From The Biblical Worldview, June, 1992. Reprinted in Greg L.
Always Ready, ed. Robert R.
Booth. Text taken from
here. Parts 1 and 2 have been
combined, and the reference notes for the second part continue the
series started in the first.
“God’s authority is necessary to the (subordinate) intellectual
authority and usefulness of those very principles which unbelievers
propose to use in testing God’s authority.”
“Of course, the unbeliever must use his reasoning ability in hearing,
weighing, and (hopefully) adopting the claims of God’s word. This does
not mean that the controlling norm by which he uses his reasoning must
be reason itself.”
March 18, 2013
The Problem of Faith
Gregory L. Bahnsen
Christian Commitment Sacrifice Reason?
According to an old, humorous quip: “Faith is believing what you know
ain’t true.” It is not hard to see why this would be said. The
tendency for people—whether they believe fantastic claims about UFO
visitors or pathetic claims about the honor of a discredited
politician—who have meager evidence or reasoning to support their
personal convictions is to fall back easily on the claim that they
“simply have faith” that what they believe is true,1 even
though there appear to others many good reasons for disbelieving it.
People should know that what they are saying is not true, and yet
they persist in believing it anyway—in the name of “faith.”
conception of faith as blind personal commitment is one of the chief
obstacles that stands in the way of unbelievers giving Christianity an
honest hearing. They have a fierce and fundamental difficulty in
becoming Christians, they imagine, because religious faith would require
them to sacrifice reason altogether and blindly trust some purported
revelation in an arbitrary, undiscerning fashion.
his Dictionary of Philosophy, Peter Angeles offers as two
definitions of “faith” among others: “belief in something despite the
evidence against it” and “belief in something even though there is an
absence of evidence for it.”2 Given
either of these popular understandings of the term—whereby the Christian
call to “faith” is conceived of as either contrary to reason or at least
without reasons—Christianity does indeed look quite irrational. “Faith”
becomes a buzz-word for putting your intellect out of gear, suspending a
cautious and critical attitude toward things, and making a personal
commitment without sound evidence.
Varieties of Irrationalism
Christianity is charged with irrationality by lots of people, but not
all critics mean the same thing. Some distinctions should be drawn for
people pit Christian faith against reason because they feel that the
teachings of the Bible are themselves irrational. For instance, some
people look upon the idea of God becoming man (the incarnation) as a
contradictory notion; for them, the concept of the God-man is
incoherent, a violation (allegedly) of some elementary logical laws
which all men recognize. When they charge Christianity with being
irrational, they mean that its dogmas are illogical in this sense.
Other people believe that there is utterly no empirical (observational)
substantiation for certain magnificent historical claims found in the
Bible: for instance, that the sun stood still, that Jesus multiplied the
loaves, or that men have risen from the dead. If Christian faith calls
for affirming these kinds of unfactual matters (as they see them),
people will deem it contrary to reason.
previous two types of critics have wanted to charge Christianity with
irrationality because of specific intellectual imperfections within the
set of propositions which believers affirm—either logical imperfection
or empirical imperfection. These kinds of attacks upon Biblical
particulars call for apologists to offer focused answers which deal with
the details of each different challenge—at least to do so at the outset of
responding to such charges by the unbeliever. (Ultimately,
presuppositional matters will need to be engaged and discussed, of
course.) But our present concern is really with a more devastating
version of the claim that Christianity is irrational.
Affirming the Absurd
more intellectually vicious is the class of critics who judge the
Christian faith to be irrational because they conceive of Christians as
dedicated to believing the absurd (for its absurdity). As they see it,
religious believers glory in the fact that the object of their faith is
without rational support, is apparently untrue, and must be endorsed in
the face of good sense and contrary reasons. Some unbelievers have been
given the impression—not without the damnable “help” of many modern
theologians—that Christianity is indifferent to logic, science, evidence
or (even) truth.
people have been so misled as to feel that Christians actually elevate
the value of one’s personal faith in direct proportion to the degree
that it must be dubious, blind or mystical.3
Likewise, it is thought that believers degrade the worth of faith to the
extent that it accords well with good reason. In The Antichrist:
Attempt at a Critique of Christianity (1895), Friederich Nietzsche
expressed his derision toward this attitude by saying: “Faith means
not wanting to know what is true.”
