Anecdotally considering the meaning of faith, one recognizes the prevalent misconceptions that faith is either an epistemological category—where one receives divine knowledge, which is often contrary to human logic—or represents a fundamental lack of knowledge, resulting in blind adherence to illogical religious tradition. Regrettably, Christians routinely incorporate such misunderstandings into their worldview, often embracing a form of non-intellectualism that concentrates on the emotional reactions toward the Christian message, instead of rational examination of propositional truths, elucidation of theological principles, and the expositional teaching of Scripture.1 However, Christianity paradoxically exhorts philosophical reflection, while simultaneously requiring disciples to regularly exercise faith, indicating a fundamental accord between the two principles. Accordingly, this essay will briefly examine the Christian definition of faith, demonstrating that authentic Christian faith requires rational contemplation and the acceptance of particular theological propositions, rather than blind observance of irrational speculation or superstition.
Definition of Terms
Defining key terms arising throughout the conversation is a necessary first step in any inquiry, to avoid potential miscommunication. Standardly, philosophy is understood as the pursuit of wisdom, while logic denotes a scientific discipline concerned with the principles and criteria of validity of inference and demonstration (i.e., the methodology of reasoning), and reason describes the quality or state of being rational. Obviously, there is a fundamental interconnectedness between the terms, as logic predicates philosophy, and reason appears to establish both. Employing the term Christian denotes an authentic commitment to be a Christ-follower (i.e., a disciple of Jesus).2 Definitional contention only arises when considering the term faith, since even Merriam-Webster propagates a concept of a strong belief in the absence of proof. However, such notions are contrary to Christian doctrine, as the Scriptures portray faith as the possession and exhibition of trust in God, which results from rational belief, requires relational trust, and manifests in behavioral fidelity—a model which receives further consideration in the following section.
Examining the Biblical Evidence
Although other religious systems may require blind adherence in the absence of evidence or base the objective validity of religious dogma on subject criteria, Christianity stands in stark contrast by promoting philosophical—actively encouraging readers to pursue wisdom and knowledge (cf. Proverbs 1:29; 3:13; 4:6-7), critically analyze truth-claims (cf. Acts 17:11; Proverbs 18:17), and verify Christian propositions (cf. 1 John 4:1; Acts 1:2-3).3 Moreover, the biblical authors establish belief in the validity of historical events (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:13-19), requiring believers to present evidence of the truthfulness of Christianity (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), while simultaneously responding to counter-arguments and critiquing opposing worldviews (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:5; Jude 1:3; Philippians 1:16). Regrettably, biblical illiteracy remains pervasive throughout the American culture, and many Christians fail to grasp significant elements of the biblical worldview while devoting negligible time to considering theological and philosophical propositions presented by Christian scholars.4 Accordingly, the examination begins by considering the primary sources—the Christian Scriptures—to determine how the biblical authors employ the term faith. Surveying the Scriptures reveals three distinct, yet interconnecting, components to the biblical notion of faith:
1) Cognitive (i.e., believing certain theological propositions),
2) Relational (i.e., trust or devotion resulting from belief), and
3) Behavioral (i.e., an exhibition of trust through action).
Besides receiving support from the biblical authors, everyday experience, and situations where people demonstrate trust, emphatically provide rational validation of the concepts.
For example, when someone boards an airplane traveling from San Francisco to Chicago, he maintains the cognitive belief that planes fly, the staff is specially trained to operate the assigned aircraft, and the vehicle is machinal operational—all of which are rational beliefs based upon experience, credible testimony, and situational analysis. Furthermore, by boarding the plane, the passenger exhibits trust in the airline, relinquishing numerous elements of his autonomy and personal safety in the process. However, if the passenger refuses to board the plane, fearing for his safety, his behavior would divulge a fundamental disconnect with his proclaimed belief, thus demonstrating a lack of trust in the company. Therefore, it seems reasonable that all three elements are necessary for genuine faith.
Demonstrating each of the components mentioned above, the Centurion of Matthew 8:5-13 believes in the eminence and authority of Jesus, trusts in Jesus’ ability and willingness to heal the Centurion’s servant, and displays actions which are consistent with genuine belief and trust.5 Appropriately, Jesus marvels at the Centurion’s conviction, underscoring the event as an example of authentic faith. Similarly, Jesus commends the faith of a Canaanite woman (cf. Matthew 15:22-28), as she appears to believe Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, trusts in His dominion over the demonic realm, and acts in accordance with those beliefs.6 In both situations, Jesus emphasizes the great faith exemplified by the individuals—a faith which categorically includes aspects of cognitive belief, relational trust, and consistent behavior.
