The Rationality of Christian Faith

Contemporary atheists are fond of defining faith as “belief without evidence.”

This is not the Christian understanding of the concept, and I don’t know of any other religion that makes faith central in the way Christianity does, so it isn’t clear what their target is.  Islam perhaps?

As an argument, it is roughly on a par with defining mathematics as “absurd,” defining empirical observation as “utterly unreliable,” and going on to deduce that the scientific method is based on absurd and utterly unreliable things, and (the argument continues) anyone who trusts in science as a source of knowledge must be a very foolish person, since he places his trust in a method based completely on things which are absurd and utterly unreliable. Let us all laugh at such a fool.

The Christian understanding of faith is expressed directly, if somewhat cryptically, in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων·

This is one of the fairly rare passages where the King James Version seems to be really the best translation into English.

I want to note in particular the word ἔλεγχος which is here translated as evidence. This is an entirely legitimate translation of ἔλεγχος—which means “proof” or more precisely, “that whereby something is proven.” ἔλεγχος is what Socrates engages in.  It is what happens in courts of law during a trial (a trying; a testing).  ἔλεγχος is submitting something to a process of rigorous testing and examination.

In short, the Christian understanding of faith is so far from the stock atheistic trope of “belief without evidence,” or “belief completely without any rational foundation” that it has a word which means both evidence and rigorous testing and examination built into it.

It is a very odd modern superstition which modern atheists are especially prone to (and I have found atheists to be among the most superstitious of human beings) that human beings in ancient times were somehow extraordinarily, even inhumanly, credulous, and would more or less believe anything they were told.  Not only is there no evidence for such a belief, there is plenty of evidence that human beings in ancient times were no more or less credulous than human beings today.

David Hume, that incorrigible skeptic, writes in a justly famous passage in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions: the same events follow from the same causes. Ambition, avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit: these passions, mixed in various degrees, and distributed through society, have been, from the beginning of the world, and still are, the source of all the actions and enterprises, which have ever been observed among mankind. Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English: You cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations which you have made with regard to the latter.

To think the ancients more credulous than human beings are today is unfounded and absurd.  Yes, some of them were credulous and went in for belief in absurd cults and fad ideas—phenomena we see around us all the time today.  I note, as an example, that a significant portion of the GDP of Nigeria comes from the so-called 419 scams, in which Westerners are emailed a notice claiming they have inherited millions of dollars, and all they need do to become rich is send their back account number to the “lawyer” sending the email—people fall for this obvious scam by the thousands; you yourself have almost certainly gotten multiple versions of these emails. Tell me again how “modern Westerners” are no longer gullible thanks to science or the Enlightenment?

And some of the ancients, the educated, were extremely skeptical and critical (“skeptical” and “critical” both being Greek words and concepts, after all).  They were certainly well aware that when one man or group says “This is so” and another man or group says “It is not so,” that it is necessary to test the claims of each, to rigorously examine them, and only then make a judgment about who is speaking truly.  This is what an ἔλεγχος IS.

Now it is true that Christians are called upon to believe in things which are not testable or verifiable by any ordinary means at the disposal of human beings.  Some matters concerning the nature of God and matters concerning, for example, the future state of things, exceed our human powers to know or to test directly.

But consider the following:

  1. I know that God exists; indeed more than exists, God is existence itself;
  2. I know that God is all-good; indeed more than all-good, God is goodness itself;
  3. I know that God is loving; indeed more than loving, God is love itself;
  4. I know that God is all-knowing; indeed more than all-knowing, God is truth itself.
  5. I know that God is all-trustworthy; indeed more than trustworthy, God is fidelity itself.
  6. God has revealed certain things (πράγματα) to human beings as true things, which I have no independent way to test or verify, since they exceed the cognitive powers of human beings.

These things, in number 6, are the matters to which faith pertains when it plays a cognitive role. Faith, as a supernatural virtue, particularly means an attitude or stance or comportment towards God—the best term would really be the German Verhältnis, which has only the disadvantage being a German, and not an English, word. Faith, first and foremost, is NOT a cognitive word synonymous with belief.  This is made very clear in the Epistle of James 2:19:

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble.

σὺ πιστεύεις ὅτι εἷς ἐστιν ὁ θεός; καλῶς ποιεῖς· καὶ τὰ δαιμόνια πιστεύουσιν καὶ φρίσσουσιν.

Faith, πίστις, is however a word in the same linguistic ballpark as “belief”, πιστεύειν—but it is something more than mere belief.  As we are told by St. James, even the demons believe in God.  We can put it more strongly: the demons know that God exists, but they certainly do not have faith in God. Faith, therefore, is not primarily something that has to do with knowing or believing.

While it is necessary to emphasize that Christian faith, πίστις, is not primarily a cognitive word, it is not without a cognitive dimension.  It is, in one of its aspects, a holding something to be true, an assenting of the will to certain things as true, on the basis of one’s trust in God’s revelation of these things.

Knowledge is warranted true belief.  Suppose I come to believe certain divinely revealed truths to be true just on the basis of this revelation.  The basic question is: am I warranted in forming and holding such beliefs?

