Faith and Knowledge
“As indicated earlier, there is not enough evidence anywhere to absolutely prove God, but there is adequate evidence to justify the assumption or the faith that God exists” (Thomas, 1965, p. 263, emp. in orig.).
“Now we believe, not because of thy speaking: for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
It is evident that the two above statements stand in stark contradistinction to one another. The first statement suggests that people may hold to the assumption that God exists—a position the author identifies as “faith.” The second statement, from the pen of the inspired apostle John, describes some of the people of Samaria who had faith in the Lord’s deity because they knew He was the Savior—based on the evidence He had provided them.
Obviously, both of these sentiments cannot be correct, for they represent mutually exclusive ideas of biblical faith. On the one hand, we are asked to believe that faith is an “assumption” made by a person who simply desires to believe something. On the other hand, the biblical record instructs us on the fact that knowledge is an integral part of faith, and that faith is not merely an “educated guess” or unfounded assumption. Why does this confusion over the topic of biblical faith exist? What is the relationship between faith and knowledge?
WHY THE CONFUSION?
Perhaps there is so much confusion surrounding the concept of faith because there are so many definitions from so many widely varied sources. First, faith has been defined by its opponents as “the power of believing what you know isn’t true,” or “an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” Second, even neutral authorities have added to the conflict, with reputable dictionaries suggesting that faith is a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” or “belief without need of certain proof.”
Third, some in the religious community itself have been responsible for, or added to, much of the confusion. Examples abound. In his “Introduction” to The World and Literature of the Old Testament, John T. Willis has written: “The Bible claims to be inspired of God (II Tim. 3:16). There is no way to prove or disprove this claim absolutely, although arguments have been advanced on both sides of the issue. It must be accepted by faith or rejected by unbelief ” (1979, 1:11). J.D. Thomas, in his text, Heaven’s Window, wrote:
In all matters of religious epistemology we come to the question of distinguishing between absolutely provable knowledge and that which is faith-dependent to some degree or other.... In other words, men of strong faith “act like” they have absolute knowledge, even though in this life they can never have more than a strong faith (1974, pp. 131,132).
In his book, Dear Agnos, Arlie J. Hoover stated that “...faith, by standing between knowledge and ignorance, certainty and credulity, in a sense partakes of the essence of both. It has some evidence, which relates it to knowledge, yet it has some uncertainty, because the evidence is indirect” (1976, p. 28). Roy F. Osborne has suggested that “faith of any sort is based on probability.... In a world of fallible beings, imperfect senses, and partial experience, absolute certainty is only a theoretical concept” (1964, p. 132).
If these writers are correct, faith is something based on little substantive proof, or, for that matter, no proof at all. Faith also allows men to “act like” they know something when, in fact, they do not. Further, at best faith is a probability proposition that may, or may not, have anything to do with truth. And, faith is seen as an entity composed of a small amount of knowledge and a big dose of uncertainty. Is it any wonder then that there is so much confusion in today’s world regarding the concept of faith and its relationship to knowledge.
Ultimately, improper concepts of faith damage or destroy the effectiveness of Christianity. There are a number of reasons this is the case. First, unlike many other religions, Christianity always has been based in historical fact. From the historicity of Jesus Himself to the reality of His resurrection, Christianity has entered the marketplace of ideas with factuality as its foundation. To then turn and suggest that Christianity is based on an unproven and unprovable belief system nebulously termed “faith” is to rob Christianity of one of its most important constructs—verifiability rooted in historical fact. That which should be documentable is reduced to mere wishful thinking.
Second, we live in a society in which an examination of the various evidences behind a claim has become practically an everyday occurrence. Whether we are purchasing an automobile or considering an advertiser’s boasts about its products, we routinely investigate a plethora of evidences that can prove, or disprove, what is being said. The Bible teaches that mankind is lost and in desperate need of salvation, which comes only through Jesus Christ. More often than not, the person who accepts and obeys the biblical message undergoes a radical change in both his thinking and his lifestyle. Surely the grand nature of Christianity’s claim is such that it requires both investigation and verification. For someone to suggest that Christianity, or the life-altering changes it ushers in, is based on little more than an unproven assertion (that might or might not be true) hardly could be viewed as a rational approach that would commend itself to intelligent people.
