A Roadmap of Simple Faith

simplefaith_web_01172017

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The New Testament pictures Jesus as someone who enters our life, calls us into discipleship, and gives us kingdom work to do. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus finds Peter and Andrew at work fishing and calls them with these words: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt 4:19) As a rabbi, Jesus offers his lifestyle and teaching as a model to follow, but, unlike other rabbis, Jesus seeks out his students and redirects their life in terms of what they are already doing. Their response is remarkable—they drop their nets and follow Jesus (Matt 4:20)—because their simple faith in Jesus amounts to only two things: obedience (responding to Jesus’ invitation) and action (following Jesus). Other than obedience and action, they only know that he is a rabbi (Matt 4:17). Their roadmap was the person of Jesus.

What is Faith?

Knowing only that Jesus was a rabbi and that he invited them to follow him suggests that their faith consisted of taking the risk of enrolling in a class of religious instruction. The content of Jesus’ instruction was not necessarily obvious nor was it obvious that this instruction would provide gainful employment, because Jesus not from the priestly tribe of Levi. Furthermore, Peter and Andrew were already Jews so their faith in Jesus did not constitute an obvious conversion experience. Jesus offered them a study opportunity and they accepted. No strings were attached; no tuition was required; Peter and Andrew just had to accept Jesus’ instruction. The fuller meaning of this instruction only comes later as Jesus’ full identity is revealed because knowing who Jesus is raises the stakes in accepting his instruction.

Why Epistemology?

This model of simple faith—obedience and action—extends also to us, but how do we know? In this age of suspicion and doubt, this question has particular significance because Jesus’ call—“follow me”—comes to us at least second hand. We read an English text translated from Greek which was itself copied by hand for almost two thousand years after the Apostle Matthew wrote it based on the testimony of others, having himself been called later (Matt 9:9), and, then, only after the resurrection made it obvious that these events had eternal significance. The epistemological question—how do we know?—is therefore a reasonable and interesting question worthy of study even in the absence of doubt.

The Four Philosophical Questions

The epistemological question is one of four questions typically posed in philosophy that must be addressed by any serious spirituality. Those questions are:

  • Metaphysics—who is God?
  • Anthropology—who are we?
  • Epistemology—how do we know?
  • Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. In this book, I explore the epistemological question writing not as one with specialized training in philosophy (I have a master’s of divinity and a doctorate in economics) but as one cognizant of the need, both as a Christian and an author interested in Christian spirituality, to have a reasonable answer to the question—how do we know?

Simplicity

In approaching the epistemological question, it is easy to get lost in the weeds. But the young seeker curious about God and a hardened old atheist should take note. It is interesting that Copernicus’ observation that the planets revolved around the sun simplified the mathematics of planetary motion, because the earth was not the true center of the solar system.[1] In the same manner, our lives are simplified when we acknowledge that we are God’s creation, not the creators of our own universe. Simple is good; weeds are bad. As life is short, the need for a proper focus is instrumental to coping with life’s many adversities.[2]

What Does Holy Mean?

The act of knowing brings us closer to a holy God because holy means both sacred and set apart. Thinking sets us apart from the object of our reflection just like God was set apart from his creation, not part of it. Yet, knowledge is also at the heart of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3 when Satan tempts Eve. Scripture praises knowledge when its object is God, but cautions us when it leads to pride.[3] So we should take the attitude of the Apostle Paul vigorously defending the faith and pointing people to God (2 Cor 10:5-6).

Roadmap

In this writing project I propose to look at the epistemological question analytically by breaking it down into a series of questions, including:

  • How do we approach thinking?
  • What does the Bible Say About God?
  • How do we argue God’s existence?
  • What can we say about the criticisms of faith?
  • Why do we care?

This last question may seem out of place in this discussion, but it is, in fact, a critical to our evaluation of faith arguments. Faith is a life and death matter because, as human beings, we strive for meaning and cannot face life without it. When the Apostle Paul repeats an early Christian confession—

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:3-5)

—he starts by describing it as being “of first importance”. Paul is not writing about a philosophical hobby-horse. He is talking about faith as something worth dying for, which he later did. Faith is both our compass and our anchor. And anything worth dying for, is worth living for.

