Why Do People Completely Misunderstand the Word “Faith?”

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.


Anyone who has been engaged in talking to people in our culture about the Christian worldview knows that many people misunderstand the word “faith.” I could go ahead and blame the media, pop culture, and the university for this widespread problem. But the reality is that it is incumbent upon pastors, apologists, and ministry leaders to teach and instruct Christians about the proper definition of the word “faith.” Yes, many Christians don’t know how to explain the word “faith.”

Some theologians and apologists have suggested that it might be a good idea to substitute the word “trust” in place of the word “faith.” This has some merit to it. Joseph Thayer says the following:

“To believe” means to think to be true; to be persuaded of; to credit, [to] place confidence in. [And in] a moral and religious reference, pisteuein [from pisteuo] is used in the N.T. of a conviction and trust to which a man is impelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative and law of his soul. “ (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 511).

Here are some of the examples of faith in our popular culture:

1. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: starring Harrison Ford & Sean Connery as Indy’s father) – At the end of the story, Indy must retrieve the Holy Grail to save his father’s life. He makes it through a long corridor of obstacles; only to find he is standing on the edge of a deep chasm he must cross. He steps out “in faith” and finds he is actually walking on a camouflaged footbridge. Therefore, we see that FAITH = BELIEVING IN THE FACE OF CONTRADICTORY EVIDENCE.

2. Revolutions: the third movie in The Matrix trilogy: In the final scene the Oracle is asked if she always knew that Neo was “The One”? She replies, “Oh no. But I believed. I believed.” Therefore, we see that FAITH = BELIEVING WITHOUT REALLY KNOWING.

3. The Polar Express: The boy, who is skeptical about whether Santa Clause is real, finally is lead to say, “I believe, I believe.” Just then, Santa appears to him. Therefore, we see that FAITH = BELIEVING MAKES IT REAL. (1)

The Leap of Faith or Leap to Faith?

Another common assertion is that faith in God or Jesus as the Messiah is nothing more than a “leap of faith.” Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), became one of the foremost contributors to existential philosophy because of a reaction to one of the largest influences on his life, that being George Hegel, who believed the only way to discover reality was through rationalism. (2) Another contributing factor to Kierkegaard’s existentialism was the experience he had in his formal church that was located in Denmark.

It was there that practicing faith with passion was discounted. Out of his reaction to the cold formalism, Kierkegaard discovered what was important was to have an existential encounter with God. (3) Many assume that the phrase itself “leap of faith” finds its origins in the writings of Kierkegaard. However, he himself never used the term, as he referred to the leap as a “leap to faith.” For Kierkegaard, since man finds his authentic existence in a relationship with the Creator, the decision to believe must involve a criterionless choice.(4) Even though Kierkegaard says there are no rational grounds to take the leap to faith, the individual must do so or he will forever remain in an inauthentic existence. (5)

Kierkegaard was correct in calling people to a passionate experience with God. After all, faith is not simply about adhering to a set of objective, historical, propositions.

In their book Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli give a summary of faith.

Kreeft and Tacelli say we must distinguish between the act of faith from the object of faith- believing from what is believed. The object of faith means all things believed. For the Christian, this means everything God has revealed in the Bible. This faith (the object, not the act) is expressed in propositions. Propositions are many, but the ultimate object of faith is one. The ultimate object of faith is not words, but God’s Words (singular), indeed-Himself.

Without a relationship with the living God, propositions are pointless, for their point is to point beyond themselves to God. But without propositions, we cannot know or tell others what God we believe in and what we believe about God. There are four aspects of faith:

1. Emotional faith: is feeling assurance or trust or confidence in a person. This includes hope (which is much stronger than a wish and peace (which is much stronger then mere calm.).
2. Intellectual faith: is belief. It is this aspect of faith that is formulated in propositions and summarized in creeds.
3. Volitional faith: is an act of the will, a commitment to obey God’s will. This faith is faithfulness, or fidelity. It manifests itself in behavior, that is, in good works.
4. Faith: begins in that obscure mysterious center of our being that Scripture calls the ‘heart.” Heart in Scripture does not mean feeling, or sentiment, or emotion, but the absolute center of the soul, as the physical heart is at the center of the body. “Keep your heart with all viligence” advised Solomon, “for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23).

Lessons from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 

” For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

Four observations can be made from this passage:

First of all, faith has an object: In the Bible, the object of faith is sometimes described as resting in God Himself (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:24). Even in the New Testament, Jesus confirms this issue (Mark 11:22). But even as God is the object of faith, the author of the Gospel of John directs his audience to Jesus as being the object of faith as well (John 20:31).

Secondly, the object of biblical faith must be true: As D.A. Carson says,

“Paul is communicating to the Corinthians’ that their faith is “futile” (vs.17). In other words, the Corinthians faith is valid only if its object is true. Faith is never validated in the New Testament when its object is not true. Indeed, New Testament faith is strengthened when its object is validated supported by witness, shown to be revealed by God, impregnably real, true. Such an understanding of “faith” is utterly at odds with the use of faith in the Western culture.” (6)

In relation to truth, both the Old and New Testament terms for truth are emet and alethia. In relation to truth, these words are associated with fidelity, moral rectitude, being real, being genuine, faithfulness, having veracity, being complete. (7) According to a Biblical conception of truth, a proposition is true only if it accords with factual reality. There are numerous passages that explicitly contrast true propositions with falsehoods. The Old Testament warns against false prophets whose words do not correspond to reality. For example Deuteronomy 18:22: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken”, and the ninth commandment warns against bearing false testimony. (8)

Thirdly, biblical faith is rooted in historical reality: Objectively speaking, no matter how much faith a Christian has, it can’t change whether Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, believing Jesus rose from the dead won’t make it true. The event of the resurrection is in the past. Either Jesus rose from the dead or He did not rise from the dead.

