Does “By Faith We Understand” (Heb 11:3) Have It Backwards?

by Jul 18, 2020Personal, Piety, Theology, Worldview3 comments

A Christian friend who struggles with doubt recently wrote me asking why I chose the name of long-time blog,

Today I was thinking again about those four words “by faith we understand” and I feel a physical reaction to it. It’s hard to swallow because it’s still counter-intuitive to my analytical/scientific mind if it means what I think it means. In science, we tend towards inductive reasoning, gathering facts and then making a conclusion. But these four words seem to flip that around and say, if you first come to the conclusion that God is trustworthy and you believe Him, THEN you’ll understand and see that His words and worldview are true and trustworthy.

I feel I see this same pattern of “first believe and trust God and then He’ll help you understand it” echoed in other passages as well like 1 Jn 5:13, John 10:38 and even in Ephesians 6:16 and the faith in me says “ok! Yes Lord, I trust you, this is freeing!” But the cynicism says “ok, so brainwash yourself and then of course everything will make sense.” That last cynical thought honestly isn’t a very alluring temptation to me anymore because I’ve experienced God and His opening of my eyes and I know He’s God and wiser than me and I do trust Him! But it still bugs me a little bit sometimes, and I actually hate that.

So I guess my question is just is what I described above what you are emphasizing by the name of your blog? Have you written about that concept and if so, where can I find it?

Thanks, brother!


I so completely understand where you’re coming from, because it’s the land I come from, too: Empiristan, the Show Me state. It’s the country from which nearly all Western believers must emigrate in order to dwell in Beulah. I chose my blog title both because it’s a direct quote from Hebrews 11 and because I quite self-consciously intend to cause some physical revulsion among the Empiristani. Christ is an epistemological challenge to the West: he commands all men everywhere to repent of their pretensions to any kind of autonomy, including the intellectual variety. Belief is a moral activity; we are obligated to obey our creator with our minds. The sin that calls down God’s wrath from heaven is suppression of the truth.

That’s a pretty stiff way to start, I recognize, but there is some sugar-coating to lick elsewhere in Scripture. =) And my own story, which has some parallels to yours, figures in here. I myself faced a period of doubt during my senior year in college. I never doubted that, if the Bible is true, I was “saved.” I just doubted that the Bible was true. I was preaching regularly in a nursing home at the time, and I’ve always been grateful that it was an Alzheimer’s unit—it hardly mattered what I said in my sermons, because it was instantly forgotten… But a friend of mine gave me some biblical counsel I never forgot. She simply pointed out that the argument of Romans 1 was unavoidable. And, happily, my soul immediately rested. I knew, I knew, I knew that the rulers of Empiristan have no answer for the most simple question: Why is there something rather than nothing? I knew the two truths that Romans 1 says nature is telling me: a being of 1) eternal power and 2) divine nature made our world. This is the sugar, the easy part of the argument for an understanding that comes by faith. I feel comfortable simply repeating it. People ought, in the moral sense of ought, to see God without physically seeing him—through his creation.

But Paul does himself get stiff here, too: he says that those who don’t see, or rather won’t see, are “without excuse.” And what could possibly explain the tendency everywhere—the tendency I was experiencing in my own heart in my senior year—to deny what can’t not be known, what is “plain” to people, indeed what God himself has made “evident” to them? Only the culprit Paul himself fingers: unrighteous suppression of the truth.

Why? Why would people do this? Because there’s something deeper than reason, and deeper than the faith by which we reason: love. Men love darkness rather than light, because they don’t want their deeds to be exposed. They don’t want the accountability a Creator demands. And God punishes them with further blindness, and greater latitude for degrading and self-harming sin.

