Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Science and Faith at War?  3 3. Blind Faith—Does the Bible present it as a virtue?

Notes from a Sunday School that began on May 25.

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Location: Grace Baptist Chapel
805 Todd's Lane
Hampton, VA 23666
Time: 10:00-10:45 am

3. Blind Faith—Does the Bible present it as a virtue?

There are two quite vocal groups who do not seek reconciliation between science and faith. On the contrary, their agenda is to foil any such rapprochement. One group is a more-militant subset of atheistic scientists and their supporters. The other group is a certain type of Christian fundamentalist. Strange bedfellows, these two communities make. Their reasons are oddly similar—an intense dislike of the other group. They are not unlike two groups of racists of different ethnicity, both of whom agree that interracial marriage is bad.

The argument they make is this: any desire to see God in science, or to claim physical evidence for God, is bad theology. Why? Because they argue (identically and from convenience) science is the opposite of faith. Faith is a virtue which, they will say, science undermines. According to this line of reasoning, any search for the glory of God in science is a lose-lose scenario. If successful, it renders faith obsolete, and if unsuccessful, it creates an unnecessary and unpleasant challenge to faith.

For example, in an article for the San Antonio Express-News, Susan Ives wrote:32

Intelligent design disrespects faith, discounts faith, destroys faith.

Faith is belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. Faith falls into the realm of metaphysics — literally, "beyond physics," the branch of philosophy that seeks to explain the nature of reality and the origin and structure of the world.

When we try to prove and promote the metaphysical through the physical — when we muddle faith and science — we are, in effect, saying that faith is not enough, that faith, like science, requires proof. Faith that requires proof is no faith at all.

In my Protestant tradition we recite a creed that declares our faith: "I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and Earth."

There are no footnotes in this creed that refer to William Dembski's "The Design Inference" or references to "The Black Box" by Michael Behe, two of the seminal books in the intelligent design movement.
But is Ms. Ives presenting a false dichotomy? Are our choices limited to “faith only” and “demanding scientific proof of God”? Of course they are not. Any Christian who has gazed at a sunset or marveled at the birth of their child knows that the observable world can glorify God and bolster faith while still falling far short of proving God. For a believer, science is the same “creation gazing” writ large. We see God’s amazing handiwork not just in the easily accessible everyday phenomena, but most microscopic and most distant events that require great effort to observe and understand.

Now in fact, it is blind faith that, according to both these groups, is the ultimate Christian virtue. Blind faith truly is the opposite of science, and if blind faith is what the bible calls for then these groups have a point. That is why we take time to look at the question of faith. Superficially it is opposed to science—but only if we permit these two groups to define the essence of biblical faith.

From fundamentalists, the canonization of blind faith stems from an anti-science position: Science is evil, it promotes evil ideas (e.g., an old earth) therefore the senses are not to be trusted--just believe in the interpretation of scripture we promote.

I have often written something that I know people tend to dispute: fundamentalism is a form of liberalism. That's right: Bob Jones University is liberal--because liberal, in terms of theology, means man-centered as opposed to Sola Scriptura. Liberalism means taking liberties with the Bible. Fundamentalism both adds to scripture (in the form of legalism) and takes away from scripture (mostly resulting from its overly-simplistic hyper-literal hermeneutic.) Well here is something else that may surprise you about fundamentalism: it leans toward the Gnostic. Like Gnosticism it demonizes the physical realm and emphasizes "special knowledge." The special knowledge of fundamentalism goes by the name: blind faith.

So this is what we seek to explore. Is blind faith the hallmark of the Christian walk? We shall examine this question by taking a look at the eleventh chapter of the magnificent book of Hebrews. That is the so-called faith Hall of Fame. It should prove particularly relevant.

3.1. Hebrews 11 seems to say yes, until, oddly enough…

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)
This passage is one of two (the other being the "Doubting Thomas" passage) that are used to support the idea that "blind faith" is not just your garden-variety virtue, it's the ultimate virtue that a Christian can and should posses. In fact, many would agree that what defines a Christian is (1) blind faith and (2) the appropriate target of that blind faith.

