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What is Christian Faith? (Christian/Seeker View)
In trying to reach consensus on what the biblical definition of what it means for a Christian to have “faith” in God/Jesus, it is important to understand, etymologically, the semantic range and use of this word in its relevant socio-cultural historical context. On that front, we can look at the Christian use of the term by looking at its ancient Hebrew and Greek/Hellenistic usage.
The NT book of Hebrews 11, popularly dubbed the “faith chapter”, gives us several illustrative examples of “faith” being exercised in an OT context, it details that their example is to be informative for Christians and as such it behooves us to understand how the word was used by ancient Hebrews. The Hebrew word for “faith” is emuwnah and its semantic range in the OT include the following; honesty; truth; faithfulness; firmness; official obligation. The first time this word is used in the text is found in Exodus 17:12: “But Moses’ hands became heavy; so, they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady (steadfast)/established/firm/certain/confident until the going down of the sun.”
In the context of OT figures having faith in God, it can more or less be translated as “to remain in one place” (i.e. to show faithfulness to God in their obedient actions towards Him).
In the NT’s case, the Greek word for “faith” is “pistis”. In Greek mythology, the god Pistis was the personification of good faith, trust and reliability. In Christianity, this word is mentioned together with other related aspects like elpis (Hope) and sophrosyne (Prudence). The New Testament concepts of “pistis” require that a person be knowledgeable of the subject matter at issue and thus able to fully assent via obedient actions based on a trust, assurance/confidence and/or hope in God/Jesus , whereas, the pagan Greeks by contrast, took the notion of pistis merely as persuasive discourse that was elliptical and concentrated merely on the “affect and effects” rather than on the representation of the truth.
Summarizing Christian Faith;
Christian faith seems to be multi-faceted in entails that we intellectually assent to the essential doctrines of Christianity proper (Jesus death and Resurrection for our sins, His Divine nature, God exists, etc.), place our confidence or trust in God/Jesus’ character and faithfulness in fulfilling His promises to us for our salvation and commit to God via repenting from our sins and living an obedient Christian life as per James/Hebrews 11.
Now, its important to clarify that one is not saved via the obedient actions themselves, the Bible proves one can be saved via faith and repentance without any obedient actions whatsoever (if someone dies before they can act according to their faith such as the criminal on the cross or Cornelius, etc.) and as such it is the intention to obey that is really key to placing one’s “active faith” in God and His example of goodness for our lives not the actions themselves. Christians must be committed and steadfast in their assurance and trust that God will deliver on His promise of redemption and salvation that they hope for.
Thus, faith involves trust/confidence in both a person/s (God/Jesus) and in the attendant intellectual propositions that make up Christianity proper as the basis for trusting God/Jesus. However, now we come to the question of doubts in relation to Christian faith; can one biblically be said to place confidence/trust in God/Jesus and remain steadfast/faithful to Him despite the presence of doubts. The biblical answer is absolutely yes, David himself mentions the story whereby the man says “Lord I believe, now help me with my unbelief/doubts”. We don’t know exactly what this person’s unbelief entailed, he obviously trusted or had confidence that Jesus could heal his child and thus perhaps he had some doubts as to Jesus’ overall mission or something but regardless was able to place his faith in Jesus that he was of God and act accordingly whereby the H.S. would then eventually be able to take over and correct his defunct spirit to overcome such doubts in time. I myself pray this prayer to this day in full assurance and trust that God will help me overcome my doubts as He has given me sufficient reason to trust that He is who He says He is and will fulfill what He promises to do.
Claims, Statements of Belief and/or Presuppositions;
CLAIMS: That the word “faith” in a Christian context can be defined minimally, to include the following aspects; i) a trust/assurance (to a varying yet sufficient degree) in God/Jesus’ overall goodness and character- that He will fulfill my hope for salvation, ii) an intellectual assent (to varying yet sufficient degrees) to the essential doctrines of Christianity proper, and iii) a commitment/intention to actively obey God accordingly in trust that by doing so, I am accomplishing what is good for me and others.
STATEMENT OF BELIEF/OPINION: That any provable aspects or features of what it means to have a biblical Christian faith will be complementary and non-contradictory in nature. Thus, the word “faith” in the Protestant Bible and Christianity proper is multi-faceted but ultimately harmonious.
PRESUPPOSITIONS (OUTSIDE THE SCOPE OF DISCUSSION/DEBATE IN THIS SHOW): That the Protestant Bible is in fact divine revelation from God (i.e. the Christian God) and therefore, biblical teachings on what “faith” entails are both informative and authoritative for Christians.
Recommended Sources (for further study):
https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/HebrewRoots/Theoriginal_foundation/Faith OR https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g4102 AND https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/pistis.html (NASB ONE) AND https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pistis . https://arielshanelle.com/word-faith-hebrew-and-greek/. https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-faith.html .
Also, Marvin gave this excellent write up by JP Moreland on what it means to have Christian faith = http://www.jpmoreland.com/books/confident-faith/ .
Finally, see the Unbelievable? Discussion called “Is faith about belief or trust? And why does it matter? Travis Dickinson vs Brian Blais” that served as the inspiration for this show on S&S here = https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Is-faith-about-belief-or-trust-And-why-does-it-matter-Travis-Dickinson-vs-Brian-Blais-Ben-Jacobs-of-Genexis .