A correct view of biblical faith simply appropriates what is already written in the Bible. Perhaps modern-day Christians can learn something about their own faith by reading this comment by New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III:

“Any position in which claims about Jesus or the resurrection are removed from the realm of historical reality and placed in a subjective realm of personal belief or some realm that is immune to human scrutiny does Jesus and the resurrection no service and no justice. It is a ploy of desperation to suggest that the Christian faith would be little affected if Jesus was not actually raised from the dead in space and time. A person who gives up on the historical foundations of our faith has in fact given up on the possibility of any real continuity between his or her own faith and that of a Peter, Paul, James, John, Mary Magdalene, or Priscilla. The first Christian community had a strong interest in historical reality, especially the historical reality of Jesus and his resurrection, because they believed their faith, for better or for worse, was grounded in it.” (9)

Finally, there is a relationship between faith and knowledge: Does biblical faith assert that we can believe in things we cannot know? According to Paul, unless his audience accepts the “fact” that Jesus rose from the dead in the context of time, space, and history, they are still dead in their sins. They are to be pitied. In the words of Greg Koukl, “The opposite of faith is not fact, but unbelief. The opposite of knowledge is ignorance. Neither is a virtue in Christianity.” (10)

What about Hebrews 11:1?

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I hear skeptics quote this passage to support the view that faith is blind and not supported by any evidence. Is this correct?

First, don’t quote this verse out of context. It has to be read in light of the rest of the chapter.

Second, we need to know how the verse and chapter fits in the overall context of the the book of Hebrews.

Most of the time this passage is laid out by skeptics in the following way:

1. If we can’t see God, God does not exist.
2. We can’t see God
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

What is wrong with this argument?

It must also be remembered to insist that God must be a visible object which can be observed with the five senses is to commit a category mistake. A category mistake is to assign to something a property which applies only to objects of another category. We must not confuse two categories- the made and the Unmade. Obviously, from the Orthodox Christian view, God has no composition. The Hebrew word for one is “echad” which leaves room for a plurality within a unity of substance- but there is no implication of a plurality of beings or parts within a being. Scripture admonishes mankind about making any physical image of God (Exodus 20:4). God is pure spirit ( John 4:24). He has no parts and is an immaterial Being. Hence, the God of the Bible is unmade.

That is why we have to observe the effects in the world and make rational inferences as to what the cause is of the effect. So while it is true that God is not a material object, we can observe the effects in the world and ask whether they can be explained by a blind, undirected natural processes or intelligence. By the way, this is similar to what Paul says in Rom.1:18-21. We see that Paul lays out the basic principle of cause and effect. Paul says since God is the Designer (God is the cause), His “everlasting power and divinity” are obvious, “through the things that are made” (this is the effect).

Biblical Faith: Three Aspects

There have been three aspects of faith expressed throughout church history: notitia (knowledge), fiducia (trust), and assensus (assent). Notitia refers to the data or doctrinal element of faith. Assensus refers to the assent of the intellect of the truth of the Christian faith. According to the book of James, the demons can have intellectual assent to the fact that God exists but not have saving faith. That is why a person must exercise fiducia- this is the aspect of faith that involves the application or trust in the faith process. (11)

In other words, fiducia allows a person to go beyond merely intellectual assent. Fiducia involves the will, emotion, and intellect.

Belief In And Belief That

It must not be forgotten that there is a relationship between belief that and belief in. For example, in James 2:19, it says the demons believe that God exists. Apologetics may serve as a valuable medium through which God can operate, but faith is never the product of historical facts or evidence alone. Everyone takes their past and present history into examining the existence of God. Sin and a hardened heart can dampen a person’s receptivity to God’s invitation to them.

Objectively speaking, the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with the evidence for the truthfulness of the Christian faith to enable us to understand that God exists. However, from a subjective perspective, the Holy Spirit also enables an individual to place his trust in God. (John 16: 12-15). In other words, one can trust that God exists and still not be a true believer.

So we can conclude by stating that humans not only need to believe that Christ is the Savior, but that they also need to put our trust in Christ to become a follower of Him.

One Piece of Advice to Christian Apologists

There is no doubt that we need to do our homework and examine all the passages about faith and the apologetic methods that were used by both Jesus and the Apostles. I can say without hesitation that the object of my faith is not evidence. If the object of my faith was evidence alone, than evidence would be an idol. Instead, the object of my faith is God or Jesus Himself. So while reason and evidence does support my trust in Jesus/God, it does not take the place of God Himself. If you are at the place where you have allowed evidence to take the place of faith, you need to pull back and find some balance on this issue.

1. These three examples of faith are courtesy of Summit Ministries. Available at http://www.summit.org/resources/tc/2008/05/is-faith-blind.php
2. Erickson, M. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 1998, 40-47.
3. Ibid.
4. Craig, W.L. Reasonable Faith. Wheaten, ILL: Crossway Books. 1984, 56.
5. Ibid.
6. Carson, Donald A. Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 2005, 216.
7. Moreland, J.P. and W.L. Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003, 131-132.
8. Ibid.
9. Ben Witherington III. New Testament History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001, 167.
10. Koukl, G. Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 2009, 153.
11. Moreland, J.P Love Your God With All Your Mind. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress. 1997, 60.

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