What is Faith?

Michael C. Patton writes:

What is faith? This is a very basic question that oftentimes is taken for granted because of the word’s wide usage in many different context. Because of this and because of its importance in the Christian worldview I thought that I would do what I could to briefly explain some important elements of faith. More importantly, I hope to demonstrate as briefly as I can how faith has been redefined in the Church to the point that it is in danger of relegating Christianity to irrelevancy, having equal pluralistic status with all the other major belief systems in the world.

Bill O’Reilly, in an interview with Richard Dawkins this year, illustrated what our current conception of faith is today. As his belief in God was being challenged by Dawkins’ intellectual attacks, O’Reilly did not have much of an answer. After being questioned by Dawkins as to whether he believed in other gods such as Zeus, Apollo, or Thor, O’Reilly responds by saying that he is “throwing in with Jesus.” He goes on to say that he cannot prove that Christ is God, but that Christ is God to him because it helps him. His faith was relegated to the realm of societal and personal pragmatism. While Dawkins did not do too good considering the burden that he had, O’Reilly should not have been in this discussion representing the Christian worldview. In the end his faith rested on “throwing in.” In other words, his defense was not unlike Pascals’ wager where the defense becomes “While my faith may be a blind faith but as it stands right now your faith (atheism) is more blind.”

What gets me is this. How is it that Bill O’Reilly thought it sufficient enough to blindly “throw in” on a subject that is so important. O’Reilly never just “thows in.” O’Reilly is never unprepared. He is never uninformed on a subject with which he speaks upon. Whether you agree with him or not, his passions are not blindly held in politics or social issues; in these areas that are based upon his studies and critical analysis of the issues involved. Yet when it comes to the question of God (something He claims to hold very dear), he simply resorts to a uninformed blind faith.

In fairness to O’Reilly, this is not uncommon within the culture or in the church. Faith has become redefined to “that which you throw in with.” The answer to the question, How do we know Christianity is true? is illustrated best in this beloved hymn: “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.” This subjective answer is simply not good enough. It is insufficient and irresponsible. If our faith is relegated to a blind leap into the dark and our answer to the hope that lies within us is limited to the typical “Because I know that I know that I know it is true,” then we don’t really have a message that shines any brighter or truer than all the religions of the world.

How did we get to this point and what is the solution?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines faith this way:

  1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
  2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
  3. Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one’s supporters.
  4. The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will.
  5. The body of dogma of a religion: the Muslim faith.
  6. A set of principles or beliefs.

All of these, in the right context could describe some aspect of the Christian faith. But we need to go one step further in understanding this term in a particularly Christian way.

The Reformers sought to distinguish true faith from false faith. The battle cry of sola fide (justification by faith alone) demanded that they define faith in a precise manner.

Starting with Luther and developed further by Melancthon and others, the understanding of faith was expressed in three separate yet vitally connected aspects: notitia, assensus, and fiducia.

1. Notitia: This is the basic informational foundation of our faith. It is best expressed by the word content. Faith, according to the Reformers must have content. You cannot have faith in nothing. There must be some referential propositional truth to which the faith points. The proposition “Christ rose from the grave,” for example, is a necessary information base that Christians must have.

2. Assensus: This is the assent or confidence that we have that the notitia is correct. Here we assent to the information affirming it to be true. This involves evidence which leads to the conviction of the truthfulness of the proposition. According to the Reformers, to have knowledge of the proposition is not enough. We must, to some degree, be convicted that it is indeed true. This involves intellectual assent and persuasion based upon critical thought. While notitia claims “Christ rose from the grave,” assensus takes the next step and says, “I am persuaded to believe that Christ rose from the grave.”

But these two alone are not enough according to the Reformers. As one person has said, these two only qualify you to be a demon for the demons both have the right information (Jesus rose from the grave) and are convicted of its truthfulness. One aspect still remains.

3. Fiducia: This is the “resting” in the information based upon a conviction of its truthfulness. Fiducia is best expressed by the English word “trust.” We have the information, we are persuaded of its truthfulness, now we have to trust in it. Christ died for our sins (notitia). I believe that Christ died for my sins (notitia + assensus). I place my trust in Christ to save me (fiducia). Fiducia is the personal subjective act of the will to take the final step. It is important to note that while fiducia goes beyond or transcends the intellect, it is built upon its foundation.

The Church today seems to lack #2. Nominal Christianity lacks #3. Postmodernism lacks #1 and #2.

The change occurred during the enlightenment. Rene Decartes introduced the criteria of absolute certainty (absolute assensus) about all things. Hume responded with radical skepticism (non-assensus) about all things. Kant provided a mediating position which provided the basic framework for our current epistemology. Kant proposed that while we cannot be certain about all things, there is no reason to be skeptical about everything either. He relegated all knowledge into two categories. 1.) The real world which can be known and understood through observation (the phenomenal) and 2.) that which cannot be known because it is unknowable (the noumenal). Religion and all matters concerning the knowledge of God and metaphysics were placed in the noumenal category. Kant was basically saying, you can believe in God, but you cannot believe in Him like you believe in your friends, car, or your popcorn machine. However, when you believe in God, you must understand that your belief is not based in knowledge and intellectual conviction, but in faith. Hence came the now popular dichotomy between faith and reason. Hence rose anti-intellectualism in the church. Hence came the unbiblical banishing of assensus from the Christian faith. Unfortunately, the church has bought into this Kantian philosophy and has been plagued with it for the last 200 years.

Bill O’Reilly and those who define their apologetic according to the “You ask me how I know He lives . . .” hymn are prime examples of the churches neglect of the importance of assensus and their uncritical acceptance of Kantian epistemology. This is why many in the church today have the right information (notitia) but they blindly trust in that information without considering it in a critical manner. Notitia and fiducia without assensus is blind faith.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not saying that this kind of faith cannot be real, but I am saying that it is dangerous. The more I read about those who have “walked away from the faith” the more I see that their faith was void of this important element that solidifies the truth in their heart. This can be illustrated by the the different seeds in the Parable of the Soils. Two of the three seeds that take root (believe) fall away after a “short time” (it is interesting that we don’t know how short the “short time” is – another blog). Why do they fall away? One reason is probably because they are not fully persuaded of the truth. In the end, other truths prove more convincing. Like the character “Pliable” in the book The Pilgrim’s Progress, never being truly convinced of any particular truth, there are those who wander from truth to truth based upon the expediency of the day. In the end, I fear, that there are many out there who like Pliable are really not convinced of who Christ is and what He did.

Am I saying that assensus is the most important aspect of faith? Not at all. All three are equally important. What I am saying is that it is the most neglected. When assensus is neglected, Christianity has no more legitimacy than any other worldview. This is unfortunate. While every other worldview must necessarily exclude assensus to some degree, Christianity is the only worldview that does not have to.

Let’s reclaim the mind for Christ and honor God with our faith.


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