In ordinary human circumstances, report or testimony is at least partially warrant-conferring. We believe much of what we do about the past, for instance, on the basis of indirect testimony of those who were alive and present at the time.  We admit the testimony of witnesses as a basic kind of evidence used in trials of law.  Almost all of our scientific knowledge is something we take on trust of our science teachers—we are not in a position, after all, to directly verify such things ourselves via our own observation and experiment.  Just to take an obvious example, how many of the ~8 billion human beings has access to make use of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which one would need to “verify” some of the basic claims of particle physics? Do the scientists who do have access to it have the engineering skills or knowledge to “verify” that it has been designed properly? It is very obvious that the great majority of human knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is taken on trust—and if one wish to answer “But such knowledge can be verified in principle!”—well, unless you have in fact verified it all, that too is something you take on trust.

At the same time, common human prudence cautions us against taking all human testimony at face value. Why? Human beings are known by us sometimes to be mistaken, sometimes to lie, or for some other reason, give false reports and false testimony.  So it is wise and prudent to take testimony and report as not fully warrant-conferring—although it would be foolish to dismiss testimony and report as if they could never be warrant-conferring.  As an analogy to testimony, we regularly warrant many beliefs on the basis of our senses, such as sight, while being aware we are subject to various sorts of optical illusions, hallucinations, distortions, varying environmental and lighting conditions, blind spots, and so on. It would be manifestly foolish to hold that sense perception can never be warrant-conferring on a belief, on the grounds that sense perception is not infallible.

In this light, consider my six points above.  Is a report or revelation from God warrant-conferring? Am I rationally warranted in believing such a report or revelation? Is a divine revelation truth-warranting for a belief?

I cannot honestly see how I am not rationally warranted in forming and holding beliefs on this basis.

The normal objections which would make a report from another not fully warrant-conferring, that he might be mistaken or deceptive or ignorant of the full picture, etc., can none of them apply to God.  Since God is all-knowing and all-truthful and all-trustworthy, what reason could be adduced that belief in something revealed by God is rationally unwarranted?  To believe the word of a being who is all-knowing, all-truthful, and all-trustworthy is, as far as I can tell, the best and strongest kinds of warrant for belief one could have.

An atheist will of course say that I do not know propositions 1-5, which I claim that I do know. But that is really immaterial in this context.  The point remains that IF I know 1-5 (which is really the same as knowing 1 only, since 2-5 follow from it), THEN faith or πίστις as Christians understand that term IS properly cognitively warrant-conferring.  An atheist, as I have noted elsewhere, would have to demonstrate the truth of the proposition that there is no God, to show that God is an insufficient basis for knowledge.

And since knowledge just is warranted true belief, and faith is properly warrant-conferring, faith is a source not merely of belief, but of knowledge.

This is as far from “blind belief without evidence” as it is possible to get. It is the opposite, the antipodes, of that.

Far from being irrational belief without evidence, Christian faith constitutes fully rationally warranted knowledge.  The charge that Christian belief is irrational is true only in the following limited and specific sense: Christians know some things which are in themselves above reason, and so beyond the power of human reason to directly ascertain or verify, but in which they are fully rationally warranted in believing.   The charge that Christian belief is irrational in the sense of being rationally unwarranted belief is simply false

At most, an atheist would be able to claim something to the effect that “Nothing can be warrant-conferring that human cognition is unable to verify for itself,”—but this will leave the atheist in the impossible position of having to verify this principle, something that cannot be done.  Christians need not be impressed or concerned when the only objections advanced against them are unwarranted and self-defeating claims.

Again, I am aware that an atheist will attempt to challenge the warrant-conditions of faith, but—and this point is crucial—he cannot do so in a non-question-begging way, unless and until he has established that there is no God.  That is, until he has demonstrated the truth of atheism in the traditional sense of belief in the proposition that there is no God.  This is so because the existence or non-existence of God is not a matter which leaves the epistemic landscape unchanged; the very nature of warrant will differ depending on this question, so it cannot be prescinded from in favor of purely epistemological arguments which, for now, table the ontological question of the existence of God.  I write this paragraph merely as a reminder of this, because it is such an important point; I have discussed this point elsewhere in Atheists Cannot Evade the Existence Question, which I invite you to read if you haven’t.

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7 comments on “The Rationality of Christian Faith

  1. Jason says:

    Great post, thanks.

    “This is one of the fairly rare passages where the King James Version seems to be really the best translation into English.”

    May I ask what you believe the best translations are?

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    • Eve Keneinan says:

      I’ve found the RSV to be “least wrong” most of the time. NOT the NRSV! The NRSV is a trainwreck of a translation. I like the Orthodox Study Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible, but usually can’t find them online. I guess this is because most of the Bible online sites are Protestant? Biblegateway.com lets me read with the Greek and English side by side, so that’s what I do (usually with the RSV—but I switch up the English sometimes and look at all the translations at once for specific passages). Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the New Testament is very good too in some ways—he had very little theology, but was one of the greatest translators of Greek into English (his Iliad and Odyssey are the most accurate to Homer by far, although not necessarily the best to read as poetry).

