Thursday, February 21, 2013

What Does the New Testament Say About Faith?

Check out today's episode

I have recently finished reading the New Testament and I am collecting my thoughts about what I read in this series of posts. Today I am writing about what the New Testament says about Faith. Other entries in this series:
  1. Slavery
  2. The Apocalypse
  3. Women
  4. Violence
  5. Sexuality
  6. Obedience
  7. Fear
  8. Blasphemy
  9. Wealth
  10. Binary Thinking
When talking about faith, the first question we probably want to ask is what faith means exactly. Atheists will often assert that Christian faith is blind faith, while Christians will say that their faith in God is no different than the faith we all have in things like the sun coming up tomorrow. But what does the New Testament say? It seems to be on the side of the atheists here, Hebrews 11:1 says pretty explicitly that faith is blind faith, it says "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.", that sounds a lot more like blind faith to me than our shared 'faith' that the sun will come up tomorrow. 1 Peter 1:8 talks of loving Jesus even though you have never seen him and 1 John 4:12 quite explicitly says that no one has ever seen God. Further, in John 20:29 Jesus is talking to people who believe in him who have known him, but highly praises those who believe in him without having that benefit, clearly blind faith is being praised here. In all of these cases we are supposed to believe in and love God despite having never seen him. Seems to me that the bible really does mean blind faith when it says faith.

This will be a surprise to no one, but the bible considers faith to be a virtue. Romans 4:5Philippians 3:91 Timothy 6:112 Timothy 1:52 Timothy 2:22Revelation 2:10, and Revelation 2:19 all mention faith as something to strive for, as well as many other verses that I, quite frankly, just got tired of keeping track of during my reading. So what does all this faith get you? Matthew 7:7Mark 9:23, and 1 John 3:22 all say that we will get whatever we want from God if we ask for it. John 14:12 says that whoever believes in Jesus will do the works that he did, which seems to consist largely of miracles. Several verses get more specific on this point, Luke 17:6 says that if you have faith you can command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and plant in the sea. And Luke 8:48Luke 17:19, and James 5:16 all make reference to faith healing.

You might think that these last items would give us something to look into more deeply. If faith healing works we should be able to set up some kind of an experiment, or we could ask someone who has faith in God to command a tree to uproot itself. However, such experiments are explicitly forbidden. In Luke 4:12 and 2 Corinthians 13:2-3 we are told that testing God is against the rules. It makes me wonder what they are so afraid of, if faith really works wouldn't we be encouraged to examine its effects? It would seem that someone who doesn't want their record analyzed has something to hide. The idea of examining evidence itself is interesting, as the New Testament gives us instructions on how we should do this, it is easy, anything good is God's doing, anything bad is man's. This might seem silly, but Philippians 4:13James 1:13,17James 3:15, and 2 Peter 1:3-4 all push forward this philosophy. Honestly, it is somewhat brilliant in its simplicity. If you can get people to swallow it, no matter what happens will turn out favorably for God, everything good is from him, everything bad is us puny humans screwing up his plans.

This brings us to the opposite of faith, which is skepticism, there are actually a few verses which promote skepticism. 1 John 4:1 tells us to test spirits to see if they are really from God. This sounds great, but I'm not sure how we are supposed to carry this out as we saw in the last paragraph that we are not allowed to test God. It would seem that we would need to know whether or not it is from God before we test the spirit to see if it is from God. Furthermore, Luke 2:46 and Colossians 2:3-4 tell us to ask question and to learn, although they are really talking about learning about Jesus from the church leaders. And while the pro-skepticism messages are quite weak, the anti-skepticism messages are very strong. James 1:6 tells us to keep the faith and never doubt, while 2 Timothy 3:14 instructs us to just keep believing what we already believe, citing an argument from authority. We are told to ignore details (2 Timothy 2:161 Timothy 6:20) and to not ask too many questions (Titus 3:9Philippians 2:14-152 Timothy 3:7Colossians 2:8), that certain things shouldn't be learned (Matthew 16:121 John 2:27) and in Titus 3:10-11 we are even told that if someone asks too many questions that we should never talk to them again. So if we are not allowed to gain knowledge through skeptical methods, how are we supposed to learn things? Apparently faith is the best way to gain knowledge (Philemon 6).

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One final thing I want to talk about to day is the idea of faith versus works. What does it take to get into heaven, is it just faith in Jesus regardless of what you do, or do you have to earn your way into heaven with works. In the church I grew up in, the idea that works matter was discarded completely, faith in Jesus was the one path to heaven and nothing else matters. But what does the bible say about it? It actually takes both sides of this issue, Galatians 3:1-9 takes the same position as my church growing up, that faith matters and works don't. However, James 2:14 seems to say that works are also necessary, it says that if you don't do works as well as have faith then the faith is dead. What does that mean? It seems to say that works are necessary too, but I think if we look at 1 John 2:4 we get a slightly clearer picture. It says that if you truly have faith you will want to do those works. It's not that those who don't do works will not get into heaven, the works themselves are not required. However, those who truly have faith will do the works anyway. This perspective actually makes a lot of sense to me, and it fits well into the picture they draw of what it really means to accept Jesus into their hearts.


  1. I've got slightly mixed emotions on this because in the model of the parent-child relationship, the parent (generally) wants the child to have some faith in them, and believe that what they are doing they do for the benefit of the child. Plus, everyone knows a child or two who just asks a litany of questions, on and on, and on and on, when you know most of that information is just going in one ear and right out the other.

    On the other hand, you would think it would be a huge red flag being instructed to ignore the details and not ask questions, particularly for a new religion. That is hugely suspicious.

    1. It is interesting to compare things to the relationship between a parent and their children, there certainly are some times when the kid just needs to listen to the parent and they are not going to understand why.

      Of course there are some huge differences, the parents are generally doing good things for the kids and they can see that, the kids have a reason to think their parents are looking out for them, even if they don't understand why or how. We are being asked to have faith that God even exists.

  2. I think that many theists argue over the definition of "faith" because they realize the notion of blind faith isn't virtuous, it's gullibility at best. They know that they take almost nothing in their daily lives simply on blind faith, yet try to argue that they do. This just does not work. Religion is the only realm where this concept is encouraged and seen as a positive thing. I find that to be quite disturbing, and in truth, it is one of my biggest problems with religion in general.

    1. What really is annoying about this is that they will talk about faith as if it is blind faith until they are challenged about it, only at that point do they tend to try to argue that it is reasoned faith (a contradiction in terms really).

      And I agree, this is one of the biggest problems I have with religion as it is a really easy place for it to bleed into other aspects of life. If you learn at church that believing things without a good reason is only only okay, but actually a virtue, then what is going to make you actually think critically about other things that come up in your life? If you learn that emotional reasons for believing in religion are good, then why not believe a heartbreaking story about how someone's kid is autistic because of vaccines?


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