Our goal here is to unpack the notion of faith so as to overcome confusions in modern thinking on the topic. Lacking a good understanding of the notion actively prevents many people, both Christian and non-Christian, from understanding Scripture. In this post, we will begin an account of faith and give examples from Scripture and everyday life where applicable.
Faith involves thinking
Sometimes, especially in Christian circles, you’ll here that faith is “trust.” This is a good start insofar as (1) our thinking about trust is less confused than our thinking about faith, and (2) it highlights the fact that faith can be both in a person as well as a fact. But it’s just a start, for to give a synonym is not to give an analysis.
Others, who are less charitable to religion, would have us believe that faith is “belief in spite of or contrary to the evidence.” Indeed, this is how Richard Dawkins defines it in his book The God Delusion and how Peter Boghossian defines it in his book A Manual for Creating Atheists. In the TV series Bones, the protagonist defines faith as “irrational belief in a logical impossibility.” Similarly, Bill O’Reilly once gave the advice to “base your opinions on faith when it comes to religious matters, and facts when it comes to secular matters.”
None of this, however, captures how Scripture uses the term or how we tend to use it when we don’t have some theological ax to grind. But it’s difficult to be completely wrong about something, and this “analysis” is no exception. While it’s wrong to say that faith need be contrary to evidence, it does seem that once we achieve “the certitude of sight” we cease to have faith.
This leads us to the realization that faith involves thinking, by which we mean a confidence in something that does not reach complete certitude. Thinking something to be true is to think it more likely true than its negation. Most or all of life involves thinking in this sense of the word. And this fits well with Hebrews 11:1 which says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Aquinas gives the following definition of thinking:
[Thinking] is more strictly taken for that consideration of the intellect, which is accompanied by some kind of inquiry, and which precedes the intellect’s arrival at the stage of perfection that comes with the certitude of sight. (ST II-II Q2 A1 corp)
Thinking well involves matching ones confidence in something in accordance with what the evidence allows. To be more confident than what the evidence allows is overconfidence, and to be less confident is to be unduly skeptical.
Faith is thinking with assent
But faith must be more than mere thinking. I don’t mean by this that faith involves overconfidence, but rather that faith has an extra dimension to it. I do not have faith in someone if I think they’re dangerous or evil. This is because faith is made up of both thinking and desiring. But it is not enough that the thing thought and the thing desired merely coincide with one another: if I think a chair is tall and desire the blueness of the chair, for instance, I do not thereby have faith in the chair. Rather, for faith to occur we need the thinking and the desiring to be essentially linked in a single act. In other words, faith occurs when our thinking and desiring are about the same thing, as when I want a sturdy chair and think this chair is sturdy. We say, then, that faith is thinking with assent.
Assent is a bit of a tricky word. It picks out the “mood” of the thinking, which in this context just means that the content of the thinking involves something desirable or wanted. And since we desire all and only what seems good to us, we might equally say that the thinking involves something that seems good to us.
Let’s consider some examples from everyday life. We have faith in a chair insofar as we think it will hold us up and we desire it to do so. We have faith in our spouse insofar as we think they will not cheat on us and desire that they do not do so. We have faith in someone’s word insofar as we think they will be true to it and desire them to be so. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the children had faith in Aslan insofar as they thought him powerful and saw this as a good thing.
It might be informative to compare faith to its contraries. Since faith has two elements, we have two axes to explore. On the axis of thought, we have thinking, uncertainty, and doubt. Thinking is as we defined above, uncertainty is being unsure either way, and doubt is thinking something is not the case. On the axis of desire, we have assent, quiescence, and dissent. Assent involves desiring, quiescence is indifference with respect to desire, and dissent is desiring something not be the case.
Dread, then, is thinking with dissent: we dread something we think will happen but don’t want to happen. Wishful thinking is a term used for doubting with assent or uncertainty with assent: when we want something we don’t think will happen, we have wishful thinking. Commonly hope is also used this way, but I don’t think this the primary sense of the word (more on that below). Fear is uncertainty with dissent: when something we take to be bad might or might not happen we fear it. Doubting with dissent is the other side of faith: you have faith in A then you doubt with dissent that not-A. Unfortunately, we do not have a word for this in English, so we’ll just a question mark in its place.
|quiescence||mere doubt||mere uncertainty||mere thinking|
|assent||wishful thinking||wishful thinking||faith|
When you know someone is powerful, but are unsure whether they are good, you fear them. When you don’t study for an exam but want to have done well, that’s wishful thinking. An example of two of these working out in Scripture comes in the calming of the storm:
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)
After seeing Jesus’ power, the disciples fail to have faith in him and instead fear him. They can see that he is powerful, but they are uncertain whether he is good powerful or bad powerful. This is ultimately rooted in their failure to understand what it means to be the Christ in its entirety. Compare this with the father’s response to Jesus later in the gospel:
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24)
Here the father thinks Jesus is good but doubts his power. His problem isn’t fear, but wishful thinking.
Faith and hope
So much for faith, what about hope? We can have faith in things, facts, and outcomes, but when Scripture talks about faith in a future outcome it calls it hope. “Expectation” is thinking that a future outcome will occur, and so hope is expectation with assent. In other words, hope is looking forward to an outcome we see as good or desirable.
Does faith come before hope, or does hope come before faith? It turns out the question is misplaced: neither comes first, but both can reinforce the other. Faith and hope are in the same thing (that is, they have the same object); the difference between them arises in us when we consider our relation to that thing in different ways. Take the example of the chair again. I have faith in the chair’s ability to hold me up, and I have hope that in a few seconds it will hold me up when I sit down on it. The object of my faith and my hope here are the same: the chair’s strength. The difference between faith and hope lies is in how I consider this object: either in itself (faith) or in its future outworking (hope).
The upshot of all of this is that in addition to the faith and hope there is some third thing — the object — and strictly speaking neither faith nor hope comes first, but both flow from this object. Nevertheless, it sometimes happens that we first place our faith or hope in something, and only later realize that the other follows from this. Because of this, there is a sense in which either can follow from the other, so that the two can mutually reinforce one another.
The close interplay between faith and hope is visible in Abraham’s story in Genesis. In chapters 12-17 God repeatedly promises Abraham that he will have many descendants who will be in right relationship with God, and who will be a blessing to the nations of the world. Then in chapter 21, Isaac is born and God promises that “through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” Then in chapter 22 God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Have you ever wondered why Abraham is praised for his actions here? It’s not because it’s good to kill children, or because God can somehow make murder good. Rather, as Eleonore Stump explains, it’s because Abraham has faith in God and hope in his promises to make Isaac a great nation even if he killed Isaac. Abraham obviously didn’t know how God would do that, but he’d been shown in the past that God was powerful and able to work beyond the limitations of humans. What he was doing here was holding on to God’s power and goodness:
No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:20-22)
We see hope and faith reinforcing each other throughout Abraham’s interactions with God. Initially, the promise is given, which leads to hope which in turn leads to faith, and God repeats the promises a few times. But God also shows himself as someone capable of doing more than what Abraham could have physically imagined, which reinforces Abraham’s faith in him, resulting in more hope.
We’ve briefly discussed faith and hope quite generally, and used some passages from Scripture for illustrative examples. Later, in a follow up to our earlier post on grace, we will spell out the object of Christian faith in detail.