What is Faith? – Part 4

What is Faith? – Part 4 April 15, 2015

We have looked at a simple and widespread understanding of ‘faith in God’:

Definition 1

Person P has faith in God IF AND ONLY IF  P believes that God exists.

One problem with Def. 1 is that the devil himself would have ‘faith in God’ based on this definition, and thus this could hardly be considered  to be a virtue, to be the kind of faith that is commended by the Christian religion.

According to Swinburne (in Faith and Reason, 2nd ed., hereafter: FAR), the Thomist view of faith is similar to Def. 1, but with “one addition and two qualifications” (FAR, p.138).  Swinburne’s characterization of this view of faith has, however, two additions.  Here is my attempt to capture that characterization (with the additions, not the qualifications):

Definition 2

Person P has faith in God

IF AND ONLY IF

(a) P believes that God exists,  AND

(b) P believes that God has various properties (divine attributes),  AND

(c) P believes that God has performed various actions,  AND

(d) any beliefs that P has about God’s properties or actions are accepted on the ground that God has revealed those beliefs.

This definition might get around the counterexample that the devil has ‘faith in God’ if we assume that the devil can directly perceive God in a way that humans cannot (so the devil would not have to rely upon God revealing theological truths).

I suggested an objective and a subjective interpretation of condition (d):

Objective Interpretation

(d#) any beliefs that P has about God’s properties or actions are accepted by P as a result of God revealing those beliefs.

On this interpretation the definition fails, because it implies the counterintuitive view that NOBODY has ever had ‘faith in God’ if it turns out that there is no God. If there is no God, then there can be no divine revelation of theological truths, and on the objective interpretation of condition (d) there can be ‘faith in God’ only if God actually reveals some theological truths.

Subjective Interpretation

(d*) any beliefs that P has about God’s properties or actions are accepted by P because P believes that God has revealed those beliefs.

The subjective interpretation of (d) allows for there to be people who have ‘faith in God’ even if there is no God, so this interpretation is to be preferred over the objective interpretation.  But, there seems to be a problem of circularity looming here.

If I trust my doctor for medical information and advice, I do so because I have various beliefs about her knowledge, character, and motivations.  Similarly, if someone trusts God for information or advice, this implies that this person has various beliefs about God’s knowledge, God’s character, and God’s motivations.  If someone places great confidence in information or advice that he/she believes came from God, this is presumably based, in part on the belief that God is omniscient (all-knowing), and presumably is based, in part on the belief that God is a perfectly good person who loves all human beings and cares about their well-being.

If one has ‘faith in God’, then beliefs about the properties of God are supposed to be accepted on the basis of trusting in God, specifically trusting in God for information and advice.  But that trust is in turn based on beliefs about the properties of God.  This is reasoning in a circle:

1.  God is omniscient and perfectly good and cares about the well-being of each and every human.

Therefore:

2.  Whatever information or advice God gives to humans must be true or correct.

3. God has communicated the information that God is omniscient, perfectly good, and that God cares about the well-being of each and every human.

Therefore:

4. It must be true that God is omniscient, perfectly good, and that God cares about the well-being of each and every human.

So, Definition 2, on the subjective interpretation of (d), appears to require that a person who has ‘faith in God’ must engage in circular reasoning.

Someone who wanted to defend the Thomist view of faith might make use of the distinction between knowing that God exists on the basis of a proof or argument for God, and believing other things about God on the basis of divine revelation.  In trying to prove that God exists, or to show that it is probable that God exists, one must define what one means by the word ‘God’, and this is usually done in terms of a list of divine attributes (e.g. omniscience, omnipotence, perfect goodness, being eternal, etc.).  But not every property and activity of God is included in the definition of ‘God’.   So, whatever properties (divine attributes) are included in the definition of ‘God’ are established on the basis of reasons and evidence. Then, when one has been persuaded that there is such a person as God, one would be rationally justified in placing trust in any information or advice that one believes came from God, and such information apparently from God might include claims about other properties or actions of God that are not contained in the basic concept of God.

In order for this distinction to help rescue the concept of ‘faith in God’, the above definition needs to be modified a bit:

Definition 3

Person P has faith in God

IF AND ONLY IF

(a) P believes that God exists,  AND

(b) P believes that God has various properties (divine attributes),  AND

(c) P believes that God has performed various actions,  AND

(d) any beliefs that P has about God’s properties or actions that are not implied by the concept of God are accepted by P because P believes that God has revealed those beliefs.

By dividing beliefs about God into two categories (those believed on the basis of arguments or evidence and those believed on the basis of divine revelation), it does appear that one can avoid the circular reasoning that Definition 2 required of people in order to have ‘faith in God’.

However, the reason why some properties and actions are built into the concept of God is, generally, because those properties and actions are the most important and significant ones, from a religious point of view.  Therefore, it appears that beliefs about God accepted on the basis of divine revelation will, in general, be beliefs that are less important and less significant than the beliefs about God that are accepted on the basis of arguments or reasons.  This seems to give reason the primary role in the concept of ‘faith in God’ and to give divine revelation a secondary and less important role in the concept of ‘faith in God’.

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