Rene Descartes wanted absolute certainty, fearing that he might be deceived by some evil epistemological demon. His answer came, not in his cogito ergo sum, “I think; therefore, I am, “ but in an ontological argument based upon the perfection and goodness of God. It is interesting that the “Father of Modern Philosophy,” which has become rationalistic and atheistic, grounded his epistemology in the attributes of God. And, from his foundational argument, the 21st century Christian may also ground his doubts in God—but with several differing definitions and emphases that I want to make.
Summary outline. My goal is to make this paper a sort of flow chart for Christians, particularly college students, who face doubt about their Christian faith, and doubt about any other matter, as well. Thus, I have numbered summary at the end of this paper that may be helpful as a guide to working through doubt. I renounce all copyright claims to it. The key to a cure in the practice of medicine is right diagnosis. And, that is key here: the right diagnosis of the cause of doubt.
As I have matured in Biblical and theological understanding, I have been deeply troubled at the inaccuracy and superficial definitions of words that are central to the Christian faith, for example, faith, guilt, love, and truth. This paper, then, is really about definitions—Biblical definitions. It is this pursuit that makes this paper different from most attempts at thinking through doubt. Perhaps, I can spur others—teachers and students—to thinking more carefully about Christian, that is, Biblical definitions.
For example, In a formal syllogism in logic, one can make a valid argument that is false. That is, one can reason rightly, even truthfully, and be wrong. The classical argument is:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates will die.
But, the Bible counters this argument.
All men are mortal.
Enoch is a man.
Enoch will die.
The primary and secondary premises are true, but the conclusion is not. While this argument is simple, it demonstrates the entry of God and His Word into logic and philosophy. With these two additions, our understanding changes definitively.
Thus, the importance of definitions. One central key to our study here is the definition of faith, guilt, and truth. But, first, let’s get “disease,” as a cause of doubt, out of the way.
Almost any medical condition can affect energy and clear thinking. Descartes wanted his thinking to be “clear and distinct.” My thinking is much more clear and distinct after my first cup of coffee in the morning, than the late night before after 16 hours of study and work! In most situations, medical illness is apparent—we get colds, fever, sore throats, stomach viruses, etc. But, some conditions are more subtle. If you think that you have some physical illness that is causing you to doubt your faith, see a physician who will take the appropriate time to do a thorough workup.
There is one caveat in this category, physical distress because of …
… an irregular schedule. Both college students and those beyond college, frequently have erratic and long days of work. Acute and chronic fatigue may rob you of your joy and peace in the Christian life. So, examine your schedule. In counseling, I found few Christians who have regular schedules and get enough rest. Jesus said, “Come unto me, all you that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The book of Hebrews vividly describes “entering His rest.” While Heaven is our ultimate and final rest, that rest can begin now, as Jesus said. But, it will take some work and understanding how to schedule and prioritize all the events in your life.
Hectic, too full, and stressful lives can create doubt. Find a good book or person to help you organize your life.
Then, there is the so-called …
Problem of Guilt—Guilt Feelings
Secular psychology has entered the Church and Bible college and seminary campuses, as well. One error that touches on doubt is the idea of “guilt feelings,” sometimes expressed as, “Perhaps God can forgive me, but I cannot forgive myself.” That is, I ask God’s forgiveness, which He grants, but guilty feelings remain. These feelings may be interpreted as “not forgiving myself.”
My immediate question is, “Who are you not to forgive when the almighty God has forgiven you?” But, more practically, we are not to live a life that is based upon feelings. I John says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Confess once to God, then apply Philippians 4:8—to think right thoughts–diligently and forcefully—and get on with your life. Do not dwell on these feelings. Dwell on the truth of God’s forgiveness. Get busy with the Christian life—faith is action.
Soul-shattering event. You have a close friend or relative die, develop a severe illness, have a crippling accident, or other catastrophe. You need careful Biblical counseling and study of all that follows here to put that event in Biblical perspective.
Trajectory of faith over a lifetime. After one’s conversion, faith is often quite strong. As Christianity becomes more “familiar,” faith often wanes, but grows stronger as one’s experience and knowledge of God increases.
And, be careful of Christian psychologists who talk of guilt feelings. Be careful of Christian counselors who use psychological labels. Read material by solid Biblical counselors, for example, Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel and the Christian Counselors Manual.
