The Nature of Faith

Today we live in intellectually ambiguous times. Many of the certainties of the past seem inaccessible in our current academic climate. This ambiguity has raised many questions in the modern age as to the nature of faith. Is faith ‘certainty of things not seen’, or can a person be more tentative as to their belief, but still consider themselves a believer?
This question carries practical implications, since those who seek to present the gospel in our times must know how to respond to others who express their faith in more tentative terms. Ought we to insist on more definitive commitment, or can we accept as valid, a faith that is less certain?

In addressing these questions, I wish to reference Richard Swinburne’s book Faith And Reason (1) in describing the form of faith many people find themselves to have these days, with reference to Christian truths. In the chapter entitled ‘The Nature Of Faith’ Swinburne distinguishes 3 different views of faith that have historically appeared in the church. These are the Thomist View, the Lutheran View, and the Pragmatist View.

The Thomist View of Faith

Swinburne describes the more Catholic view of Aquinas, which sees faith primarily as ‘belief-that’ the truths of Christianity are true. In this sense Thomas sees faith essentially as intellectual conviction concerning the truth of Christian claims. Naturally this implies that the demons James complains about have faith in Thomas’ sense. Thomas agrees that they do but differentiates between these and Christians who have faith by adding to the idea of Christian faith the thought of its being ‘formed by love’. James does admit there is something called faith, that is dead, without works. Although for Thomas faith is ‘belief-that’ the propositions of the Christian revelation are true, faith that is not formed by love ‘is not joined to the firm purpose of bringing about the works which the love of God ought properly to bring about.’

So although Aquinas did see faith as an intellectual state, he believed a fully biblical faith would include the internal state of heart that is entailed by commitment to that perceived truth.

The Lutheran View

What Swinburne refers to as the Lutheran View suggests that faith ‘includes both theoretical beliefs-that (Thomist Faith) and trust in the Living God. The man of faith, on this view, does not merely believe that there is a God (and believe certain propositions about him) – he trusts him and commits himself to him.

Swinburne suggests that to trust someone is ‘to act on the assumption that he will do for you what he knows that you want or need, when the evidence gives some reason for supposing that he may not and where there will be bad consequences if the assumption is false.’ I have elsewhere questioned whether this element of evidence for supposing he may not do as expected is a necessary element of trust. (See The Element of Mystery) But at bottom, the Lutheran View is very similar to the Thomist concept of ‘formed faith’ in that it involves not only intellectual conviction of the truth of Christian propositions about God, but also the personal element of commitment in light of these ‘beliefs-that’. And as Swinburne says, it may entail acting on the assumption of these truths, when reason to question them is present.

The Pragmatist View

I will quote extensively from Swinburne on this third view, since what he says here is most relevant to understanding the position of a growing number of modern ‘believers’.

While Lutheran faith involves both belief-that (however interpreted) and trust, Luther stresses that the trust is the important thing. Is a third form of faith possible where one can have the trust without the belief-that? I think that it is and that many recent writers who stress the irrelevance to faith of ‘belief-that’ have been feeling their way towards such a form of faith. I shall call such faith Pragmatist faith.

As we have seen, one can act on assumptions which one does not believe. To do this is to do those actions which you would do if you did believe. In particular, you can act on the assumption not merely that God, whom you believe to exist, will do for you what you need or want, but also on the assumption that there is such a God (and that he has the properties which Christians have ascribed to him). One can do this by doing those actions which one would do if one believed these things…

As we have seen, trusting God may be not just acting on assumptions; but doing so where one has good purposes. Those who have wanted to define faith in terms of trust alone would, I think, wish such a restriction to be included in the understanding of trust. So, on the Pragmatist view, a man S has faith if he acts on the assumption that there is a God who has the properties which Christians ascribe to him and has provided for men the means of salvation and the prospect of glory, and that he will do for S what he knows that S needs or wants – so long also as S has good purposes. He will thus seek not his own fame, but long-term and deep well-being for himself and others. Seeking these things, he may believe that they are only to be had if there is a God who provides such well-being in this world and in the world to come. Hence he may act on the assumption that there is a God – for unless there is, that which is most worthwhile cannot be had. He will do the same things as the man with Lutheran faith will do. He will, for example, worship and pray and live a good life partly in the hope to find a better life in the world to come. He prays for his brethren, not necessarily because he believes that there is a God who hears his prayers, but because only if there is can the world be set to right. He lives the good life, not necessarily because he believes that God will reward him, but because only if there is a God who will reward him can he find the deep long-term well-being for which he seeks. He worships, not necessarily because he believes that there is a God who deserves worship, but because it is very important to express gratitude for existence if there is a God to whom to be grateful and there is some chance that there is. (2)

Swinburne then points out the common structure between the three views of faith.