Third, surely people in the world who are not yet Christians, yet whom we hope to see become Christians, are smart enough to see through a ruse that asks them to “act like” they know God exists, to “act like” they know Jesus is His Son, or to “act like” the Bible is His inspired Word when, in fact, they do not know those things at all. Further, if Christians simply “act like” they know, when in reality they do not, why are they not hypocrites? And why is the Christian—who eventually will have to admit that he does not really know these things—any different from the agnostic who readily admits that he cannot know these things?
Fourth, any idea which suggests that faith is based on mere “probability” is at the same time tacitly admitting that there is some probability, however minute, that Christianity might just be false. In addressing this point, Dick Sztanyo has observed:
To admit that Christianity is only probable is to admit the possibility that, in fact, it might be a hoax! Could you in your most irrational moment imagine even the slightest possibility of an apostle preaching the “God of probability” or the “God who may be”? ...I want to insist that there is not a single item in Christianity, upon which our souls’ salvation depends, which is only probably true. In each case, the evidence supplied is sufficient to establish conclusive proof regarding the truth of the Christian faith (1989, pp. 8-9,11, emp. in orig.).
FAITH AND KNOWLEDGE
What, then, is biblical faith? How does it relate to “belief ”? And what is its proper relationship to knowledge?
Biblical Faith and Belief
It is not uncommon to hear someone say, in regard to a belief that cannot be proven true, “It’s just a matter of faith.” Or, if someone is being advised about a particular course of action, the recommendation might be, “Just launch out on faith.” How many times has the comment been made that something is just “a leap of faith”? Certainly it is true to say that the word “faith” is used on occasion in each of these ways. And each of these statements may well express a certain belief. However, such a usage is not biblical faith. What is the relationship between biblical faith and belief?
Is faith belief? Yes, faith is a kind of belief. The issue, however, centers on the kind of belief that is biblical faith. Belief refers primarily to a judgment that something is true. But belief may be weak or strong. If I say, “I believe it may rain tomorrow,” that is an example of a weak belief. It is an opinion I hold which, while I hope is true, and thus believe to be true, is nevertheless one that I cannot prove. However, if I say, “I believe the guilty verdict in the criminal’s trial is correct and just,” that is an example of a strong belief because I am able to present factual reasons for my belief, based upon available evidence. In addressing the idea of “weak” versus “strong” beliefs, David Lipe has stated that “...the difference in these two types of belief turns on the causes of the beliefs” (n.d., p. 3, emp. added). In his text, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Walter Kaufmann listed seven causes of belief, the first of which was that “arguments have been offered in its support” (1958, pp. 132ff.). Thus, strong belief is a rational act based upon adequate evidence. Weak belief is produced by such things as emotion, vested interest, etc. (see Lipe, n.d., p. 4).
Biblical faith is a strong belief based upon adequate evidence. In the New Testament, the noun “faith” (Greek, pistis) is defined as: “primarily firm persuasion, a conviction based upon hearing...used in the New Testament always of faith in God or Christ, or things spiritual” (Vine, 1940, 2:71). The verb “believe” (Greek, pisteuo) is defined as: “...to be persuaded of, and hence, to place confidence in, to trust...reliance upon, not mere credence” (Vine, 1940, 1:116). Thus, biblical faith is a conviction based upon evidence, and is “not mere credence.” The Bible does not recognize any such concept as a “leap of faith,” because biblical faith is always evidence- or knowledge-based. Peter urged Christians to be “ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). This corresponds directly to what Kaufmann would call a cause for belief because “arguments have been offered in its support.”
Biblical Faith and Knowledge
One of the foundational laws of human thought is the Law of Rationality, which demands that we draw only such conclusions as are warranted by adequate evidence. Agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell stated it this way: “Give to any hypothesis that is worth your while to consider just that degree of confidence which the evidence warrants” (1945, p. 816). Biblical faith adheres to the Law of Rationality, and seeks conclusions that have a confidence warranted by the available evidence. In producing biblical faith, both reason and revelation are employed. Geisler and Feinberg defined these terms as follows:
“Revelation” is a supernatural disclosure by God of truth which could not be discovered by the unaided powers of human reason. “Reason” is the natural ability of the human mind to discover truth (1980, p. 255).
