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Is faith blind?

Guide dog 6 400pxWhat is faith? Is it blind, as some critics in popular culture claim, or does it involve our intellect and rationality? Should we switch off our brains at the door when we go to church? Or should we be thoughtful in our beliefs?  Do we have good justifications and reasons for our faith? Or, do we just blindly jump in?

People say that faith is blind because they think that there is and can be no good reasons or justifications for Christian faith.

Atheists

To see how atheists typically characterise faith, let’s look at some representative quotes:
– “Faith means not wanting to know what is true” (Nietzsche).
– “Faith is nothing more than the licence religious people give each other to keep believing when reasons fail” (Sam Harris).
– “Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved” (Tim Minchin).
– “Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason” (Christopher Hitchens).

In all these examples it is clear how they view faith, it refers to how someone forms and holds their beliefs and that it is totally divorced from all reason, evidence and justification. But this description does not seem consistent with how the Bible characterizes faith or how Christians have historically viewed faith.

Biblical faith

Parent child 2 400pxThe Greek word used in the Bible for faith is pistis. This word is most regularly translated as faith, but on occasion as believe or assurance. It comes from the root word pethio meaning “to convince” or “persuade”. Pistis was used in the ancient world by both Christians and non-Christians to describe confidence in something that was persuasive or trustworthy. The Latin rendering of pistis is “fiducia”, from which we get our word faith. So faith has traditionally been understood as trust in something which is persuasive and trustworthy. Faith is equivalent to trust, they are synonyms. For example, children trust (have faith) in parents and the vision impaired trust (have faith) in guide dogs.

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer held that faith has three components.

First, there is notitia, or understanding. That is, a person must understand what it is they are claiming to believe. If you don’t know or understand what the core truths of the gospel are then there is no possible way you could meaningfully believe in them (have faith in them).

Second, there is assensus, or intellectual agreement. This means finding something rationally compelling and agreeing with it. A person must intellectually accept the things they say they believe – otherwise they can hardly say they believe them, can they? So, a person must not only understand the truths of the gospel but also agree with them. Many people understand the gospel but reject it anyway. Jesus said that such “people loved darkness instead of light” (Jn. 3:19NIV).

Finally, there is fiducia, or trust. This is the root of the word faith. Saving faith involves not merely understanding and having an intellectual agreement with some list of doctrines, but a whole-hearted commitment and trust in the God they are about. Remember, even the demons believe that there is one God, but they don’t trust in God (Jas. 2:19).

To a Christian, faith is not the mindless, blind leap it is often mischaracterized as. It is the trust we put in a God and a gospel that we have thought about carefully and have found to be convincing and trustworthy.

Charles Blondin 1 400pxA popular illustration has been that of a famous tightrope walker by the name of Charles Blondin. In1859 he tightrope walked across Niagara Falls repeatedly, even doing a summersault, with a wheelbarrow, on stilts and blindfolded. Then he asked if someone would hop on his back and be carried as he walked across the falls. Most turned down the offer. They understood what he was asking of them (they had the notitia), they all emphatically agreed that he could achieve the feat (they gave their assensus) but most were unwilling to put their trust (their fiducia) in his skills. Practically speaking, their belief had as much influence on their behaviour as unbelief would have. However, one man did have faith (fiducia) in Blondin’s skills and he was successfully carried across Niagara Falls.

What does this faith look like in the Bible? In the case of Abraham, he saw the faithfulness of God, who gave him Isaac when “his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead” (Rom. 4:19). He trusted God’s commands and promises. And when the Israelites saw God’s power in Egypt, they put their trust in Him to be led out of Egypt (Ex. 14:31).

Or in the New Testament, there was the woman who suffered constant bleeding who trusted Jesus could heal her after she had seen all that Jesus could do (Mt. 9: 18-26). And the Centurion who had heard of Jesus’ power and trusted that He could heal his servant remotely by a simple command (Lk. 7: 1-10). The men who lowered their paralytic friend through the roof, believed that Jesus could heal their friend if only they could get their friend to Him (Mk. 2:1-12). And Thomas wouldn’t believe in Christ’s resurrection until he saw and touched Jesus’ wounds. He received that evidence, found it convincing and declared “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28). Thomas put his full trust in Jesus, going so far as to die for his faith in Christ rather than recanting.

So biblical faith isn’t a blind hope, or a surrender of reason. But it is always based on knowledge of God’s nature and character, His promises in the Scriptures, and what He has done.

Knowing and showing that Christianity is true

When sceptics say, “faith is blind”, they either ignore or are unaware of the intellectual foundation of faith. So what is that intellectual basis? How do we know Christianity is true?  How we can know that the Christian message is true? There are two ways we can know that the Christian Gospel is true.

The first is internal, it is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit – a direct, personal self-authenticating experience that is truthful (or genuine) and unmistakable. The second comes from persuasive arguments for Christian truth claims, including arguments for the existence of God, evidence for the historicity of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the reliability of the Bible.

These have different roles in knowing Christianity is true and showing that it is true. The inner witness of the Holy Spirit helps us to know that Christianity is true, and arguments and evidence show us that Christianity is true.

