Belief vs Faith

“Belief is a cognitive commodity, whereas faith is a spiritual commodity” David Carr

David Carr argues that belief based on evidence takes you so far, but faith enables us to see beyond the natural; beyond what we might expect based on evidence alone.

I find this view on faith and belief very interesting and it articulates a tension that I have experienced when talking and thinking about it. On the one hand, when responding to Richard Dawkin’s, “faith is believing in the absence of evidence” I want to reply that there is lots of evidence for faith. There are philosophical, physical and historical arguments for God’s existence all based on good evidence. However, I remember being at a conference where Rob Rufus spoke and he stressed that faith is not evidence based. Rather, it’s something supernatural. I guess the two come together in that evidence and reason get you so far in terms of trusting that there is a God, but there is a gap. Different people look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions. There are no knock down watertight arguments for the existence of God. There are, in my opinion, some very good ones, but no perfect proofs as such. “Belief” in David Carr’s sense runs along the reasons and the evidences for God, and then faith leaps the gap onto God. Faith is God’s gift and gets you airborne from possibilities, even probabilities, to certainties. Belief points you to the reliability of God and his word, but then faith moves your confidence from reason to revelation. From standing on the arguments and evidence,to standing on God and his word. In this sense the arguments that got you there could appear to crumble or be undermined, but you would not budge from your conviction in God’s faithfulness. You now see something even more substantial and real than the evidences that pointed you in the right direction.

I’m not sure if faith and belief actually mean different things in English or the Bible, but this is a helpful distinction for resolving of the word “faith”.  Faith is based on what God has said. Sometimes that is based on clearer evidence than at other times. Another distinction could be made between belief/faith based on evidence, and belief/faith based on what God says.

Even if the words faith and beliefreally mean much the same thing, Carr points out two different aspects of faith/belief that are really helpful. But Ah! There are actually two Greek words in play here. πιστεύω “Pistew” for faith and  δοκέω “dokew” for believe or think.  The latter seems to have more of a mental rational element to it and, as Mounce says in his Complete Expository Dictionary, can “simply denote human thoughts or opinions”.

Then it seemed good (dokew δοκέω ) to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, Acts 15:22 (ESV)

And do not presume (or think – δοκέω) to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Matthew 3:9 (ESV)

Pisteuw is used for saving faith, but also for what seems to be mental assent (ie not a special gift from God).

just as Abraham “believed (pisteuw πιστεύω) God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Galatians 3:6 (ESV)

You believe (pisteuw πιστεύω ) that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe (pisteuw πιστεύω) —and shudder! James 2:19 (ESV)

There are some other Greek words, all of which seem to have more of a rational cognitive meaning.

Ὴγεομαι Hegeomai which means “to consider, think , regard”

Λογίζομαι logizomai which means “to count or think or count against”.

Νομίζω Nomizw which means “to think or suppose”.

Φρονέω Phronew which means “to think, set ones mind on something, have in mind”.

So, while πιστεύω is not simply limited to a spiritual “faith in God” sense (why would it, the word was probably in general use before the NT was written) it is helpfully resolved into two senses.

Ok, so how does this relate to healing? Well, I think there is evidence that God exists and that he is trustworthy. Belief, therefore, gets me to a reasonable probability. Faith gets me to a place of confidence. Not so much 100% certainty if that means no doubt or niggles or space to at least consider alternative hypotheses at all, but I’m not sure that definition works for anything. But faith is more than placing a bet. Biblical faith I think is more than what is needed for Pascal’s wager. There is a solidness about it. A supernatural element to it. A presuppositional feel to it, whereby the object of faith becomes the basis for all our thinking. Reason comes to stands on faith in this respect. I think it was C S Lewis who said something like “it’s not that what I see reveals God to me, rather it is by God that I see anything at all.” I can’t find it on the internet so maybe I’m wrong on that. Anyway the thought is a good one. Once we have faith, reason has a stronger foundation as we see more clearly the reasonableness of the evidence that points us to God. (see my New Year’s sanity check

