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In Search of a Confident Faith (Ch.1, Pt.2): atheist annotations

Webmaster Joe is writing a series here on In Search of a Confident Faith, by J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler. His post on the first half of Chapter 1 is here; his post on the rest of it, here.

Being this blog's loyal opposition (I am loyal to Joe and opposed to most of what we both once believed, religiously speaking), I can't help but provide a few of my own annotations for what we've learned so far from Messrs. Moreland and Issler.

"A Christian with doubts isn’t a heathen or someone to be feared. A Christian with doubts is someone who’s less than 100% confident that Christianity is true — but still more than 50% confident. What’s needed isn’t blind exhortation to “have more faith” but more evidence to create confidence — to create more faith."

They're right on their main points here: it's obscene to suggest that doubting is sinful, and the unspoken idea prevalent in churches that you can simply will yourself to believe something either more or less is absurd.

Yet there's a corollary idea here that goes unsaid: once we begin to talk about Christians who are "pretty sure" or "mostly sure" God exists, talk of a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" is revealed as the metaphor (if we're being generous) or pure hyperbole (if we're not) it's always been. As Joe says, he has great faith in his wife, to say nothing of his confidence in her actual existence - and why shouldn't he? But despite statements sometimes made by Christians to the effect that it would be as crazy for them not to believe in Jesus as it would be for them to stop believing in other people they know, it's clear the Christian "relationship" is no different from the connection other religious people feel with their objects of worship.

But it's the other important message from the authors in this chapter that's positively stupefying when you consider its real implications so that you wonder how they dared to write it at all.

The good news is that you can indirectly control what you believe and how strongly you believe it by freely choosing to do certain things that develop God-confidence as a byproduct.

Spoken for truth, as they say: our actions affect our beliefs as much as vice-versa.

Most Christians already understand, of course, that the best way to believe something, keep believing it, and even believe it more than before is to carefully control your interactions. For instance, that's why they read books like In Search of a Confident Faith when they have doubts. So long as they always turn to Christianity for answers to problems with Christianity, they can minimize that terrible chance they might find answers to their questions from more threatening sources. What's interesting is that Christians also understand this is what they're doing, but their religion has made such close-mindedness acceptable by spiritualizing the whole matter.

There's much more to write - a book, really - but other matters to attend. Happy reading.

In Search of a Confident Faith (Chapter 1, Part 2)

I'm going to continue talking about what I learned in Chapter 1 of In Search of a Confident Faith. Last week, I talked about the first half of Chapter 1.

Philosophical Aspects of Faith

After unpacking the three theological aspects of faith, the authors move on to three philosophical aspects of faith. These are degrees of belief, confidence in and confidence that, and changing beliefs.

Degrees of belief:

The first philosophical aspect of faith is that beliefs are not binary. It's not true that you either believe something completely or disagree with it entirely. Beliefs are expressed in degrees of confidence. You can either believe something (51-100%) confidence, disbelieve something (0-49% confidence) or be completely counterbalanced (50% confidence or no confidence either way). This is true of everything in our lives, not just religion.

For instance, I'm 90% confident that Republicans will retake the House this year -- I believe it. I'm only 40% confident that Republicans will retake the Senate -- I disbelieve it. You can see that it would take a lot to change my belief about the outcome of the House elections but only a comparatively little to change my belief about the outcome of the Senate elections.

For a Christian, it's possible to believe in God with only a 51% or 55% confidence. You would believe, but your faith wouldn't be very strong. You would be constantly reevaluating your beliefs and seeking new evidence to either increase or reverse your existing beliefs. This is important because it indicates that the presence of doubt is not fatal.

... It follows from the fact that confidence comes in degrees, that in order to grow in Christ, it is not enough to assess what we do and do not believe. Rather, it is crucial to assess our degree of belief.

A Christian with doubts isn't a heathen or someone to be feared. A Christian with doubts is someone who's less than 100% confident that Christianity is true -- but still more than 50% confident. What's needed isn't blind exhortation to "have more faith" but more evidence to create confidence -- to create more faith.

Confidence In vs Confidence That

This second philosphical aspect of faith is fairly simple. You can have "confidence in" in an object (such as a automotive transmission) or a person (such as your wife). You have "confidence that" an alleged truth is actually true. For the record, I don't have confidence in my car's transmission but I do have confidence in my wife. I have confidence that the earth orbits the sun. I don't have confidence that anthropogenic global warming will destroy mankind.

Two important things follow from the distinction between "confidence in" and "confidence that." For one thing, the proper value of each rests on the worthiness of its object. Regarding "confidence in," its proper value is derived from the reality of its object and the object's dependability or trustworthiness.

