Why do we believe certain things and not others? I know, I know . . . we are Christians. Therefore, we have a slam dunk answer to that softball question. It’s the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and activates it in our lives. While this is certainly true, there are often details that He works through. After all, the Holy Spirit uses many mundane things to bring about our faith. He uses our minds, godly influences, our circumstances in life, and deep conviction.

When I became a Christian, I was very young. I don’t remember a time when I did not believe in Jesus. So, I don’t have any grand conversion story. I just believed what my mother taught me from birth. And as I grew up, I wanted everything she had taught me to be true. She was my guide, serving for a long time (even until today) as a sort of referred conviction. I believed because she believed. And I wanted her to be right. Statistics tell us that this is almost always the case. For many of us, it is the case that we believe what we grew up believing. If you were reared as a Buddhist, you will likely be a Buddhist.  If your parents were Muslim, chances are you will be a Muslim. Atheists produce atheists, Hindus produce Hindus, agnostics produce agnostics, and . . . Christians produce Christians.

I remember what John Hannah, my Historic Theology prof at seminary, said one time in class, “We are going to teach you all kinds of great and wonderful things. But, in the end, you are just going to believe what mommy and daddy told you.” There is a lot of truth to this. None of it makes anything right or wrong. The objection that we just believe what our parents taught us, or that our culture defines our beliefs, while important in understanding how we believe things, only says so much. It does not address the rightness or wrongness of said beliefs. Perhaps we only believe what our parents taught us. . .and perhaps they are wrong (as is implied in the objection). Then again, perhaps they are right. The objection only speaks to our epistemology (a big word which simply refers to how we know or believe what we know or believe).

With this in mind, I want to introduce a graphic I constructed to help work through what can be a very complicated issue.


The three circles at the bottom represent three primary sources of influence. The first is REASON (or the INTELLECT). The second is EXPERIENCE. And the last is TRADITION. Each of these has a different level of influence on each of us.  They, in turn, feeding into the circle that represents our EMOTIONS. Our emotions then feed our WILL. And from here we make our choices or take actions.  Your emotional disposition at any given moment will determine your choice.

For example, I talked about the influence our parents have on us. Tradition, as we will later see, is much more complex than just what mommy and daddy taught us, but for me, as a child, this was pretty much it. I did not use too much reason or experience in making my choice for Christ. Mom told me it was true, therefore it was true. After all, I had no reason not to trust my mother. At that time, my chart would have looked like this:


Again, this makes nothing right or wrong or true or false. As well (I remind you again), it does not represent all that can be and should be involved in the tradition circle (as we will see later, I place the Bible in this circle). It merely demonstrates how I, as a young boy, believed.

As far as my emotional convictions, they could not have been higher. In fact, if you had an emotional barometer to gauge how I felt at this time with regard to my faith, it would have been at one hundred percent. It would look like this:

emotions-100-percent Again, this is just how I felt about Jesus, the Bible, and religion. It does not mean that there are not other factors pulling at our emotions (especially factors of sinful human nature). Nor does this mean I always chose correctly. I do believe we choose according to our greatest desire of the moment (I got that from Ronald Nash), but just because we feel one hundred percent emotional conviction does not mean that this will translate into an act of the will.

There is more to come on this discussion of the anatomy of faith. I will try to break down each one of these. But before this, we must see how each of these (Tradition, Reason, and Experience) engage and influence each other.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    38 replies to "An Anatomy of Faith"

    • thom waters

      In response to this post I am reminded of a quote from R. W. Emerson. He states:

      “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, you can never have both. Between these, as a pendelum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets–most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation, but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.”

      When he mentions “. . . rest, commodity, and reputation. . .” I immediately think of believers and apologists of all kinds, and how invested they become in what they believe, however they came to believe it, although I suspect that Emerson is close to understanding how most of us come to believe or adopt what we embrace. Believers would be better served, I believe, by abandoning the tendency towards arrogance and condesention. This notion that “I have the truth and you need it,” smacks of these things. Treating or regarding “Truth” as a commodity only serves to imperil the possibility for real dialogue. And however one comes to belief it is always wise to walk the path of humility in such matters, if for no other reason than to acknowledge that experience is not uniform and we have all walked in different shoes.

    • Missy M

      I must say I am gaining insight into why you are struggling so much with certainty, confidence, your faith and what you know. You seem to be living in a tornado.

      As I read above and came across this statement:

      “These are feeding into the circle that represents our EMOTIONS. Our emotions then feed our WILL. And from here we make our choices or take actions”

      I do not know who taught you to do this, who failed to teach you not to do this and who convinced you this was a good general template to view how people make decisions but they are all wrong. Now, some might use their emotions as you described but many do not, I and many I know included.