Maybe doubt enters when you are challenged with a desire that is counter to God’s instructions. There is a common response among pastors when one says to the other, “I have come to doubt the truth of the Gospel.” The other responds, “What is her name?”, meaning you desire a woman, not your wife. You know your desire is wrong, so you challenge God? Or, the young person who “doubts” because the person with whom he or she has fallen in love is not a Christian. Strong desire, or what the Bible calls lust, can lead to doubt. Even Nietzsche recognized that desire is the strong determiner of belief in his pursuit of a-morality in Beyond Good and Evil.
Briefly, for the student who may not know what epistemology is. It is “how we know what we know.” Now, you may think that is a simple question, but it is perhaps the central issue in philosophy—the demon of Descartes and of the entire history of philosophy. It is the reason that there are almost as many divergent opinions as there are people in the world… the reason that there are thousands of “Christian” belief systems. How can I make the claim that I know more certainly than you or vice versa? Why is Christianity true and Buddhism wrong? Why is Christianity true and Marxism wrong? Political correctness promotes diversity, but what happens when the Supreme Court says that homosexual marriage is legally acceptable, and people lose their business and are even punished with fines and jail.
So, epistemology is central in the market place of ideas, in theology, and in one’s personal Christian life. Curiously, much of this confusion centers around the issues of faith and reason, even after centuries of discussion. I think that an understanding of faith is perhaps the most important issue facing our nation and the world today. Both Christians and secularists use the term “faith-group” in their discussions and in their media.
So, let me ask the question, “What is the alternative to a “person of faith?” If faith and reason are the only two categories, your opponent is a “person of reason.” So, who wins. I contend that the person of faith loses before the argument starts. The person of reason wins. I mean, an argument from reason is surely more solid than a leap of faith! Does not faith mean, “I believe in something that I know is not true?” Should not the person of reason cause me to doubt my unreasoning faith?
The issue seems simple, and yet “faith” vs. “reason” is perhaps the central debate since the Enlightenment—which is a “light” that has caused much darkness. Papers and books ad nauseum have been written about faith and reason.
And, I hope to solve the issue. Am I arrogant? Well, if there is no consensus, why are not my arguments as good as any other?
Let’s probe the issue further. In the late 19th and early 20th century, with the rise of modern science, logical positivists claimed that the only certainty came from empirical experiments, that is, the scientific method. Surely, you have all heard how that process is objective and can answer all questions. But, as Dr. Quantum would say, “Not so fast!” The very statement of the logical positivists does not come from an experiment; it comes from the “meta-“ region of ideas. “Meta” ideas are statements of faith. There is nothing empirical in saying that truth and answers lie in empiricism. That statement precedes empiricism!! It is a metaphysical argument grounding a physical process. It is the “meta-“ grounding the menial. It is Plato’s ideas grounding Aristotle’s natural world. It is the spiritual grounding the physical. It is the invisible grounding the visible, as the writer of Hebrews said 2000 years ago.
In fact, the scientific method is induction, and induction is a logical fallacy. Look it up in any textbook on logic!
Now, about this time along came Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Kurt Gödel, and other philosophers of science. I will limit my efforts to Polanyi because he seems to have the most complete system with numerous examples, and with whom I am most familiar. He says that all science is based upon faith! What? What about the scientific method? Well, quite simply: the person proposes an hypothesis, the person determines how he will study it, the person determines how he will study it, the person determine what he will measure, etc. etc. The person or persons make decisions at every point in the process. Certainly, the science of their study has certain parameters to follow, but persons choose within those parameters. They are acting on their faith in themselves and their scientific methods.
Here is one example that Polanyi gives. In the study of crystals his former area of expertise, physical scientists began to see regular patterns and structures. So, they would throw out those that did not fit their theories. Finally, they came to a beautiful description of 230 “distinctive rhythms.” But, if they look to the side, there is this pile of crystals that only partially fit their descriptions. What they have done is ignore realities in favor of personal theories—personal choices, personal beliefs, and personal faith.
These irregularities are prevalent in science. There was Euclidean geometry, now non-Euclidean geometry. There was the orderly universe of Newton and Kessler, but now the disorder of force fields, Einstein’s relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, chaos theory, and the observer effect in quantum physics—to mention only a few. What is dark matter? Black holes? Into what does the universe expand? What is the nature of quantum entanglement?
And, finally there is the naturalistic fallacy developed by none other than the atheist, David Hume. “There is no ought from an is.” Or, no degree of observation can determine right and wrong. Science may not pronounce the first “ought,” that is, it may never tell you any principle that is right or wrong. As Aristotle wrote, all morality comes from the “meta-“ region—the mind of persons in which “supernatural” concepts are conceived and stated.
