Is Faith the Opposite of Knowledge?

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One area of discipleship that tends to be neglected is the discipleship of our minds (Matthew 22:37-38).  The apostle Paul alluded to this when he wrote, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).  There is a popular misconception that the faith exercised by Christians is the opposite of knowledge, and that as knowledge increases, faith must decrease.  But as J. P. Moreland argues in his chapter in Following Jesus Christ, Christian faith is actually based on knowledge, and the greater our knowledge, the stronger our faith will become.

But what about faith? Isn’t it crucial to Christianity? After all, Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” And aren’t knowledge and faith polar opposites? If you have knowledge of something, you can’t at the same time have faith in it. And if you have faith in something, you don’t need knowledge.

This skewed view of faith is both harmful and widely embraced by the culture at large, and it is ubiquitous among Christians. This fact was made evident to me years ago when I was giving an evangelistic message on “Evidence That Christianity Is True” in a high school gym in Synecdoche, New York. There were around a thousand people there, and it was evident that a lot of unbelievers had come. After my talk, there were two microphones with a line of people leading up to them in order to ask me questions. From the nature of their questions, it was obvious that the first two individuals were unbelievers. The third person, a dear lady, was a Christian. She stepped up to the mic and said this: “Dr. Moreland, I am troubled by your message.” Puzzled, I asked her why. She continued, “If you prove there is a God, there will be no room for faith.” Even though I have heard this sort of thing numerous times, it still shocks me every time I hear it, and that evening was no exception. While I responded graciously and explained her confusion about faith, inside I was thinking, “Maybe we should pray that archaeologists and scientists will find all kinds of apparent inaccuracies and serious problems in the Bible so our faith will have a chance to grow even stronger!”

What was the problem here? My dear sister had adopted the contemporary view of faith, viz., faith is a choice of the will to believe something in the absence of reasonable considerations for or against that choice. On this view, faith is a bare act of the will that has nothing to do with reasoning. But there are two problems with this view. First, it is impossible. We do not have direct free will over what we believe, so we cannot simply choose to believe something on the spot, and it will happen. You could not right now choose to believe that a pink unicorn is flying over your head, that 2+2=47½, that cats are the same thing as tomatoes, or that George Washington was a space alien and not the first president of the United States. Even if you had a huge incentive to believe these things right now (say, I offered you $10,000 if you could choose to believe one of these things), you still couldn’t do it. We have indirect control over our beliefs. If I want to believe more strongly in prayer, I can’t just choose to do that, and it happens on the spot. But I can undertake a regimen of reading on prayer, asking all my Christian friends if they have seen answers to prayer and how they handle unanswered prayer, experimenting with different forms of prayer, and so on. Eventually, I would find my faith in prayer becoming stronger. Here’s the key point: Faith and knowledge are not opposite ends of a line, such that as one grows the other must diminish.

The second problem with this view of faith is this: It is unbiblical and lacks common sense. A better biblical definition of faith is that it is a confidence or trust in something or someone based on what one knows about the object of faith. This does not mean we can always figure out why God is asking us to do something or where he is leading in a situation—after all, God’s ways are higher than ours!—and it doesn’t mean that what God does or does not choose to do will always make sense to us. After all, our perspective is so limited compared to God’s. But it does mean that when we step out in faith and take a risk for God, we are warranted in doing so because of the things we know about God already. Consider Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22:1–18). Abraham was horribly confused and did not know why God was asking him to do this or what any of the situation meant for the future of Israel. But he was warranted in stepping out on faith, even though he did not know why or what was going to happen because he already knew enough about God to trust him even in a dark time. Indeed, Hebrews 11:19 says that Abraham knew that God could raise Isaac from the dead if necessary, and that this knowledge was part of why he could take such a risk.

Further, this second definition is just plain commonsense. Consider the experience of buying a car. A price is set, but you know absolutely nothing about the car and have no idea at all if it is worth the price. It would be both foolish and pretty hard simply to choose to have faith in the car and buy it. By contrast, the more you know about the car, the more you can have an appropriate trust or confidence in it in accordance with the car’s worthiness to be trusted. In general, the more we know about something (or someone), the more we can place an appropriate faith in that thing (or person) in accordance with our knowledge of its trustworthiness. So faith is built on knowledge; it is not a polar opposite of knowledge.

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“An impressive roster of scholars who have addressed a vital but often neglected topic in both the church and in the academy. . . . Rich with insight, Following Jesus Christ represents a major advance in this essential area of study.”

Craig A. Evans, Houston Baptist University

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