How Peter Boghossian Gets Faith Wrong

I’ve been saying Peter Boghossian gets faith wrong, defining it as “pretending to know what you don’t know.” This should hardly come as any surprise; he gets all kinds of things wrong, including good thinking and/or honest communication, as I’ve shown earlier in this series, so why would anyone think he got faith right? Nevertheless, the complaint I’m raising against his (ahem) “definition” demands that I provide the real one.

What’s a Good Definition?

Before I launch in to that, it behooves us to consider what makes one definition better than another; for there is one sense in which Boghossian’s is excellent: it serves his manipulatire rhetorical purpose of undermining faith and instituting atheism.

Yes, I know he says atheism isn’t his chief rhetorical objective, and that good critical thinking is instead. That would be easier to believe if he hadn’t gone public multiple times with arguments that wouldn’t merit a “D” on a freshman philosophy paper (see earlier posts in this series). If sound, evidence-based, logical thinking were his goal, one would think he would demonstrate it. But he does precisely the opposite.

Private Purposes or Public Communication

Anyway, for his own purposes his definition of faith serves admirably. But words aren’t for just one person’s purposes. They’re for sharing. They may have private functions in our minds or perhaps in our journals, so if Boghossian wants to use faith his own way in his own space, I don’t mind. But he’s hit the lecture and podcast trail insisting we must change the public meaning of faith. He even got into a bit of a spat with The Good Atheist over that, with his host holding fast to the sensible thought that changing the meaning of faith would be a bad campaign to pursue.

What then constitutes a good public definition? I’ve hinted at it already: it serves the purpose of conveying meaning from one person to another, reliably and accurately. (There are other characteristics of a good definition — Aristotle’s genus and species come to mind — but I think this is the relevant thought for now.) Thus when A says faith to B, and B asks what A means by faith, the goal ought to be for B to find out what A means. The goal is not to tell A what A means, as a certain Professor B is trying to do with his definition.

Biblical Faith

So then, what is faith?

As a Christian, I’m in interest in its meaning in a biblical context and in the history of Christian thought and experience. Others can say what they think it is in their systems of thought.

Faith in the Greek is pistis, trust. The Holman Bible Dictionary’s entry on faith (as found in Accordance 10.2) indicates that “throughout the Scriptures faith is the trustful human response to God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions.” It is trust connected with knowledge in a certain way. Again from Holman: “biblical faith is a kind of limited personal knowledge of God.”

Multi-dimensional Meaning

When Christians speak of their faith, this is approximately what they mean by it, although it really cannot be encapsulated in such a short statement. I spoke recently on how obviously wrong Boghossian must be about faith simply on grounds that the term couldn’t possibly be as one-dimensional as he says, and I don’t want to make the same mistake here. Quoting Holman again,

The concept of faith has been radically redefined in some philosophical and theological circles during the past century. Those definitions rarely address the complexities of the biblical concept, a concept in which the whole person, the physical world, God’s Word, and God Himself play crucial roles. Those alternative definitions often do not grasp the objective and subjective characteristics of biblical faith.

Again, with reference to the Old Testament term for faith,

When employed to describe relationships between God and people, aman is used to express a complex concept. It describes both the subjective and objective nature of trust in God and an objective quality of God Himself. God, who exists objectively outside of human beings, receives trust generated from within individuals (Deut. 7:9). He and His words are objectively faithful, constant, and reliable (Ps. 119:86). God enables people to possess these objective virtues, faithfulness and reliability (Josh. 24:14; Isa. 7:9).

Faith As Trustful Response to God’s Word and Actions

Faith is a “trustful human response to God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions.” In biblical usage, the one that Christians seek to convey when we use the word, it is always connected to some source of knowledge. It is a response to knowledge.

Let me illustrate with one Old Testament example. Psalm 106 speaks of the Israelites’ breaking faith. It begins with a review of what their ancestors had seen God do, including:

Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
that he might make known his mighty power.
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry,
and he led them through the deep as through a desert.
So he saved them from the hand of the foe
and redeemed them from the power of the enemy.
And the waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them was left.
Then they believed his words;
they sang his praise.
But they soon forgot his works;
they did not wait for his counsel.

Then they despised the pleasant land,
having no faith in his promise.

These early Israelites had knowledge: they saw God at work, at the Red Sea as noted here; before that, in the Passover; following that, in God’s provision of water and food. They had seen him keep promise after promise, but when they reached the point of entering the land to which he had promised to bring them, they were afraid to enter. They had no faith in his promise to bring them safely there.

Knowledge of God’s Power and Character

Now, is this pretending to know what one doesn’t know? Did they know it was safe to enter the land of promise? Wrong question. Did they know the character and the power of the One who had made the promise? They should have. Did they have reason to know that Moses was a trustworthy messenger of God’s word? They should have. But they quailed, and they failed.

