In a lecture at Biola University in November of 2011, Dallas Willard opened with the following statement:
The most significant event for human existence in the last 200 years has been the displacement in the common mind of the content of Christian teaching from the domain of knowledge into the domain of faith (Biola University, November 2011).
Redefining knowledge and the impact on Christian faith
Phillip Johnson points out the challenge posed by metaphysical naturalism (the prevailing mindset in science) to Christian belief. He states,
…the intellectual culture of our time enforces a distinction between belief and knowledge, and between faith and reason.1
…the paradigmatic illustration of the distinction is the assumed contrast between scientific knowledge and religious belief, supplemented by the parallel contrast between scientific reason and religious faith, which rationalists assume to mean belief without reason [or I would add, knowledge]. 2
J. P. Moreland similarly raises the concern that metaphysical naturalism (the prevailing mindset in science) and postmodernism (the prevailing mindset in philosophy) have so redefined knowledge, that many Christians now believe that true knowledge about God can’t be attained. Instead they see faith as belief without knowledge, or even in spite of what they know.
Is Christianity mere belief?
For J. P. Moreland, this raises the question,
“Is Christianity a knowledge tradition or merely a faith tradition, a perspective that, while true, cannot be known to be true and must be embraced on the basis of some epistemic state weaker than knowledge?“3
This is so important. If our contemporary culture can convince us that what Jesus Christ revealed and taught about God, Creation, his kingdom, salvation, morality, and eternity are anything less than true knowledge about reality, then we’ll cease to be “salt and light” 4 or “bringers of good news” 5 to a lost and dying world. We’ll cease to be those who are “set free by the truth” 6 . In fact, we’ll be incapable of truly following the one who himself claimed to be “the truth” 7.
The stakes have never been higher.
The starting point for Christians then is returning to what’s at the heart of the gospel.
What led Jesus’ ragtag followers to change the face of the world wasn’t mere belief in something that if true was cause for hope. Rather, it was entering into the knowledge of what is true, which became living hope. Hence Jesus’ defining description of a disciple’s living condition: “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Unfortunately, because Western culture since the Enlightenment has done such an effective job in redefining “knowledge,” many Christians live as if their faith is mere belief. And, that the vibrancy of their faith, therefore, is based on the power of their own convictions, rather than seeing that their convictions have no power to uphold anything, unless they themselves are founded first on true knowledge.
It’s also why so few Christians consider the training of their minds to be as spiritual a matter as prayer or attending worship service. The general demise of regular Christian education in most churches is testament to this fact.
How can you know that Christianity is true?
Has the culture impacted your own view of faith and knowledge as a Christian? Here is a good place to start identifying where it has, and beginning to change how you think.
Ask yourself this question and write down an answer(s) before reading any further: “How do you know that Christianity is true?” [Note: Your answer may be “I don’t” or “I can’t”, in which case I hope you will stick with us and let us help you change that fact.]
With the resurging popularity of Christian apologetics, it’s not uncommon for Christians to begin recalling (or feeling as though they should be able to recall) arguments about such topics as the reliability of the Bible, evidence for the resurrection, or other evidential arguments in favour of Christian truth. And there’s indeed an increasingly important role for these to build a case for the questioner that Christianity is in fact a reasonable faith.
But what does God say on the matter? How is it that he has ensured that we can really know that all we have trusted Christ for is true? The answer is this:
And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us (1 John 3:24).
Scientific knowledge vs internal experience
Could it be that while strengthened by evidential arguments, our knowledge that Christianity is true actually comes from the internal witness of the Holy Spirit? That seems to be what Scripture clearly points to. Jesus said that the “Spirit of truth would guide us into all truth” (John 16:13).
“Oh!” but you say, “that sounds so subjective. That’s just the kind of irrational arguments that makes faith seem so contrary to knowledge.”
But why must that necessarily be so? Such a perspective only seems so if you first accept our cultural re-definitions of knowledge. But why must we accept them?
Is science really the arbiter of what constitutes real knowledge? Think about it. How much of your life do you live based on knowledge that isn’t scientifically derived? For most of us that’s virtually all of it. Do you need scientific evidence to know that you’re sitting at your computer or holding a mobile device reading this blog right now? Don’t you “just know it”? And who would charge you with irrationality for saying that you did? In fact, likely the opposite would be so.
Granted, the authenticating work done by the Holy Spirit convincing me of the gospel’s truth isn’t really a piece of evidence I can present someone with as a rational defence for Christian faith. For that, I do need to appeal to other lines of reasoning. However, for us as Christians, we must allow God’s Word to affirm what’s true.
We know Christ lives in us because the Holy Spirit testifies this to us first hand (Romans 8:16). He takes what Scripture declares and confirms for us, at the most intimate and basic levels of human understanding and knowledge, that it’s true. And this first hand, “basic level” knowledge is perfectly rational.
Pursuing the knowledge of God
What this does for us immediately is return our pursuit of the knowledge of God to the right sphere. Many Christians pine for deeper levels of spiritual walk with God, but they pursue it merely at the level of more information or more religious activity, hoping that either will necessarily produce this deeper faith.
Education and the practice of spiritual disciplines indeed have their place, but only where they lend themselves to gaining true knowledge of God, which is fundamentally relational.
We must reject our culture’s attempt to hijack our “knowledge” about knowledge. Because God is real, he’s there to be known. Because he has revealed himself to us through Christ, he’s now knowable. Because he has given us his Spirit, we may know him.
Now we have the great joy in Christ to confidently pursue the ultimate of all life pursuits: knowing God. And in so doing come to a real knowledge of what’s true.
I close with words from J.I. Packer on this great subject:
What makes life worth while is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has, in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God? 8
NEXT UP: This article is the first of two in the Faith and Reason series. Read the .
Originally published Apr 19, 2013, updated Sep 8, 2020.