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

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