On the Word “Faith”

What is faith? The word, like many words that fall out of our mouths, is often misunderstood and misused. No little problems result from such careless thought and speech. We may get reality wrong and suffer on account of our blunder. Perhaps we can rectify this a bit.

The general meaning of faith is a strong trust in something or someone taken as reliable. Thus, I have faith that J.P. Moreland’s next book will be worth reading. This is because all his work thus far has been excellent and because I know him to be a godly and intelligent man. Faith in this sense, requires no doubt that must be overcome by a leap of ascent.

But faith can also mean belief in what cannot be rationally justified. This epistemically weak sense of the term refers to what is likely a baseless hope or wishful thinking. The Bible never uses the word faith in this sense. In Scripture, believe in God and trust in God is not like this. The Bible does speak of faith as contrasted with sight, but never contrasted with reason or evidence. One may rightly believe in what one cannot see. You believe your neighbor has thoughts (which you cannot see; which no one can see), you believe in rational inference (which you cannot see; which no one can see), and you believe that there are subatomic particles (which you cannot see; which on one can see). One could go on, but you should see the point.

Religious people are sometimes singled out as “people of faith,” since they hold to beliefs not held by everyone and beliefs that are usually rooted in a holy book or some other seat of authority. They place their faith (assent and trust) in these doctrines, either rationally or irrationally.

However, non-religious people have faith as well in that they adhere to some stripe of worldview based on some notion of authority, albeit a non-religious authority such as “science” (a weak reed, that) or mere personal experience, which they claim to have rightly interpreted. An atheist may have faith that the universe began to exist out of nothing a finite time ago and without a cause. No atheist has observed this, but it is inferred (against all reason, since something cannot come from nothing), and then taken as a basic belief. They, thus, have a faith in (literally) nothing–everything came from nothing, plus nothing. May reason always deliver us from such faith.

Proof is not required for rational faith. (See my previous essay on this blog.) All one needs is adequate justification for belief P and the requisite trust in and response to this belief. Then you have faith. Thus, I believe on good evidence that my dentist is well-trained. That is rational assent. Then on the basis of this rational assent (belief), I open my mouth to accommodate her use of the tools (some very noisy), hoses, chemicals and other dental machinery.

As a Christian of many years, I assent that Christianity is objectively true, and do so for many reasons. My most developed testimony to this is Christian Apologetics (InterVarsity Press, 2011). As a follower of Christ and believer in the Bible as true and authoritative, I entrust my self to God through prayer, service, and worship.I not only believe that Christianity is true; I believe in God as revealed in the Bible and through Jesus Christ, God Incarnate.

Perhaps this has cleared away a few cobwebs. Faith need not and ought not be blind, whatever the object of that faith may be. And it does make a difference. If Christianity is true, the stakes could not be higher.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

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