So, all this, hurried and superficial though it be, hides a universe of thought that all knowledge is based upon faith. Augustine, whom Polanyi often quotes, told us long ago that “I believe in order to understand.” But, what few realize is that Augustine went on to say that a statement of faith also had to be reasoned or reasonable. Take John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” Is that a statement of faith? Absolutely. But, it is also a reasoned statement. What God concerns all the attributes of God and His actions of history? What love is defined by all that Scripture says about it? What is the world, kosmos, is even more difficult to determine. And so, each word in that verse. This statement of faith is one that is reasoned and reasonable, each word pregnant with meaning and relationships.
Towards a Definition of Faith
Let’s try to put all this together. Beliefs range from the immediate and basic to the well-reasoned after years of study. Thus, it would seem that the “well-reasoned” would always be the better one. But, not so. Has the Buddhist who has studied his faith all his life found the truth? Has the person, just regenerated at a Billy Graham crusade and knows only what the evangelist said, found the truth? One studied, the other immediate? Or, according to Gettier, one who just coincidentally found the truth?
So, the degree of study does not determine truth. What then does? What is truth?
The Idea of Generic Faith
Generic faith. A critical concept in our study here is the idea of generic faith. Understanding faith is impossible without it, yet few theologians and philosophers discuss it, and almost no evangelical Christians know what it is. It goes like this.
Every action that you have ever taken was done in faith. You set your alarm clock believing that you set it correctly, that the electricity would still work in the morning, that you would hear it and get up, that the clock would keep accurate time, etc. Most of you have experienced failure set the clock correctly, not heard it go off, had the battery fail, etc.
You had faith that I would be here, that I would speak on the subject announced, that I could talk, that it might be interesting, etc. All the while, the opposite might be true. How many have had faith in a friend, male or female, that ended in disaster, whereas at one time you thought that the relationship would last your lifetimes.
We think and we act hundreds of times a day, assuming certain events will happen and that people and things are dependable. We never know for sure. That is one definition of faith; it is a gift of God to be able to act without being omniscient.
Faith is the ability to make a decision and act upon it with being omniscient. That is one of my definitions. Or, from another perspective, faith is the means by which knowledge becomes action. That is, one is sufficiently “sure” or “certain” to the extent that he or she is willing to act, to commit oneself to the ontology of his world. Faith transforms what is in the mind into action. On a practical basis, one only has to know enough to act—to make a decision in the situation.
But, let’s look more closely at the process. (1) I make a “decision.” (2) That decision is based upon knowledge which may be immediate or studied, as we have seen. (3) I have a certain expectation from that decision. I expect my alarm clock to go off. (4) Reality determines whether my expectation comes true. Yes! My alarm clock goes off.
More seriously, I decide to get married. I have a certain knowledge of my future spouse. But, there is the reality that happens. Sometimes, the couple are “happily married” for life with only a few bumps along the way. Sometimes, disagreements shortly end in divorce. Decision based upon knowledge, action, Reality.
Even more seriously. I hear knowledge that Jesus Christ offers me salvation. I decide that his offer is not for me. I go to Hell. Decision based upon false knowledge with horrendous Reality. Or, I decide for Jesus Christ and go to Heaven. Decision, knowledge reality.
Thus, an alternative definition of faith is to act according to immediate or studied knowledge with a certain expectation that will be proven true by the Reality of future events.
Now, all this discussion is a necessary prelude to understanding and facing doubt. What have we concluded? All knowledge is based upon faith… all knowledge. Then, what is doubt? Doubt is merely “new” knowledge that challenges my “prior” knowledge about my Christian beliefs. Doubt is merely another perspective, based upon faith, that is only as good as it is true! So, the doubt is simply another name for faith—knowledge that challenges how I have made decisions in the past. It is right by definition to state the situation as faith vs. doubt., but the problem is more functionally stated as “old faith” vs. “this challenging faith” which I label “doubt.” Faith vs. faith. So, the question becomes which faith—that is, which knowledge upon which the faith is founded is more likely to be true? The demon of doubt is only a pussycat of faith masquerading as something else.
Real doubt is always about epistemology. Real doubts are competing truth claims. So, the issue becomes, “What is truth?” Here, we are back to Polanyi. Truth is a personal matter. If there is any common agreement among 21st century philosophers, it is that classical foundationalism is dead. That is, there is no norm by which to establish truth, or in philosophical jargon, “justified true belief” for everyone for all times. In other words, after 2500 years of philosophy, there is is virtually no agreement as to how best to determine what is and is not true, or what is and is not knowledge.