However, all criticism in this vein flows from a fundamental mistake as
to the nature of Christian faith. As J. Gresham Machen boldly
put the matter in his book, What is Faith?, ”We believe that
Christianity flourishes not in the darkness, but in the light.” Machen
wrote that “one of the means which the Spirit will use” to bring a
revival of the Christian religion “is an awakening of the intellect.” He
fervently resisted “the false and disastrous opposition which has been
set up between knowledge and faith,” arguing that “at no point is faith
independent of the knowledge upon which it is logically based.”
Reflecting upon the famous Biblical remark about faith in Hebrews 11:1
(“the evidence of things not seen”), Machen declared: “Faith need not be
too humble or too apologetic before the bar of reason; Christian faith
is a thoroughly reasonable thing.”4
Regardless of what certain misguided spokesmen may say—whether
enthusiasts, mys-tics, emotionalists, voluntarists, or fideists—the
Bible itself (the sourcebook and standard of Christianity) is not
indifferent to logical blunders or factual mistakes. The Christian
religion does not pit “faith” against reason, evidence or (above all)
was just in order to vindicate the truth of his religious claims and
conceptions that Moses challenged the magicians of Pharaoh’s court, and
that Elijah competed with and taunted the priests of Baal on Mount
Carmel. The Old Testament prophets knew that their words would be
demonstrated to be true when their forecasts or predictions were
fulfilled in history for all to see.
Christ appeared, he himself claimed to be “the Truth”! His resurrection
was a mighty sign and wonder, providing evidence for the veracity of His
claims and for the apostolic message. Despite what the Jews and Greeks
might think to themselves, wrote Paul, the Gospel is in fact the very
wisdom of God which destroys the arrogance of worldly philosophy (1
Corinthians 1:18-25). He said that those who oppose the Gospel are the
ones who have only a “knowledge falsely so-called” (1 Timothy 6:20).
Because of this attitude Paul was eager to “reason” (dispute, debate)
daily in the marketplace with the philosophers at Athens (Acts
17:17-18). He did not hesitate to argue his case before the Athenian
tribunal which judged new and controversial teachers, declaring “what
you worship displaying your ignorance, I authoritatively declare unto
you” (v. 23). He was clearly not promoting the value of absurdities!
Indeed, if the cardinal claims of the faith were demonstrably false,
Paul would have been com-pelled to admit that our religious faith is
wrong-headed and futile (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:14).
Peter’s own attitude, even as an uneducated fisherman, was made
unmistakably clear when he asserted with confidence, “we have not
followed cunningly devised fables” (2 Peter 1:16)—as well as when he
required every believer to be ready to present a reasoned defense for
the hope that was within him (1 Peter 3:15). Jesus categorically taught
of God’s word in scripture: “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). The
Bible’s bold perspective maintains that on the great and final day of
judgment, the reason men will be condemned by God is that they preferred
to believe “a lie” (Romans 1:25), rather than to trust the claims of
God’s own Son.
Consequently, when unbelievers repudiate Christianity for its alleged goal of
religious irrationality, the apologist must decisively correct that
mistaken conception. Christian faith does not aim to affirm what is
absurd, reveling in irrationality. Such a thought misconstrues the
nature of faith as it is presented by the Bible. The Christian notion
of faith—unlike most other religions—is not an arbitrary leap of
emotion, a blind stab of commitment, a placing of the intellect on hold.
For the Christian, faith (or belief) is well-grounded.
