Two Views of Faith


Some time ago a commenter here wrote,

The core problem is that religion teaches that holding absolute beliefs without evidence (aka faith) is a virtue.

Is that what faith is? No, actually not. The other day in a Bible study at church, I noticed a great way to illustrate the difference between this and true faith. There are four different accounts of the life of Jesus Christ in the Bible, known as the four Gospels (a word whose etymological roots go back to “good news”): Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of these presents a kind of narrative biography, mostly of the last three years of Jesus’ life on earth. No biography tells every detail of its subject’s life, and no two biographies of one person cover the same details. This is true of the Gospels.

All four Gospels tell of Jesus calling Peter to be one of his followers; in that they are all the same. Two of the accounts are very similar, and it is very likely that Matthew borrowed from Mark here:

Matthew 4:18-20 (all scriptures quoted from the ESV):

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Mark 1:16-18:

Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

This looks a lot like the way some people conceive of faith. You meet someone or get some kind of idea or impression, and boom! you change everything you think about the world. There’s no evidence, no logic, no background, no thinking. Now, I do not mean to distort the purpose or message of these two accounts. If they do not teach a clear message about how faith is acquired, that is because that was not their authors’ intent. I mean this instead as an illustration of how faith can be misunderstood by those who think they have the full context, when in fact they do not. Let’s broaden our view to get a more complete picture, starting with the Gospel of John.

John 1:35-42:

The next day again John [the Baptist] was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

Here we discover that Peter’s brother had been a disciple of John the Baptist, and we know that John had been preaching about Jesus Christ. Peter had more than just a glance from Jesus to go on, he had very strong personal references. Interestingly, there are some scholars who think this event may have been a full year before Jesus came and called Peter, as recorded in the passages quoted above. Jesus seems to have had a one-year period of ministry in Judea (where Jerusalem is) early in his time of ministry. This event with Andrew was probably before that year, and the final call to Peter was probably afterward, when Jesus traveled the 70 or so miles north to begin his Galilean ministry. If that’s true, then Peter had plenty of time to think about this great man he had met, to ponder his teachings, and to hear of his reputation.

Even if that’s not the case, the picture we have in Luke tells us even more clearly what Peter was working from when he decided to follow Christ. He had seen Christ at work (Luke 4:38-39):

And he [Jesus] arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them.

And much more beyond that (Luke 5:1-11):

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

Peter never “left everything and followed him” until after he had had (possibly) a year to think through what he knew at first about Jesus, seen Jesus heal his wife’s mother, heard Jesus teach at least once, and seen Jesus perform the miracle of the fish. Peter’s faith in following Jesus was no blind leap. It was based on an experienced reality, on data he had had a chance to reflect upon. “If I leave everything to follow this man, will I end up a starving itinerant no-good?” he might have asked himself. But he would have known by then that Jesus was truly good, by his teaching; and that Jesus could certainly find food when he needed it!

Of course he still had to have faith to follow. He was trusting his whole life and future to this teacher Jesus, and to the God whom Jesus taught. But it was not belief against the evidence. It was belief based on evidences and experience. God can grant a person faith by directly relating to a person’s heart, and there is always that element in any person’s coming into a faith relationship with him. Still, a tried and tested faith knows from experience also that God is real and God is good. For some of us who have the inclination to explore it, our faith also rests on the trustworthy testimony of history, where the reports of Jesus’ life can be tested like any other historical report, and on evidences from nature, human experience, and philosophical reflection.

Faith is not a leap into the dark against evidence. It’s a leap into the light of God, based on knowledge and experience.

13 Responses

  1. Preston G. Scrape says:

    The notion that faith is a leap into the dark, unfortunately, is propagated by overzealous pastors and unwitting laymen all the time.

    What they’re thinking of is “blind faith”–which, far from being a virtue, is explicitly condemned by Scripture!

  2. Chris says:

    This is a good post. While, I agree that faith is stepping in alignment with God based on knowledge and experience…sometimes, that knowledge and especially the experience is something that I can not in my humanness understand…and there-in lies the difficulty in the support and explanation to those who rely deeply on their own understanding.

  3. Carl says:

    I think I remember reading somewhere that the Hebrew word for faith was etymologically a law-based term used in the context of signing a contract concerning one’s next season of crop being transferred to another party. I believe the word is also related to the word “amen”, which is often translated, “let it be so” or something similar. It appears to me that the biblical concept must have more of a public aspect and future aspect to it than anything else. Anyone else have any ideas?

  4. Chris says:

    Faith from an Hebraic perspective means something vastly different that it does in our western minds. To us, faith is a mental exercise in knowing that someone or something exists or will act. For instance, if we say “I have faith in God” we are saying “I know that God exists and do what he says he will do”.

