The word “faith” is central in Christianity. After all, we have “faith communities,” we’re “people of faith,” and it’s “faith in Jesus” that saves, right? However, I believe that while we keep using this word and it’s an important word in the New Testament, there is a big disconnect with what this word actually means. Honestly, it’s gotten to a point where I tend to avoid even using the word, because it’s so liable to be misunderstood.
One of the overarching issues is that we tend to intellectualize the word “faith” in a way that is foreign to the biblical category of “faith.” In short, biblical “faith” is not something you do with your head. It’s something you do with your hope.
There are three main ways that I think we can mess this up. Each of them are different, but they all fail to grasp what the New Testament is talking about with the word “faith.”
1) Faith as the Opposite of Reason
A lot of times people seem to define faith as the opposite of reason. You see this from a lot of popular advocates of science. The story goes like this: science uses reason to get to the truth, whereas religion uses faith to get to the truth. In other words, religious people just believe things that other people have told them or they just believe things that make them feel good. They believe that things are true not based off of evidence, but based off of something else i.e. their own feelings or wishes. This is what’s behind talking about faith as “believing something without evidence” or talking about a (blind) leap of faith.
Unfortunately a lot of Christians talk this way too. Some, when asked why they believe what they believe, may respond that they just have faith. However, this way of talking is absurd and unbiblical.
C.S. Lewis gets at this idea in his Mere Christianity, where he talks about the relationship between faith and how we know what we know. One way I like to talk about it is by saying that faith is not how we know the truth, but it is our relationship to what is true. Understanding faith as blind affirmation makes faith an entirely intellectual act. But that’s not what it’s about. This is why I like to use the word “trust” instead. A kid waiting to get picked up by their parent knows that their parent is coming because their parent has told them. But the kid is going to be more or less at ease about waiting based on how much they actually trust that this will actually happen. If their parent has been faithful to their word and tends to pick them up consistently, then they’re likely to trust their parent’s word in this instance as well. But it the opposite is true, if their parent has been less than faithful in keeping their word, then they’re unlikely to trust their parent’s word now. They will doubt and be afraid.
Notice that “faith” in this context is clearly not even a category of knowing or coming to know things. It would be ridiculous to say that kid that has faith in his parent is believing without evidence. It’s a category error.
Faith in the sense of trust is a response to faithfulness. And this is the move that the scriptures usually make when talking about our faith in God, especially in the Old Testament.
For example, after Yahweh’s people abandon his covenant by making the Golden Calf in Exodus, he responds:
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Yahweh is faithful and trustworthy, therefore his people can have faith and trust in him.
To be fair, there are a few places in the scriptures that might seem to suggest understandings of faith like we’ve talked about here. For example:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
Or Jesus’ conversation with Thomas after he witnesses the resurrected Christ:
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Yet even in these passages, “faith” is not used in the sense of believing something without evidence. They’re simply recognizing that the faithful person puts their hope and trust in something that is outside of themselves, in something that is to come. Faith waits for the fulfillment of God’s promises. In this way, faith has a strongly eschatological character, i.e. it looks forward to what is to come (which is why the doctrine of the resurrection is so important).
2) Faith as Mere Intellectual Understanding and Commitment
So often when people object to infant baptism, they do so on the grounds that infants are incapable of expressing any kind of commitment to the Christian faith. People argue that infants are just not intellectually capable of articulating any kind of a faith, therefore they should not be baptized.
While I’m not here to talk about infant baptism, I think this objection to the practice betrays an overly intellectualized understanding of faith. It assumes that faith is an essentially intellectual act, that for someone to possess faith, they must be able to articulate their faith in at least some basic way. Infants and very young children are obviously incapable of doing this.
(To be fair, I should note that there are many who reject the practice of infant baptism who would not hold this view of faith, but I find this view of faith to still be far from uncommon in many of those who reject infant baptism, at least in my own experience.)
However, faith is not about merely agreeing to factual statements about Jesus. This kind of merely intellectual faith is something that even the demons have (James 2:19). But the kind of faith that we’re talking about, saving faith, is not an intellectual product of human effort. Faith is trust. Just like love or fear, you can’t manufacture trust. Trust just happens. In other words, faith is a gift of God. After all, like I said above, faith is a response to God’s faithfulness. Now, the intellectual dimensions of the faith, i.e. faith as the content of what we believe, are important. This is something that Christians who are intellectually capable don’t get a pass on. But it is in no way a prerequisite to saving trust. This is why Jesus can say we must have the faith of a child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Not because, the faith of a child is purer or better in some way, but that this basic, humble, childlike trust is what it’s really all about.
This means that those who are less intellectually capable whether the very young, the very old, or the mentally handicapped, in no way have a lesser faith. Their faith is just as fully formed and just as saving as mine, even though they may be utterly incapable of articulating it.
Now, faith is not antithetical to intellectual understanding (see #1), but faith is really about where we place our hope, where we place our trust, which brings me to the last misunderstanding.
3) Faith in the Abstract: Faith Without an Object
This is the kind of faith that is so often extolled as a virtue, even in our society. It’s the kind of thing you’ll find on Oprah or in the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon. From my observation it’s a faith that seems to be nothing more than merely vague optimism. One need not even believe that a god of some kind even exists, but one might still a person of “faith.”
For an example of this, look at the closing number from The Book of Mormon, “Tomorrow is a Latter Day”:
I am a latter day saint
I help all those I can
I see my friends through times of joy an sorrow
What happens when we’re dead?
We shouldn’t think that far ahead
The only latter day that matters is tomorrow
The skies are clearing and the sun’s coming out
It’s a latter day tomorrow
Put your worries and your sorrows and your cares away
And focus on a latter day
Tomorrow is a latter day!
This is a kind of faith that wants to be upbeat, positive, and optimistic. It’s a kind of faith that is more interested in being nice than in actually believing anything. And to be honest I don’t necessarily have a problem with this sort of thing in broader society. I mean, I’d rather have a bunch of nice do-good pagans running around than angry anti-theist internet trolls. It’s just that this is not faith. This is nowhere near the Christian idea of faith.
The biblical idea of faith is not just optimistic do-good-ery. That’s because faith always has an object. This is another reason I like to talk about faith as trust. It doesn’t make any sense to take about having trust, without talking about what or who it is you trust. Someone who vaguely trusts everything isn’t trusting, they’re just gullible.
Christian faith trusts the God who created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. It trusts the God who delivered his people out of bondage and slavery from Egypt through the Exodus. And he is the same God who has promised to deliver us, his people, out of our bondage and slavery to sin and death through the death and rising again of his Son. Christian faith trusts that the “for you” of the Gospel applies to you as well. It’s a trust and confidence that God is going to make good on his promises, because that’s the kind of God that he is.