Indeed, as Christians we claim that the content of our faith is what any
reasonable man should endorse, not only because it completely accords
with logic and fact (when they are properly viewed), but also because
without the Christian worldview “reason” itself becomes arbitrary or
Other opponents of Christian faith, as a further class of critics in
addition to those considered in our last study [i.e., “Part 1” of this
two-part article.—A.F.] protest the presence of any attitude of faith
(or trust) at all in a person’s system of thought. They maintain,
arrogantly if not naively, that they will not believe anything which has
not first been fully proven to them. They are led by proof, not by
like to think that theirs is the spirit of Rene Descartes (1596-1650),
the French scholar and theoretician of knowledge who became the primary
philosopher of “the Age of Reason.” Descartes was concerned that men
should strive to realize and follow a reliable and proper method for
arriving at their beliefs.5
According to Descartes’ way of thinking, this method would be that of
doubting and criticizing everything he could, accepting nothing as true
which was not clearly recognized as such (things which are self-evident)
or which was not completely supported by other clear and distinct,
Descartes sought to doubt every thought that came into his head (e.g.,
is he really eating an apple or only dreaming that it is so?) until he
would come upon something which was indubitable. Systematic doubt would
open the door to final certainty for him.6
Yet Descartes recognized that he could not ultimately doubt everything.
The indubitable would turn out to be the stopping-point of his
method—and the theoretical starting-point for all other reasoning.
modern-day apes of Descartes who claim they will doubt absolutely
everything and accept nothing except upon proof act or talk like
arrogant fools. Nobody can doubt everything. Nobody. If a person were
truly to doubt everything—his memory of past experiences, his present
sensations, the “connections” between experiences, the meanings of his
words, the principles by which he reasons—he would not be “thinking” at
all (much less doubting), and there would be no “he” to think or not to
think. A fundamental (logically basic) set of beliefs—a faith—is
inescapable for anyone.
only succeed in deluding themselves when they say that they will not
accept anything without proof or demonstration—that they allow no place
for “faith” in their outlook or in the living of their lives.
Accordingly, such unbelievers who criticize Christians for appealing to
“faith” are intellectual hypocrites—men who cannot and do not live by
their own declared standards for reasoning.
Assumptions” Makes No Sense
attitude which feigns that there ought to be no element within Christian
commitment which has not been independently proven is illustrated by the
statement of C. Gore:
seems to me that the right course for anyone who cannot accept the mere
voice of authority, but feels the imperative obligation to “face the
arguments” and to think freely, is to begin at the beginning and to see
how far he can reconstruct his religious beliefs stage by stage on a
secure foundation, as far as possible without any preliminary
assumptions . . . .7
we are told to examine the religious hypothesis from the beginning
without preliminary assumptions—without presuppositions.
course, this is quite literally impossible. A complete demonstration of
each of our beliefs by means of other independent beliefs cannot be
given. When I demonstrate the truth that ice melts at room temperature,
I press into service certain standards and procedures of demonstration.
But the question can be asked whether I have chosen the correct
criteria to use for demonstrating my conclusion. Further, can I be sure
that I have properly used the chosen procedures and standards? In order
to proceed “without assumptions,” I would need to demonstrate that my
methods of demonstration are the correct ones and that my execution of
these methods was faultless. But that will call for further
argumenta-tion or proof about the proof used for the veracity and
validity of my original demonstration. And on and on we would go.
there can be no assumed starting point for a demonstration, then no
demonstration can get started—or finished, depending upon how you look
an unbeliever considers Christianity to be irrational simply on the
basis that it allows for something to be accepted without independent
demonstration, then the unbeliever in question is unrealistic and must
be pressed to see that he ends up refuting himself (not simply
Christians) in terms of such values and demands. Thus
his unbelieving attitude turns out to be the truly irrational attitude,
for it inconsistently requires something of its opponents which it does
not live up to itself. Such an attitude would make knowledge of
anything whatsoever impossible for finite and faulty creatures—and thus
shows itself to be supremely unreasonable.
Kind of Evidence on Which Faith Rests
problem with Christian faith, then, cannot be that it involves
presuppositional commitments. So we move on to consider one last
category of unbelievers who criticize Christian “faith” as irrational.
These critics acknowledge that believers have evidence and reasoning
which they enlist in support of their beliefs, and they admit that
nobody—not even religious sceptics—can proceed intellectually without
assumptions nor prove everything they believe by independent con-siderations.
