Faith as Belief Without Understanding
It should not be a surprise that presuppositional apologists tend to avoid the issue of faith in their skirmishes with Christianity’s critics. When it does come up in debate, it is typically glossed over as casually as if it were no more than a preposition. It is as if the believer expects everyone to “just know” what is meant by the word. Why elaborate on something everyone “just knows” already? However, the reason why presuppositionalists are happy not to elaborate on the issue of faith is that it is riddled with so much confusion and conflict, and unlocking this confusion and conflict is sure to give away the game. Indeed, there are few things in Christianity that are riddled with more lack of clarity than the meaning and role of faith (those which are even more confused would be the issues of salvation, justification, atonement, etc.). Some apologists often like to blame non-believers for this confusion, treating them like spoilsports who stubbornly refuse to just go along with the scheme by asking troublesome questions. But occasionally an apologist will acknowledge that believers themselves are often responsible for the persisting and embarrassing quagmire arising from the bible’s total and unflinching embrace of faith. But even those occasional few are powerless to remedy the situation.
Both as a former Christian and now as a critic of Christianity, my long-held impression is that Christians themselves are confused about the nature and function of faith, given their own statements as an indication of their level of understanding. There are two basic reasons for this confusion.
One is that the bible is painfully ambiguous in its use of the word 'faith'. It uses ‘faith’ in a wide variety of contexts with no consistent meaning. Even when we get to the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, which is often cited as providing an authoritative definition of ‘faith’, it gives us confusion or worse. It defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (v. 1). This definition seems to have been designed to play a trick on the mind of the eager believer. Hoping for something does not produce assurance. I could hope for a million dollars, but there’s no assurance in this of receiving it. Needless to say, my hoping does not assure its own fulfillment. Similarly, “things not seen” does not give a man conviction. Objectively speaking, I do not “see” myself breathing water one day if I should happen to drive my car into the frigid waters of the Columbia River, but imagining (“seeing the unseen”) that I will breathe water does not give me the conviction that I will have this ability should my survival require it. O me of little faith? Elsewhere the word faith seems deliberately vague and tends to have a new meaning with each author, sometimes signifying belief (cf, Mt. 8:5-10, Rom. 4:5), sometimes implying the means by which belief or knowledge is acquired (cf. I Cor. 2:5f; II Cor. 5:7), sometimes meaning a mental power to alter a present state of affairs (cf. Mt. 15:22-28; 17:20, etc.), sometimes referring to an act of will (cf. Heb. 11), sometimes suggesting a mystical faculty by which one allegedly receives revelatory transmissions from supernatural sources (cf. Rom. 1:17, 10:6). Still other passages, such as those telling stories of miracle cures of blindness, palsy or other ailments, give the impression that believing something (e.g., “having faith”) will make it so. For instance, apparently if I believe (or "have faith") that my nearsightedness will be corrected, it should be corrected. If it is not corrected, it must be due to my not believing strongly enough – i.e., having too little faith. But when Christian believers themselves were invited to pray for this correction, no correction came about. Perhaps they did not pray, or perhaps they did not have sufficient faith. Or, it could be that their teaching is simply wrong. At any rate, with such a wide variety of meanings, given its varying use, it is no wonder that Christians would be confused by what faith is supposed to really mean.
The other reason for their confusion is that Christians are not honest to themselves about the nature of their beliefs and the means by which those beliefs are accepted as secured truths. Indeed, it is this same dishonesty which conflicted the authors of the bible and led to their use of the term as we find it in their stories and teachings. They are not honest about their beliefs because they are not honest about reality. At the most fundamental level of knowledge they want to believe that reality conforms to the consciousness of a being they can only imagine, which constitutes a double error. First they confuse their imagination with reality by supposing that what they imagine is actually real, and second they assume the metaphysical primacy of consciousness by granting to the being they imagine conscious power over the universe. Believers as well as non-believers can sense this dishonesty, but few acknowledge it, and even fewer are willing to put their finger on it. The pathological dishonesty comes in the form of trying to defend and propagate such a view. This is where the trickery of theological casuistry, which I will briefly survey below, comes in. Judging by what Christian theologians, apologists and believers say about faith, one can easily get the impression that faith is a very complicated matter. The truth of the matter, however, is not at all so complicated. In fact, all the confusion that Christians have built up around the word faith over the decades and centuries is intended to hide a truth that is too uncomfortable for them to bear.
Now it must be borne in mind that faith is always viewed positively in the bible, for it never seems to allow faith to be the instrument of the damned. The bible’s fantastical stories and teachings associate faith with "the righteousness" of the Christian god (cf. Rom. 3:22, 4:5, 13, Phil. 3:9), which is seen to be the source of all virtue, while the damned are associated with deceit and deception. So we should expect Christians to defend the doctrine of faith, regardless of how confused and complicated the bible's and their statements may be, for this is a major pillar in their worldview and thus integral to the confessional investment that they are determined to protect at all costs. They have to defend it, because the bible affirms it. I would not be surprised if a lot of apologists would secretly prefer that the bible not be filled with so many mentions of faith, for it makes their task not only insurmountably difficult, but in fact quite embarrassing to adult thinkers.