‘Pragmatist faith is not, however, that far distant from Lutheran faith. The man of Pragmatist faith need not believe that there is a God, but he must have certain other beliefs. He has to have moral beliefs, e.g. that any God ought to be worshipped and that he ought to help others to happiness; beliefs about his long-term well-being, e.g. that it would consist in having the Beatific Vision of God rather than living a Lotus-eater life on Earth; and beliefs about the best route to attain that well-being, e.g. by seeking a life after death or a life of service in the African jungle (though he may believe that it is improbable that even the best route leads to that well-being). And he needs the belief that there is some (maybe small) finite probability that there is a God. It is no accident that Pragmatist faith as I have described it does involve such beliefs. These could not be detached from it and anything both rational and faith-like be left.

…The difference lies not in a fact that Pragmatist faith lacks belief-that, but simply that it involves less in the way of belief-that than does Lutheran faith. You need not believe that there is a God and that in consequence you will obtain deep and long-term well-being if you do certain actions (which will bring you deep and long-term well-being if there is a God); only that there may be a God and so that you are more likely to obtain happiness by doing these actions than you are if you assume that there is no God. Some sort of creed is difficult to avoid.

Also, as we have seen, Lutheran faith is not very different from Thomist ‘meritorious faith’ (i.e. faith ‘formed’ by a voluntary process and combined with a readiness to do works of love), although it is different from Thomist faith by itself. Also, as we have seen, in so far as belief (rather than assumption) is involved in faith, the faith will vary according to the beliefs with which credal propositions are being contrasted. It is by now, I hope, beginning to become clear that, on all three views of faith, the sort of faith which is meritorious involves belief of some sort and a good character, normally shown in good actions. On all these views of faith the actions which a man is ready to do include those which involve achieving good purposes, relying on the belief, or at any rate assumption, that God will do for us what we want or need. Given that the claims about God’s nature and existence are not absolutely certain, there is some danger that he may not. If God does not do for us what we want or need then, unless there is no God but is some other way to attain the goals of religion (to be discussed in the next chapter), such as salvation, there will be the bad consequences of our not obtaining those goals. Hence men’s actions in relying on the cited belief can be described as putting trust in God. Hence faith involves trust on all three views. The real difference between kinds of faith (one which cuts across the Thomist/Lutheran division) seems to lie in just how strong the credal beliefs which faith contains have to be. (3)

Obviously Swinburne, with his Anglican background uses some phraseology and concepts that are not in keeping with a more evangelical background. Speaking of faith as ‘meritorious’, speaking of seeking one’s own good in salvation, etc. are all incidental to the essential point he is making about faith. There is also the glaring fact that he does not in any sense emphasize a more intimate relational experience of God, but only advocates adherence to creedal beliefs of a more impersonal nature. This is also more in keeping with an Anglican background.

It is important however to realize that even those in evangelical circles who claim subjective experiences of God are accepting certain belief-thats (that they are perceiving God interacting with them), and seeking to live in the light of these beliefs, however basic they appear to the particular individual in question. Obviously those lacking such conscious subjective experiences are personally distanced from such belief-thats in the context of their own faith experience. But the fact some claim such experiences does not constitute a real difference in structure to the views of faith Swinburne expands upon, simply differences in perceived content of the belief-thats involved.

Although Swinburne’s position regarding Pragmatist faith is not identical to Finney’s viewpoint, it is close. Finney’s position seems to be that faith is the commitment of our wills to what we intellectually perceive to be true. The only extent we might need to qualify this definition is that Finney assumed certain belief-thats were givens for each person, which assumption has come into question in our day. Finney thought God’s existence was plain to everyone, but today this certainty is not as clear. (See Is God’s Existence Self-Evident for an examination of whether Scripture truly claims this is so.) But this question aside, Finney’s view is otherwise consistent to the central core of what Swinburne says constitutes faith. It is one’s honesty in the face of one’s perceptions, whatever they factually are, that constitutes faith. As Swinburne emphasized above, the element of trust in the face of perceived truth and obligation (belief-thats) is the main point concerning faith, on all three views.

Secular Faith?

Although Swinburne emphasizes the necessity of belief at least that God might exist, for one’s faith to be a religious faith, it seems clear that there is room for faith in a more secular context. How far one’s intellectual perception of truth goes determines how far one’s behavior will go, if one is a person of faith. But the actual nature of one’s faith is the same in every case. It is the heart intent that determines whether or not one is a person of faith, not the content of one’s intellectual belief-thats.

If a person is unconvinced God exists, and feels the evidence is heavily against this conclusion, faith for that person will be constituted by honesty to his natural moral perceptions of his obligations and what he perceives to be good. Naturally in such a context this person’s actions will not include religious practices, nor expressions of such belief. It also may not follow moral observances common to more formed religious beliefs. To this extent such a person’s faith could not be called religious faith. This does not entail they do not have faith at all, or that they do not have a faith that can save if persevered in. Nor does it entail that such a person’s turn to honesty in such a case has not been the work of the Holy Spirit in that person’s life, working within that person’s particular intellectual perceptions.

