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).