In seeking the definition of faith that is assumed by presuppositional apologetics, I turned to Greg Bahnsen’s mammoth Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis. There, I thought, I would find the definitive presuppositionalist ruling on the matter. I flipped to the index, and under the heading “faith” I found a reference to its “definition” on page 115, footnote 83. When I saw this, my hopes were stoked, and I thought “Aha! Maybe Bahnsen does give a definition of ‘faith’ in his master tome!” I quickly turned to page 115 and read the following statement under note 83:
Notice here how all claims about ‘faith’ are taken as referring to the same kind of thing, namely, adopting an outlook that is mysterious, unreasoned, or unprovable. Different people do not necessarily mean the same thing by ‘faith’ any more than they do by ‘love’.
Even John Frame, in his A Van Til Glossary, does not give an entry for defining ‘faith’. When faith appears, it is in the definition of a term denoting a view that presuppositionalists verbally reject, which is fideism, the “belief that God is known by faith and not by reason.” Of course, the glossary does not include a definition of ‘reason’ either, and neither does the bible, so we may never know what Christians mean when they use the word ‘reason’. By not offering definitions of their key terms, Christian apologists can always respond to their critics by saying "that's not what we mean." But what they do mean always remains shrouded in mystery. One can be forgiven for getting the impression that they don't know themselves what they mean.
Let’s have a look at some other statements by Bahnsen to see just what a confused mess presuppositionalists are standing in. Remember, my task here is to find out just what Bahnsen thinks faith is, what its role might be, how it works in the believer’s epistemology, and what inferences can be drawn from what is stated.
For Bahnsen, faith is essentially just another word for belief. He writes:
To ‘have faith’ that something is true (e.g., that Elvis is alive and residing in Idaho) is the same as ‘believing’ that the claim in question is true; these are different semantic ways of expressing the same thing. Accordingly, when a person says he ‘believes’ something ‘simply on faith’ (without specifying further), he has merely told us that ‘he believes because he believes’. (Always Ready, p. 202n.1)
Faith is the precondition of a proper understanding... faith precedes knowledgeable understanding. (Ibid., p. 88)
Believing a claim before understanding it (and thus before knowing whether or not it is true) is the basic model of conversion: get the new convert to make a belief commitment before he understands everything. Then slowly unravel the “mysteries” in small doses, so that he doesn’t question them or, worse, exit the front doors of the church in an act of self-preservation.
Christians do not want to admit that they have no understanding, they simply want to make their faith a fundamental requirement to understanding. While faith is belief without understanding, the “understanding” comes later, after the commitment has been cinched. Why believe it? Well, not because it is thought to be true, but because of fear, specifically the fear of any consequences which might occur if it is not believed. John 4:18 explains the motivation for believing without knowledgeable understanding:
He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
Notice how Bahnsen’s interpretation of Proverbs 1:7 corroborates my analysis. He writes:
"The beginning (i.e., the first and controlling principle) of knowledge is the fear (or reverent submission) of the Lord" (Prov. 1:7). (Always Ready, p. 87)
Frame makes this statement when trying to answer the question “How did Abraham come to know that the voice calling him to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22:1-18; cf. Heb. 11:17-19; James 2:21-24) was the voice of God?” Frame’s own ignorance of how one can know that the voice he might hear in his head are “the voice of God” should not surprise us. But it is not an accident when Bahnsen tells us “There can be no doubt that Scripture sets forth Abraham to us as the paradigm of faith.” (Always Ready, p. 91) Even though the Old Testament story in Genesis 22 of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac nowhere chalks up Abraham's actions to faith, Abraham is seen in the New Testament as the exemplary model of faith, but how did he know that the voice in his head commanding him to sacrifice his own son was “the voice of God”? Who knows! The underlying message here is: it doesn’t matter how one knows (i.e., epistemology is for the dogs), what matters is that he believes. Knowledge and faith are thus contrary vehicles of cognition.
Now of course, all this explains why thinkers throughout history have considered faith to be opposed to reason, for reason does not threaten individuals to accept its conclusions on the basis of fear. Reason enables a thinker to think for himself, allowing him to draw his own conclusions and form his own judgments independent of any threats that others might pronounce against him. Of course, this independence of one’s mental self-conduct is condemned by presuppositionalism as “autonomous thinking,” and rightly so given what’s at stake for Christianity: intellectual liberty will only break the spell of god-belief if allowed to flourish. Theologians and apologists, however, look for ways to conceal their animosity for intellectual liberty while posing as the mind's defenders.
But is Bahnsen himself consistent with his own conception of faith as a precondition for knowledgeable understanding? Other statements from the same book indicate that even he was prone to forgetfulness when it comes to keeping the party line straight. The issue which throws him is, ironically, the hierarchical nature of knowledge itself, for it is here where we find Bahnsen’s constant breaching. I say “ironically” because the alleged thrust of “presuppositionalism” is to peer below the level of casual assumptions one takes for granted, to dig into the soil of those “presuppositions” which underlie beliefs resting at the surface of one’s worldview. When presuppositionalists themselves are so clumsy with the knowledge hierarchy, it can only indicate that something is wrong.
