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I. Faith

Now Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

So much for the initial account of the model; I turn now to a more detailed development of some of its aspects, beginning with faith. The first thing to note is that this term, like nearly any philosophically useful term, is used variously, in a number of different but analogically connected senses. According to Mark Twain, faith is “believing 247what you know ain’t true”; this only slightly exaggerates a common use of the term to denote a belief that lacks warrant and, indeed, is unlikely with respect to what does have warrant for the believer. A mother who believes, in the teeth of the evidence, that her son is in fact still alive will be said to have faith that he is still alive. It is in connection with this use that one thinks of ‘a leap of faith’, which is rather like a leap in the dark. A second way the term is used is to denote a vague and generalized trust that has no specific object, a confidence that things will go right, a sort of Bultmannian sitting loose with respect to the future, trusting that one can deal with whatever happens. To have faith in this sense is to “accept the universe,” as the nineteenth-century transcendentalist Margaret Fuller was said to have declared she did.303303   To which Thomas Carlyle retorted, “Gad! She’d better!” Mark Twain, by contrast, claimed he hadn’t heard it had been offered to her.

In setting out the model, however, I am using the term in a different sense from any of those. My sense will be much closer to that which the Heidelberg Catechism (following John Calvin) ascribes to ‘true faith’:

True faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his word is true; it is also a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ, not only others, but I too, have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation. (Q. 21)

We can think of this account as making more explicit the content of the definition of faith offered by Calvin in the Institutes (above, p. 244). The first thing to see is that faith, so taken, is a cognitive activity. It isn’t merely a cognitive activity; it also involves the will, both the affections and the executive function. (It is a knowledge sealed upon our hearts, as well as revealed to our minds.) Still, even if faith is more than cognitive, it is also and at least a cognitive activity. It is a matter of believing (“knowledge,” Calvin says) something or other. Christians, on this account, don’t merely find their identity in the Christian story, or live in it or out of it;304304   In this way, the model (apparently) differs from the postmodern Yale theology of Hans Frei (The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative [1974] and The Identity of Jesus Christ [1975]) and George Lindbeck (The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age [1984]), which emphasizes the role of the Bible in the Christian life but is a bit coy as to whether its apparent teachings—creation, sin, incarnation, atonement, Christ’s resurrection—are to be taken as actually true. (See, for example, pp. 143–45 of The Identity of Jesus Christ.) This standoffishness about truth is perhaps the ‘postliberal’ element in Yale theology; according to the present model, however, it is also unnecessary. The model is designed to show that straightforward, downright, out-and-out belief in the great things of the gospel can have the epistemic virtues we are considering. they believe it, take the story to be the sober truth.


Now what one believes are propositions. To have faith, therefore, is (at least) to believe some propositions. Which ones? Not, for example, that the world is the sort of place in which human beings can flourish, or even or primarily that there is such a person as God.305305   “In understanding faith,” says Calvin, “it is not merely a question of knowing that God exists . . . but also—and this especially—of knowing what is his will toward us. For it is not so much our concern to know who he is in himself, as what he wills to be toward us” (549). Indeed, on this model it isn’t really by faith that one knows that there is such a person as God. Faith is instead, says Calvin, “firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us”; that is, a firm and certain knowledge that “not only others, but I too, have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation”; that is, a firm and certain knowledge of God’s plan whereby we fallen humans can attain shalom, flourishing, well-being, happiness, felicity, salvation, all of which are essentially a matter of being rightly related to God.306306   I take it this is a definition or description of faith by way of presenting a paradigm of it: fully formed and well-developed faith will be like this. Thus a person who (for example) believes these things, but without the firmness sufficient for knowledge of them, can still be said to have faith. So the propositional object of faith is the whole magnificent scheme of salvation God has arranged. To have faith is to know that and how God has made it possible for us human beings to escape the ravages of sin and be restored to a right relationship with him; it is therefore a knowledge of the main lines of the Christian gospel.307307   And hence not everything a typical Christian believes (as a Christian) will be, strictly speaking, part of faith. For example, she may believe that Jesus Christ performed miracles, or that God is omniscient, or that the Bible is a specially inspired word from the Lord, or that faith naturally issues in good works; none of these is, as such, part of the content of faith. (This is not in any way to downgrade the importance of these things, and certainly the content of faith may enter into her reasons for believing them.) And in thus specifying the content of faith, I am not, of course, trying to specify those beliefs which are such that accepting them is necessary for being a real Christian. The content of faith is just the central teachings of the gospel;308308   On the present model, therefore, faith is a bit narrower than in the account of true faith from the Heidelberg Catechism (above, p. 247), which includes a “conviction that everything God reveals in his word is true.” God presumably reveals more, in his word, than the great truths of the gospel. For example, there is Jesus’ turning water into wine, healing the demoniac, and raising Lazarus from the dead; these are not among the central truths of the gospel, although they are related to and illustrative of those truths. it is contained in the intersection of the great Christian creeds.

What is at issue, in faith, furthermore, is not just knowing that there is such a scheme (as we saw above, the devils believe that, and they shudder), but also and most important, that this scheme applies to and is available to me.309309   See Calvin, III, ii, 16, p. 561: “Here, indeed, is the chief hinge on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them.” As we’ll see in the next chapter, there is more that distinguishes what the devils know from what the person of faith knows: she but not they also knows the beauty, loveliness, splendor of this plan of salvation; still further, she loves it, gives it her hearty approval, is grateful for it, and commits herself to love and trust the Lord. So what I know, in faith, is the main lines of 249specifically Christian teaching—together, we might say, with its universal instantiation with respect to me. Christ died for my sins, thus making it possible for me to be reconciled with God. Faith is initially and fundamentally practical; it is a knowledge of the good news and of its application to me, and of what I must do to receive the benefits it proclaims. Still, faith itself is a matter of belief rather than action; it is believing something rather than doing something.

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