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Phil Vischer & James Lindsay: Faith and Knowledge

Posted on Jan 9, 2014 by Tom Gilson

James Lindsay says Phil Vischer (formerly of “Veggie Tales”) has “let the cat out of the bag” concerning faith and knowledge. Let’s see about that, starting with something Vischer said on Twitter:

Yes, but “faith” isn’t how you learned about the Resurrection of the Body. Your faith is the confidence you put in that doctrine. Your source of the knowledge is Scripture – revealed truth. So Scripture is the source of the knowledge – faith is the confidence you invest (or not) in that knowledge, right?

Here is Lindsay’s initial response:

Vischer has honed in on the core Christian belief–the Resurrection–and has explained exactly how that belief is supported. In doing so, he’s letting the cat out of the bag.

I think what he means by this is that Vischer is busted—proved obviously wrong—for treating Scripture as a source of knowledge. The first thing to recognize is that Vischer’s quote was a tweet (correction) fragment of an article, not a treatise, so I think he ought to be granted some grace for not explaining everything in depth. I was tempted myself to answer everything Lindsay said, and to do so in depth. I’ll refrain from that, though, and just try to straighten out what faith is in this context.

Misunderstanding Faith

Lindsay says,:

The problem is that the degree of confidence put in any statement should match the evidence supporting that degree of confidence. Thus, immediately bearing upon faith is whether or not it leads someone to hold a justified amount of confidence in the article of belief in question. It does not.

And later,

Hence, I have every reason to suspect that a better way to put this would be “faith is the additional confidence put in X that isn’t justified by the evidence.” To back this up, I hearken back to Tom Gilson’s remark from the other day, in which he said that faith “goes beyond provable knowledge.”

That’s a misunderstanding (if I understand him correctly). It seems like he’s thinking it goes something like this: “Based on the evidences I have a 35% degree of confidence in the truth of the Resurrection, but since I have faith, I’ll bump that up to 95% confidence instead.”

That’s not what faith is. It’s more like this: “Because I have sufficient confidence in the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the promise-keeping character of the one who raised Christ from the dead, I can also believe resurrection truth applies also to me and to others.” Or, “I have faith in eternal life for myself and for many, because I possess adequately justified knowledge of the Resurrection of the One, and of his character, power, and promises.”

That’s what I meant by “going beyond provable knowledge.” I don’t have apodictic (unassailable, mathematical) proof that I’m going to live forever. I’d have to live forever before I could have that! But I do have confidence that what has been true of God before will still be true of God now and forever. What’s been true of God before is a matter of knowledge; what is true of God for the future is a matter of faith.

Faith Has Multiple Facets

Faith has multiple facets. Not every Christian is an apologist, historian, or epistemologist. Faith is a gift of God in every case (Eph. 2:8-9), and for some Christians, that’s all there is to it; there’s no evidence-seeking involved. {It would be a strange sort of Christianity that required every person in all walks of life, every educational level, and every part of the world to study evidences and proofs in order to have life in Christ.) Some accept Christ because they recognize how supremely good he is, providing freedom from guilt and from death through God’s great love for us. And some of us really do examine the evidences.

Faith and Knowledge

For all of us, there is something about faith that goes beyond the evidences. I stand by that with full assurance. But it’s not the way James Lindsay sees it, especially for those of us who actually do pay attention to the evidences. For my part, i find there is sufficient reason to be confident that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. There is strong evidence that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again, that he taught like no other person, loved like no other person, sacrificed himself like no other person, led like no other person.

For me, those facts are matters of evidence-supported knowledge, not “faith beyond knowledge” as Lindsay seems to think of faith. Where faith comes in is in my decision to follow Christ and the word of God. It’s also in my confidence that the known goodness of God in Scripture is still available for me and for others today, and that it will last forever.

I hope that helps clear things up.

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8 Responses to “ Phil Vischer & James Lindsay: Faith and Knowledge ”

  1. davem says:

    Would it be fair to say that your definition of ‘faith’ pertains only to the future, and the effect present actions or beliefs will have on that future? Matters of fact – be they historical, empirical, ontological or whatever – lie beyond (or behind!) your definition of faith?

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    I’m dealing only with one facet of faith here, so what I’ve written is not my “definition of faith.” It’s my understanding of faith as it’s being discussed in the current context. I hate to introduce that extra complexity, but I have to.