Consider the following statement by Bahnsen:
As J. Gresham Machen boldly put the matter in his book, What is Faith?, “we believe that Christianity flourishes not in the darkness, but in the light.” Machen wrote that “one of the means which the Spirit will use” to bring a revival of the Christian religion “is an awakening of the intellect.” He fervently resisted “the false and disastrous opposition which has been set up between knowledge and faith,” arguing that “at no point is faith independent of the knowledge upon which it is logically based. (Always Ready, p. 195)
Bahnsen devotes a whole chapter in his book Always Ready to discussing “The Problem of Faith” (pp. 193-203). But it is most unhelpful. In it Bahnsen seeks to challenge the well-warranted suspicion that faith and reason are in conflict, but he fails completely in defending the claim that "the content of our faith is what any reasonable man should endorse" because accepting that content on the basis of faith, by his own admissions, can only mean that he is in no position to even know whether what he accepts is fact or fiction, or "completely accords with logic," or that "without the Christian worldview 'reason' itself becomes arbitrary or meaningless - becomes unintelligible" (p. 196). Christianity's own commitment to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics guarantees that Bahnsen's view is false. Moreover, Bahnsen does not even give a clear indication of what faith is, other than that it is merely another word for belief. So why do we need two words to mean the same thing? Earlier in his book, as pointed out above, he claims that “faith is the precondition to a proper understanding” and that it “precedes knowledgeable understanding” (p. 88), but neither there or in the present chapter does he explain why this is the case, nor what exactly faith is. Is he merely saying that belief is a precondition to understanding? If so, why doesn't he just say that?
There are strong, repeated indications that the word 'faith' is used as a disguise for relying on one's imagination instead of reason to justify his claims and beliefs. It is clear enough from examples in the bible, such as when Peter learns that he can walk on water by having sufficient faith (cf. Mt. 14:26-31; this pericope is obviously one of Matthew's elaborations on the more primitive model found in Mark 6), that imagination is involved in faith. Peter, seeing Jesus walk on the water, had to imagine himself doing the same thing. And reality obeyed accordingly, so long as he kept up the imagination in his mind, i.e., so long as he had "faith."
Bahnsen unwittingly corroborates this point when he writes:
Faith does not rely upon man’s autonomous thinking and what it “sees” but rather begins with a presuppositional conviction about the veracity of God’s word. That which is not seen in human ability is seen by faith which submits to the Lord’s self-attesting word (Heb. 11:27).
Faith, then, is code for granting belief the power of altering the believer and/or the believed. Since "autonomous thinking" - i.e., relying on one's own perception and reasoning to identify reality according to facts gathered from the objects of perception and draw inferences about what is real in the world on the basis of objective inputs - is to be regarded as "foolishness" (cf. Bahnsen, Always Ready, pp. 55-57 et al.), an alternative approach is called for. In place of objective inputs gathered from the world around us by means of sense perception, faith lets the imagination loose on one's cognition, supplanting facts with fictions wherever it sees fit. If the facts that "autonomous thinking" discovers do not fit the religious doctrine, well, to hell with facts! Faith sees to it that facts need not get in the way of belief. On the Christian view, faith has the power to turn everything around. Simply by believing a prescribed set of claims, one can be cured of all kinds of ailments, both physical and moral, whether it is drug addiction, wife-beating, brain tumors, incontinence or irregularity. Just believe, and everything will be alright, is the lesson we are to learn from Christianity.
Just believe - or "just have faith" - and you're automatically included in the league of the just, just like that. It doesn't matter what you've done or the damage you may have caused others. You can be "justified" simply by signing on with the bandwagon of faith. That's an irresistible incentive to "believe" for those who seek the unearned in redemption.
Rom. 3:22: “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference.”
Rom. 4:5: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
Now consider: if one wanted to claim that the unreal is real, and he was called to explain (cf. “account for”) how he knows it, what answer could he give which both conceals and protects his deception? He would not come out and admit that his claims are not true, for he wants others to believe what he claims. To the extent that he would identify his means of knowledge, he would also have to conceal the fact that he was trying to evade reality. And since there is no means to identify other than his imagination and desire to deceive, his answer will need to appeal to something other than reason, maybe even come up with ways of discounting reason, such that his audience is discouraged from using reason as a means of evaluating his claims. A lie needs an additional lie to support it, so he makes up a fictitious means of knowledge by claiming to have received this knowledge from an unreal source, stamped with the guarantee of that unreal source’s alleged authority. Christianity provides a blueprint for just this kind of intellectual fraud.
Faith-talk, then, signals the call to retreat into the imagination of god-belief, and along with this a long tradition of deceit. It is when one insists on taking an objective approach that one finds himself on the wrong side of faith. See for instance the following passage in Romans 9:31-33:
But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; as it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.
by Dawson Bethrick