That’s a negative example. There were positive ones at the time: Moses himself, and Joshua and Caleb, who said (Numbers 14:8f), “If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us…. Do not fear the people of the Land, for… their protection is removed from them and the Lord is with us.”

What If It’s a Fiction?

Someone will object that the Exodus didn’t even happen, so how can I use it as an example? Of course I’m convinced it did, but let’s set that aside. If the Exodus never happened, what would that mean for the historic and contemporary meaning of faith? This Psalm is one classic depiction of how the word has been used for centuries, by millions. At the risk of redundancy: this is how millions have used the word for centuries. Boghossian’s definition is how one man has used it for less than a decade. Which one comes closer to a publicly useful definition?

More to Come

There are many more positive examples of faith, and more to be said about faith as trust and knowledge, but this is enough until next time. The point here is that faith is (among other things) trust based on God’s observable actions.

Starting with my next post I’ll leave Boghossian behind, initiating a new series on “What Is Faith?” (Enough is enough. At least until he does something new that merits attention.)

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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6 Responses

  1. John Moore says:

    You write: “As a Christian, I’m interested in (faith’s) meaning in a biblical context and in the history of Christian thought and experience. Others can say what they think it is in their systems of thought.”

    I feel sad to think we can’t come together on this and have a calm, rational discussion. It’s weird for me because I stand in the middle between the two sides. I agree with most everything you’ve said in these posts, but I also agree with Boghossian. It’s definitely possible to reconcile your two positions.

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    John, I don’t understand what you’re suggesting here, but I’d be interested to know what it is.

  3. John Moore says:

    Even if faith means “pretending to know what you don’t know,” that faith could still be true. It’s possible that “pretending” is exactly what God demands of us.

    Perhaps there’s no substantial difference between “trustful human response” and “pretending.” It’s just that “pretending” has a sneering connotation whereas “trusting” has an affirming connotation.

    This leaves us with the same old question of whether God exists. Christians accept “God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions,” while atheists do not. Fine. The discussion can continue.

  4. Victoria says:

    I doubt that any Christian would accept such an anemic concept of faith, given that a robust Biblical Christian faith is rooted in God’s acts in real space and time, in the sphere of human history.

    After all, John wrote his gospel to document that:

    Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
    31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, bthe Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

    New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. 1995 (John 20:30–31). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

    Also, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, explicitly links our faith to the reality of Jesus’ supernatural, bodily resurrection. So does Peter in his sermons in Acts (see Acts 2:14-41 for example).

    Anyone who takes the time to read the NT carefully will see that over and over again, it anchors Christianity to the Person of Jesus Christ – the Son of God, Who stepped into human history as one of us, walked among us. His resurrection is the key event that upholds the entire structure. The NT authors are insistent on this – there is no pretense, no wishful thinking.

    Sorry, but I for one will not buy into the nonsense you are suggesting.

  5. Victoria says:

    This is the definition of ‘pretend’

    to give a false appearance of being, possessing, or performing
    a : to make believe : feign
    b : to claim, represent, or assert falsely

    This is the definition of ‘trust’

    a : assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something
    b : one in which confidence is placed

    I’ve selected the first definition of ‘trust’, since that is how we Christians think of it, and live our lives by it.

    ‘Pretend’ is the antithesis of what Peter wrote in 2 Peter 1:16-21.

    For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
    17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”—
    18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.

    New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. 1995 (2 Pe 1:16–18). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

    Do you think Paul was just pretending when he wrote

    I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom:
    2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.
    3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires,
    4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.
    5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
    6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.

    7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;
    8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

    New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. 1995 (2 Timothy 4:1–8). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

    No, I don’t think so. No Christian who thinks deeply about his or her faith and comes to understand it both philosophically and experientially will agree to what John suggests in #3.

  6. Victoria says:

    Interestingly, ‘pretend’ also has an archaic meaning (see the Miriam-Webster link above) : venture, undertake

    Here is ‘venture’

    to expose to hazard : risk, gamble
    : to undertake the risks and dangers of : brave
    : to offer at the risk of rebuff, rejection, or censure
    intransitive verb
    : to proceed especially in the face of danger

    I doubt that either Boghossian or John Moore, or 21st century readers, have this archaic definition in mind when they use the word ‘pretend’.

    Too bad, because that seems to fit one facet of what faith is to Christians – to venture forth and follow the evidence (and there is persuasive, though not compelling, evidence) to the One it all points to – to entrust one’s heart, mind and soul and eternal destiny, to Jesus Christ: to dare to believe and to act on that belief ( see 2 Chronicles 16:7-9 , especially 2 Chronicles 16:9 )