I’m currently reading Geerhadus Vos' Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (The Banner of Truth Trust, ISBN 978-1-84871-432-8), and I came across the following passage where he examines ‘the ingredients of faith in general.’
What I found striking is how Vos essentially argued that in the case of Abraham (and applicable to us in general), facts did not precede faith. In other words, when God first called Abraham, he had legitimate reasons to ignore God since he had no prior dealings with God.
The passage is as follows:
Abraham’s faith offers a good opportunity for analysing the ingredients of faith in general. At first sight it seems to take its point of departure from belief, assent to the veracity of a statement. This then would be followed by trust, as a second act called forth by and based on the belief. In point of fact, however, this sequence is not quite in accord with the psychological process. The matter to be assented to through belief is, in religion, and was in Abraham’s case particularly, not something mentally demonstrable, or axiomatically certain before all demonstration. There entered into it a personal factor, viz., the trustworthiness of God, who made the declaration of the promises. Religious belief exists not in its last analysis on what we can prove to be so, but on the fact of God having declared it to be so. Behind the belief, the assent, therefore, there lies an antecedent trust distinguishable from the subsequent trust. And this reliance upon the word of God is an eminently religious act. Hence it is inaccurate to say that belief is merely the prerequisite of faith and not an element of faith itself.
To be sure, no sooner has this antecedent trust developed into belief, than this in turn is followed by a trust of far wider reach and more practical significance. For the declarations believed are not relating to abstract, indifferent matters; they are promises relating to vital concerns of life. For this reason, they solicit a reaction from the will and the emotions no less than from the intellect. They become a basis on which the entire religious consciousness comes to rest and finds assurance for its deepest and farthest-reaching practical needs and desires. Faith, therefore, begins with and ends in the trust - rest in God. (Geerhadus Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 84 (bold mine).)
What intrigued me here was that faith is not necessarily founded on ‘evidence.’ Vos wrote that ‘The matter to be assented to through belief is […] not something mentally demonstrable, or axiomatically certain before all demonstration.’ Rather, it is a ‘personal fact’ that trumps proof - the ‘trustworthiness of God.’
The next sentence is then the punchline: ‘Religious belief exists not in its last analysis on what we can prove to be so, but on the fact of God having declared it to be so.’ This means that we trust what God says, not because its content is proven true, but because he is trustworthy.
In other words, there needs to be a preceding openness or responsiveness to God prior to listening to His words. Here, I want to segue into a passage that Moberly writes in The Bible in a Disenchanted Age which is resonant with Vos.
We should remember that in no Gospel portrayal does the risen Jesus ever confront those who were responsible for his death with the error of their ways, as though the truth of his resurrection could be presented as something incontrovertible that straightforwardly overturns wrong understandings - for example, “Look at me, Caiaphas. See how utterly mistaken you were! Here I am, Pilate. See how blind and wrong you were!” This means that Jesus' resurrection is a reality that is likely to be recognisable only by, and make sense only to, a certain kind of openness and trust - to a conscience that will recognise the risen Jesus as representing sovereign goodness, rightness, and truth. If Jesus' life, both earthly and risen, represents an ultimate truth about God and the world, it is a truth that is not self-evident and that may become evident only in the context of a certain kind of responsiveness to it.
To put this in terms of my wider thesis: faith - that is, positive response to God through Jesus in relation to the content of the Bible - will always be much more than inferences from evidence and arguments. (Moberly, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age, p. 153-154.)
Personally, I’m inclined to agree with both authors. I think too often, modern evangelical Christianity has been too concerned to battle the historical critical method and a world which increasingly worships science as God, to the point where we have valued ‘historical reliability’ or ‘evidence’ too highly.
What Vos and Moberly are both saying in their own ways is that though facts and evidences do play a role in Christian faith, what counts first and foremost is a receptiveness to what God has to say. The evidence will not make sense if from the outset we’re unwilling to enter into a ‘personal encounter’ with God.
I used to wonder why Moberly often refers to Augustine’s notion of faith seeking understanding (he often references Nicholas Lash’s chapter called “Anselm Seeking” in Lash’s The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’).
The full quote is as follows:
Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.> (St. Augustine (I don’t know the original citation))
Although God’s actions and/or speech reveals to us His character, somehow, our starting point must be willing to take that ‘leap of faith.’ This is a corrective to our sometimes rationalistic approach to the Bible or to faith, where we’re concerned with issues like the Bible’s inerrancy or its historical reliability. These arguments, although helpful, do not lead to faith.
The Christian life, then, is characterised by faith that causes us to listen (or read) God’s word seeking to understand what it means to live in this world that God has given us.