What is faith? (Skeptic View)
What is faith? If you think you know, you are probably wrong. At the very least, you stand at odds with a large group of people who feel they have the right to define the concept. It has become a hot button issue that demands resolution. It is a problem for the Christian whatever the definition because no two Christians can seem to agree on what it is. When everyone has their own definition, then there is no definition and the word becomes meaningless.
However, faith cannot be meaningless. It is the bedrock of the Christian project. Without faith, it is impossible to please god. You know what happens to people who don’t please god. So I believe it is vital for Christians to come to the table and figure it out.
The fact that Christians can’t seem to agree on a definition makes conversations between skeptics and seekers all the more awkward. In fact, such conversations are doomed to fail. Many skeptics are former Christians. So they are just as entitled to define the word as any Christian. Therefore, before we launch into season 2, Dale and I will try to find common ground for a working definition of faith.
Mystic faith is the idea of faith as an objective substance to be possessed. When people speak of faith as a gift of god, they are using it in this way. Faith is not as much confidence in something. Rather, it is the something. We are given a measure of faith. And we can pray for more of it if ours gets depleted. But it is not something we generate from within ourselves. It is something that comes from an external source and infused directly into our spirit. It is supernatural in origin, not mundane.
This is faith as in simple confidence in evidence. It comes from within and is to only be in proportion with the evidence. It is the kind of faith a scientist is said to have in her instruments after they have been checked and verified. It stands at odds with mystical faith. There is nothing mystical about confidence. It is also not gift-worthy. It cannot be gained by prayer unless god is literally manipulating our thoughts. Faith is a simple product of how one feels about a given set of evidences. They are either convinced or they aren’t.
Fideism is the kind of faith that stands at odds with reason, and is the kind most Christians seem to support by their usage of the word. Plantinga partially described it this way:
Ø The fideist seeks truth, above all: and affirms that reason cannot achieve certain kinds of truth, which must instead be accepted only by faith.
This is aligned with 1 Cor. 2:14 which says:
Ø 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.
Paul seems to be acknowledging that mere reason renders spiritual matters as foolishness. One needs some other component besides reason to achieve appreciation of spiritual things. Jesus told Thomas to stop doubting and believe. Doubt and skepticism are the natural results of reason applied to insufficient or unconvincing evidence. Thomas wouldn’t have doubted had the evidence been convincing. Jesus wanted him to go beyond reason to see the greater truth, a thing which can only be done by faith.
The last type of faith I want to explore is active faith. This is defined by what we do rather than by how we feel. One can have very little confidence in a thing and still act on it. No one trusts that they will win the lottery. But they buy a ticket anyway. They apportion varying levels of risk to potential rewards. Justin champions this brand of faith.
However, active faith stands at odds with other types of faith. Again, the key difference is that active faith is completely divorced from internal confidence. And it cannot be augmented from an external source. It is a measure of what you do and not what you are convinced to be true. Many people act out of fear or desperation rather than confidence in a positive result.
Challenges to Defining Faith
It is not a simple matter of just picking one of these definitions. Christians tend to take a little from column A and a little from column B. Within the same sentence, they could be using more than one definition. This is why I am in favor of avoiding the word and using a different word which better expresses what one means. Instead of faith, use trust when what you mean is trust. I believe there are reasons Christians refuse to do this.
One of the common usages of faith is describing one’s quantity of it at any given time. They will say their faith is strong, or that it is weak. It all depends on their mood. This usage of faith stands at odds with evidential faith because that should not shift based on mood. I do not wake up each morning with different attitudes about gravity. The evidence for it today is just as strong as it was yesterday. So my confidence in it does not shift, even after a fall.
The only time one’s confidence in evidence should shift is if the evidence changes, or they have gained new reasons to trust or distrust it. If your mood can radically shift about a set of evidences, then the evidence was not very good to begin with. It is a sign that your evidence is weak because it is not convincing. You are convinced one moment, and unconvinced when your mood darkens. That does not make sense.
However, it does make sense of mystic and fideist faiths. These are faiths that either depend on an outside source providing quantities of substance that can be at varying levels throughout the day, or an emotional commitment to something that is not based entirely on reason. It makes sense that faith can shift radically under those definitions.
When Jesus says it only takes a little faith to achieve miracles, he doesn’t seem to be talking about an evidentialist faith. Having confidence in evidence does not produce miracles. Peter walked on water because he acted even when he doubted. This seems to support the mystic type of faith. The same goes for the man who said he had faith, but asked Jesus to heal his lack of belief. He was someone trying to fight against reason to produce a mystic or Fideist faith.
Conclusion: Killing Faith
As I said before, I believe faith is a word that has become toxic to Christians. It is meaningless because it has so many meanings. One person can use it in different ways in the same sentence. There are more ways to use it than what I have mentioned. The only solution is to kill the word and use other words that are more descriptive of what we really mean.
I don’t believe Christians will ever do this because the word does have religious and mystical meaning that even evidentialists don’t want to give up. They pretend the word is mundane while smuggling spiritual cocaine inside. As long as that is the case, we can never have fruitful conversations. I call for Christians to open their baggage and declare their faith definitions up front. Stick to one definition, or stop using it altogether. Can we find agreement on the word? I doubt it. But it is worth a try.
And that’s the view from the skeptic.