What they object to, however, is the kind of evidence to which
Christians appeal and the kind of presuppositions in terms of
which they reason. To put it briefly: they object to the idea of
believing something on the basis of God’s personal authority,
rather than on the basis of impersonal and universally accepted norms of
observation, logic, utility, etc.
Christians may have evidence, then, for their faith, but it is
completely the wrong kind of evidence, says the unbeliever. For
instance, in his candidly titled book Religion without Revelation,
Julian Huxley says: “I believe firmly that the scientific method,
although slow and never claiming to lead to complete truth, is the only
method which in the long run will give satisfactory foundations for
beliefs,” and “we quite assuredly at present know nothing beyond
this world and natural experience.”8
For Huxley, Christian faith should not be grounded in revealed authority
(since all metaphysical knowledge is precluded by decree), but in the
authority of natural science.
Huxley openly displays here is his own faith-commitment with its
prejudice against Christianity. Having said on the one hand that the
scientific method cannot give the complete truth, he turned
around on the other hand and, based on the authority of the alleged
scientific method, completely ruled out knowing anything beyond
the natural world! Why does Huxley count out the kind of
evidence offered by Christians for their faith (revelation from God)?
Because of his own faith and devotion to natural science.
and Philosophy, Antony Flew likewise expresses the unbeliever’s
criticism of Christian faith for resting upon authority.
appeal to authority here cannot be allowed to be final and overriding.
For what is in question precisely is the status and authority of all
religious authorities. . . . [It is] inherently impossible for either
faith or authority to serve as themselves the ultimate credentials of
teaching of Scripture cannot be accepted on the authority of God
speaking therein, says Flew, because it is precisely that authority
which is under question by the unbeliever.
can only mean, then, that Flew has determined in advance that God cannot
be the ultimate authority. For him, there must always be
something independent of God which is more authoritative and in terms of
which the authority of God can be accepted. Nor can be God’s authority
be inescapable and self-validating, according to Flew: “the
philosopher examining a concept is not at that time himself employing
it; however much he may at other times wish and need to do so.”10
Flew really pretend that he himself as a philosopher strictly and purely
adheres to this general prerequisite—that we may not examine something
while simultaneously employing it? This is simply not so, and Flew
should know better. Those who examine and argue about logic
simultaneously employ that same logic in their examinations.
Those who examine and evaluate the powers and reliability of the
eyeball simultaneously employ their eyeballs. To wave off and
automatically preclude the possibility that Christians could examine and
argue about the authority of God’s revelation while simultaneously
employing (assuming, applying) the authority of God’s revelation is
little more than arbitrary prejudice on Flew’s part.
simply will not permit the thought that God’s authority is self-validating.
What is remarkable about his or any other unbeliever’s refusal to
submit in faith to God’s authority on the basis of that very
authority is that he thereby only discloses that he is committed in
advance against Christian teaching. That is, it reveals an obvious and
personal faith commitment to the proposition that there cannot be a God
who speaks with a voice of inescapable, ultimate, self-validating
authority over man and his thinking.11
cannot have this kind of final authority for Flew, but only such an
authority which will first be authorized by the reasoning of man.
In the long run Flew and other unbelievers insist that man must not be
reduced to bowing in abject depen-dence upon his Creator as the final
authority. There can be other self-validating authorities acknow-ledged
or entertained as a possibility, but not God. They will tolerate
the Creator in their thinking only on the terms dictated by the creature—notably
that He never confront men with the rational inescapability and ultimate
authority of their Creator!
Van Til observes: “The natural man then assumes that he has the final
criterion of truth within himself. Every form of authority that
comes to him must justify itself by standards inherent in man and
operative apart from the authority that speaks.”12
Elsewhere he had noted that “If we must determine the foundations of the
authority, we no longer accept authority on authority.”13
This is just to say that God cannot be permitted by the unbeliever to be
and to speak as God—to be the ultimate and self-authenticating
authority. Such a position and privilege will be assigned by the
unbeliever to something else, something which is part of the creation
(such as man’s reasoning, experience)14 and
thus is implicitly treated as an idol. “They worshipped and served the
creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).
bottom line then, is that to criticize the Christian’s irrational
“faith” is itself nothing more than to express a different religious
faith—a faith which in one way or another adopts the ultimate authority
and self-sufficiency of the human mind and reasoning. That is
irrational “faith” indeed, given the sad experience and history of
mankind—as well as the unresolved, rational tensions within autonomous
science and philosophy.