These authors went on to observe that “the basic relation of reason and revelation is that the thinking Christian attempts to render the credible intelligible” (1980, p. 265). Using capacities for proper reasoning, the Christian builds faith based upon numerous avenues of evidence. Sometimes that evidence may be based upon testimony provided by revelation. Paul wrote that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). Guy N. Woods has noted:
Genuine faith derives from facts presented to the mind and from which proper and correct deductions are then drawn (John 20:30,31).... There is no such thing as “blind” faith. Faith itself is possible only when reason recognizes the trustworthiness of the testimony which produces it (1994, 125:2).
Skeptics, of course, have suggested that reliance upon the testimony of another does not necessarily result in personal knowledge. Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason:
No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it (1794, pp. 8-9, emp. in orig.).
Paine’s assessment, however, is incorrect, as an examination of both historical and biblical cases will attest. Must testimony by necessity be diluted or destroyed simply because it has been passed from generation to generation? Not at all. We know George Washington lived, even though no one for the past several generations ever set eyes on him. We know of numerous other people and events in the same manner, as a direct result of credible testimony passed faithfully from age to age.
Further, biblical information provides a good test case for the accuracy of information passed from one person to another. In Mark 16, the account is told of Mary Magdalene having seen the Lord after His resurrection. She immediately went and told other disciples who, the text indicates, “disbelieved” (Mark 16:11). Later, Jesus appeared to two men walking in the country. They, too, returned to the disciples and reported that the Lord was alive, but of the disciples it was said that “neither believed they them” (Mark 16:13). Were these disciples justified in rejecting the report of the Lord’s resurrection merely because they had not been eyewitnesses themselves? Was their disbelief somehow evidence of “intellectual integrity” on their part? Were they to be commended for their rejection of two different reports that originated with trustworthy eyewitnesses?
No, the disciples were not justified in their disbelief. Later, when the Lord appeared to them, “he upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them that had seen him after he was risen” (Mark 16:14). Thus, the Lord verified the principle that Thomas Paine attempted to refute. If Mary Magdalene had expressed accurately to the disciples what she had seen, and they in turn expressed accurately what they had been told, would this not constitute valid evidence-based testimony of the sort that would warrant genuine faith in the resurrection? Facts must be reported before they can be believed. In Acts 18, the circumstances are given in which “many of the Corinthians hearing, believed.” What did they hear that caused them to believe? It was the testimony given by Paul. Faith is thus seen as the acceptance of knowledge based upon credible testimony.
Sometimes the evidence for faith may come by sight, as it did in the case of Thomas when Christ said to him after His resurrection, “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed” (John 20:29a). The Samaritans, mentioned earlier, believed on the Lord. The fact of their seeing Him did not preclude their believing on Him (John 4:41). There are times, of course, when faith and sight go together. Men sometimes walk by faith because of sight. Many came in obedience to the Lord during His earthly ministry because of what they heard and saw. During the early years of the church, many believed because of the miracles they saw performed. Much faith was produced by the actual events that were observed by those present.
But what of those who have not seen those events firsthand? Do they have any less of a faith than those who witnessed such events? No, faith is not diminished by lack of sight. Jesus told Thomas, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29b). Paul observed that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Thomas had faith after sight. Today we have faith without sight, because of credible testimony from those who were eyewitnesses.
What is the relationship between faith and knowledge? Does faith somehow rule out “knowing”? Can one both “know” and “have faith” at the same time, or is it an either/or proposition? In speaking to this issue, Woods has written:
More recently, a much more sophisticated form of subjectivism has appeared wherein faith and knowledge are compartmentalized, put in sharp contrast, and each made to exclude the other. The allegation is that a proposition which one holds by faith one cannot know by deduction. This conclusion is reached by taking one definition of the word “know,” putting it in opposition to the word “faith,” and thus making them mutually exclusive. To do this is to err with reference to both faith and to knowledge! (1994, 136:31).
