Theology in 3D

Faith First, then Understanding… Really?

Layton Talbert | August 10, 2018
New Testament, Theology

A while back I wrote on “Faith First, Then Understanding” and received this perceptive email:

I just had a question about this article. I enjoy reading the material on this blog and am very thankful for the teaching I have received from it. This one here, though, brought to light something that has been bothering me for some time. I’m just not sure I can reconcile in my mind that I should have faith in something before understanding it. Perhaps it is my tendency toward logic and “proofs” that is hindering me (I am a Computer Science major). It seems to me that the only reason I believe anything in the Bible is because I have understood it first; it was explained to me at some point or I have sufficient reason to believe it. . . . I felt after reading the article that you were asking me to do something like majority leader Pelosi said several years ago in regards to Obamacare: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” Of course, when we hear that we think, “That’s ridiculous, why would I ‘put my faith’ in something I haven’t even read, or understand?” . . . The things in God’s Word that I cannot understand (mysteries) are not a problem for me since we cannot understand them anyway; yes, I accept those by faith. However, the things that I can understand, why (how) could I accept them as true before I understand them?

It’s a fair question. I understand exactly where the writer is coming from. I’ve seen some wrestle for years over this same juxtaposition between faith and understanding. My own desire to understand what John 7:17 is really saying (and not necessarily saying) has been sharpened by watching such ongoing struggles.

In a sense, the answer is simple; the emailer alluded to it. If it is a matter of revelation—if God says it—then my first obligation is to submit my mind and believe that whatever God says is so. Obviously, because God self-communicates in understandable human language (what theologians call the perspicuity of Scripture), most of what he says is immediately understandable. God created; Moses led Israel out of Egypt; David committed adultery; Ruth followed Naomi out of Moab and married Boaz and had a son; Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary, etc. We comprehend the words. No one expects you to believe something written in a foreign language that you cannot read or mentally apprehend. So obviously comprehension precedes faith on that most basic informational level. This is the aspect of faith that theologians have labeled notitia. Faith actually begins as a kind of knowledge.

There may, however, be aspects of that revelation that I have a hard time imagining or even understanding, and certainly there are things beyond my experience that demand my faith beyond empirical evidences that I can see or understand (like the miracles that accompanied the Exodus, or how a virgin could conceive and bear a human child — not to mention a human child who is also God). So I may not completely understand how what he said could be, or why he said certain things; but that doesn’t mean I put on hold my belief in creation, or the Exodus, or the virgin birth, or the incarnation of God in Christ until I am completely satisfied that these things can be proven logically or historically to my satisfaction. My obligation is to believe whatever God says, simply because he says it, even if it doesn’t make complete sense to me. My “sufficient reason to believe” is the fact that God has said it. If I disbelieve, then I’m saying that my own reasoning and understanding (or someone else’s) is “sufficient reason” not to believe something God said. Again, the theologians have labeled this aspect of faith assensus. Faith proceeds from knowledge to acknowledgement.

The Pelosi analogy is an interesting one. No one, when they first believe on Christ, understands everything in the Bible. Most know only a miniscule fraction of what’s in the Bible. And yet when they trust Christ they are not only believing what the Bible says about Christ; they are implicitly committing themselves to believe and follow whatever else the Bible says. That’s because in trusting Christ they are not only believing in a set of propositional facts; they are entering into a relationship with a Person and, therefore, with everything else that Person says. In effect, they are putting their faith in a book that they haven’t completely read or understood before they even knew what was in it!  How is that different? So was Pelosi right, too? Only if you think Obamacare was revelation from God. (And there are probably a few people who do.) Everyone believes in something, and the object of faith makes all the difference in the world as to the rationality of that faith.

In part, I was trying to answer this question: Does John 7:17 legitimize not believing Jesus if your own understanding of some of the things he said makes you doubt that his doctrine is really from God? In other words, is God satisfied with me as long as I’m being as honest and earnest as I know how to be, but I still don’t believe Jesus? For anyone who knows as much about Christ as the people I have in mind, at least, the answer is clearly no. Because the final element of faith that God requires is fiducia — trust, persuasion. Lack of understanding does not justify disbelief about something God has said. You cannot rationally base your unbelief on what you do not know.

Scripture calls us to be persuaded that whatever God says is so, not merely that whatever makes sense to me in the Bible is so. That presupposition of faith has been the key that opened up many passages that I once didn’t comprehend. That is Augustine’s point in the final quote of my original post (“understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand“); and it’s the intended point of my title. It really comes down to a fundamental submission of my will and my intellect to the revelation of God.

P.S. When the resurrected Jesus rebuked the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he didn’t chide them for not understanding all that was in the prophets; he rebuked them for being slow to believe all that was in the prophets (Luke 24:25). He held them accountable for believing everything the text says, whether they understood it all or not. The other John passages I cite in the original blogpost imply that if they had believed, they would have understood. Again, faith precedes and produces understanding.

Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert

4 responses to “Faith First, then Understanding… Really?”

  1. Olamide says:

    Having faith in God is having in His word(accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior. Believing He died for us. and That the power of the grave doesn’t have power over us). Why should we trust Him? We trust Him because His Word has given us revelation of who He is and our identity in Him. You have to be intentional about your identity in Christ. Study His Word, pray in the Spirit always. Thank Him don’t just read the Bible, meditate, visualize it apply the instructions to your life.
    That is why we have to surrender totally to the Will of the Father. When God was teaching the disciples to pray. He said, “Let Your will be done on earth as it is done in Heaven”. We are His vessels, a sacrifice for Him. Sheep are known to surrender totally to their Shepherd. Jesus is the good Shepherd, and Jesus is the Word in Flesh. Those who will be relevant are those who spend time in the secret place and are hard working. I was reading Genesis and I noticed in Chapter 1:5 that the plants were yet to grow because there was no man to till the ground. We have to work in partnership with the Holy Spirit. When God gives a word we obey, work, and offer Thanksgiving. That doesn’t mean there won’t be trials when you obey.
    Before the arrival of our Savior, Instructions were given to His earthly parents before, and after His arrival. we had people like Anna praying and fasting day and night for the prophecy to come to pass. Still, Herod wanted to kill Him. How do we overcome it? We are overcomers by the Word. There is a part I love in the scriptures Jeremiah 15:16.
    In Galatians chapter one you will understand that no one can please God except through Faith. The Word of God is so powerful. It is life.
    There is so much to say. I hope I didn’t go off-topic or confuse you.

  2. Mark says:

    I really struggle with the theology or belief that God does everything for His own glory. I struggle to comprehend how it can be loving for God to do all things for the sake of His Name. I’ve read so much on this subject by John Piper, Jonathan Edwards, C S Lewis, Sam Storms but still struggle to get my head around it. I feel like God seems like a narcissist in light of this teaching, but don’t want to think like that. I want to understand this but no matter how much research I do I can’t comprehend it.

    How do I respond to this in light of your article? Any help would be so appreciated. Is it to trust God is good even if I don’t understand and be satisfied with not knowing the answer? To have faith without the understanding?

  3. Kent Hobi says:


    I understand your struggle. We sometimes wonder how God can jealously seek His Own glory above everything and yet be perfectly loving and caring for His creation, as Scripture shows Him to be. We know that if we were entirely centered on our own glory, we would be anything but loving and caring for others. But this is one area in which we assume God is like us when He is really not like us at all (Ps 50:21).

    In “The Knowledge of the Holy,” A.W. Tozer argues convincingly that an idol is simply a false perception of God. He argues that the reason the second commandment prohibits graven images is because making a graven image of God (like the golden calf or Jeroboam’s idols) attempts to present the inscrutable God as something we can understand–“the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Rom 1:23). That ruins the image of God. God is not like man, or birds, or beasts; He is by nature inscrutable.

    So that feeling that sometimes tugs at our hearts–that God is a narcissist because He is jealous for His Own glory–presupposes that He is like us, made in our image, rather than vice versa. Praise Him that He’s not! In approaching God, we start with belief whether we want to or not (“the one who draws near to God must believe that He exists” Heb 11:6). We either believe that God is like us or that God is totally unlike us. The best way to rectify “an idol” or a wrong view of God is to replace it not just with a true notion of God (Who is inscrutable) but with God Himself. Piper, Edwards, Lewis, Storms, and Tozer would all agree that meditating on God as He is presented in His Word is better for building our view of Him than reading their writings could possibly be. Maybe start with Ps 16, a Psalm which beautifully shows that God Himself is the greatest good, the portion, and the fullest joy of His people. By seeking His glory, our Portion is seeking our greatest good and fullest joy.

    Hope something here helps you. I wanted to jump in because this is an older post and I don’t know if Dr. Talbert is still monitoring it.

  4. Kent, your reply to Mark is excellent–thoughtful and pastoral. The only thing I would add in answer to Mark’s original question is that God does not seek his own glory merely for his own sake. He has created us with the capacity to enter into and share in that glory. In other words, part of God’s glory is his self-giving–indeed, his self-sacrificial self-giving. He is not a cosmic narcissist. He is the Cosmic Giver. Read…no, take the time to ponder Ephesians 2:4-7. Here’s the kernel idea: God [the Father], because he is rich in mercy and great in love for us, did all that he did to save us so that for all the ages to come he can display the extravagant wealth of his kindness toward us in Christ. We glorify ourselves by pulling all the attention inward on ourselves. God glorifies himself by radiating outward on us, not only showing to us but sharing with us all that he is. That is not an anthropocentric view that puts us at the center of God’s glory. That’s just the kind of extravagantly kind God he is (Eph 2:7). And that’s as infinitely far from narcissism as you can get.

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