Inner witness of the Holy Spirit

We can know Christianity is true because of our direct self-authenticating experience of God’s Holy Spirit within us. A person who directly experiences the witness of the Holy Spirit doesn’t just have a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth; like a “warm fuzzy feeling” about what we would like to be true. The inner witness of the Holy Spirit is a direct experience of God that gives us objective knowledge of the truth of Christianity, without the need for any additional arguments or proofs to authenticate it. This kind of direct knowledge is like the way we directly experience our own existence. We don’t need to be given any evidence or proofs that we exist. We know it directly from our own experience. In a similar way, we know that things beyond ourselves exist, things in the world around us. And again, we don’t need special arguments or proofs to convince us that we experience the world around us. We know it directly from our experiences. We shouldn’t press these analogies too far, but they give a good illustration of how the inner witness of the Holy Spirit gives us a similar sort of experiential knowledge of God.

Paul describes the way the Holy Spirit works within us, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. . . . Because you are His sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal. 3:26; 4:6).

By God’s Spirit we directly know that we are children of God, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Rom. 8:15–16).

When Paul describes the result of the Holy Spirit’s witness, he uses the term plerophoria which means complete confidence, full assurance. He means to indicate that the believer has knowledge of the truth by the Spirit’s work. “Because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction (plerophoria)” (1 Th. 1:5).

And Jesus said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (Jn. 14:26). The Holy Spirit teaches us the things we need to know in order to know Christianity is true.

And John echos Jesus’ teaching, “But you have an anointing from the Holy One [the Holy Spirit], and all of you know the truth . . . the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his [the Holy Spirit’s] anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him” (1 Jn. 2:20, 27).

Paul also said, “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words” (1 Cor. 2: 10-13).

So the inner witness of the Holy Spirit enables us to know certain truths of the Christian gospel, such as “God exists,” “We were condemned by God”, “We are now reconciled to God”, “Christ lives in us”, and “we are children of God”.

According to the Bible, The Holy Spirit also has a special role for the non-Christian. Jesus said, “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world [Satan] now stands condemned” (Jn. 16:7–11).

The Holy Spirit convicts the unbeliever of their sin, of God’s righteousness, and of their condemnation before God. By the inner witness of the Holy Spirit a non-Christian can know such truths as “God exists,” and “I am guilty before God”. Paul even tells us that without the inner witness of the Holy Spirit no one would ever become a Christian, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands [about God]; there is no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10–11). And, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:14). “The mind governed by the flesh [instead of the Holy Spirit] is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Rom. 8:7). As Jesus said, people love darkness rather than light.

So the self-authenticating inner witness of the Holy Spirit gives both the Christian and the non-Christian direct knowledge of core truths of the Christian message – independent of arguments and evidence. But what about arguments and evidence?

Arguments and evidence

Some people say we should never seek to defend the faith. That nobody comes to Christ through arguments and evidence. Just preach the gospel and let the Holy Spirit work! But this attitude is dangerous – it’s unbalanced and unscriptural. Instead Scripture commands us to be prepared to give such a defence to an unbeliever, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt. 3:15).

We should appeal to the head as well as to the heart. For the Christian, arguments and evidence give extra assurance – we have double the reason for our faith. This adds to the confidence we already have from the Holy Spirit’s witness. The rational foundation for our faith can protect us in times of hardship or doubt. For the unbeliever, these arguments can be both one of the means through which the Holy Spirit works to bring them to Christ and they can also help predispose an unbeliever to respond to the drawing of the Holy Spirit when they hear the gospel. This is where rational arguments are crucial in showing Christianity is true.

So what arguments and evidence might we use? There are many of them and some are outlined below.

Existence of God

Firstly, there are general arguments for the existence of God. These arguments don’t demonstrate that Christianity, specifically, is true. They show that belief in a supreme God and Creator is more rational for a person to believe than Atheism. These arguments include the following.

The Kalam cosmological argument

  1. All things that begin to exist have a cause of their existence.
  2. The universe began to exist.

Conclusion: The Universe has a cause of its existence.

You might wonder, where is God in this? But when you unpack what this cause must have been like, it must be outside time and space, be immaterial, extremely powerful, and most likely be a personal being. And this is a lot like the God of the Bible.

The Leibnizian cosmological argument

  1. Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.

Conclusion 1: the universe has an explanation of its existence.
Conclusion 2: the explanation of the existence of the universe is God (from 2, and Conclusion 1).

The teleological (“Fine-Tuning”) cosmological argument

  1. The universe is finely tuned to make life physically possible.
  2. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.
  3. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.

Conclusion: The fine tuning it is due to design. And the designer is lot like God.

These first three arguments reflect the thoughts of David in Psalm 19 and Paul’s words in Romans 1. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4).

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

The moral argument

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values (right and wrong) and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

Conclusion: God exists.

This helps us see God’s moral nature. God is the foundation of moral values. Paul reflects the basic premise of the moral argument in Romans 2 when he says that the Gentiles who didn’t have the law of Moses, “are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them” (Rom. 2:14-15). The moral law is clearly perceived by all people.

