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Faith as a legitimate basis for knowledge claims in all areas of knowledge

Models of faith and their key components While philosophical reflection on faith of the kind exemplified in religious faith might ideally hope to yield an agreed definition in terms of sufficient and necessary conditions that articulate the nature of faith, the present discussion proceeds by identifying key components that recur in different accounts of religious faith.

It also aims to identify a focal range of issues on which different stances are taken by different accounts. There is a plurality of existing philosophical understandings or models of faith of the religious kind.

This discussion therefore aims to set out dialectically an organisation of this plurality, while also giving indications of the reasons there may be for preferring particular models over others. Nevertheless, the concept of faith as found in the Abrahamic, theist, religious traditions is widely regarded as unified enough for an inquiry into its nature to make sense, even if a successful real definition is too much to expect this kind of faith might conceivably be a conceptual primitive, for example.

The present discussion, however, deals directly with the target notion of the kind of faith exemplified in religious faith, assuming the background of a working grasp of the notion as deployed in religious forms of life, and specifically in those belonging to the theist traditions.

Insights from the analysis of faith understood more broadly may, nevertheless, be important in constructing models of faith of the religious kind, as will emerge below in the discussion of religious faith as a kind of trust Section 6. The notion of religious faith as the possession of a whole people is familiar, and arguably theologically primary in the theist traditions.

Faith may be a state one is in, or comes to be in; it may also essentially involve something one does.

  1. Sessions, William Lad, 1994. Attempting to settle that concern by meeting the evidential requirement leads to circularity.
  2. For example, my belief that the time is 11. Coherentism is vulnerable to the "isolation objection".
  3. The former, called basic beliefs, are able to confer justification on other, non-basic beliefs, without themselves having their justification conferred upon them by other beliefs. Of course, not all beliefs constitute knowledge.
  4. Similarly, accounts of theistic faith will be open to critique when they make assumptions about the mechanisms of revelation. Science, with its collection of data and conducting of experiments, is the paradigm of empirical knowledge.

An adequate account of faith, perhaps, needs to encompass both. In the Christian context faith is understood both as a gift of God and also as requiring a human response of assent and trust, so that their faith is something with respect to which people are both receptive and active.

There is, however, some tension in understanding faith both as a gift to be received and as essentially involving a venture to be willed and enacted. A philosophical account of faith may be expected to illuminate this apparent paradox.

It is helpful to consider the components of faith variously recognised and emphasised in different models of faith as falling into three broad categories: The affective component of faith One component of faith is a certain kind of affective psychological state—namely, a state of feeling confident and trusting.

Some philosophers hold that faith is to be identified simply with such a state: But if foundational existential confidence is to feature in a model of faith of the kind exemplified by theists, more needs to be added about the kind of confidence involved. Theistic faith is essentially faith in God. In general, faith of the kind exemplified by theistic faith must have some intentional object. It may thus be argued that an adequate model of this kind of faith cannot reduce to something purely affective: Faith as knowledge What kind of cognitive component belongs to faith, then?

One model identifies faith as knowledge of specific truths, revealed by God.

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Such a model has received prominent recent defence in the work of Alvin Plantinga, who proposes a model of faith which he takes to follow in the tradition of the reformers, principally John Calvin see Plantinga 2000, 168-86. Calvin defines faith thus: In defence of specifically Christian belief, Plantinga argues that the same warrant-conferring status belongs to the operation of the Holy Spirit in making the great truths of the Gospel directly known to the believer.

Faith is thus understood as a kind of knowledge attended by a certainty that excludes doubt. Nevertheless, the model may admit a practical component, since an active response is required for reception of the divine gift. Such a practical component is implied by the real possibility that faith may be resisted: It is, however, a further step for persons of faith to put their revealed knowledge into practice by trusting their lives to God and seeking to obey his will.

It is thus widely held that faith goes beyond what is ordinarily reasonable, in the sense that it involves accepting what cannot be established as true through the proper exercise of our naturally endowed human cognitive faculties—and this may be held to be an essential feature of faith.