Watch the progression in what Paul told the Ephesians (4:17–18). He said that unregenerated people are darkened in their understanding (noetic sin, a sin of reason) because of their ignorance (noetic sin again) because of their hardened hearts (affective sin). Loves lie underneath all our beliefs. No wonder love is the central Christian virtue, the highest biblical command. Truly and ultimately right thinking requires love for God first and neighbor second. Paul is the most important of the writers who taught me that beliefs lie underneath arguments, and that loves lie underneath beliefs. Augustine and Edwards and Frame taught me that this was not merely an intellectual sin, some kind of logical mistake. It is instead the fruit of erring loves. They also helped me see that if my own loves are pointed and weighted (“ordered”) rightly, I have only the grace of God to thank. He rescued me from the noetic and affective effects of the Fall.

Many other writers have expanded on the basic scriptural truth that there is no neutrality and objectivity available out there when it comes to the existence of our creator. There is no perfectly evenhanded, rigorously empirical exploration of the question of origins. Our thoughts are directed by our beliefs and, ultimately, our loves. As one of my mentors liked to say, “Affection drive cognition.” Here were some of my assistants on the journey toward understanding this truth (in no particular order):

  • Tim Keller’s The Reason for God demonstrates over and over—and shows how he demonstrates this to non-Christians with some effect—that defeaters to Christianity are themselves beliefs, not empirically attained knowledge. I’ve seen them stumble over this question. Keller helps lay materialism bare as itself a faith, and a rather strong one. Every process is explicable by natural means. No appeal to the supernatural is legitimate. This they know, they are sure of, they believe. (I’ll never forget the famous, revealing, gotcha moment in that Ben Stein documentary on intelligent design, the time when he got Richard Dawkins to acknowledge that yes, it was possible that life on Earth was seeded here by alien life. “That designer could well be a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe, but that higher intelligence would itself have had to have come about by some explicable, or ultimately explicable process.”)
  • Postmodernism itself has laid bare the pretensions of modernism and empiricism and scientism. Enlightenment rationalists though they could know truth independently of faith, and postmodernism has shown how very often the truths they discovered just so happened to be what they believed and wanted to find in the first place. Postmodern literary theorist Stanley Fish has been my most loyal companion here. He gleefully exposes the parochial beliefs and selfish loves motivating everyone who calls himself “neutral” (or “fair” or “just”). And over and over again, his New York Times commenters—the very crowd most heaping scorn on me for believing in a God of eternal power and divine nature who created man in basically his current form—could only sputter in rage at Fish’s heresies against scientism and classical liberalism. (I wrote a paper on this which was about the most fun I’ve ever had in academic writing, and which you may find helpful and enjoyable; and here is Fish’s most classic essay, which I reread every few years.)
  • C.S. Lewis has also been a huge help here. I just have to quote him at length:

Those who accept theology are not necessarily being guided by taste rather than reason. The picture so often painted of Christians huddling together on an ever narrower strip of beach while the incoming tide of “Science” mounts higher and higher corresponds to nothing in my own experience. That grand myth of [evolutionary progress] which I asked you to admire a few minutes ago is not for me a hostile novelty breaking in on my traditional beliefs. On the contrary, that cosmology is what I started from. Deepening distrust and final abandonment of it long preceded my conversion to Christianity. Long before I believed Theology to be true I had already decided that the popular scientific picture at any rate was false. One absolutely central inconsistency ruins it…. The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears. Unless we can be sure that reality in the remotest nebula … obeys the thought laws of the human scientist here and now in his laboratory—in other words, unless Reason is absolute—all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based. The difficulty is to me a fatal one; and the fact that when you put it to many scientists, far from having an answer, they seem not even to understand what the difficulty is, assures me that I have not found a mare’s nest but detected a radical disease in their whole mode of thought from the very beginning. The man who has once understood the situation is compelled henceforth to regard the scientific cosmology as being, in principle, a myth; though no doubt a great many true particulars have been worked into it. (From “Is Theology Poetry,” in The Weight of Glory, 134–136.)