      I was reared in a home where we were taught that our emotions were to be subdued by our thoughts. They are affects, anecdotes, real though they may be. I had modeled by my parents the use of thinking through the illuminating ministry of God’s Spirit for truth and subsequent convictions. My emotions, in fact, were the very thing that were not to lead me to make decisions.

      Emotions are not rational or reasonable. In fact, when emotions lead us about they mislead us because emotions cannot think, they cannot consider nor process thought, they are simply physiological affects, again, though they be real.

      God, through the Apostle Paul, made it clear, “Be transformed by the renewal of you mind”…not your emotions. Convictions about truth are not emotional, they are mental and volitional. If they are emotional they are not convictions but vacillating feelings because emotions cannot think because they are not thoughts. Maybe you have strong feelings which come with your thoughts of something and that conviction, but again that is from your thinking and not your emotions. You have the cart before the horse.

    • C Michael Patton

      Missy, you have really either misunderstood this post or are very fundamentalistic.

      First, to act as if emotions are not the determinative deciding factor (we have yet to talk about the Holy Spirits role) is extremely naive. More than that, you view of emotions seems to have bought in to a fading and unChristian modernistic ideal of white coat decision making.

      Second, love is an emotion is it not? Is it not the decisive factor in Gods redemption of his people: “For God so loved the world…”

      Third, this post (and the ones that follow) show foundations for emotions that can be good or bad. Therefore, it is our emotions FED by these things. If you are talking about making decisions based on emotions alone, then I agree. But then, again, you have missed the point.

      Finally, your post was very emotional. Forgive my observation here, but this is evident in all your posts! Is this a bad thing. You decide.

      I will leave you with this question: do you agree with Ronald Nash: “we always choose according to the greatest desire of the moment”?

      I probably won’t be able to engage beyond this, but I hope things are clarified.

    • R David

      Glad to see you are becoming more Wesleyan (Quadrilateral). :^)

    • a.

      “Second, love is an emotion is it not?”

      I appreciate coming to understand that love is a CHOICE – true love is a choice of the will

    • a.

      which reminds, thinking of God’s love choice for us, of “loving the unlovable” articles (just read one the other day) …. the Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not unlovable like other people

    • Caleb Smith

      To a: Love is a choice. Love is an emotion. Love is personal knowledge. Love involves a complex interplay of heart, mind, and will. Love without emotion is bare duty, love without a choice is simple infatuation, and love without knowledge is naive.

    • Missy M

      True love stems from thought. Your emotions may be present but it is through the mind we make the recognition of value and then follow it with the appropriate affection which does include, often, the accompaniment of emotion but sometimes not. A mother feeding her baby at 3am does so out if thinking not emotion. Herlove is ceded in and toward thought. And I certainly can atest to that. Yes, when our love comes with its emotional affect which is positive in its stimulation and gives us a pleasurable physiological affect we experience this pleasurable amplification but that isn’t love, that is an affect of love.

      And I certainly disagree that we choose according to the greatest desire of the moment without qualification. Many people subdue a greatest desire at a moment for a higher principle. In fact, this is much of our faith, trust in the unseen inspite of the seen and seemingly greater reality. We trade that for what we believe is an eternal reality though at the moment the greater desire is for the tangible.But more importantly you assume the desire stems from emotion and not thought which is to err in your assumption.

      If it is important for you to believe my comments are “emotional” that is fine but I certainly can assure you that it is frankly both irrelevant to the topic and from my end not accurate and I do believe I .might have a better idea about that than you.

      No my emotions are not the deciding factor and I suggest any believer liking this way cannot be carrying out divine imperatives of being, “transformed by the renewing of your mind” thus being able to test or vet their thinking whereby they may know what is the good and acceptable will of God.It is surprising to hear you suggest emotions are the normative final decision maker in the end for the believer.

      Now it might be your practice to have emotions be your determining factor but that certainly is not consistent or reflective of the process reveal in Scripture in which we are told…

    • C Michael Patton

      R. David,

      The quadrilateral is beyond awesome. One of the best articulations that Wesley introduced. This post is definitely based in the quadrilateral. Here is one of my favorite books: http://www.amazon.com/Wesley-Quadrilateral-Conversation-Ted-Campbell/dp/0687060559/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1383664536&sr=8-3&keywords=the+wesleyan+quadrilateral

    • a.

      thank you Caleb Smith (above), by His word and Spirit, we know God’s love of choice is accompanied with His great zeal and emotion about it. Astounding isn’t it :”

      may Christ dwell richly in our hearts through faith, that we being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that we may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Ephs 3 17-19 and grace and peace be multiplied to us in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; 2 Peter 1: 2

    • Missy M

      The fallacy, which seems to be common, is to read words in Scripture which have an association with an emotional affect and define the word or make our point of contact with the word at the demonstrative affect and not its real substance.

