Christian Belief: Knowledge, Faith, Opinion, or Just Wishful Thinking?

In this installment of our study of Christianity’s truth we continue clarifying the basic vocabulary, framework, and rules for the discussion. Many discussions about God’s existence and Christianity’s truth suffer from confusion. We get in a hurry, talk past one another, and express our feelings rather than take the time to communicate clearly and understand each other. So, I believe it is necessary to give some time to these introductory matters.

In recent posts I’ve addressed the issues of truth and reality and the issue of who bears the burden of truth. Today, I will focus on knowledge. What does it mean to know something? In transitioning from truth to knowledge, we shift from the issue of the properties of a proposition to the issue of how a proposition is held by a knower. In addressing the question “Is Christianity True?” how would it profit us to clarify what it means to claim that Christianity is true, if we have no idea what it would mean to know that Christianity is true? And, of course, in due time we need to secure that knowledge.

What is Knowledge?

What does it mean to know something? To say that we know something speaks about the way a truth is held by the knower. First, knowledge concerns truth. Belief in a falsehood is not knowledge, no matter how certain you are of its truth and no matter how diligently you work to discover and test its truth. There is no such thing as mistaken knowledge. Second, believing a truth is not sufficient for knowledge. You may guess correctly how many fingers I am extending behind my back; that is not knowledge. Guessing, tossing the dice, accidents, wishful thinking, and prejudices of all kinds, even if they hit on the truth do not count as knowledge. You need something else. The “something else” concerns the way you hold that truth to be true.

Contemporary philosophers differ on the exact thing needed to transform a true belief into knowledge. I am not going to take sides in this debate. We need either “justification” or “warrant” in addition to true belief. The justification criterion demands that we make a good faith effort to examine a belief and that we are able to give good reasons for accepting it as true. The warrant criterion focuses on the proper functioning of our belief-forming mechanisms. If our belief is true and it is formed under the right conditions and our belief-forming mechanisms are functioning properly, we possess knowledge.

Does knowledge come in different quantities and qualities? The answer is yes. There is a qualitative scale of knowledge, with perfect or absolute knowledge at the top and complete ignorance and falsehood at the bottom. And our vocabulary of knowledge reflects this scale. We speak of knowledge, faith, opinion, supposition, educated guesses, probability, certainty, likelihood, etc. Absolute or perfect knowledge is held by God alone. Everything that is, is either God or the effect of God’s action. And God knows his own being and action perfectly. God knows everything about everything. Human beings do not and cannot possess such knowledge. Does this mean that anything less than absolute knowledge is not knowledge at all, that human beings know nothing? This skeptical conclusion would imply that in relation to knowledge there is no qualitative difference between guesses, wishful thinking, prejudices, etc., and true, justified or warranted belief, no difference between science and superstition. I reject this view. I believe our efforts to discover truth are worth the struggle.

What is Faith?

What is Faith, and where does it fall on the scale of knowledge? A common misunderstand opposes faith to knowledge. It assumes that to hold a belief by faith rules out its status as knowledge, and that to know something rules out its being held by faith. This opposition would be correct only if knowledge had to be defined as absolute knowledge. To say a belief is held on faith specifies that the believer has only indirect access to the reality to which the belief refers. The act of faith holds a belief to be true on the word of a trusted person or authority that has direct access to the reality in question. For example, to possess faith in the resurrection of Christ is to hold this belief to be true on the word of Paul, Peter, the Twelve and other witnesses to the resurrection appearances. Can such a belief be justified or warranted. Sure, it can. And, if it is true and justified or warranted, it counts as knowledge. There is no opposition between faith and knowledge. However there is a difference. One can believe a falsehood to be true, but one cannot know a falsehood to be true or a truth to be false. Knowledge concerns how a true belief is held and faith concerns merely how a belief is held whether it is true or not.

The true counterpart to faith is intellectual or empirical intuition, not knowledge. Intuition has direct access to the reality it knows whereas faith has indirect access. We intuit logical and mathematical truths, and our senses make direct contact with the physical/empirical world. These intuitions produce beliefs. Logical deduction is slightly removed from intuition, and so its relation to reality is also indirect. It grasps the truth of a proposition through its logical relationships to other propositions that we hold to be true.

What is Opinion?

Like faith, the word opinion refers to an act of the knower and does not require the thing held as probably true to be really true. One forms an opinion by assessing the evidence for the truth of a proposition as weighty enough to make the proposition more likely true than not. In contrast, faith trusts the word of someone it believes really knows. In this sense, faith stands higher in the order of knowledge than opinion.

What is Certainty?

Certainty is a measure of the subjective purity with which a belief is held. A belief held with certainty by someone is beyond doubt to this person. They hold it with untroubled passion. However, certainty is not a measure of truth or knowledge. One can be certain that a falsehood is true and that a truth is false.

Are Christian Beliefs Knowledge, Opinion, Certainties, Or Faith?

As we proceed in our study, we will see that many of the central Christian beliefs are held by faith. However, as I argued above, their being held by faith does not rule out their also being knowledge, that is, true, justified or warranted belief. Some Christian beliefs are supported by intellectual and empirical intuition. Some require a chain of logical reasoning. Other beliefs fall into the category of opinion. And Christians experience different levels of certainty in their faith at different times.

 

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One thought on “Christian Belief: Knowledge, Faith, Opinion, or Just Wishful Thinking?

  1. Charles Hanson

    Hello again,

    What is Knowledge?
    In my studies about Christian knowledge I have come to believe it is all about the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. As far as the knowledge of the world it is all wonderful but it does have limitations in knowing who is God. How do I grow in the favor and spiritual knowledge which I attempt every day? Peter does mention this challenge of growth in his second epistle. There is the question how one understands Peters knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    2Pe 3:18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and for ever. Amen.

    To know the Lord Jesus Christ – to possess just views of his person, character, and work – is the sum and essence of the Christian religion; and with this injunction, therefore, the apostle appropriately closes this epistle. He who has a saving knowledge of Christ, has in tact all that is essential to his welfare in the life that is, and in that which is to come; he who has not this knowledge, though he may be distinguished in the learning of the schools, and may be profoundly skilled in the sciences, has in reality no knowledge that will avail him in the great matters pertaining to his eternal welfare.

    Paul tells us when you read his Epistle to the Ephesians you may perceive his knowledge in the mystery of Christ. By perceiving his understanding of the mysteries, you, too, will be enabled to understand the mystery of Christ. Reading the bible is so wonderful in regards to understanding the Spirit of God. You can never read enough of the bible. It is a book of Knowledge to be found.

    Eph 3:4 Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ.

    Eph. 1:17 That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the full knowledge of Him,

    In regards to Faith which is a very large subject I will only say a few words.
    When I grew up being a Catholic I believed what the priest and nuns taught me in school plus the traditional Christmas and Easter stories. What I did not know as a Catholic and did not have was the faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I believe I did not have faith because I was not in Covenant with God or the Lord Jesus Christ. I only knew Jesus by name and never read the bible. The word faith used in the New Testament is used in relation to those who were in Covenant with God through the Old Covenant of Circumcision. It is the New Covenant of baptism in the belief or faith that I am now in relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
    In Jesus name,
    Charles

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