There is no question that the writer of Hebrews is praising faith. And the faith he is praising is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. The relevant questions would seem to be:

  1. Who is the target of this praise? Is it all believers, or some particular group?

  2. Is the faith being praised specific? To put it another way, what are the things hoped for and what are the things not seen? Is this broadly referring to “God”?

The key is in the verses that follow:

2For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. 4By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. (Heb 11:2-4)
These subsequent verses are omitted when someone wants to uses the first verse as bludgeon. When they want verse one to mean that saving faith derives only from things not seen—lest it somehow be tainted. When they want it to mean that any sign of God in the physical realm can only weaken rather than strengthen faith.

Verse two tells us who the writer is talking about: the people of old, the Old Testament saints. If verse one were a blanket statement, it would apply to all believers. But here we have an indication that the faith being praised is for the BC generations. (Verse three is a quasi-scientific verse. We just note that Old Earth Creations have no problem here. We believe God created the universe via the Big Bang, and it is indeed the case that it was made of things that are not visible. In fact, nothing was visible until 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when light was no longer trapped.)

In verse four we see another important clue. The faiths of Cain and Abel are contrasted. Is Abel’s faith more acceptable because it is blind? No—both Cain and Abel had, we can be sure, personal exposure to God. No, Abel’s faith is praiseworthy not because he believed in God without seeing him—both Abel and Cain “saw” God—but because Abel trusted in God while Cain did not. In particular Abel, it seems reasonable to assume, trusted in God’s promises.

This is important, does faith mean “believe without seeing” or is it something closer to trust? In fact if you use a Greek Lexicon, you'll find that faith (pistis) is indeed related to trust and is never described as "believing in things for which there is no evidence."

Now is an opportune time to present a glorious list: the Cooperstown of faith. The Hall of Famers—all the believers who receive praise, by name, in Hebrews 11, for their great faith. A biblical who’s who. They are:

Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel.

(Barak but not Deborah??—now that’s a hot potato.)

The writer could have mentioned the faith of some of the early Christians. He could have mentioned the apostles. He could have mentioned the woman at the well. Or the various people who desperately reached out to Christ and were healed. He could have, but he didn’t. As implied by verse two, Hebrews 11 is a testimony to the believers of old.

We need to make another point about this list. If you wanted to draw up a list of people who were poster children for blind faith the way it is usually meant (believing in God in spite of no evidence) this would not be it. Everyone on this list either saw and spoke with God, or witnessed some great deed of God’s. None of these people had any need for “blind faith.”

So what are they being praised for? What was unseen? The writer tells us. In fact he tells us twice:
13These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

39And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. (Heb 11: 13,39-40)
These verses further confirm it is the faith of the Old Testament saints, because we, in the New Testament era, are contrasted as having something better.

What do we have that they didn’t? It’s fairly obvious. We have seen the promise of the Messiah fulfilled. They could only hope in the promise. The blindness of their faith was not a lack of evidence in creation for God—many of them talked to God. Their blindness, as it were, is that they lived and died without seeing the completed work of Christ, but they kept their faith in the promise.

Let us end this section by recalling the two questions asked earlier:

  1. Who is the target of this praise? Is it all believers, or some particular group?

  2. Is the faith being praised specific? To put it another way, what are the things hoped for and what are the things not seen? Is this broadly referring to “God”?

The answers we have found are:

  1. The target of this praise is the saints of the Old Testament.

  2. The things hoped for and not seen are the finished works of Jesus Christ.

We emphasize, again, that none of the saints singled out by name had any need of “blind faith” as that term is traditionally used.

3.2. Hebrews 11 seems to prove otherwise.

As stated in the previous section, if you use a Greek Lexicon, you'll find that faith (pistis) is in fact related to trust and is never described as "believing in things for which there is no evidence."