... Regarding "confidence that," its proper value derives from the fact that the object--a particular claim--is actually true and not false.

... The second implication of the distinction between "confidence in" and "confidence that" is that while truth is an important aspect of biblical faith, faith goes beyond accepting certain truths and crucially involves "confidence in" and reliance upon a Person--the Triune God.

Changing Beliefs

The final philosophical aspect of faith deals with how to increase your faith in something or someone. The authors take pains to point out that beliefs can only be changed indirectly -- never directly. You will never increase your own faith or someone else's faith by merely commanding greater faith to exist.

The good news is that you can indirectly control what you believe and how strongly you believe it by freely choosing to do certain things that develop God-confidence as a byproduct.

In essence, persons do not have direct control over what they do and do not believe (or regarding the strength of their beliefs), but they do have indirect control over their beliefs. Put differently, one's beliefs (and their strength) are not directly subject to one's free will, though other activities that indirectly produce (or strengthen) belief are subject to one's free will.

Why Do We Have Faith

The Hidden God

Finally, Moreland and Issler address the question of why we have to have faith in God at all. Unfortunately, I thought this was the weakest part of the entire chapter. They start out by talking about the hiddenness of God.

... God is not interested in merely getting people to believe he is there. That's why he doesn't write something in the sky for all to see. Rather, he is interested in forming a community of people--his kingdom covenant people--who have entered that community voluntarily and uncoerced, and they have done so for the right reasons, among which include the desire to be with and like God himself.

... the Bible clearly teaches that there is knowledge of the existence of God (Psalm 19; Romans 1). What is hidden is God's manifest presence and some of his intentions.

This is worded as though Moreland and Issler believe that the two ideas are in conflict with each other. That it would be impossible for people to enter God's community voluntarily and uncoerced unless God were hidden. That may very well be true. Scripture is full of statements about man being unable to resist worship (or even keep living) in the unmediated presence of God.

Moreland and Issler themselves don't make any attempt to defend this assertion. They simply throw it out there. That greatly weakens their next two points.

Faith is How We Live Our Lives

... The second response is that, in light of the fuller understanding of the nature of faith provided above, it becomes evident that faith--confidence in and confidence that--is the very rail upon which we live our lives.

Everything we do, everyone we admire or detest, every emotion that we have comes from our specific beliefs and how strongly we hold those beliefs. My beliefs shape my daily thoughts, guide the priorization of my goals, and produce my daily behaviors. Change my beliefs and you change who I am. Change me from a raging free market capitalist to a committed liberal democrat and you'll change a lot of what makes me "me". Likewise, change my Christianity to atheism and you'll also change a lot of what makes me "me". Sure, I won't become a different person entirely but my priorities will change. My reading list will change. Some of my emotions will change.

My beliefs -- and the faith I have in those beliefs -- define who I am. Christianity is "merely" one element of my personal matrix of beliefs. Having faith in Christianity doesn't make me more or less rational than having faith in capitalism or faith in the ability of the Green Bay Packers to reach the Super Bowl. Faith is faith. It's the object of faith and the evidence for that faith that matters in determining whether or not I'm crazy.

Faith and people

Finally, faith is how we related to people all around us. All of our social interactions are driven by the faith (or lack of faith) we have in the people we meet each day.

we flourish in the presence of trust from others, offering confidence and trust is one way to show respect to and value other persons, and reliance on and confidence in another are essential to the way persons work together and cooperate with each other.

... Imagine what would happen to personal flourishing, individually and communally, if there were no such thing as trust. When we recall that faith is not blind choice but is trust, reliance and confidence, it becomes clear that the existence of faith is merely one important aspect of the nature of persons and the proper way they relate to one another. Furthermore, God-confidence is fundamental to living well in this universe, as Hebrews 11:6 teaches: "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."

Christian faith, ultimately, comes down to how much you know about God, how much you believe what you know, and -- from that -- how much confidence you place in God to do right and to be worthy of worship.

In Search of a Confident Faith (Chapter 1, Part 1)

Several months ago, I started reading through In Search of a Confident Faith. I quickly discovered that it had a lot of good information that I both wanted to remember and wanted to pass along.

I put my reading on hold until I could actually document things systematically. I'm finally at the point where I managed to write about Chapter 1, so I'm now going to inflict my enthusiasm on you.


What is faith? Is it an existential leap into the unknown? Is it a blind hope that somehow everything will work out okay, even if you don't know how? Is it wishful thinking without a solid foundation? Or is it something more?  J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler tackle this topic in Chapter 1 of In Search of a Confident Faith.

