I’ve just been reminded that I was going to pick up on a point that bothered me in this now somewhat ancient discussion (among the hundred and one other things which only time and argument-fatigue made me skip over). Specifically, I deeply disagree with the viewpoint expressed in reply 44, which I’ll abridge here for memory-jogging purposes (hopefully without misrepresenting it, but being open to correction since it’s always risky to summarise other people’s arguments for them):
“Since all our knowledge comes through the senses, and since we have no sense knowledge of God, all our “knowledge” of God is through faith.”
“In this present life we have no way of knowing God. You can’t touch, taste, see, hear or smell Him. You can hear about Him. You can know about Him. You know He is there, because you believe what you have heard about Him – but it’s not a knowledge like knowing that Orkney is north(ish) of Scotland because you have sailed there …”
“The “knowledge” of God we have at first is what we hear of Him. Then if we love Him, because we have heard and believed, He will make us even now like unto Him, and so we know Him better – but this is all through faith, otherwise we would not know what this new knowledge was of, if that makes any sense.”
One major difficulty which I have with this view is that it makes the Christian life sound like something which lacks one of the most important things that is rectified when a person is converted – ie the knowledge of God. And the second difficulty is that it makes faith sound like a substitute for knowledge, when faith could not exist without a reliable and certain knowledge of the truths that save the soul.
(1) The process of converting a soul is a process which includes enlightening the mind in the knowledge of Christ, and salvation is a matter of reconciling the sinner to God. Both ignorance of God and alienation from God are characteristics of an unconverted state. Prior to conversion, people have only the vaguest and most uncomfortable ideas about God, if they accept that he exists at all – even if they are familiar with the doctrines of the scriptures, that God is holy and good and kind and merciful towards sinners, these are not things which attract them to him in any meaningful way – people prefer to remain at a distance from God, thinking as little about him as possible, and keeping up as much of an estrangement from him as they can.
This is all changed when a soul is saved – in salvation, the sinner comes to know by experience things which he or she had only heard about previously – knowing by experience that God has mercy on sinners (because he has had mercy on me, a sinner) is a characteristic of a saved soul, in contrast to a simple familiarity with the propositional truth that God has mercy on sinners. This is actually very closely analogous to knowing that Orkney is in the north because you’ve sailed there – the sinner that is saved has tasted and seen that God is good, or, to keep the sea-faring metaphor, has been actually brought to the haven that their storm-tossed soul desired to see, Psalm 107:23-32. And additionally, this knowing of God is a very personal relationship between the sinner and the Saviour. It is illustrated in scripture by various human relationships – between family members, husbands and wives, friends – but it goes much deeper than any and all of these. It takes the redeeming work of Christ, the pardoning work of the Father, and the regenerating work of the Spirit, to get a sinner to know God – but when God does save a soul, his salvation entails that the sinner he is saving will indeed know him, really and truly and personally.
(2) In terms of the relation between faith and knowledge, it is not the case that faith is a substitute for knowledge, as if the fact that someone knows God (in the sense I was just talking about) means that their knowledge disqualifies them from being able to believe in him. Rather, faith takes hold of God just as he is revealed – if he didn’t reveal himself, we would remain utterly ignorant of him, but since he has revealed himself, we have to take that revelation on his own authority and believe him on that account (ie, we are required to believe him on the authority of his own word).
In other words, if you believe at all, you have to believe in things that are revealed. Faith has to come up to what God has revealed in scripture, and it can’t stop short of anything less than what God has revealed in scripture. There are things which we are required to believe even though we can’t fully understand them (such as the truth that there are three persons in the Godhead, and these three are one God), but in these cases, the only warrant we have for believing them at all is the fact that they are revealed. The kind of believing which exists without knowledge is probably better called speculation, or imagination, or wishful thinking – knowledge of the truth is a crucial prerequisite for faith, just as the revealed truth itself, because it is after all the truth of God and spoken on God’s authority, is what gives us the warrant or right or basis for believing (- it is the only thing that gives us that warrant, but it is an ample warrant, of course).