© 2020 Nick Goffin / Harvest City Church
It is a common belief that faith and reason are opposing forces that are mutually exclusive. You are either a person of faith or a person of intelligence. To have faith means to switch your brain off and shut your eyes. Richard Dawkins best encapsulates this attitude:
‘Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.’
Faith and reason are juxtaposed as belief in the truth or falsehood of a given set of facts. If you have evidence, then it is reason. If you have no evidence, then it is faith.
This leads to a rather tangled set of errors: Firstly, the belief that atheism is evidence-based, and Christianity isn’t; secondly that this means that faith is completely absent from atheism and reason is completely absent from Christianity; and thirdly that this makes atheism superior and Christianity somehow invalid.
Now, faith and reason are different things, but it is a gross mistake to think that they are in opposition. In contrast, the Bible teaches the complementariness of faith and reason; the two serve different purposes, but both are required.
What is Biblical faith?
To discuss this topic, we first need to establish what faith actually is. Biblical faith does not relate to beliefs about facts, but to the actions taken in response. As far as the Bible is concerned, belief in the fact of God’s existence is not faith but merely an acknowledgement of the obvious. It is an act of reason. Faith comes when a commitment is made to the fact.
‘Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.’ (Genesis 15:6)
While God Himself is invisible, His existence is obvious.
‘For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.’ (Romans 1:20)
This is why the Bible treats faith as a matter of morality, not of knowledge. Faith in God is credited as righteousness and lack of faith in God is judged as unrighteousness. To refuse to have faith in Him is an act of rebellion.
It is also entirely possible to believe in God, but without having faith. The Israelites repeatedly demonstrate this fact throughout the Exodus, where they believed in God but repeatedly ignored His commands. Also, at no point in Jesus’ interactions with various demons in the Gospels do they ever show ignorance of His identity. In fact, their knowledge is the reason why they are so terrified of Him. They have reason, but they have no faith.
Reason, faith and action
Far from being an absence of reason then, Christian faith requires reason in order to operate properly. As the Apostle Paul says:
‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith. In that case, we are also exposed as false witnesses about God. For we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead, but He did not raise Him if in fact the dead are not raised.’ (1 Corinthians 15:14-15)
In simple terms, faith in Christ is contingent on the things said about Him being true. How do we tell if they are true? We look at the evidence. This includes the Bible, which contains eyewitness primary and secondary sources, as well as other contemporary historians and archaeological sources who corroborate many of the details. It also includes personal experience of the risen Christ; what Christians would call their ‘testimony’.
If reason tells me that Christ did in fact rise from the dead, then faith is what happens when I trust in Him. This faith then results in a certain type of lifestyle and action. As James says:
‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.’ (James 2:14-19)
In the Christian worldview, faith is primarily a verb; a ‘doing word’. If you are not living according to your faith, then for all practical purposes you have no faith. This is why when Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, God said at the end ‘now I know that you fear God’ (Genesis 22). How could an all-knowing God not know that Abraham would pass the test? Because until the faith was acted upon, it did not, in practical terms, exist.
Faith and reason, while separate things, are tightly bound together. They are not incompatible opposites, as many people seem to think, but are instead complementary. Faith is the practical outworking of a belief generated by reason. If I am trapped and at risk of drowning on a sinking ship, I am not saved by my belief in the existence of lifeboats, no matter how good my evidence is and how unwavering that belief. I have to actually get into one.
Reason is pointless if it does not produce faith, and faith is blind if it is not rooted in reason. Faith also operates in the lives of all people, whether or not they actually believe in God. It is common for atheists to say that atheism is not a claim that God does not exist, but rather simply a lack of belief in God’s existence; and therefore that it isn’t an expression of faith.
This argument is merely a lazy attempt to avoid the burden of proof, since it should be obvious that whether atheism is defined as ‘active denial’ or ‘lack of belief’; the atheist is still committed to a lifestyle that does not recognise or honour God, and is thus putting faith in that worldview. The Bible describes faith as ‘confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see’ (Hebrews 11:1). While in context this describes faith in God, this verse could equally well describe atheism. The chapter then describes people of great faith as demonstrated by their actions, not their beliefs.
While blind faith in the absence of reason certainly does exist, this is not the faith of the Bible nor the kind of faith that God desires. Jesus commands us to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matthew 22:37). It is vitally important that we can justify why we believe what we believe. This does not require an exhaustive knowledge of every possible theological and scientific topic, but it does mean being able to explain to a non-believer what your faith means to you. We need to build our faith on a solid foundation of understanding. Christian faith is not blind. We serve God with brain engaged and both eyes open.