Soli Deo Gloria.

References

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.

Lotz, Anne Graham. 2000. Just Give Me Jesus. Nashville: Word Publishing.

Polanyi, Michael. 1962. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copernican_Revolution. Polanyi (1962, 3-5) argues somewhat differently: “This would imply that, of two forms of knowledge, we should consider as more objective that which relies to a greater measure on theory [Copernican theory] rather than on more immediate sensory experience [Ptolemaic system].”

[2] Some stories bear repeating. One story concerned a dinner party where Ruth Graham learned that an older gentleman sitting next to her was the former head of Scotland Yard, the British equivalent of the FBI. Because his responsibilities included dealing with counterfeit money, she remarked that he must have spent a lot of time examining counterfeit bills. “On the contrary, Mrs. Graham, I spent all of my time studying the genuine thing. That way, when I saw a counterfeit, I would immediately detect it.” (Lotz 2000, 3) The punch line here is that the best apologetic for the Gospel is Jesus himself.

[3] Compare, for example, (Prov 1:7; Isa 11:1; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 1:9) with (1 Cor 8).

Also see: Incentive to Examine Faith

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Incentive to Examine Faith

simplefaith_web_01172017Christians face an enormous challenge in living out their faith today because major tenets of Christian theology are being openly challenged in the media, in schools, and in the political arena. What are we to believe and, then, how are we to apply those beliefs in our daily choices?

The question of what are we to believe falls in epistemology, which is the study of knowledge (how do we know what we know). Epistemology is an intimidating subject normally reserved for those with a strong background in philosophy, but, like it or not, each of us has to answer these questions of faith without the benefit of a doctorate in philosophy. As such, our decisions always involve a high level of uncertainty.

Even though none of us are adequately prepared for this challenge, two reasons force us to pay attention to epistemology.

First, the rate of cultural change in this generation is a consequence of a fundamental shift in philosophy. Modernism is dead; postmodernism is unstable and transitioning to something else. Philosophical change directly affects our understanding of theology and how to apply it. The most obvious illustration of this problem has been the breakdown of the division between church and state which had existed since the time of the reformation.

Second, when philosophical disagreements arise, institutions leveraged on them no longer can be relied upon to provide guidance on how to handle the changes. Professional pastors, for example, receive specific training in biblical interpretation, pastoral care, and preaching; they receive no more training than the rest of us in journalism, politics, psychology, science, philosophy, and business management. Institutions actively engaged in self-preservation offer little shelter to those dependent on them.

Because of these changes, much like the average person following the mortgage crisis needs to know more about financial decision making, they also need to know more about epistemology. The alternative is to reject faith leaving one open to unreflective acceptance of the many pseudo religious alternatives (atheism), to accept pagan or other faith alternatives, or to merge Christian faith with either of the prior alternatives (syncretism). Everyone has a belief system; not everyone reflects systematically on what they believe.

Now, some of you may be thinking, why do I need to bother myself? Why can’t I just apply scripture and be done with it? Of course, you can. However, if you do this on Sunday morning and forget about it on Monday morning, then do you honestly believe your Sunday morning applications or are they simply an interesting mental exercise? Blind acceptance of faith invariably leads to beliefs only tentatively held and of little use when life’s challenges arise. In some sense, epistemology provides a lens for viewing the current age through the eyes of scripture so that it is more meaningful, hence, more applicable.

The purpose of this writing project, Simple Faith: Something Worth Living For, is examine the fundamentals of epistemology from the perspective of faith. In many cases, I will take the arguments no deeper than the fundamentals of apologetics—offering a defense of the faith—but to shy away from deeper debates would be a disservice. Each and every day we are asked to make decisions about epistemological topics with a minimum of information—decisions under high levels of uncertainty. Any additional information is accordingly most valuable.

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