In the bible, faith goes way beyond believing (even the demons believe.) Faith means: I don't just try to obey God because I know I should, but I obey because I believe His plan is good.

When a Christian is told to live by faith, it is not intended that he should abandon his intellect and distrust his senses, but rather that, given God's law has been written on his heart, he should live as if he trusts that obeying that law is not just the correct but also the wise thing to do. That is what biblical "faith" is.

To get a little more academic, it is generally accepted that there are three major components of a saving faith.

1. Notitia refers to the fact that we have the correct knowledge or content. When we say we have faith, we obviously have faith in something. Notitia is the knowledge of that something. Today people often claim that sincerity in one’s faith is the most important aspect. Sincerity may be important, but it is not all important. What you believe has to be right. You may sincerely believe in reincarnation, but that is not part of a saving faith, but rather part of a damning faith. Being sincerely wrong is no virtue.

It does not mean you need a comprehensive knowledge (if so, we all would be lost), but there is some (undefined) minimum set of correct beliefs you must hold, such as the fact the God exists.

When the apostles proclaimed Christ, they provided content: Christ’s biography. They taught of Jesus’ life and his works, and how He fulfilled prophesy with His crucifixion and resurrection. They taught that men are sinners. This teaching is vital: before I can reach out for a savior I need to know that I need to be saved. With notitia I have the “theory” of Christianity; I have the content.

2. Assensus means that you not only have the notitia (content) but you also give intellectual assent to the content. This is a non-volitional agreement; you cannot will yourself or make a decision to believe. There may be a process by which you can ultimately reach a point where you can honestly affirm a proposition, either through education or divine intervention, but you cannot simply tell yourself: I will believe.

If I tell you that George Washington was the first president, that is notitia. It’s data. You may believe it, you may not. If you believe it, it is then assensus.

Many mistake assensus as the level of faith that produces salvation. This is not so; salvation comes at the third level. Assensus is belief, and belief is not enough for salvation. James teaches this when he famously refers to demons in his epistle:
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. (James 2:19)
The demons have both notitia (correct content) and assensus (intellectual assent), but their faith was/is not a saving faith. It lacks the third component: fiducia. (Although even if they had it, it is not clear they would be saved. Nowhere is it mentioned that there exists a redemptive plan for fallen angels.)

As for real people, we have the example of Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8.
Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw. (Acts 8:13)
Yet Simon was cast away by Peter for not having a heart that was right with God (Acts 8:21), and went on (legend says) to launch a heresy that still exists in the form of new-age mysticism. Simon the Sorcerer believed; he had both notitia and assensus, but he did not have a saving faith. Christ’s explanation of the parable of the sower (Matt. 13) also teaches of those who believe but fall away.

We must not conflate belief and faith.

3. Fiducia is the complex “of the heart” faith, as opposed to the cerebral notitia and assensus. This relates to our conviction and passion. This is our conscience, our personal trust and reliance. This is the part of faith that goes beyond knowing that the bible teaches us not to steal, and acknowledging that stealing is a sin, to being convicted by the Holy Spirit that stealing is wrong.

With fiducia, we not only know the content of the gospel and believe it to be true, we also believe it to be good. This is clearly, in its entirety, a gift of God. Before regeneration, we are dead in sin and cannot seek or please God. After the gift of faith, we are radically violated; our heart is transplanted. We now (imperfectly) seek God. Our biblical knowledge is buttressed by conviction that God is good, and the things of God are greatly to be desired. This is in stark contrast to atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who argue that God is evil.

Apologetics, it can be said, is in the business of spreading notitia and fighting for assensus. Fiducia is out of the purview of apologetics; Fiducia is a gift from God.

When the Jews of the Exodus got in trouble for their failure of faith, it was not because they stopped believing in God. It was because they stopped believing that God's plan was good for them. When Peter's faith failed (on two well-known occasions) he didn't stop believing in Christ, he stopped trusting him.