Augustine faced this dilemma. As a young adult, he was deeply concerned for what is and is not true. After he was regenerated, he faced the same dilemma. Then, he realized that all knowledge is based upon authority—that we live and act almost entirely on other persons opinions—their authority. Well, the issue then becomes simple. Why not believe God—what higher authority is there? Folks, the issue is really that simple. “Has God not said?” “Has God not said?” Do you believe Plato, Aristotle, Philo, Plotinus, Boethius, the Scholastics, the classical rationalists, the classical empiricists, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, postmoderns, or … God?
Your issue of doubt is simply, “Has God not said.” And, here is where Polanyi fails. His system does not allow for an objective source of knowledge—which the Bible is. Interestingly, no other religion in the world has an authority that claims, “Thus says the Lord.” Then, there is the fruit of Christians, its historical record, and other “evidences.” But, all claims come back to the individual person and his community, “Whom do I believe and why?”
The challenge of a teacher. So, the professor challenges the student, “You faith is invalid. I will prove to you that it is false.” So, if you understand that all knowledge is based upon personal faith, he has no greater claim that you do. I have a paper online which offers some 36 intellectual stalemates to any professor that are likely far beyond anything that he or she has researched. The arguments for the truth of the Bible are plentiful and vigorous, argued by pagans as well as, Christians.
For example, many claim to be skeptics. Well, you simply challenge, “Do you know everything? Are you omniscient?” because you must be to say that there is no truth. Skepticism means that you have examined all knowledge everywhere and found no truth. But, then, you have contradicted yourself, because “There is no truth” is a true statement. You see, powerful arguments are not so hard!
By another approach, Wittgenstein has been paraphrased this way:
“Skepticism (cannot) be defeated philosophically because any attempt to defeat skepticism philosophically cannot help but reproduce the skepticism that was assumed to be the problem.
“We cannot address skeptical challenges to rational inquiry by finding a model of rationality that prevents skeptical challenges from arising.”
Finally, there are some cautions. (1) You must develop sound hermeneutics. The Bible does not interpret itself. (2) The Bible is the highest epistemological authority. Christians have allowed psychology and other sciences of the person to infiltrate the thinking of Christians. I gave an example of “guilt feelings.” (3) The Bible probably has a depth and breadth with which you are not familiar.
Evidence and faith. What about the claim to “just believe. You do not need supporting evidences.” Every person is different. Some want to see evidences, others do not. It gets back the person. But, it is helpful to phrase the issues properly. The question is, and always is, “Has God not said.” Are not the Scriptures the highest authority—the highest epistemological, ontological, and moral authority? Please hear me accurately—Christ is not the epistemological authority because He never wrote anything. All that we know of Christ comes through the Bible. The Bible is the epistemological issue—the central issue. The only epistemological issue. The argument is often not stated this way, but the Bible is the “light on the hill” that challenges all other personal or religious beliefs.
Blind faith is not possible. No decision can be made without some prior knowledge. One cannot “believe” what he or she knows to be false. Humans cannot think and act that way.
Nature of proof. Proof is a false notion. All knowledge exists within a belief system. It may be inconsistent, even incoherent, as when the skeptic makes claims about knowledge when he does not know everything. Kurt Godel with his incompleteness theorems in mathematics shook the epistemological world and posited that “provability is weaker than the notion of truth.”
Checklist, Summary, and Further Reading
*This list may be copied as many times as users wish. No copyright.
**These are not in priority order. Especially, the principle that most applies to you may be down the list.
1. Medical problem: get checked out by a physician.
2. Do you have an organized and chaotic lifestyle that saps your energy and blurs your focus. Are you eating properly? Getting exercise? Sleeping sufficiently, especially regular hours of sleep? Do you have a schedule? Have you studied time management? Is your life chaotic or regular and God-honoring? Do you live (mostly) a life of rest? I recommend The Christian Counselor’s Manual by Jay Adams and almost any book on time management.
3. Is there a moral issue that you know is not what God would have you do? Are you dating/engaged to a non-Christian? Are you plagued by a “besetting sin” or what might be called an addiction today? I recommend the same book as in #2 above. Be careful of Christian psychologists: ask whether their training has been in psychology or Biblical counseling.
4. Guilt feelings—are you unable to “forgive yourself?” Again, read Jay Adam’s book above. Be sure that you understand a Biblical diagnosis and prescription. Again, be careful of “Christian” counseling. Learn to discern what is “emotional” vs. what is Biblical/theological: feeling vs. thinking causes a great deal of confusion among Christians today.