Another classificatory principle, then, is in terms of the type of epistemology of faith each particular model generates. This model seems thus to secure the rationality of faith: It is not clear, however, that this aspiration can finally be met.

From the perspective of reflective persons of faith or would-be faiththe question of entitlement arises: Reflective believers who are aware of the many options for faith, and the possibility of misguided and even harmful faith-commitments, will wish to be satisfied that they are justified in their faith. The desire to be assured of entitlement to faith is thus not merely externally imposed by commitment to philosophical critical values: Arguably, believers must even take seriously the possibility that the God they have been worshipping is not, after all, the true God Johnston 2009.

Those conditions are widely assumed to include an evidentialist requirement that faith is justified only if the truth of its cognitive content is adequately supported by the available evidence.

is faith a legitimate basis for knowledge claims?

On an externalist account, that is, one might lack independent evidence sufficient to confirm that one has knowledge that God exists while in fact possessing that very knowledge. And one might thus refute an objector who claims that without adequate evidence one cannot genuinely know. But this consideration is still insufficient to secure entitlement to theistic faith—if, as may be argued, that entitlement requires that one has evidence adequate to justify commitment to the truth that God exists.

For a wider discussion of the possibility of religious knowledge that, inter alia, endorses the present point, see Zagzebski 2010. The relevant kind will be belief with theological content—that God exists, is benevolent towards us, has a plan of salvation, etc.

The rationality of faith on this model will rest on the rationality of the firmly held theological beliefs in which it consists. In any case, the reasonableness of faith on this model of faith as belief depends on the beliefs concerned being adequately evidentially justified.

Or the ambiguity may be considered systematic—for example, on the grounds that both natural theological and natural atheological arguments fail because they are deeply circular, resting on implicit assumptions acceptable only to those already thinking within the relevant perspective.

If the ambiguity thesis is correct, then—assuming evidentialism—firmly held theistic belief will fail to be reasonable. On this model of faith as belief, all that characterises faith apart from its theological content is the firmness or conviction with which faith-propositions are held true. Firm belief in the truth of a scientific proposition, for example, fails to count as faith only through lacking the right faith as a legitimate basis for knowledge claims in all areas of knowledge of content.

Furthermore, in taking faith to consist in belief that theological propositions are true, this model invites the assumption that theological convictions belong in the same category of factual claims as scientific theoretical hypotheses with which they accordingly compete. These misgivings about the model of faith as firmly held factual theological belief dissolve, of course, if success attends the project of showing that particular theological claims count as factual hypotheses well supported by the total available evidence.

Faith resembles knowledge, Aquinas thinks, in so far as faith carries conviction. This is problematic because, i in its dominant contemporary technical usage belief is taken to be a mental intentional state—a propositional attitude, namely, the attitude towards the relevant proposition that it is true; ii belief in this contemporary sense is widely agreed not to be under volitional control—not directly, anyway; yet iii Aquinas holds that the assent given in faith is under the control of the will.

Assent may be construed as something that has to be elicited yet terminates a process that is subject to the will—a process of inquiry, deliberation or pondering that does involve mental actions, or, in the case of faith, a process of divine grace that can proceed only if it is not blocked by the will.

Most importantly, however, Aquinas says that assent is given to the propositional articles of faith because their truth is revealed by God, and on the authority of the putative source of this revelation.

Terence Penelhum puts it like this: John Locke follows the same model: The unanswered question of entitlement—again Faith as assent to truths on the basis of an authoritative source of divine revelation is possible, though, only for those who already believe that God exists and is revealed through the relevant sources.

Might such faith, then, have to rest on a prior faith—faith that God exists and that this is his messenger or vehicle of communication? Faith might then have a purely rational foundation. But this could hardly be so for every person faith as a legitimate basis for knowledge claims in all areas of knowledge faith, since not everyone who believes will have access to the relevant evidence or be able to assess it properly.

Attempting to settle that concern by meeting the evidential requirement leads to circularity: The question remains how accepting this gift could be epistemically rational. Revelation—and its philosophical critique The justifiability of belief that God exists is a typically focal issue in the Philosophy of Religion. Yet the theist traditions always make a foundational claim about an authoritative source, or sources, of revealed truth.