Moreover, Jesus conveys the difficulties of discipleship, urging potential followers to actively consider the costs (the cognitive aspect) associated with following Jesus (the behavioral aspect) before making the decision (the relational aspect) to bear the name Christian (cf. Luke 14:25-25). Considering the passage, New Testament scholar James R. Edwards comments, “Both illustrations warn against making rash commitments. Building a great edifice and waging war must be weighed carefully and planned with resolve—and so must following Jesus. A great building project and going to war also involve high costs—as does following Jesus.”7 Elsewhere, Jesus reinforces the notion of consistent behavior, indicating that authentic love of Christ results in obedience (cf. Luke 6:46; Matthew 23:3; John 8:31-32; 14:10-15), rather than the mere profession of belief.
Congruently, James dispels the notion that it is possible to separate Christian faith from harmonious behavior (cf. James 2:14-26), indicating that while the aspect of behavior itself is not indicative of belief, authentic belief will manifest in the person’s actions. Elucidating James’ message, New Testament scholar Douglas Moo writes, “James attacks superficial and inconsistent Christians who claim they have faith but fail to act on the basis of their faith. Such a ‘faith,’ James says, amounts to no more than a verbal profession.”8 Although a verbal profession is an aspect of cognitive belief, pronouncement alone lacks the devotion and trust necessary to modify behavior, and cannot provide an adequate description of Christian faith.
Echoing this notion, the author of Hebrews accentuates numerous biblical figures, identifying their obedient actions commencing from a fundamental acceptance of divine revelation and a legitimate trust in God (cf. Hebrews 11:1-12:2). Unfortunately, many fail to recognize the object lessons contained in the chapter, viewing the opening statement as a comprehensive definition of Christian faith, without actively considering the context. Opening the chapter, the author of Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (v. 1). Reading this verse in isolation does suggest the author is defining faith from a Christian perspective; however, viewing this statement within the context of the book, reveals the author is making general statements about faith to begin his discussion, not presenting a precise definition of faith.9 Considering the examples which follow in the subsequent verses, it seems the author intends to provide a description of faith, or perhaps detail the function of faith, not define the term.
Clearly illustrating this principle, the author of Hebrews uses Noah as one of the case studies (v. 7), accentuating Noah’s behavior in building the ark, as a demonstration of his belief of and trust in God’s revelation. Ultimately, Noah’s salvation results from his obedience to God’s directions (i.e., behavior which corresponds with believing God and trusting in Him). Similarly, the author stresses the volitional obedience of Abraham in leaving his homeland (v. 8), while drawing attention to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (vv. 17-19)—an extreme demonstration of Abraham’s belief in God’s promises and trust in His ability and willingness to accomplish them. Consequently, these examples alone demonstrate a more complex definition of faith than a superficial consideration of the opening verse might convey.
Furthermore, the Jewish perspective equates faith with “fidelity, trust, and obedience, and it aptly summarizes the total relationship between human beings and Yahweh,”10 suggesting the author of Hebrews would have a richer understanding of faith than alluded to when considering the verse in isolation. Moreover, the examples given demonstrate the facets of cognitive belief, relational trust, and behavioral fidelity—distinct components common to every biblical exemplar of faith. Accordingly, the author implies these components a few verses later, writing, “without faith, it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (v.6). In other words, belief in God and trust that God rewards the faithful predicates the action of drawing near to God.
Therefore, after briefly surveying examples of faith within the Christian Scriptures, it appears Jesus and the New Testament authors envision faith as an active trust—or personal behavior which is consistent with the profession of rational beliefs and exhibits trust in the object of those beliefs.
Considering the Conclusions of Biblical Scholars
Ensuring proper exegesis occurs during the initial survey of the biblical text, one ought to contemplate the perspective of biblical scholars on the issue, seeking to identify information gaps, analytical errors, and potential biases. Defining faith within the Christian context, Herbert L. Swartz describes faith (in a general sense) as, “belief, trust, and loyalty to a person or thing,” while recognizing that affirmative responses to the person and work of Christ, and the subsequent behavior of the individual, are indicative indicators of genuine belief.11 Using the terms belief, trust, and loyalty, Swartz parallels the biblical examples previously considered, identifying the components of cognitive belief, relational trust, and modified behavior as essential components of authentic faith.
