Faith is not mental assent to irrefutable facts
The classic, oft-quoted, and definitive verse on faith in the New Testament is Hebrews 11:1. And I love the Recovery Version’s translation here (following Darby’s precedent):
Now faith is the substantiation of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith is understood not as the substance itself but the substantiating ability that makes the divine reality real and experiential. Just like the eyes substantiate color, faith substantiates things hoped for. The organ (eye) itself is not the object (color) but the means to personally and concretely experience the object. This is why faith is related mainly to your spirit and not your mind. Paul calls it a “spirit of faith (2 Cor. 4:13).” The mind can at best process and interpret information. The human spirit can subjectively experience the reality that’s behind it.
Purely “historical faith” then is not saving faith. The results of scholarship are not truths of salvation merely because they are historically true.
In other words, I don’t believe ‘in’ research. I am not saved by scholarship. I believe ‘into’ a Person.
Thus, I don’t believe in Jesus the same way I believe in Alexander the Great or in valence electrons. The New Testament equates believing with receiving. John 1:12 says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the authority to become children of God, to those who believe into His name.” People may be subdued by the best arguments but still not believe or receive Christ. Paul was aware of this in Corinth.
And my speech and my proclamation were not in persuasive words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, in order that your faith would not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
-1 Cor. 2:4-5
Historical yet transcendent
The secular historians (Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus) can only bring us so close to the historical Jesus. Only a faint outline emerges. Still, enough is established to quell critical skepticism.
Even the inspired evangelists do not write an actual biography. They are not disinterested reports meant for the annals of Jerusalem. They are not trying to reprint all the information that would appear on a driver’s license or birth certificate. The genre is non-science, not anti-science.
They capture genuine history but transcend it, simultaneously.
The Gospels flush out who Jesus was intrinsically, not with the glasses of archeology to prove His existence but with the glasses of faith to prove His substance. They pull back the skin of this very real man and reveal His true character.
But you did not so learn Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him as the reality is in Jesus.
A Certain Whole
Hans Küng rounds off his chapter on The Real Christ with a very Proustian analogy:
The truth lies between shallow credulity which is closely related to superstition and radical skepticism which is frequently linked with an uncritical belief in hypotheses… What are more important than the historically proved authenticity of a particular saying are the ruling tendencies, the peculiar forms of behavior, the typical basic trends, the clearly dominating factors, what is not pressed into schemes and patterns but the “open” total picture. And in this respect we are not without an answer. That is to say, an answer is possible if we avoid the danger of not seeing the wood for the trees, the consensus for the diversities of opinion- a danger to which scholars preoccupied with exegetical details are sometimes exposed.
These discussions of exegetical details are about as important or unimportant as the question whether Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were originally written for the Margrave of Brandenburg (they were not) or whether the Second in F Major should be played with the trumpet or the horn (and which), and so on. Certainly these are important differences, at least for the musical scholar. But there is no doubt about the name of the work and everyone knows the melody, whether it is played with trumpet or horn. And, although there may be some doubt about the details of the score, there can be none at all about the existence of the work and about the score as a whole. In fact, we can hear and enjoy the Brandenburg No. 2, even without knowing the problems of the history of music, although a little knowledge helps us to get more out of listening to it. Need we take any further the comparison with the Gospels and their theme?
- Is Jesus for Real? The Certainty of Faith (lifeandbuilding.com)
- Does Science Incriminate the Bible (lifeandbuilding.com)
That last quote is great! What is the title of Hans Kung’s book?
I agree, Kyle, that faith using our spirit is the key. Even an atheist needs to have “faith” in his belief that there is no God or Jesus is not real, or He merely was a good, benevolent Jew, right? But that “faith” does not give substance to anything. It is sourced in one’s ability to be convinced in the mind (which is easily influenced by professors and peers and not based on personal experience). When faced with danger, man naturally is inclined to cry out for God. Out on the street he may preach that there is no God, but if he falls into a river who does he cry out for? O God! O God help me!” (The christian author Watchman Nee gave witnesses and account like this).
My point is this, IN THE MOMENT OF REALIZING Who You Are, Your Real Situation, Your Mortality, Your Weakness, THERE IS NOTHING MORE THAT RATIONALIZING OR REASONING IN THE MIND CAN DO. You Are Inclined To Go Deeper; your human spirit. It is in your spirit that man can know (experiencially) what faith is. It is beyond ability to explain, it CONVICTS us of the unseen things. What is conviction? According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, it is “the STATE OF BEING convinced of error or COMPELLED TO ADMIT the truth.” It is by such a personal conviction concerning the truth of Christ and the church, and the errors of religion, that Tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of believers peacefully walked to the stake to be burned alive for their beliefs. Would an atheist give his life is such a way for his “faith”? I find it very unlikely.
Yeah, he is truly the Marcel Proust of theologians. The name of the book is “On Being a Christian.” It’s a jungle and very dense, but if you are fine with possibly reading a few sections twice, it is excellent in parts. I’m still working my way through it. So far I have especially enjoyed the first two major sections- “The Challenge of Modern Humanisms” and “The Other Dimension.”
You’re right, disbelief is another form of belief. Everyone has faith in something. Of course, neither atheism nor belief in God are able to be proved to the extent that a decision is no longer necessary.
I appreciate the first line of your post, and I’m thankful for the fact that faith isn’t just a mental assent to facts. I’ve run into all too many people who consider that being a Christian is simply a matter of agreeing with a particular belief system. It’s great to see that being a Christian is about believing “into” a living Person, not merely believing “in” an objective set of beliefs. And, as you point out, believing “into” Christ necessitates the use of our human spirit, which brings us beyond the limited realm of our mind into a genuinely spiritual realm in which we can “know the things which have been graciously given to us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12).
We preach Christ, not historical details or a world view per se. Our mind is certainly needed to understand and even in loving God, as in Mark 12:30, but our spirit is our receiving organ. Paul says, the Lord is with our spirit. Some people need to hear a lot of facts before they believe and some people need almost no supplementary facts. The important thing is to get people to react positively to the word of the gospel. For that, we need the Spirit’s convicting and enlightening more than an arsenal of irrefutable facts.
Beautifully written Kyle,
I love a well presented, intellectually sound, view of the truth.
thanks again, Graeme
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