The Nicene Creed begins, not with a statement of facts that can be proved, but a declaration that what follows is what is believed to be true. Thus, the element of faith comes in right at the beginning.
It does not take faith to believe that the sun gives light to the earth. An astronomer can do his measurements and declare that the earth revolves around the sun, despite what it looks like. He is not using faith because he has proved it out with his calculations. But those of us who aren't trained don't understand how he proves it. At this point, we can choose to believe what astronomers have taught since the 17th century or not. Nearly all of us have been convinced to believe that the earth revolves around the sun even though we don't understand the proofs.
There are thousands of things that we believe because those we trust have told us that they are true. We trust them because they have demonstrated some expertise in their field of study. Even though we don't demand that they prove these things to us, we know that a proof is available. This is a kind of faith, but it is built on the knowledge of others.
When it comes to a discussion of things that cannot be proved, measured, or demonstrated, then faith enters a new realm. Some people believe in ghosts. Others in multiple gods. Still others believe that beings from other worlds have visited us. None of these things can be proved but none of them can be disproved either. How people come to have faith in this things is complex.
Faith Is Intellectual Belief
The Bible uses the word "faith" in several different ways. For this article, we are concentrating on one use: to describe what a person believes to be true about God and His ways. Notice this description of the early church: And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7 ESV). The apostle Paul wrote these words to Timothy: If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed (1Timothy 4:6 ESV).
In both of these passages we see that "faith" is defined as the content of what is believed. These things are not scientifically provable facts, but what is believed to be true.
Faith Is Not Determined by What We Can Prove
It takes faith to believe what you cannot see or touch or demonstrate. For we walk by faith, not by sight (2Corinthians 5:7 ESV).
Hebrews 11 has a long list of Bible characters who lived by faith, who believed in God even though they could not see him. The chapter begins like this:
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. (Hebrews 11:1-3 ESV)
The average person can conceive of the existence of a God who is so powerful that he made the universe. It takes faith since we can't see him, but the concept is not beyond our human minds. Some matters of faith are so outside of our human experience that it requires another level of faith. This is the ability to believe what we can't understand. This is what we mean when we use the word "mystery."
Faith Is Believing in Things We Don't Understand
As we will see in further articles, some of the beliefs that Christians hold fall into the category of "mystery." For instance, to say that there is only one God but he exists in three persons seems impossible to us. It is a mystery and can only be believed by faith.
If these things are beyond human understanding, how do we know that they are true? Because we see them in the Bible. Christians accept that the Bible is message of God given through human writers. Therefore, we accept the facts that it declares as true—both those that are easy to understand and those that are not.
Not everyone reaches this level of faith. Noah's neighbors thought that a flood was impossible and went about their daily lives (Matthew 24:37-39). The 85-year old Sarah laughed when God said she would bear a child (Genesis 18:12). The nation of Israel did not believe that God could give them food in the desert until he did. Zechariah doubted the angel's promise that he and his wife could have a child in their old age (Luke 1:18).
Paul wrote this to Timothy about those who would be leaders in the church: They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (1Timothy 3:9 ESV).
Assurance of Faith
Faith is not entirely blind. There are many witnesses to the things that Christians believe:
- The Bible reveals the truths of God. When a person comes to see the Bible as God's message, then there is a great ability to trust beliefs that come from it.
- The consistent teaching of church leaders over nearly 2,000 years is a great comfort. Though there are many disagreements over smaller points of belief, the essential items mentioned in the Nicene Creed have stood the test of time. Paul wrote this about the role of leaders and teachers in the church: And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14 ESV)
- The working of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a believer helps him or her to accept truths that many other people never could. Unbelievers can understand what the Bible is saying, but they can't bring themselves to believe what it is saying. Paul recognized this:
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God....The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1Corinthians 2:12, 14 ESV)
Approach Christian Beliefs through Faith
It is right to ask questions. It is acceptable to challenge teachers to defend what they say. The church at Berea was commended because they were examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11 ESV).
In the end, however, we need to have faith in what God has said, even if it is hard for us to understand. When we have faith, the Holy Spirit will guide us and give us confidence that what we learn from the Bible is true and trustworthy.
Bob Caldwell, PhD, is Theologian-in-Residence at Network 211.