5. A definition of faith and doubt (skepticism). Wrestle, I mean diligent and prolonged study… do not take superficial answers. Learn and memorize a definition of faith—that faith (belief) is the basis of all understanding and truth. Investigate the idea of generic faith. Doubt is a synonym for incomplete faith—faith is always incomplete by definition—“acting without knowing everything.” Each person has a different need for “evidence.” Evidence is overwhelming for Biblical Christianity. Start with my paper here: http://biblicalphilosophy.org/papers
A. Definitions of faith: 1. The ability to make a decision without being omniscient, or an action that is based upon incomplete knowledge. 2. All knowledge is based upon personal belief; knowledge can only held by a person. 3. Faith is based upon knowledge which includes a goal, a task to be achieved, that will be affirmed or denied by reality
5. Faith is never perfect or complete, by definition! But faith is always sufficient to make the necessary decisions. If faith were some simple (child-like, as some propose), why did God give us a very large, difficult book to study?
6. Doubt has no privileged status. All forms of doubt, including scientific evidence, are faith-based or “personal bias.” In fact, based upon outside evidence alone, the Bible has overwhelming evidence among all the religions and “-isms” of the world. Classical foundationalism is dead; there is no agreement among all philosophers in 2500 years! They know less than the Christian does (or should).
7. Doubt is confusion; faith is stability. For any Christian to doubt is to have not wrestled with the evidence. “Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Do not dwell on your doubt, use that energy to find the answers: Dr. Google is the greatest theologian (and also the worst). Be explicit in your questions: epistemology, feeling, guilt, etc.
8. Study a few solid apologetic answers. There are many that are better than one usually sees. Science has the only epistemological challenge today. See here:
9. The place of Scripture in faith. Faith is grounded in what God has said (the Scriptures) and not in God directly. ALL knowledge of God (experience, testimony, philosophy, etc.) must be discerned through the grid of Scripture.
10. The ultimate question, “Whom do you trust as an authority?” Your parents, your teachers and professors, your friends, some guru, ethicists, theologians… or God through His Scriptures? The question is not more complicated than that. Read the personal debate of Francis Schaeffer over the truth of Christianity and what impact it had on him. Edith Schaeffer, The Tapestry or the Introduction to True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer.
11. Faith healing. Read Joni Eareckson Tada’s struggle with faith healing. It will break your heart, but enlighten you to the issues. In Biblical healing, God implants the true expectation of healing into the minds of those that will be healed, Go your way, your faith has made you whole. Faith healing likely does not occur today.
12. Decision-making. Be careful looking for one Scripture that will tell you of “God’s will” for your life. He has spelled out generalities, leaving you to use these Biblical guidelines and the wisdom of yourself and wise, mature Christians.
13. All faith is subject to personal prejudice. Study the Enlightenment’s “prejudice against prejudice.” Synonyms: first principles, bias, beliefs (basic, foundational, and otherwise), starting points, axioms, worldview, view points, pou stou, etc. See if you can come up with 25 synonyms.
14. Faith and reason are two parts of a whole. Reason is a process by which one comes to understand how his beliefs shape the world in which he lives.
15. No one functions as an atheist or agnostic. Everyone believes that they have significance in the world.
16. Get theologically grounded. For conciseness and completeness, study the Westminster Confession of Faith. Study the Bible… not read it… study it.
18. Gift of Faith (I Corinthians 12). Some people, like George Mueller, have a special gift of faith. We have to be careful that we do not make such claims.
19, Generalities of faith. Romans 8:28 is true, but what will be the specifics for me? For you? All of God’s promises are “Yea” and “Amen,” but living the reality of His life for us is particular and challenging. For example, do you doubt whether you should go to the mission field? That is entirely different from doubting Scripture.
20. One is not saved by one’s faith. This statement sounds heretical, but one is saved by being regenerated (Titus 3:5) or being “born from above” (John 3:1-10).
21. You will never be morally perfect, i.e., sinless. Read Arthur Pink’s “The Christian in Romans 7.” It can be found online.
22. The problem is almost always the same: we do not know the Scriptures nor apply them, as we should.
Clark, Gordon H. Faith and Saving Faith. Trinity Foundation. Online purchase.
Harvey, Skepticism, Relativism, and Religious Knowledge. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013.
Kuyper, Abraham. Work of the Holy Spirit. Chapters on Faith.
Machen, J. Gresham. Saving Faith. Banner of Truth.
Peirce, Charles S. “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” Can be found online.39
Smith, Christian. Moral Believing Animals. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2003.
BiblicalPhilosophy.org Site Map, Section on Faith and Reason, especially:
 I wrote a college class paper on this subject which may be found here:
 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 43-48.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Harvey, “Introduction,” Skepticism, Relativism, and Religious Knowledge, ix.
 Ibid., 46.