    So in that context, my definition of faith might be described as “belief in” rather than “belief that.” My belief that Christ rose from the dead is the knowledge base upon which I rest my belief in Christ for my current living relationship with him and my eternal life to come.

    Knowledge for which I have substantial evidence is just that, however: knowledge for which I have substantial evidence. That includes matters of history, philosophy, and so on.

  3. One helpful way to think about it is that faith is trust. You can trust in things when you’ve got good reason to do so, and you can trust in things when you don’t. It’s not part of the definition of the term that you don’t have good reason to do so. You have to have that conversation separately. Whether it’s faith is not about whether you have suchohaith, just in something relatively well-supported. You can also have faith in things that aren’t well-supported. That’s a conversation worth having about religious faith in particular claims that people trust in. But it’s certainly not part of the definition of faith as Phil Vischer has given it that the thing trusted in is not well-supported.

    And I should say that Phil is on the side of history here. This is how the NT authors used the term, and it’s how Augustine used it. By the later medieval period, there is a shift to seeing faith as something with lower epistemic status than knowledge (but higher than mere unsupported opinion), and that continues into the early modern period with John Locke (but is resisted by Leibniz, who prefers the Augustinian use). It isn’t until the 19th century that the term is ever used to mean completely unsupported belief.

  4. davem says:

    So in that context, my definition of faith might be described as “belief in” rather than “belief that.” My belief that Christ rose from the dead is the knowledge base upon which I rest my belief in Christ for my current living relationship with him and my eternal life to come.

    Thanks. So, in the current context, your definition of faith pertains only to the present and the future?

  5. Tom Gilson says:

    For me, davem, that’s the easiest realm to conceptualize it in. I haven’t thought through other aspects very carefully, I’ll admit.

    I guess it might also belong as part of the answer to questions like, “How do I know Jonah was in the big fish those three days?” I have no direct evidence of that, but I do have the testimony of Jesus Christ affirming that it was a real event. Because I have confidence in his competence and his trustworthiness, I can accept that what he said is true. I think that’s a form of faith.

  6. jwds says:

    Classical theologians define 3 elements of “faith”:

    1. notitia: that is, the actual propositions that reflect real states of affairs. This is the actual X is “I believe that X”–and there must be some actual X. (The Catholic Church does have a category of “implicit faith,” in which the X is still essentially a variable, standing for “whatever the magisterium teaches.”)
    2. assensus: that is, agreeing to the truth-value of the proposition. So, a historian could believe that Jesus existed, or even that he was resurrected, without having “faith” in its fullest form. (I forget the name now, but I seem to recall mention of a Jewish NT scholar who believed in the resurrection, but thought it only proved that Jesus was an important prophet–which would not be the faith that leads to life in the Christian sense.)
    3. fiducia: that is, the dispositional or volitional trust in the reality of the state of affairs (from 1) acknowledged to be true ( in 2). The Westminster Confession talks about “receiving” and “resting on” Christ, for example.

    An illustrative conversation:

    A: “I don’t understand why you won’t marry me…”
    B: “I’ve just been hurt to many times before–it’s hard for me to trust someone that much.”
    A: “I would never hurt you. Do you believe that?”
    B: “Yes, of course. You’re nothing like those other people who have hurt me…”

    Here B has notitia (“A would never hurt me”) and assensus (“I believe that”) based on evidence (“You’re nothing like, etc.”) But notice the lack of fiducia, of trust, of commitment to a significant course of action based upon what is believed true.

    Note that I’m only trying to illustrate the different aspects here, not making this a parable for Christian belief being somehow emotional, or whatever. So don’t press the analogy too far.

  7. jwds says:

    That example, Tom, isn’t quite so straightforward, though. C.S. Lewis, for example, thought that the book of Jonah was pretty clearly fiction. Does that mean he didn’t trust what Jesus said? I don’t think so.

    What, then, would Lewis say he could conclude from a confidence in Jesus’ trustworthiness and the statement about Jonah?

    What do you think?

    (This could be a different comment thread, or maybe an email exchange or something, since it’s really more a discussion between Christians regarding how to express the truth-value of fictional/parabolic/ analogical language. But it might be refreshing to discuss refining our understanding of the faith–here defined as the object of knowledge!–instead of just arguing about its truth or rationality.)

  8. John says:

    Tom,

    This is a clear, concise, and direct explanation of faith. It is also correct and true. BTW, I heard you on the Stand to Reason podcast.
    Nicely done!

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