They say that faith is more than just the idea of blind trust that the word conjures up in modern Western thought. Instead, they argue, faith is something that must be built on a solid foundation, if it's to be worth anything at all. They start out by proposing to drop the word "faith". It's too confusing and -- by now -- has too much baggage associated with it. Instead, they encourage you to think of it in terms of three synonyms: "confidence", "trust", and "reliance". They say "We can see that if faith is essentially trust and confidence, its proper exercise crucially requires reasons, evidence, and knowledge."

Without reason, evidence, or knowledge, no Christian should hold Christianity to be true. Faith without reason and evidence is mere wishful thinking. They want to encourage Christians to question their faith and to discover what -- if any -- foundation they have for their faith.

If Christians have a solid foundation for their beliefs, then they can have great confidence in those beliefs, great trust in those beliefs, and a great reliance on those beliefs. They'll know why they have those beliefs and won't live in constant fear that they've misunderstood something or have wasted their lives on a delusion. Having a confident belief is vital to actually living as a Christian.

Because many Christians don't have a strong foundation of evidence for their faith, they are deathly afraid of doubting Christianity. This fear comes from a fear of what other Christians might think, a fear of what God might think (if he even exists), and a fear of what unpleasant truths they might discover if they ask too many questions. To combat these fears, Moreland and Issler proffer three different types of uncertainty -- only one of which is sinful.

one must distinguish among (1) unbelief (a willful and sinful setting of oneself against a biblical teaching), (2) doubt (an intellectual, emotional or psychological hindrance to a more secure confidence in some teaching or in God himself--I believe something but just have doubts) and (3) lack of belief (I don't believe something but know I should and want to--I need help).

Theological Aspects of Faith

Moreland and Issler begin to move into the meat and potatoes of the chapter. They unpack three historical theological aspects of faith. True faith starts with knowledge and ends with full fledged commitment. These three theological aspects of faith are faith as knowledge (notitia), faith as assent (assensus) and faith as commitment (fiducia).


Notitia refers to the content of faith, primarily the assertions of Scripture and theological, doctrinal formulations derived from Scripture. ... Notitia is also defined as knowledge of the meaning of or as understanding the content of doctrinal teaching. This clearly implies that far from being antithetical to faith, knowledge is actually an important ingredient of it.

Faith starts with simply knowing what the truth claims of the Bible (or anything, really) are. Is it claimed that stealing is honorable or dishonorable? Is it claimed that the poor are victims of their own stupidity, victims of the oppressors, or something else entirely? Is it claimed that the world is screwed up from the result of unwise choices or from malevolent evil? Is it claimed that the path to salvation lies in increasing knowledge or in humble submission to another? Every religion or set of ideas has its own set of facts. In the first stage, notitia, you don't have to agree or disagree with any of them. You just need to know what they are.


Assensus refers to personal assent to, awareness of or agreement with the truth of Christian teaching, and, again, it is primarily intellectual, though as we shall see in chapter three, there are clear affective and psychological components to assensus. Medieval theologians distinguished varying degrees of assent to something, with "full assent without hesitation" as the strongest form. The important thing is that it is not enough to grasp the contents of Christian teaching; one must also accept the fact that this teaching is true.

To get to this stage, you have to actively weigh the evidence for the facts that you've learned as part of notitia. You have to listen to the arguments pro and con. You have to apply your own reason and understanding. Only when you've agreed that the facts are, in fact, true can you move to assensus.


Finally, fiducia involves personal commitment to its object, whether to a truth or a person. Fiducia is essentially a matter of the will, but because Christianity is a relationship with a Person and not just commitment to a set of truths (though this is, of course, essential), the capacity to develop emotional intimacy and to discern the inner movements of feeling, intuition and God's Spirit in the soul is crucial to maintaining and cultivating commitment to God.

To be honest, I don't see a huge gap between assensus and fiducia. I know there can be a gap between claimed agreement with the Bible and actually living out a life of commitment but I don't think there should be. I think that if you really and truly whole-heartedly agreed with something that it would be hard to avoid living your life according to that belief. And, for Christians, agreement with Scripture is an agreement that you can have a personal, life altering relationship with the Being that created everything. If you agree with that, how can you not have a personal commitment to obeying that God fully?

But, of course, it's impossible to argue or guilt someone into a relationship with God. Moreland and Issler recognize that.

Merely exhorting people to be more committed to God—"just have more faith"—seldom produces greater confidence and dedicated trust in God. Rather, what is needed is a realistic picture of a flourishing life lived deeply in tune with God 's kingdom—a life that is so utterly compelling that failure to exercise greater commitment to life in that kingdom will feel like a foolish, tragic missed opportunity for entering into something truly dramatic and desirable.

That finishes up the three theological aspects of faith. Next week, I'll continue talking about Chapter 1 and I'll cover the three philosophical aspects of faith as well as the question of why it's necessary to have faith at all.