Tentative Faith

Other individuals have only tentative intellectual belief in God. They believe there may be a God, but also that this may be mistaken. There are a myriad of degrees to this intermediate position, approaching intellectual disbelief at the one end, and constituting all but total intellectual belief at the other end. All the varying levels of intellectual belief-that from one end of the spectrum to the other are influenced by the degrees of evidence a person perceives in support of the pro or con position.

A person in this place will express themselves and act more or less according to the beliefs associated with belief in God, dependent upon the degree of intellectual conviction they have in this regard.

As Swinburne said, one can pray and worship God and do many of the things a Christian who is certain of his beliefs does, without being morally dishonest in one’s actions, even though one is uncertain God exists. In such a case a person is acting on the assumption of God’s existence, because they feel it is important to do so, given the degree of evidence they perceive to exist for this position, and given the perceived importance of honoring God in their life, if God exists. In such a person this constitutes faith, and is of the Pragmatist variety, to use Swinburne’s term.

Similarly, and for the same reasons, they will express themselves concerning God more or less on the assumption of his existence. When one is discussing elements of theology and God’s nature and character, and one is not focused on the more fundamental issues of these foundational questions, and the degree of their certainty, it is quite natural to speak in a manner that assumes God’s existence, if one leans with any degree of intellectual conviction toward this position.

This does not stem from any dishonesty, but from a belief that one does not have to be certain, to express viewpoints regarding what God must be like if he exists, and also to express one’s own leanings in this direction. It would be quite cumbersome and entirely unnecessary to qualify every sentence about God in such discussions with the phrase ‘if God exists’, or ‘assuming God exists’, simply because one may be tentative more or less on this point.

Similarity To Other Beliefs

We find no need to do so in speaking of things we believe about the external world, even though in philosophical terms this basic assumption that there is an external world cannot actually be proven. For the most part we simply assume it in our conversations and in our actions. There is nothing odd about that. Similarly (though not identically) the person of Pragmatist faith hopes God does exist, and speaks and lives largely on the assumption God does exist, because he believes it is important to honor God, if he does exist.

He does no dishonor to God by going as far as he comfortably can, given his perceptions of truth, nor by acting like the person who actually believes does. God would not require of him more than he can honestly do, given the uncertainties he faces epistemologically. If a person must choose between acting and speaking as a believer or an unbeliever, which should we prefer he do? I think it would be far better to encourage people to talk and act like Christians, even if in their heart of hearts such conduct is provisional.

How Should We Respond?

Notice I am not suggesting that we ought to try encourage such people to decide to actually believe. No one can choose his intellectual convictions. If a person is not certain, they simply are not certain. The only thing that can change that is if some presentation of evidence changes this perception. And even if because someone considers something more or less probable it can rationally be suggested that it is reasonable to act on the assumption of the truth of the area in question, this still does not magically change their evidences into certainties.

There must remain in such a case an element that is more or less tentative, and their faith must still be constituted by an acting-on-the-assumption of the truth in question, rather than a true belief it is so. I am saying we ought to accept this, and actually encourage it if this is where a person is at, not discourage it. Of course we also ought to seek to provide evidences that might help to more solidify such a person’s beliefs, and remove to whatever degree possible their tentativeness. We will not be instrumental in doing this by discouraging such people.

Those who have greater certainty in this regard ought not to discourage those who cannot take a more definitive stance, nor chide them when they seek to ‘live by faith’, however falteringly. Instead, we ought to encourage people to express themselves and their thoughts in as Christian a manner as they comfortably can. Surely we will not help such people toward deeper faith by insisting they must express certainty or go into complete unbelief? Such an insistence on our part could actually lead such a person to lie, if that person is not strong enough to resist the peer pressure inherent in such an insistence. It will not produce true belief.

Hopefully this exposition provides a rationale for how someone who finds himself in the modern place of tentative belief deals with it in practical terms. Hopefully it also provides some understanding of how and why such a person would behave and speak more ‘Christianly’ than their foundational beliefs (or lack thereof) might seem to warrant. I do believe that some people’s doubts are of a significant enough nature that they would not even find themselves able to act on the assumption of the truth of the Christian position. Faith in such a person would take a more secular form, if they were honest in their heart. Finally, I hope it offers some guidance in how we should approach such people, so that we can encourage them in faith, and help them to greater and more confident conviction.


1. Swinburne, Richard, Faith And Reason (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981.)
2. Swinburne, pg. 115-116.
3. Swinburne, pg. 117-118.

Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (

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