Is faith irrational?

(16) Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. (17) As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

(18) Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (19) Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. (20) Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, (21) being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (22) This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” (23) The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, (24) but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. (25) He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

– Romans 4:16-25 (NIV)

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In our modern age a charge often brought against Christians is that our “faith” is irrational – ‘a conviction which cannot be shaken by contrary evidence’ (Bertrand Russell). It is said that to have faith is unreasonable; it does not depend on reasons for belief.

A philosophically comprehensive response to the above challenge would require far more than a mere blog post. In this brief riposte I merely wish to illustrate, from a Biblical perspective, that faith does depend on reasons – reasons for belief. Christians are not unthinking “headless chickens” who trust in the God of the Bible because it merely brings them comfort. (Indeed, if the fundamental reason for our faith, the resurrection, did not happen, the apostle Paul concedes that we Christians are ‘of all people most to be pitied’.)

The above passage from the book of Romans is noteworthy for various reasons, but for our purposes here we shall focus on the theme of faith. The writer, Paul the apostle, considers faith in the account of our ‘father’ of the faith, Abraham. The narrative concerning God’s promise to Abraham can be found in Gen 15-24; but to summarise, in Gen 15:1-5 God promises Abraham (for a second time) that he would bless him and make his offspring as innumerable as the stars in the sky. This promise seemed impossible at the time, since Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless and in old age. Yet he ‘believed the Lord’, and this faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’ (Gen 15:6).

But why did Abraham believe God’s promise? Here we are ably assisted by the commentary of John Stott:

In this chapter the apostle gives us instruction about the nature of faith. He indicates that there are degrees. For faith can be weak (19) or strong (20). How then does it grow? Above all through the use of our minds. Faith is not burying our heads in the sand, or screwing ourselves up to believe what we know is not true, or even whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. On the contrary, faith is a reasoning trust. There can be no believing without thinking.

On the one hand we have to think about the problems which face us. Faith is not closing our eyes to them. Abraham ‘considered his own body, which was as good as dead, … and the deadness of Sarah’s womb (19, REB). Better, he faced the fact (NIV) that he and Sarah were both infertile. But on the other hand Abraham reflected on the promises of God, and on the character of the God who had made them, especially as he is the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (17). And as his mind played on the promises, the problems shrank accordingly, for he was fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised (21).

– John Stott, The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994), at 136.

Abraham was not guilty of ‘wilful blindness’ – a legal term which refers to deliberately shutting ones eyes to the truth of the matter. If so his faith would have been irrational, and he would be no less guilty of the aforementioned charge brought against Christians in this modern day. Rather, he considered both the challenges to belief or trust in God, but considered that God’s character and promise far outweighed these challenges. His faith in God was ‘a reasoning trust. There can be no believing without thinking’.

Stott continues:

We today are much more fortunate than Abraham, and have little or no excuse for unbelief. For we live on this side of the resurrection. Moreover, we have a complete Bible in which both the creation of the universe and the resurrection of Jesus are recorded. It is therefore more reasonable for us to believe than it was for Abraham. Of course we have to make sure that the promises we are seeking to inherit are neither wrenched out of their biblical context nor the product of our own subjective fancy, but truly apply to us. Then we can lay hold of them, even against all human hope, yet in hope (18), that is, in the confidence of God’s faithfulness and power. Only so shall we prove to be genuine children of our great spiritual forefather Abraham.

ibid, at 136.

All the above is not to say that faith does not go beyond reason. At some point, once all the cards are on the table, and the reasons point towards one conclusion or the other, a step of faith – a choice – is required. To choose what? To choose to trust:

[F]aith is believing or trusting a person, and its reasonableness depends on the reliability of the person being trusted. It is always reasonable to trust the trustworthy.

– ibid, at 133.

It is worth emphasising that biblical faith is not ‘faith in faith‘ – i.e. a trust in a disembodied concept – but is a trust in a person: God. And the Christian God is remarkably personal. We believe that God came down in human form in the person of Jesus Christ, to die for the ungodly and reconcile us to Himself (Romans 5:6,11). In so doing, He demonstrates His immense love for us. The Christian faith is not a trust in an idea, or an ethical code; it is a trust in a person.

Now, granted, in our modern age the challenges we face to belief are different to those which Abraham faced. For example, our “postmodern” culture has eroded our trust in any objective truth or authority. Can we really trust the Bible? Isn’t Christianity just a dying religion, an idea which will fade into the doldrums of history? Though I shall not attempt to answer them here, these are valid questions to ask, and there are various reasons – good reasons, might I add – to trust in Jesus. (Potential starting points here, and here)

But the important point for our purposes here is that we look for reasons; that we think; that we engage with the difficult questions of life, and not shut ourselves off to contrary views. Indeed, this ‘wilful blindness’ is – potentially – a charge equally levelled against both atheists and Christians.

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One response to “Is faith irrational?

  1. Pingback: A short post on C.S. Lewis | musings

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