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      • Jason says:

        Thank you Eve! I enjoy the New Jerusalem Bible from a language standpoint too. I’d do what you do w/re biblegateway but the only Greek I know are the modern swear words I remember from living there briefly in 1999. That and that the modern word for “yes” sounds just like the Dutch word for “no,” so conversation with the stewardesses on the flight from Athens to Amsterdam was interesting.

        I hope you keep up the good work, I really enjoy your blog.

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  2. Steven Hoyt says:

    well done. i can’t blame the criticism of blind faith. many believers have that in mind and even espouse it (joyce meyer, for example). as to your epistemology, few do their homework. you did yours.

    i wonder why you didn’t examine pistis as persuasion and draw to the good, which is traditional rather than the post enlightenment idea of episteme and correct doctrine?

    that’s a small matter i’m curious about but that’s it. nice. will done, again!

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  3. wtquinn says:

    To what cause would you attribute the existence of evil in the world? You must be familiar with the Epicurus riff: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

    I observe good and evil coexisting and composite in the world. Most monotheistic ideas of God as a singularity describe a being more like a Demiurge (not pure good). More of a critical middle man/woman/it God. I’m exploring the subject matter and see a problem with traditional God (personified Good as Personage and Panthiesm) as a One Singularity. “In Him we live and move and have our being” as spoken to the Athenian’s in refutation of their unknown God. Perhaps I will remember the definition of the problem and solution one day through anamnesis, after drinking from the river Mnemosyne. I also see a problem with personal remorse and regret being placed on a scapegoat, the definition of tragedy being the bestial song of the goat man. Vicarious redemption may be the idea by which the whole panopticon penitentiary world is deceived. Or not. If deceived, the penalty to drink again from the river Lethe.

    What say you?

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    • Eve Keneinan says:

      The orthodox Christian answer is that evil comes about as a consequence of a rebellion against what is good which is made necessarily possible by the existence of free beings. It would be easy enough for God to create a world without evil. All that would be required would be a world without life. Would such a world, “populated” with nothing but inanimate things, be “better” than one populated by beings of sentience, intelligence, and freedom?

      Traditional theology holds that omnipotence is the power to do all that is possible to do, but not that which is logically impossible, since such “things” are not really “things” that can be done, because they are meaningless. It is not somehow a defect of God’s power that He cannot make a square circle. It is rather because the proposed task is meaningless. And if “a free being that is incapable of doing evil” is as self-contradictory as a square-circle, then God cannot make such beings. But if animate free beings are in some way better or higher than merely inanimate beings, then God makes something intrinsically good when he makes animate free beings. But this good act of creating this intrinsically good being necessarily brings with it the possibility of evil.

      One of the core principle of Christian faith is that, in a final and absolute way, evil does not get to win. The Resurrection of Christ is already both the sign and the reality of the absolute defeat of evil, sin, and death.

      I think you have probably misunderstood the significance of the sacrifice of Pascal lamb, because of the English take on the word “scapegoat.” There is nothing vicarious about the Resurrection, as I understand it.

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      • wtquinn says:

        Thank you for your reply.

        The One issue is still the problem.

        God in theory, in faith, in philosophy, in interminable irreconcilable arguments of interpretation among house-divided against itself Christian sects, is generally infinite, immanent, transcendent (of time/space/causality), omniscient, omnipresent, pantheistic, personified anthropomorphic (ubermensch), and … drum roll … Good.

        God’s Will and Power as The One, as The Singularity, prevails over human free will. Nothing happens outside of God’s will. All is designed, foreknown, predestined, brought forth by the mind of God, who speaks and causes existence (real sympathetic magic – not fake). God is the Creator of Evil (Isa 45:7). Evil, evil personified, etc. is His instrument, His Agent.

        Therefore, there is no such thing as an original or free thought, because God is the Creator of every human thought under surveillance. That’s an input=output process. Imagine animating a lifeless doll with thoughts. And then getting angry at its misbehavior, and then killing and resurrecting yourself as the solution, with threats against the doll of infinite torture if the doll doesn’t believe the story, as told through middle-men, while you remain invisible.

        The problem (for me) is, the above is not characteristic of Good where God is a One, a Totalitarian entity from which there is no escape from His presence.

        The above is characteristic of Good and Evil, more akin to the Greek Demiurge.

        If one little girl is raped and murdered, God is the Author of Rape and Murder, an Accessory Before the Fact, and Complicit in the Crime.

        This doesn’t mean that the above is not true. It just means that if it is, I have a problem with it.

        Existence is probably composed of infinite pluralities and powers of good and evil.
        Religion and science (big bang) are highly enamored and stuck on The One. Cognitive Dissonance.

        I believe (I do not know) Plato’s Myth of Er provides a clue as what will most likely be the outcome of unresolved remorse and regret. Pre-existent energy is supposedly indestructible, it just changes form. God transcends time, space and causality. With God all things are possible. Therefore retro-causality as a solution, taking personal responsibility for one’s prior actions, is possible.

        And the idea that a rapist and murderer of a child can be forgiven through the torture and killing of another (vicarious redemption), may be, … mistaken.

        Thanks again for responding. I promise not to turn this into an interminable debate. You can have the last word.

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