faith and doubt

Last week Julie and I took advantage of the free babysitting provided by our public school system to attend John Ortberg’s lecture on faith and doubt at Calvin College’s January Series.  I take every opportunity to hear great preachers (Neal Plantinga probably thinks I’m stalking him), so I was glad for the chance to hear John.  His confident air, quick wit, and down to earth stories made for a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  I could listen to him for a long time.  

However, like many other thinkers on this topic, I think that John mistakenly juxtaposed faith against knowledge.  Sometimes he got it right, as when he said that just as a hang glider relies on his knowledge when he leaps off a cliff, so we have faith when we rely upon what we know about God.

But he also said that “Faith is only needed when we don’t know for sure” and “When you know, you don’t need faith.”  He illustrated his point by making a fist and asking an audience member if she thought that it contained a $20 bill.  She said that she believed that it did, because she had read the same example in his book, Faith and Doubt.  After joking that he would have her escorted from the hall, John then said “I’ll destroy your faith by opening my hand and showing you that it’s there.  Now that you know I have a $20 bill, you can no longer have faith that I do.”

If John is right, then the return of Christ will destroy the faith of his followers, for our “faith will now be sight.”  And Jesus would not have told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed,” but rather “Because you have seen me, you are no longer able to believe” (John 20:29).

I think that what John should have said and perhaps meant to say is that the uncertainty that is attached to our faith—not the faith itself—is removed by the assurance that comes from empirical evidence.  Will we ever not need faith?  Will we ever not need to believe and rely upon the promises of God?

The irony was that John was saying that faith is the absence of knowledge at Calvin College, the day after the January Series celebrated the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, and Calvin defined faith as “firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us” (Institutes III.2.7).  [Note: Calvin’s use of “certain knowledge” connotes “confidence” rather than the empirical certainty of Locke or the 100% logical certainty of DesCartes].

Question 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism adds that “True faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true [thanks, Calvin]; it is also a deep-rooted assurance…[or as I translate the German here, a “hearty trust”].

The Reformed point:  faith is not opposed to knowledge, so that the more we know the less we believe.  Rather faith rests upon knowledge, so that the more we know the more we can believe.  Faith feeds on knowledge.  Since faith means to place all of our weight upon the promises of God, we can only do this if we first know what those promises are.

So while I love listening to John, I think he could better help us think through faith and doubt if he:

1. clearly defines his terms (he didn’t seem to be aware that sometimes he used faith as our response to knowledge and sometimes as the uncertainty that comes with limited knowledge.  I think that our faith here and now has aspects of both, and it would be helpful to clearly distinguish these distinct elements).

2. avoids equating knowledge with empirical certainty.  John used several illustrations to make the point that a lack of empirical certainty means a corresponding lack of knowledge, which then creates space for faith.  He said that personal relationships are built on trust, which necessarily requires an element of uncertainty.  For instance, he said that he wouldn’t want a 24/7 surveillance camera monitoring his wife’s every move, for that would ruin their relationship of trust.  He would rather trust that she is faithful, even though he cannot know for sure.

I think John would benefit if he moved away from knowledge as empirical certainty and embraced the philosophical notion of knowledge as a “justified, true belief.”  Then he could rightly claim that we know God’s promises, even though we lack foolproof empirical demonstrations for them.  And since we know them, we may put all our weight upon them. 

The return of Christ will not destroy our faith but rather it will bolster our faith by empirically confirming the veracity of our truth claims.  Until then, we possess more than enough knowledge to not stop believing (sorry, Zondervan asked me to shoehorn it in somehow.  Two more times and I’ll have met January’s quota).







12 responses to “faith and doubt”

  1. Yooper

    Could Ortberg’s example with the $20 bill imply that faith’s evidence had become sight, therefore, faith had been destroyed (was no longer necessary)? Hebrews 11:1 Will there not be a day when we will walk by sight? II Corinthians 5:7

  2. Matthaeus Flexibilis

    Thanks, Mike. Interesting stuff. What further reading or listening you would recommend on this topic? Alvin Plantiga seems like a good source, but perhaps you know of some things that are lower density but still make the point well.

  3. “…to not stop believing (sorry, Zondervan asked me to shoehorn it in somehow. Two more times and I’ll have met January’s quota).”