In terms of healing, I have seen people get healed and heard their testimony so there is some evidence that people do indeed get better through prayer. But I have also seen a thousand times more often that prayer does not seem to make a difference. Belief based on evidence, in this sense, would certainly not cause me to press forward and throw myself wholeheartedly into praying for people to be healed. The Bible also strongly raises an expectation for people to be healed in the name of Jesus. To a certain extent it increases my belief, presenting as it does more evidence (resting on the existence of God and further evidence for the credibility of the scriptures) that God responds to prayer. However, through reading God’s word something more can happen. A course-of-life altering conviction has come upon me that God does and will heal in the name of Jesus. It is a conviction that is impervious to disappointment and discouragement and stands defiantly in the face of the strongest evidence against it. I think that’s David Carr’s “faith” and I think it is Dawkin’s “faith” and I think it is Hebrews 11:1 “faith”. It is prepared to fly in the face of the strongest contrary evidence because it has made visible something unseen, but more real. It is utter foolishness to those without it and with good reason. In fact, it is almost a defining characteristic of faith that others should think it totally crazy. If your course of action seems reasonable to most rational people then it may not be Carr’s “faith” but his “belief”.

When I step out and pray for the 100th person or for the 100th time and still nothing happens, it looks really foolish. But I can genuinely see something real that is there for the taking. I can see health and wholeness in the kingdom of God.

Before I finish this I should probably put the word faith back together. De-constructing it has been helpful but the reality is that both aspects often work together in an inseparable way.

And one final note. Shortly after writing this I listened to Wayne Grudem saying pretty much the same thing in terms of the truthfulness and authority of the bible. There is good evidence to point to its truthfulness and authority over our lives, but at some stage the bible itself  becomes self authenticating. The bible is ultimately true not because a higher authority says it is – there is no higher authority – rather is it true because it says it is. Yes it is reasoning in a circle but that’s got to happen at some point or we have an infinite regress. The buck stops with God.

PS. Interesting quotes from the interview

“Faith is a gift”.

“We only see ourselves in the level of failure we are in at the moment…”

“the Bible says that faith is the tangible evidence of things not seen but hoped for. Well that’s a contradiction because evidence can’t be invisible. And tangible means you can feel it and touch it. So the bible says that this invisible faith is more real than what you can touch. ”

“We are not born for failure… The big questions is what is success?”

“Faith does not take you to what you could be, it takes you to what you could never be. If you could do it, you would not need faith, you would only need belief”.

“Faith is not an illusion. Faith was a crutch until I was able to walk. It was getting me better.”

“Faith enables you to achieve what is impossible for you to achieve”.

“you grow out of illusions but you grow into into faith and Christianity”.

“you can’t describe faith, it’s invisible”

“If I stayed in football I would be on about £300,000 a year by now so why would I give that up if faith is an illusion”.

If faith is a gift then how do you get it? “well, you find the person who is giving it… Talk to God and get to know him… ask”.

“faith is the real thing, drugs are the substitute”

How do you build it? “the bible talks about exercising faith. You grow it by using it”.

“there is a lot of things that I do now that faith has taught me, so I don’t now have to draw on faith to do them..but it’s there if I need to go a bit further”

“Belief rests on top of faith… for example I have prayed for 33 women for whom it was impossible for them to have babies. Every one of them has had a baby. Now, that is easy for me to pray for so I believe that it can happen. It was faith, now it has become a belief. But if you said to me how about a man who is blind, who only had one leg and is deaf, do you think his leg is going to grow back? I’d say no. My belief ain’t going to do that, but then again my faith isn’t going to either. Because I haven’t got it up that far yet.”

“If a boxer gives up boxing he balloons (puts on weight).  Faith is also keeping you where you are. A lot of people have faith to get there but not many have faith to stay there. What’s wrong with staying there… we are living in a world where we have lost the ability to stay.”

“I wanted to walk out of football, I wanted to walk out of relationships and I wanted to walk out of the church.”

“Some things we are genuinely frightened of. We are going to face issues in our lives that frighten us. If you admit it, you can confront the fear.”

David Carr says he used to be physically sick with fear before business meetings, but of course as he pushed through they got easier.


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