In John 6:69, Peter said to the Lord: “And we have believed and know that thou art the Holy One of God.” Writing in 2 Timothy 1:12, Paul said “I know him whom I have believed.” The Samaritans told the woman who brought Christ to them, “Now we believe, not because of thy speaking; for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
In his book on the relationship between faith and knowledge, The Concept of Rational Belief, Dick Sztanyo remarked:
Biblical faith is built upon a prior understanding (knowledge) of what is to be believed.... Any conception of faith that severs it from its objective, epistemological base (foundation of knowledge) is at variance with biblical teaching! Biblically speaking, one does not believe that God is (or any other items to be accepted “by faith”): (1) against the evidence; (2) without evidence; and/or (3) beyond the evidence. Rather, one believes on the basis of evidence sufficient to establish the conclusion (1989, p. 3, emp. in orig.).
Faith is directly linked to knowledge. Without knowledge (i.e., evidence), it is impossible to produce faith. Further, knowledge is critical in making faith active. Sztanyo has observed in regard to what he terms “rational” belief:
This evidence enlightens the intellect which then makes a volitional commitment not only possible (since I now know what to believe) but also rational (i.e., I know what to believe)! Thus, faith is a volitional commitment of an informed intellect! Knowledge without commitment is disbelief (John 8:30-46; 12:42,43; James 2:19); commitment without knowledge is irrationality! Neither is a genuine option for a Christian (1989, pp. 18-19, emp. in orig.).
In the Bible, faith and knowledge are never set in contradistinction. At times faith may be contrasted with a means of obtaining knowledge (e.g., sight), but faith never is contrasted with knowledge or, for that matter, reason. In addition, at times faith and knowledge may have the same object. The Scriptures make it clear that the following can be both known and believed: (a) God (Isaiah 43:10); (b) the truth (1 Timothy 4:3); and (c) Christ’s deity (John 6:69; cf. 4:42). Further, knowledge always precedes faith, and where there is no knowledge there can be no biblical faith.
In Hebrews 11 we find the “Hall of Fame of Faith,” because each person acted out of obedient faith to God’s commands. We are told “by faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain...” (11:7), “by faith Noah...prepared an ark to the saving of his house...” (11:7), and that “by faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go unto a place which he was to receive as an inheritance...” (11:8). What does “by faith” mean in these statements? Were these people acting in the absence of evidence? Did they have no knowledge of what they were doing, or why they were doing it? Were they taking a “leap of faith”?
In each of these instances, the people involved acted because they had knowledge upon which to base their faith. Cain and Abel obviously had been instructed on what would be a “more excellent” sacrifice. Noah had the dimensions of the ark set before him by God. Abraham did not set out on a journey with no destination; he travelled by directions provided by the Almighty. None of these individuals took a “leap of faith” or acted on what they felt was a “strong probability.” Rather, they acted because their knowledge produced biblical faith. Brad Bromling has addressed this very point:
Some have made the mistake of thinking that faith is to be set in opposition to knowledge or evidence, as though the more one knows the less faith he needs.... This is a false concept of faith. Faith is knowledge-based!... When one gains knowledge of the truth, he is then in a position to engage his will and commit himself to the requirements of that knowledge (1988, 8:24).
God’s wish is for “all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). It is His intent that we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Through such knowledge, upon which faith is ultimately built, we know that we are saved (1 John 5:13). The Lord’s promise was: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Because God has made the truth so plain, and so easily available, those who reject it shall stand ultimately “without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
Bromling, Brad (1988), “In Defense of Biblical Confidence,” Reason & Revelation, 8:23-26, June.
Geisler, Norman L. and P.D. Feinberg (1980), Introduction to Philosophy—A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Hoover, Arlie J. (1976), Dear Agnos: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Lipe, David L. (no date), Faith and Knowledge (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
Osborne, Roy F. (1964), Great Preachers of Today—Sermons of Roy F. Osborne (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press).
Paine, Thomas (1794), The Age of Reason (New York: Willey Book Co.).
Russell, Bertrand (1945), A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster).
Sztanyo, Dick (1989), The Concept of Rational Belief (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
Thomas, J.D. (1965), Facts and Faith (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press).
Thomas, J.D. (1974), Heaven’s Window (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press).
Vine, W.E. (1940), An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell).
Willis, John T. (1979), “Introduction,” The World and Literature of the Old Testament (Austin, TX: Sweet).
Woods, Guy N. (1994), “Faith Vs. Knowledge?,” Gospel Advocate, 136:31, February.