What was the points of all this, and what does it have to do with science? The point is this: the faith contrasted with science is blind faith. But blind faith is not what the bible calls for. The bible calls for faith as described above, a much richer concept than “believing in the invisible.” This faith has no conflict with science, and if the beauty and wonder of creation can enhance faith in the promises of God, then all the better.

Let’s emphasize this a bit more, looking again at Hebrews 11. We’ll start with one of the more interesting characters in the Hall Of Fame: Gideon.

We can never discuss Gideon without bringing up two of the more humorous passages in scripture. One is when the angel of the Lord (which is a theophany, see v.23) first appears:
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him [Gideon] and said to him, "The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor." (Judges 6:12)
Now our complete picture of Gideon tells us that in all likelihood the last thing he considered himself, at least at that time, was a man of valor. You can easily imagine him replying: "Are you talking to me?"

But an even funnier exchange occurs just a bit later:
And he [Gideon] said to him [the Lord], "If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speaks with me. Please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you." And he [the Lord] said, "I will stay till you return." (Judges 6:17-18)
Here Gideon asks God to stick around while he runs inside to get something, God answers. "Go on, take your time. I'll wait." You just have to love it.

Gideon returns and God displays his pleasure with Gideon’s gift by, um, burning it to ashes.

Later Gideon famously puts God to some additional testing:

Then Gideon said to God, "If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said." And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. Then Gideon said to God, "Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew." And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. (Judges 6:36-40)
This is what gets Gideon in trouble—not with God or with the writer of Hebrews, but with Sunday School teachers teachers who say: "don’t be like Gideon." Well, to them I say: I'd very much love to be like Gideon. You will note that God does not rebuke Gideon for asking for proof. Our premium on blind faith and the view that proof somehow is demeaning to God is darn near 180 degrees off. Blind faith is never called for, and in fact the elevation of blind faith to a virtue is, in my opinion, demeaning to God. Made in his image, we are rational beings, and every indication in scripture tells me that God is quite pleased when we seek evidence (even through science), and when he is visibly present among us, he readily provides it.

So if God, or an angel of God, appears to me and says that he will send me to defeat the army of Iran with nothing more than a Ronco VegoMatic, I am going to behave just like Gideon.

Let’s look at some more examples that demonstrate that God is not demanding blind faith:

  • In the book of Judges, Gideon asks for multiple physical proofs that God was God. The proofs were given. My bible does not contain a footnote that reads: “and Gideon, after serving his military purpose, was cursed for demanding proof.”

  • When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God complied with the request. My bible does not contain a footnote that reads: “And Moses’ inability to rely solely on blind faith is the real reason he wasn’t allowed into the Promised Land.”

  • Psalm 19 teaches that the heavens declares God’s glory. My bible does not contain a footnote that reads: “but only as a crutch for the weak-minded.”

  • When Jesus forgave the sins of a lame man, he then healed the man. Instead of containing a footnote that reads: “and for those who required the latter, let them be anathema,” my bible reads that Jesus said it was so we may know the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins.

  • When Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, they thought they were seeing a ghost. He showed them he was flesh and blood, and that he could even eat. My bible does not contain a footnote that reads: “and their rewards in heaven were diminished because they relied on physical proof.”

  • Paul writes, in the letter to the Romans, that since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. My bible doesn’t have a footnote that reads: “but pay attention to that evidence at your own peril.” Instead, Paul adds that the reason for this (scientific data) is so that men are without excuse.

  • Even in the case of “doubting” Thomas, where Jesus allows Thomas to examine His wounds, and even though Jesus blesses those who believe without seeing, my bible does not contain a footnote that reads: “and Thomas was cast out for his reliance on proof.”
We conclude that saving faith is more complex than blind faith, and in fact blind faith is not called for. It is blind faith that us incompatible with science. Biblical faith is not.

32See here for the complete article.

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