There is an important misconception that often gets attached to the moral argument; That a person can only do morally good things if they believe in God. The moral argument does not say that a person must believe in God to be able to do morally good deeds, Indeed the verse just quoted from Romans even says this. What the argument says is that if any act is truly good or bad, it is because God exists and is the foundation of moral goodness. A non-believer can still do good things.

The ontological argument

  1. It is possible that a maximally great being (God) exists.
  2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
  3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
  4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
  5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

Conclusion: a maximally great being (God) exists.

Here, “maximally great being” means the best possible being (person) that could ever be described. This is the kind of being that has all the qualities that make a being great and excellent, and it has those qualities to the fullest possible extent. These would be qualities like moral goodness, power, knowledge, wisdom, and self-sufficiency. These are all the qualities typically associated with being God. The term “maximally great being” is used in the argument to avoid any misunderstandings that might occur because people often have their own assumptions or ideas about God based on past experiences. The term is used to avoid all that baggage people might attach to the word God.

This is a rather abstract argument to get your head around at first, but what it shows is that if it is even logically possible that God exists, then He exists necessarily, and it would be impossible that He doesn’t exist. In order to defeat this argument and show that God does not exist, the critic of the argument would have to show that it is logically impossible for God to exist – that there is not even the slightest possibility that He exists. The most controversial premise in this argument for philosophers who specialise in modal logic is premise 1. All the other premises (2-5) are just conclusions drawn from premise 1 and the rules of modal logic.

These arguments give a very strong cumulative case for the existence of God. Something that you might notice about these arguments is that there are premises in all of them that some people might not accept; either because they don’t want to accept the conclusion of the argument, or because they haven’t really heard or considered any evidence that might make them accept the premises. What we would do when sharing these arguments with people is also share the evidence that makes us believe the premises in them are true; and therefore, that the argument is true.

To these arguments about God’s existence we can add arguments for the truth of Christianity in particular.

Historicity of Jesus’ death and resurrection

Perhaps the most important argument we could add would be the argument for the historicity of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The minimal facts that we can bring to this argument, facts that are agreed upon by almost universally amongst historians (including Atheists, Jews and Muslims) who have seriously studied the historical Jesus are:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. That His tomb was found.
3.. That His disciples sincerely believed that they meet with the bodily resurrected Jesus and were transformed into bold proclaimers of His resurrection; facing death rather than recanting on that belief.

Establishing these historical facts does not require the assumption that the Bible is perfectly infallible or perfectly preserved, so the critic can’t dismiss them using that retort. Further, all of them enjoy evidence in addition to that in the Bible text. The best explanation that can account for all three facts simultaneously is that Jesus did indeed die and rise again. All other explanations fail to account for all three facts, and the only real reason to prefer these explanations is an a priori exclusion of a miracle as an explanation – that is deciding that a miracle is impossible before even looking at any of the evidence. But indeed the Christian gospel is based upon actual historical events witnessed and recorded for us in the Bible. As Peter wrote, “we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pt. 1:16). The authors saw what happened and faithfully wrote down what they saw because it was such an important thing to share.

Reliability of the Bible

Furthermore, we can add the overwhelming evidence we have for the reliability of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. For example:
– Its books were written very close to the events they record (some places within two years of the resurrection and all within the lifetime of the disciples).
– They are not corrupted by legendary developments.
– They have been extremely well preserved and transmitted.

These arguments and evidence are just some of the ways we can go about showing that Christianity is true and that we have a rational foundation for our faith. They also give us the comfort of adding to our knowledge that Christianity is true which comes primarily by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.

Not by sight

The final appeal the skeptic might make to accuse of following our faith blindly comes from the Bible itself. For example, “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). And, “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1). This seems to be blind faith.

However, in both these verses, the context is our eagerly awaiting our future life with Christ, given that we know with such certainty (plerophoria) of the resurrection of Christ. And how good it is that the future we are faithfully waiting for is not based on “blind faith” but is a future we trust in with a solid, rational foundation.

Lessons for us

Now we have looked at what faith is and seen that it is not blind, how does this apply to our day-to-day lives?

Firstly, sometimes we have doubts. Or sometimes we may find it hard to answer every question someone critical of Christianity asks of us. But we don’t need to let these things trouble us, because our faith is supported by good reasons and evidence. So, as Paul writes: “thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15: 57-58). And Peter said, “we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pt. 1:16).

Secondly, often in life we, or the people we love, encounter tough times. Bad things happen. We suffer. We struggle. And very often we don’t clearly know why or what the purpose is. But we can trust God through this. We know that our faith is based on something that is sure and we have God’s promise that, “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

Because our faith is not blind and we have good reasons to be confident in what we believe, we can confidently take God at His word. We can look forward to what is coming, “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). And, we can trust that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

And thirdly, sometimes when a person hears the gospel message, the only thing keeping them from accepted it is the fear that they are making a blind leap into something that they don’t really know if they can trust. And by being able to show that our faith has a strong firm rational foundation, we can show them it’s not a blind leap into the dark, but a short step onto more firm ground. And that can lead them to accept the gospel.

Let’s be thankful that our faith is not blind.

Acknowledgement

This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr Tom Murphy (a chemist) titled, “Is faith blind?”.

Written, November 2018