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Faith—Part 1

Faith—Part 1

In an acceptance speech for the 1996 Humanist of the Year award Richard Dawkins declared faith to be “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”[1] By contrast John Calvin describes faith as follows: “it is certain that no man will ever know him aright without at the same time receiving the sanctification of the Spirit”?[2] For Dawkins faith is the surrender of our highly evolved mental faculties for a fairy tale. For Calvin faith is an otherworldly, external endowment, a capability to believe God’s word that is not natural to us and therefore must be given. Who’s right? 

Faith, says the Hebrew writer, is ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (11.1). This is hardly a dictionary definition of faith, nor was it meant to be, but it gets at the core of faith: that whatever faith is, it is required to believe that which we cannot see. Just as our physical senses are required to perceive a physical object, so immaterial faith is required to believe the unseen. By faith we “understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God” (v3). Why? Because there is no other way to accept unobservable phenomena. You didn’t see the creation of the world but you believe it was created by God. Why? With what tool did you discern that? A microscope? A telescope? Magnetic Resonance Imaging? No, by faith. God said it, and he has proven himself “faithworthy” and so you “faithed” his word, you trusted it. It was by Faith that Noah prepared an ark because he believed the warning “of things not seen yet” (v7). By faith Abraham obeyed because he went without having seen the land with his own eyes (v8). Faith is the instrument by which we perceive that which cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Before we proceed, a few misconceptions need to be addressed. First, faith is not just a fuzzy word for the mathematics of probability[3]. It is not simply a matter of considering a number of options and then choosing the one with the highest total value. Though it is not less than that. But to reduce it to a simple application of ‘decision theory’ is to rob it of its theological context. As if Abraham simply weighed up life in Ur and life in Canaan and decided the promised land had a better retirement plan. Faith involves a weighing up of the evidence but it is not only that. 

Another misconception is that it is impossible for us to have confidence in God’s word without it being given to us as a gift. The only way to know if we truly have that gift, it is claimed, is by checking our spiritual barometers. I would like to underline the utter confusion this assertion causes. Andrew Fuller, a former “High Calvinist” recounts the time in his youth when he was told to wait for a “warrant of faith”, i.e, this particular brand of Calvinism claimed that faith is to “believe the goodness of their state”[4]. By which he meant that an individual would have a certain visceral knowledge that God was actually working in his heart. Later in life he realized the folly of this position, “The Scriptures always represent faith as terminating on something [outside of] us; namely, on Christ, and the truths concerning him. . . . The person, blood, and righteousness of Christ revealed in the Scriptures as the way of a sinner’s acceptance with God, are, properly speaking, the objects of our faith; for without such a revelation it were impossible to believe in them. . . . That for which he ought to have trusted in him was the obtaining of mercy, in case he applied for it. For this there was a complete warrant in the gospel declarations.”[5] Fuller’s experience teaches us this: to focus on a faith that God will give you or a work that God is doing in you as the basis of your confidence will only leave you more confused and dissatisfied. Paul preached “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20.21) not faith in our faith, or our spiritual condition. In the next article we will consider John Calvin’s conception of faith in light of the scriptures and the rest of the series will deal with a close examination of the the relevant biblical texts on the subject.  


[1] Dawkins, Richard. Is science a religion?

[2] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, No. 8 

[3] Blais, Brian. A Measure of Faith, Probability in Religious Thought, Pg 102. 

[4] Piper, John. Andrew Fuller, Holy Faith, Worthy Gospel, World Mission, PDF. 

[5] Piper, John. Andrew Fuller, Holy Faith, Worthy Gospel, World Mission, PDF. 

News from a Far Country: Cape Town, South Africa (Rodney Brown)

News from a Far Country: Cape Town, South Africa (Rodney Brown)