Is Christian Belief a Decision or a Conclusion?

In the previous post we addressed the question of what it means to know something. I defined knowledge as true, justified or warranted, belief. It is important to note that this is merely a definition of knowledge. A definition of knowledge cannot tell us whether a particular belief is really true or whether a particular person is really justified or warranted in holding that belief. The definition can be applied to particular cases only hypothetically. If we accept the definition of knowledge as true, justified or warranted belief, it follows that: “If belief A is true and person S is justified in holding A or possesses warrant for A, S knows A.” But the definition gives us no way to get past the little word “if.”

In other words, there is a huge difference between knowing A and knowing infallibly that you know A. (In my view, infallible knowledge is impossible apart from absolute knowledge.) And there is a huge difference between affirming the hypothetical statement, “If belief A is true and person S is justified in holding A or possesses warrant for A, S knows A,” and asserting categorically that “S knows A” or that “I know A.” In common speech, to say “I know A” asserts subjective certainty, and we learned last week that subjective certainty is compatible with falsehood. And to assert that “S knows A” is to express a judgment that A is true and S is justified or warranted in holding A. Clearly, this judgment is also fallible.

Every human act asserting an existential statement of the form “A” or “A exists” or “The belief that A exists is true” is fallible. Even if an assertion is true and is held in a justified or warranted way, the human act of judging a belief to be true is fallible. We cannot infallibly rule out every possible condition under which a belief could be false. The universal fallibility of human judgments makes doubt a real possibility for any judgment. Doubt is the subjective side of fallibility and the subjective opposite of certainty. Doubt no more makes a belief false than certainty makes it true.

We adapt to human fallibility and doubt in much of our lives, especially in those areas where the consequences of being wrong are not severe. In purely theoretical matters—if there are such things—or practical matters of little consequence, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Who cares?” In those areas we are able rather easily and routinely to make decisions and act in the absence of infallibility and complete certainty. We do not notice that our judgments and the actions based on them are fallible and involve risk. But when the stakes are high and great good or great evil may result from our actions, we become acutely conscious of our fallibility. Subjective doubt and anxiety arise and may paralyze us unless we find a way to deal with them.

Now I want to apply these thoughts to our question, “Is Christianity True.” If all human judgments are fallible and if in some really important matters, despite our best efforts to examine and weigh the evidence, we are forced to act on our fallible judgments, there will always come a point at which we must choose, decide, and act despite the risk. Hence in accounting for their Christian commitment, believers need not accept the obligation to “close the loop” and present conclusive proof for the truth of their faith. We can present the evidence and our evaluations of it, but we need not and cannot describe in rational terms the decision to act despite the risk. The necessity of acting on fallible judgments applies to all actions, trivial or monumental, enacted by believers or nonbelievers. Christian faith and commitment should not be held to a higher standard—that is, an impossible one—than other beliefs and commitments have to meet.

The necessity of decision and action based on responsible but fallible judgments determines much of my apologetic strategy and marks it off from many other approaches to apologetics. I hope to guide the reader on the road from unbelief to Christian faith. Along the way, we will come to certain natural decision points where progress demands that we choose one of two ways in the absence of conclusive proof. I will do my best to clarify the nature of the alternatives, the evidence for and against each, and what is at stake in the decision between the two. But rational arguments can take us only so far. Finally, one must choose and act despite the risk.

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4 thoughts on “Is Christian Belief a Decision or a Conclusion?

  1. nokareon

    Well said all around. Would you agree or disagree with the idea that one should portion one’s degree of assent to a belief or proposition based on the strength of the reasons/justification/warrant or certainty that one has? It sounds to me like you would not—rather, the evidence can take a person to the edge of the cliff, but one must choose to make the leap oneself. I know this notion of choosing to believe despite the risk makes many skeptics squeamish (including myself at one point in my life). Does it truly come down to a “leap of faith” at the end (even if not a blind one)? Or can the scales of belief be adequately tipped by a reasonable (though not necessarily conclusive) amount of evidence?

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  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    Very perceptive! I wanted to show that the move from a fallible judgment to action characterizes all (or nearly all) beliefs. This is not something necessary for Christian beliefs only. Once we get that clear, we can think about whether the act of will that moves a person to act on their belief can be rationalized and how far. I think of my faith and Christian commitment as very reasonable. It involves a judgment I consider informed, justified, and warranted. But it is not infallible. Nevertheless, the very nature of Christian belief demands that I “risk” all. Hence there can be no proportioning of belief and action according to a calculus of probability. In this case, it is “either/Or” and not “both/and,” a little of both. Jesus is Lord. We can’t serve two masters. I hesitate to speak of “tipping the scales” because that seems to be an effort to rationalize the act of will that transitions us from a fallible judgment to full/all-in commitment and action. The tipping of the scales has already occurred in the fallible judgment. The act of will moves beyond doubt into certainty and action. I do not believe the act of will is irrational. But I do not think our attempts to describe its groundedness will make it transparent. After all, the Nicene Creed says, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment!

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  3. Jim Roberts

    Good discussion. To what extent, if any, is faith in Christ a gift of God as opposed to an act of human will? Are some people’s hearts hardened by God and others made soft? If the Holy Spirit acts in this way for some people when the gospel is preached, and not for others, what is the basis for human accountability?

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  4. ifaqtheology Post author

    I think when we engage in discussions with those who have not yet come to full faith and commitment, we have to do our best to describe the move from nonbelief to belief in terms that make sense to outsiders. Hence, I described the transition from the fallible judgment to “all in” commitment in terms of an act of will, a decision. I was careful not to say that this is an autonomous or an arbitrary decision. I also believe that this decision can be described from inside faith as empowered by the Spirit or a divine calling. But just as from the outside I did not describe the decision as “autonomous,” I would not from the inside describe it as made under duress of arbitrary divine action that destroys human freedom. I want to keep the outside/inside perspectives clearly distinct. I believe we must learn to do this and not speak insider talk to those outside. I also followed this strategy when defining knowledge, faith, truth, reality, and opinion. I hope to develop these ideas further as the year proceeds. Thanks.

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