What is salient is not just believing that God exists; it is believing that God exists and is revealed thus and so in great historical acts, in prophets, in scriptures, in wisdom handed down, etc.

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The reasonableness of theism is therefore as much a matter of the reasonableness of an epistemology of revelation as it is of a metaphysics of perfect being. That argument holds that a loving God would make his existence clear to the non-resistant—but this claim is open to question.

Similarly, accounts of theistic faith will be open to critique when they make assumptions about the mechanisms of revelation. Alternative understandings of revelation are available, however. In particular, it may be held that it is primarily the divine presence itself that is revealed—the reality, not merely a representation of it. Propositional articulations of what is revealed may still be essential, but they need to be accepted as at a remove from the object of revelation itself, and therefore as limited.

Faith as trust Not all models of faith however, identify it as primarily a matter of knowing or believing a proposition or a set of them. What is most central to theistic faith may seem better expressed as believing in God, rather than as believing that God exists. What is it to believe in, or have faith in, God beyond, or even independently of, believing that God exists?

To have faith in God is to make a practical commitment—the kind involved in trusting God, or, trusting in God. This, then, is a fiducial model —a model of faith as trust, understood not simply as an affective state of confidence, but as an action. The fiducial model is widely identified as characteristically Protestant. If, moreover, faith of the religious kind is itself a type of trust, then we may expect our understanding of religious faith to profit from an analysis of trust in general.


It is therefore worth considering what follows about the nature of faith of the sort exemplified in theistic faith from holding it to be a kind of trust. Conceptually fundamental to trust is the notion of a person or persons —the truster—trusting in some agent or agency—the trustee—for some assumedly favourable outcome though what the trustee is trusted for is often only implicit in the context.

Trust involves a venture; so too—it is widely agreed—does faith. So, if faith is trust, the venture of faith might be presumed to be the type of venture implicated in trust. Venturing in trust is usually assumed to be essentially risky, making oneself vulnerable to adverse outcomes or betrayal. Swinburne makes the point this way: Accordingly, it seems sensible to hold that one should trust only with good reason. It may thus on occasion be practically rational to trust a person whose likelihood of trustworthiness is low, if a sufficiently valuable outcome may be achieved only by so doing.

An unlikely rescuer may rationally be trusted if the only one available. But this approach misses something important in social intercourse, where we generally count it a virtue to be ready to trust others without such prior calculation.

Such openness may still be broadly rational, however, given our long shared experience that willingness to trust others usually does elicit trustworthy behaviour: Nevertheless, it can sometimes be reasonable to act decisively on the assumption that people will be worthy of trust in quite particular respects without having evidence for their trustworthiness sufficient to justify such decisiveness see, for example, Adams 1987. In the target cases, the epistemic concern to grasp truth and avoid falsehood is not overridden: Faith as doxastic venture On a model that takes religious faith to consist fundamentally in an act of trust, the analogy with the venture of interpersonal trust is suggestive.

Paul Helm proposes that religious faith similarly has importantly distinct doxastic and fiducial aspects: Yet there are also significant differences between the trusting involved in theistic faith and that involved in interpersonal trust.

  1. On an externalist account, that is, one might lack independent evidence sufficient to confirm that one has knowledge that God exists while in fact possessing that very knowledge.
  2. Memory allows us to know something that we knew in the past, even, perhaps, if we no longer remember the original justification.
  3. The supremacy of love is linked to the supremacy of the divine itself, since love is the essential nature of the divine.
  4. But in addition to believing that these objects have persisted up until now, we believe that they will persist in the future; we also believe that objects we have never observed similarly have persisted and will persist.

For one thing, venturing in trust would seem not to carry real risk if God really is the trustee. Given the existence of the God of unchanging love, one trusts in ultimately perfect safety. But the venture of actually entrusting oneself to God seems to begin with the challenge of being able to accept that, indeed, there is such a God. While some affirm that many people have sufficient evidence to justify this claim, others, as already noted, hold that everyone has to confront the evidential ambiguity of foundational theistic claims.