  • Steven D. Smith’s book—that Keller put me onto—called The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse was absolutely masterful in its uncovering of the moral smuggling operations that are endemic in our supposedly neutral, rational discourse. In other words, secularism is supposed to require no metaphysical/theological assumptions—but it absolutely cannot ever live up to its self-promise. (I wrote another fun paper about reactions to this book.)
  • J. Michael Sandel of Harvard, the greatest lecturer I have ever seen, who taught a class on moral philosophy taken by many thousands of Harvard students, shows deftly over and over again in his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? that every vision of justice presupposes a “vision of the good” that is not empirically discoverable. I cannot recommend his book highly enough, and his lectures have been placed on video expertly by WGBH Boston. Absolutely superb. Neither he nor Fish have much to offer when you ask, “Well, which values should be ultimate?” Their worldview gives them no access to God through divine revelation. But they are nonetheless massively helpful.
  • Alasdair MacIntyre in his justly famous book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory shows that the pursuit of a set of moral values grounded only in reason has been a failure throughout time. His own proposal is excellent and helpful but, with all due respect to his vastly superior intellect, he also fails to show why certain practices and their attendant virtues should be inculcated rather than others, because he, too, tries to operate apart from divine revelation.
  • George Marsden showed in his little book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment that the foundations do get destroyed, and that moral discourse will change when they do.
  • Ross Douthat, even quite recently, has spoken helpfully about the “successor ideology” to the classical liberalism that ruled our culture in our youth.
  • The most important book I could hand you is probably John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. If you have epistemological questions—How can I know faithfully? What counts as knowledge, biblically speaking? Is there something wrong with empirical ways of knowing?—he’s your man.

By Faith We Understand

Those words, “by faith we understand,” come from Hebrews 11, of course.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

Faith is assurance; faith is conviction; faith is two essential components of knowledge, even proof (and one major translation uses that very word in this passage). And I find it interesting that the main issue on which the Bible expects understanding—knowledge and assurance and conviction—to arise from faith and not the other way around is creation. This is an argument that really ought, in the moral sense of ought, to persuade people who demand empirical proof. Creation has been available to all five of their senses for their entire lives.

In the case of creation, seeing ought to be believing. And what a beautiful and artful persuasion sunsets and woodpeckers and RNA are! They all shout the same message; they all proclaim that they are God’s handiwork. And Romans 1 says we are “without excuse” if we won’t see the “eternal power and divine nature” they reveal. Even empirically speaking, somethings don’t come from nothings. Quadruple-blind, peer reviewed studies have shown this over and over. Indeed, all empiricism is impossible without this foundation.

That is my smattering of thoughts. I pray you find them helpful.

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  1. Christopher Watson

    “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam”

    “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand”

    -Anselm of Canterbury

  2. epistleofdude

    On the one hand, faith in God is based on reasonable arguments, sound evidences, &c. So faith in God isn’t unreasonable, irrational, or anti-intellectual. Faith in God isn’t opposed to or at odds with reason. To the contrary, faith in God is based on what’s eminently reasonable. In short, Christian faith isn’t fideistic. (Of course, as a Christian, when I say “faith” I don’t mean mere intellectual belief or assent, but I also mean trust and commitment to God.)

    On the other hand, it is sometimes reasonable to believe what we may not fully understand. This would be in the vein of the “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum) tradition that began with Anselm. This is not at all to say faith replaces or opposes understanding. That’d be blind faith. In fact, Anselm himself calls it “dead faith”. Rather “faith seeking understanding” means something more like “reasonable faith in God seeking a deeper understanding of God”. In short, the Christian has a reasonable faith in God based on sound and valid arguments and evidences, but the Christian also seeks to deepen their faith in God by continuing to learn and study God.

    In this respect, I’d recommend a 2-part series from the Christian apologist Steve Hays at Triablogue titled “Why I believe: A positive apologetic” and “Why I believe: I’m glad you asked!“.

    • epistleofdude

      Since you mentioned your appreciation for John Frame, Steve Hays was a former student and teaching assistant for Frame, Frame has cited Hays in his works (e.g. The Doctrine of God), and in fact Frame said Hays was “certainly one of the three or four best students I ever taught” (here). Just thought you might be interested! Thanks for your wonderful work for the Lord. I just watched your talk on the importance of typography in Bibles (thankfully I own and love the ESV Reader’s Bible), and I just purchased your book Authorized on Amazon to learn more about all this.