence’. In this discussion we are only addressing what is meant by the word ‘faith’, not the arguments and evidence Christians offer. Given time to think about it, however, the fact that Christians do offer argument and evidence, makes the use of the word ‘faith’ even more baffling. Why use a word, that promotes such a negative connotation, to define your belief system, when you believe it to be epistemically and rational justified? Is it simply tradition, and dogma that keeps such an antiquated word going? The problem is, it forces apologists and theologians into such bizarre contortions to attempt to free it from its common usage, that we might wonder why the word isn’t simply dropped altogether.
Blackburn S. (2008). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition). New York. Oxford University Press. P. 130.
Livingstone E.A. (2006) P. 236. Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church (Revised 2nd Edition). New York. Oxford University Press. P. 213.
King James Version. (1988). Thomas Nelson Inc. Pp. 1654, 1930.
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- Fighting The Fight Of Faith (nodogshere.wordpress.com)
- Mormon Dilemma 1 Answered (mormonapologeticstudies.org)
- Christianity promotes Ignorance (new.exchristian.net)
- Heaven Scent: A Fragrance for the Faithful (bellasugar.com)
- Sermon: When Life Goes Pear-Shaped (Habakkuk): Habakkuk’s Prayer (bigcircumstance.com)
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