Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Believing about believing


Jonathan Moorhead said...

Let me say that I understand the need to say we are “certain” that we are saved. This implies that our belief is firm and unshakable. However, I think that talk of “rational certainty” of salvation smacks of Enlightenment rationalism. “Rational certainty” demands empirical validation. This is not possible in the Christian faith. Yes, there is solid evidence (“evidence that demands a verdict”) of Christianity, but we cannot even prove with certainty the validity of the triune God. Ergo, my question: “Can you truly have rational certainty of events that cannot be rationally proven?”

My contention: God does not want you to have rational certainty but to “believe,” or have “faith.” If you had rational certainty of every tenant of the faith, then you would not need faith!

This of course translates into apologetics. My aim in evangelism is not to prove the existence of God or the inerrancy of Scripture, but to call people to faith in Christ. The problem is not intellectual but spiritual. I do not understand in order to believe, but believe in order to understand (sound familiar)?

Bhedr, I think we agree. I am as certain that I am saved as I am that I exist. However, my certainty is based upon my faith. What I am trying to avoid is believing only what we can reasonably prove verses resting in faith.

HK, I don’t particularly like to liken theology to science (alone). This is the rationalism that I shy away from. Yes, exegesis and hermeneutics require rules and methods, but I think we all agree that there is more to it than that.

The Bible is not like any other book.

There can be different understandings of the definition of “certainty.” I agree with you that you can have certainty that you have faith (although I would not use the word “certainty”), but that certainty is subjective, correct? You believe it with all of your heart but it is not an empirically validated theorem.


I’m going to evoke certain preexisting distinctions which clarify what I think Bro. Moorhead is driving at.

1.Tacit knowledge

Michael Polyanyi said, “we know more than we can tell.” John Frame distinguishes between evidence and argument, while William Lane Craig distinguishes between knowing and showing.

This distinction has been variously classified as tacit knowledge or the illative sense. It goes back to the argument from experience, which is a subdivision of defensive apologetics.

The basic principle here is that we can know more than we can prove. It represents a shift from objective proof to the subjective process of belief-formation.

One reason we can have reasons without giving reasons is that much of our reasoning process operates at an intuitive or subliminal level. We may have many good reasons for what we believe, but we’ve either forgotten what the reasons were, or we never consciously registered the reasons in the first place. Rather, many of our beliefs are formed and founded on a cumulative basis, and it would be impossible at this stage of the game to retrace the process back through every piece of evidence that fed into the resultant belief.

There can be something approaching an inverse relation between evidence and proof, for not all evidence is formalizable, for the above stated reasons, such that an attempt to formalize our reasons may well leave out a lot of the relevant evidence.

And John Frame has put it:

“We should make some distinction between (1) the objective data given us in the created world and (2) our use of these data to construct arguments for the truth of Christianity…I prefer to use the term ‘evidence’ to refer to (1) and, of course, ‘argument’ for (2). In this sense, evidence is required for all human knowledge; argument is not,” S. Cowan, ed. Five Views on Apologetics (Zondervan 2000), 77.

2.Knowledge by acquaintance or description.

(1) shades into (2). This terminology was Russell’s way of capturing the rough-hewn distinction between direct and indirect knowledge.

There are various ways of glossing, unpacking, and refining this distinction, but to take one illustration: did Abraham know that God’s promise was true?

Abraham did not know it was true in the sense of personal knowledge. He had no direct acquaintance with the fulfillment. Indeed, he was in no position to experience the fulfillment, since that event lay in the future.

But as long as Abraham’s source of knowledge was truthful, then Abraham knew, indirectly, that the promise was true.

Abraham took it on faith that what God was telling him was true. That’s knowledge be description.

Abraham did not take it on faith that God was talking to him. He knew that God was the speaker. That’s knowledge by acquaintance.

This distinction also operates in the life of the Christian. To know God from the Bible is a case of knowledge by description.

But the reason a Christian believes the Bible is due to knowledge by acquaintance. A Christian has a firsthand of God due to his experience of God’s grace in his life, viz., regeneration, sanctification, prayer, and providence, &c.

3.First or second-order belief.

As Paul Helm puts it:

“So part of the structure of faith, including religious faith, is not simply that one who has faith has good evidence for what is trusted in, but also that he has a set of beliefs about what is desirable for himself. So faith involves two sorts of beliefs: beliefs about oneself, and beliefs about things other than oneself…on the belief that I am myself a believer. This is not a belief about what I want, but a belief about what is believed to be true of me; that it, it is a second-order belief, a belief about a belief.”

For countless people the question of the relation between faith and evidence is not the question…of whether or not there is enough evidence—call it objective evidence—to warrant…belief in God.

Rather, what preoccupies them is the question of whether or not they possess enough evidence—call it subjective evidence—to warrant the belief that they are themselves believers,” Faith with Reason (Oxford 2000), 158-159.

“In the cases of the Council of Trent and the Westminster Confession, the infallible personal assurance which the one denies and the other affirms to be possible looks much more like a case of knowledge by description, for the assurance which, according to the Confession, is founded up the divine truth of the promises of salvation, together with the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises were made, is an assurance that is gained through drawing inferences from the promises of God and one’s own belief-state,” ibid. 164.

And, as Helm goes on to say in another book:

“But is it not legalistic to look to oneself rather than to Christ for assurance? Is this not reintroducing by the back door a subtle form of salvation by human effort? Does such scrutiny not turn a personal back in upon himself in a man-centered way when he should be turned outward to Christ?

The charges implicit in these questions would be plausible if what was being suggested was that a person must place his trust in his own state of mind or conduct or works and effort of an obvious kind. But this is not what is being said. There is a world of difference between a person trusting his own state of mind or attainments for salvation and a person paying attention to his own states of mind as evidence that he has been and is converted.

Each of us has a birthday. A person may for one reason or another, such as old age or forgetfulness, forget what the year of his birth was. In his ignorance he may come to be assured that the year of his birth says, say, 1932 by being shown his birth certificate. But this does not mean that in some strange way his birth certificate becomes a substitute for his birth. His birth at a particular date in the past is fixed. A birth certificate is a generally reliable piece of evidence that his birth was on that particular date.

In a similar way a person’s conversion is one thing while his evidence that he is converted is another. In being converted he trusts in Christ for salvation from sin. This is part of what being converted means. That a person may gain evidence that he is converted, that he is trusting Christ for salvation, from his own experience.

But this does not mean that he is trusting himself for salvation. It means that what he finds in himself is important evidence that he is trusting Christ for salvation, as the birth certificate is evidence that a person was born on a particular date in the past,” The Beginnings: Word & Spirit in Conversion (Banner of Trust 1986), 93-94.

1 comment:

  1. by their fruits ye shall know them. do they feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort widows and orphans and the oppressed? do YOU?