Consequently, many Christian scholars and apologists, including Aquinas, recognize an intertwining of reason and faith, acknowledging the two cannot be separated.12 After all, “logic plays an indispensable role as that which accurately defines and distinguishes between terms and propositions to make them intelligible.”13 Without logic, Christianity cannot be understood or propagated, as propositions become needlessly confounded and eventually contradictory.14
Congruently, the Reformers understood faith to require three components:
1) Nōtitia (i.e., knowledge or understanding of a particular proposition(s)),
2) Assensus (i.e., ascent or conviction of the truthfulness of said proposition(s)), and
3) Fiducia (i.e., trust in or reliance upon the object of the aforementioned proposition(s)).
Corresponding with the Scriptural data, these orthodox conclusions reinforce the fundamental relationship between reason and faith, conveying the importance of rationality, relational devotion, and consistent behavior within the context of Christian discipleship. Continuing to recognize these components as demonstrative of the biblical model, contemporary Christian theologians, philosophers, and apologists propagate the notion that faith represents an active trust, based upon rational consideration.15 Profoundly summarizing the necessity of reason regarding faith, John MacArthur writes, “Authentic faith can never bypass the mind. It cannot be irrational. Faith, after all, deals with truth. Truth is objective data to be known, studied, contemplated, and understood. All those are activities that engage the intellect. That means genuine Christianity cannot be anti-intellectual.”16
However, although reason is an essential aspect of biblical faith, theologians routinely recognize reason is not the sole basis of Christian faith. In other words, faith is not merely a cognitive activity, as it requires both affections and the will, but it is not less than a cognitive activity.17 Unmistakably, the Scriptures indicate the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in the conversion and sanctification process of persons; however, at no point does this appear to override human reason or will, and theologians often differ regarding the roles of the will, affections, intellect, and the Holy Spirit in producing and developing Christian faith. While such questions remain an exciting facet of metaphysical, anthropological, and theological discussion within the Christian community, such internal debates do not eliminate the functional aspect of rationality to faith, nor does it establish a dichotomy between faith and reason.
Consequently, it appears the scholars agree with the fundamental principles derived from Scriptural analysis—mainly that Christian faith includes aspects of cognitive belief, relational trust, and consistent behavior—thereby establishing reason as a fundamental element of authentic faith, rather than a foreign or competing concept.
After examining the Scriptural data and considering the position of biblical scholars, it appears contemporary laypersons mistakenly erect a false dichotomy between faith and reason. While opposing ideological systems and religious worldviews may require blind adherence to irrational and unsubstantiated rituals, Christianity stands in stark contrast by actively encouraging philosophical reflection and bases fundamental beliefs on reasonable propositions and the validity of historical events. Moreover, the Scriptures convey a concept of faith representative of an authentic possession and exhibition of trust in God, which results from rational belief, requires relational trust, and manifests in behavioral fidelity. This type of active trust appears to require rational contemplation and the acceptance of particular theological propositions at a fundamental level, and although Christian faith is irreducible to a mere cognitive activity, it is certainly not less. Accordingly, rationality remains an essential aspect of biblical evangelism, discipleship, and apologetics—despite common misconceptions to the contrary.
- J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012), 16-39; Nancy Pearcey and Phillip E. Johnson, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, Study Guide Ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), 71.
- All Scriptural references are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted.
- Cf. Pew Research Center, “Americans’ knowledge of the Bible,” Pew Research Center, April 12, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/14/5-facts-on-how-americans-view-the-bible-and-other-religious-texts/ft_17-04-12_scripture_bible_knowledge1/; Bob Smietana, “What Do Americans Believe about God? New Study Explores Our Theology,” LifeWay Research, September 17, 2016, https://factsandtrends.net/2016/09/27/what-do-americans-believe-about-god-new-study-explores-our-theology/; Albert Mohler, “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It's Our Problem,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, January 20, 2016, https://albertmohler.com/2016/01/20/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-our-problem-4/.
- For elucidation of the Centurion’s faith, see Craig S. Keener, Matthew, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, Vol. One (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), Mt 8:8-9.
- Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992), 401-407.
- James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015), 425.
- Douglas J. Moo, James: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 2nd ed., vol. 16, (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2015), 133.
- Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 15 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 227-229; Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1993), 564.
- Harold W. Attridge and Helmut Koester, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1989), 311.
- Herbert L. Swartz, “Faith,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 236-238. Also, see Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), 167-175.
- Norman L. Geisler, “Faith and Reason,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 239.
- David Andersen, Martin Luther: The Problem of Faith and Reason: A Reexamination in Light of the Epistemological and Christological Issues (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 82.
- Cf. J.P. Moreland, and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 20.
- John MacArthur, Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 13.
- Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015), 58.