    You should’ve said, “…to not stop believing because heaven is a place on earth” or “…because everything you do matters to God”. 🙂

    I think even in the consummation when we “walk by sight” there will be the element of faith necessary because we’ll be forever learning of the glory of God. Our knowledge of God will never be complete, so our faith in God will be ever present. Of course, certain elements of our “faith” may change; but I don’t see how faith will ever not be necessary in some way.

    Of course, I’m probably not using “faith” in the same way that Yooper is using it, so my conclusion may not be satisfactory. I do believe that doubt, however, will be removed in the consummation. I don’t think that doubt (concerning God) will ever be a part of our thinking in the consummation.


  4. mikewittmer


    Most of the books on doubt are older–see Os Guinness, “Doubt” (1986) and Gary Habermas, “Dealing with Doubt” (1990). But I see that Guinness has a newer one with Crossway (1996) that I haven’t read, called “God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt.” I’m not aware of a good book that examines Calvin’s notion of faith that feeds on knowledge and is the opposite of doubt, but I’m not saying it isn’t there.

  5. Yooper

    Is it possible for belief to be perfected in this life (Mark 9:24)?

    When we see Jesus Christ face to face, will not faith and hope have been made complete (Romans 8:24-25, Hebrews 11:1)?

  6. psyarber11

    Your questions of, “Will we ever not need faith? Will we ever not need to believe and rely upon the promises of God?” I believe are essential in our everyday life. I also liked your statement that the return of Christ will not destroy our faith. You make me wonder when we are in heaven or with God — will we still need faith then? The intellectual versus the heart debate you present is intriguing and will be never ending. I address many of the same issues in my recently published novel TARE. Peggy Sue Yarber, PhD, Novel: TARE

  7. Yooper

    I should have also cited I Corinthians 13:8-13. I do see a connection between faith and knowledge in I Cor 13:12.

  8. jlemke

    Very helpful – but don’t we always define faith as “the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1)? If that is the case, it is the Wittmer/Reformed definition of faith that is incorrect. You seem to nearly equate faith and knowledge. Help me out, here – I actually like your view better than Ortberg’s, but it doen’t square with the standard definition of faith.

  9. mikewittmer


    I’m still working this through myself, but I would say that the fact that I do not see Jesus right now does not mean that I do not know him or the fact of his resurrection. Philosophers define knowledge as a “warranted true belief,” and so I can know something (have warrant for believing it) even though I do not have immediate empirical evidence for it. I believe that is the point of Hebrews 11:1.

    I’m not equating faith with knowledge, but rather saying that faith depends on knowledge, for it cannot exist without it. In other words, knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition for faith. Faith means “hearty trust” or reliance upon the truth, so it logically follows that we must know the truth before we can rely on it.

    In sum, Hebrews 11:1 states that we can have faith in what we can not see, it is not saying that faith is the absence of knowledge. This only follows if you accept Ortberg’s sometimes definition that knowledge means immediate empirical apprehension.

  10. Layman Speaks

    “After joking that he would have her escorted from the hall, John then said ‘I’ll destroy your faith by opening my hand and showing you that it’s there. Now that you know I have a $20 bill, you can no longer have faith that I do.’”

    It seems to me that once John opened his hand the conditions changed. Had he then closed his hand wouldn’t it require faith to believe that the $20.00 was still there and not removed by some slight of hand or something? My question is: Isn’t seeing a confirmation or even consumation of faith rather than it’s destruction?

    Isn’t that at least part of the point in Revelation 21:22-23, seeing the Lamb and the Lord God Almighty? What if the lamb would remove His presence for a moment from the heavenly city, where would faith be?

  11. jborofsky

    When people say things like this pastor did, I always wonder if they would likewise say that the disciples had no faith. After all, they saw the miracles Jesus performed.

    Faith is trust. I’m currently sitting on a chair. As you pointed out, because faith is confidence, I have confidence that this chair will hold me. I have faith in the chair. This faith, of course, can be let down (much like a faith in a false god or faith in a false concept about God), but I have faith nonetheless.

    Also, just as a nit-picky argument, you may not want to be careful throwing JTB out there as that has old ties with the logical positivist system of epistemology. Granted that Plantinga uses it at times, he’s always pointing out that “warrant” is the “other thing” looked for in a post-Gettier world. Then again, I’m far from an expert and could be totally off base (which is probably the case).

  12. mikewittmer

    What is JTB?

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