    The Hebrew word for faith is emuwnah; often an action oriented word meaning fidelity or steadfastness. It comes from a root word (emuwn) meaning faithfulness, trusting. This is important because the Western concept of faith places the action on the one you have faith in, such as faith in God. But, the Hebrew word emuwnah places the action on the one who is trusting God. It is not knowing that God will act, but rather I will do what I must becuase I walk in trust. Abraham was found righteous because of his faith. This idea of support for the word emuwnah can be seen in Exodus 17:12.

    But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat upon it, and Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady (emunah) until the going down of the sun.

    It is the support/emunah of Aaron and Hur that held of Moses’ arms, not the support/emunah of Moses. When we say “I have faith in God”, we should be thinking “I will do what I can to support God”.

  5. ChrisB says:

    The blind-faith approach is, to me, unfortunate, but it’s nothing new. Some church fathers espoused it. One, whose name escapes me, wrote, “I believe because it is absurd.”

    Building, no doubt, on what Jesus said to Thomas, many think blind faith is the only way to go. But I don’t think that’s the best, whole-Bible interpretation of the concept.

  6. Carl says:

    I think the quote on absurdity comes from Kierkegaard, the 18th century philosopher.

    Are there any examples in the bible that seem to clearly spell out using what we westerns think of as \blind faith\?

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    Kierkegaard was about a century later than that, and a good guess since he was an early modern theologian of the absurd, but it was actually the early Church Father Tertullian who said it. Wikipedia (yes, Wikipedia) has a good, brief explanation of what Tertullian really meant. In context it’s not what the out-of-context snippet makes it appear to be; quite the opposite, in fact. See here for more.

  8. ChrisB says:

    That makes me feel much better about Tertullian. Thanks.

  9. Dick C says:

    Faith is not belief despite the lack of evidence, as critics allege it to be, it’s belief despite the lack of proof.

  10. I think I could use some clarification as to what is meant here by evidence. That term itself is taken for granted. Evidence is only a matter of perception. The unbeliever \suppresses\ certain truths, and as such can justify a worldview on the basis of \evidence\. That there is more evidence for Christianity than otherwise seems a bit more like a matter of \opinion\. Our minds have already been oriented to that framework.

    I think we have to be careful when trying to call our worldview \rational\, or justified by means of \evidence\. Reason is a tool that exists within faith. Not the other way around. Logic itself is accepted as a matter of faith, as a presupposition. Much of how our faith functions is actually subjective, as revelation of God’s existence and nature is not given by flesh and blood, but by God Himself.

    This statement here: \But it was not belief against the evidence. It was belief based on evidences and experience.\ is confusing to me. What is the nature of His experience? So does all experience indicate the truth of something? How often does our experience lead us into a delusion? The bible provides a normative perspective on how we should interpret our experiences. We need to rely entirely on God for adequate revelation of our experiences. To say otherwise is to grant man room in his autonomous sinful mind.

  11. Tom Gilson says:

    Good points, and thank you for the comment, Andrew.

    Revelation of God is given by God himself, but that does not mean it is divorced from evidence. All through the Bible there are calls to believe based on what one (or one’s community) has experienced in space and time: the Exodus, the crossing of the Jordan, the signs and wonders Jesus did (John 20:31), and his resurrection. These are simply evidences in the normal sense of the word: things we see or experience that point toward a conclusion.

    What was the nature of Peter’s experience? It was that he had met Jesus personally, witnessed his miracles, and heard his teaching. Does all experience indicate the truth of something? That depends on how one interprets it, which goes back to how one filters and processes it. All experience rightly understood does point to some truth.

    So yes, we need to rely on God for adequate understanding of our experiences, but that is not to take away the reality of experiences, or the reality of others’ reports of their experiences. If there were no report (i.e., eye-witness evidence) of the resurrection, there would be no reason whatever to think it happened.

    So it’s a both-and. God gives understanding, but he uses means to do that (along with the direct sensus divinitatus), and those means include evidences.

  12. Thanks for your clarification. I didn’t recognize the fideistic implications of what I was saying until you responded. Thanks for catching that.

    I think the Christian church is susceptible to accepting a methodology that requires evidence as a prerequisite to faith, and the danger is that that allows room for different interpretations of the evidence. Atheists frequently attack us from that angle. So this is coming from an apologetic slant. As an ex-agnostic-ish type, I know that one of my biggest struggles was finding sufficient evidence for Christianity, and I didn’t find such an endeavor possible, because I could sit and thinking of alternative interpretations for hours, even different interpretations on my interpretations! Ultimately it required a renewal of my methodology. I won’t go too far into that right now though.

    I guess the question is: since we have no direct empirical experience of Jesus, does it make a blind faith? And we have to say no, and point to examples of how atheists themselves make assumptions that are not empirically rooted. Our experience of Christ is more spiritual and subjective (for most of us anyway), and that shouldn’t be as big of an issue, I think.


  1. April 2, 2009

    […] his blog Thinking Chrstian Tom Gilson authored a blog entry titled Two Views of Faith. It focuses on the true meaning of faith. Certain distortions of the word have emerged from those […]