People who speak this way seem oblivious to the trivial or tautological
character of such a claim. To “have faith” that something is true
(e.g., that Elvis is alive and residing in Idaho) is the same as
“believing” that the claim in question is true; these are different
semantic ways of expressing the same thing. Accordingly, when a person
says he “believes” something “simply on faith” (without specifying
further), he has merely told us that “he believes because he believes.”
I am not unaware that many religious people, including philosophers who
reflect upon religious issues, think of “faith” as being in another
category from “believing.” The former is supposed to be a personal
matter of trust or commitment, while the latter is a matter of
intellect. For instance, in an essay entitled “Faith and Belief,” the
Oxford philosopher, H. H. Price, asserted: “Faith, then, is something
very unlike belief ‘that’ and certainly not reducible to it nor
definable in terms of it. . . . Surely when a person is actually in the
faith attitude, he would never say he believed that God loves him. It
is rather that he feels God’s love for him. . . . It does not
seem to be a matter of believing at all” (Faith and the Philosophers,
ed. John Hick [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964], p. 11). Such verbal
stipulations may be made and often are, I realize, but it would require
a heroic effort to bring such a conceptual distinction into verbal
conformity with the New Testament use of the Greek verb pisteuo
and noun pistis.
Peter A. Angeles, Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Barnes &
Noble, 1981), p. 94.
Cf. “Doubt, as the dark side of the cognitive aspect of faith, is an
essential ingredient for faith. . . . A lively mind stands in Angst at
the crossroads daily, and daily makes a choice, making it, as
Kierkegaard would say, ‘in fear and trembling.’” Geddes MacGregor,
Philosophical Issues in Reli-gious Thought (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1973), p. 239.
J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing, 1925), pp. 18, 26, 94, 243.
What about their beliefs about proper method, then? Are these beliefs
also arrived at by means of that proper method? If so, they have no
independent (non-question-begging) authority or foundation! If not,
then what has been deemed the proper method for arriving at beliefs is
not foundational, after all.
Descartes felt that his method brought him finally to the indubitable
and foundational truth that he himself existed. Even if everything else
he believed was an illusion, he at least needed to exist in order to do
the doubting in the first place. Thus the famous dictum: “I think,
therefore I am.” But Descartes was here not scrupulous enough as a
philosopher. By taking as his premise “I think,” he had already begged
the question of his existence (asserting the “I”). This was no more
helpful, really, than arguing: “I stink, therefore I exist.” Descartes
should have more stringently premised only that “Thinking is
occurring”—from which it does not logically follow that “I
C. Gore, Belief in God (New York: Penguin, 1939), p. 12.
Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation (New York: Mentor,
1957), pp. 15, 17.
Antony Flew, God and Philosophy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and
World, 1966), pp. 159, 161.
Ibid, p. 26.
Part of the self-validating (self-authen-ticating) character of that
authoritative revelation is that without it, reasoning and science and
ethics become unintelligible, philosophically speaking. God’s authority
is necessary to the (subordinate) intellectual authority and usefulness
of those very principles which unbelievers propose to use in testing
God’s authority. Nobody can utilize reasoning without simultaneously,
even if implicitly and without acknowledging it, employing the outlook
of God’s revelation. Thus Christian claims about the self-validating
character of God’s revelation are not merely subjective testimony or
beyond rational discussion or demonstration.
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia:
Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), pp. 145.
Ibid, p. 49.
Note well that “reason” is here criticized as an authority or standard
(which stands above God in judgment), but not at all as a tool or
instrument (which is used under God for His glory). Of course the
unbeliever must use his reasoning ability in hearing, weighing, and
(hopefully) adopting the claims of God’s word. This does not mean that
the controlling norm by which he uses his reasoning must be reason
itself. (In such discussions, it would be good to ask just exactly what
is meant by “reason.”)
Greg L. Bahnsen page