      It is evident in the passage above but beyond this I have observed this error in places such as Peter speaking about our tears as if he means to communicate actual tears or the emotion associated with it and not the actual thought which produces the affect.

    • Cory


      It is difficult to think through the statement, ”we always choose according to the greatest desire of the moment” without being in face to face conversation with someone that believes the statement to be true. But, I think that a person who agrees with this statement might nuance the motive differently. They might say that a decision made by subduing the greatest immediate benefit at a moment for a higher principle is spurned from a motive of pursuing the greatest desire at that moment. In other words; my greatest desire at this moment is to live for eternal benefits/pleasures which are often time deferred.


    • Missy M

      As I said, I do not agree with the statement “without qualification”. That means thinking through its various contexts. It was presented alone and as an unqualified absolute. But this statement is merely a side bar to the greater issue.

    • Missy M

      So let me add, CMP used the quote assuming the determinative element as emotion. What you described is one of thought. That would be a reasonably qualified use.

    • Michael T.

      I think Missy and CMP are likely defining and thinking of “emotions” differently. Hence the disagreement. I’m also not quite sure one can divide thought and emotion quite the way Missy is suggesting. As CMP pointed out rightly the modernist myth of the white coat scientist simply does not exist. Our emotions influence our thoughts and vice versa regardless of whether we’d like to admit it or not. We are not and cannot be Spock.

    • Missy M


      One can divide the two because they are not the same. While often accompanying each other thus, creating an inability gir some to deal with the as different, they are categorically different. Thus, to say nothing of those who both know this reality and actively practice it.

    • Brian

      Yeah CMP, I dont think this is accurate. I really don’t think this would stand up to any researched models in the field of psychology. Emotions are not processing agents. They are response agents within us. And as such, we can actually see them as inputs, like reason, experience and tradition. We will have emotional responses all through the chain of decision making. And how we feel about things may alter our decision making. The “mind” is what you are looking for in the middle. But this should not be confused with reason. The mind is actually a very complex and holistic system within us. It is much more akin to soul that pure machinery.

    • Michael T.

      As I understand it CMP’s model implies that the phrases “I think Obamacare is bad” and “I feel Obamacare is bad” are one and the same. The reason for this is that in either case the things which lead one to the determination that Obamacare is bad are ones Intellect/Reason, combined with ones Traditions, combined with ones Experiences. In this respect I’m not sure what you are arguing against. You seem to either 1) have a completely different model of decision making in which case you have failed to flush it out (i.e. how do intellect, experience, or tradition play into the model) or 2) are stating that you only make decisions based upon intellect or experience or tradition. If 1 I’m interested in your model, if 2 you are simply self deceived

    • Michael T.

      I think what Brian said is probably closer to the truth and more accurate, but I think emotion is probably both an input and a output. If I am convinced that something is wrong intellectually that is going to create emotions of revulsion or anger towards it. In the alternative if I have a strong emotional reaction this will, no matter how much I try to avoid it, cause me to be more likely to accept intellectually things which are in conformity with that emotional response.

    • Luke

      I’ve always liked this section of Deut 6:

      “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’

      God cared about the welfare of the Israelites! I think we often forget this. I think we often see the laws that God gave the Israelites as somehow artificial—as if they couldn’t be utterly applicable/pragmatic, and yet also point to Christ. I think we often forget that God wanted us to thrive, and yet knew there were many pitfalls we could get ‘stuck’ in—or local maxima of thriving which we don’t want to leave because it might hurt for a bit before we get to something more awesome.

      But if God’s desire for us is thriving, then we can start applying science and evidence and all that cool stuff. We can observe that if something we are doing is very much not bringing about thriving, then maybe we’re misinterpreting what God has told us. We Christians could respond to the evidence. Almost like Jesus said: judge a tree by its fruit.

      It’s almost as if faith could lead to real, testable results. “Trust God and life is better.” Faith becomes more like trust, constantly pulling us higher, toward God, with measurable, empirical results.

    • Missy M

      Michael T

      All day long I have emotions like everyone else but they aren’t for reasoning, again they are a physiological affect. Truth informs me about a matter, emotions only inform me about my physiological state.

      My emotions have been trained to respond to right thinking and right decision making. This is not to say that, for example, my instinctive response to an alarming situation may not involve emotions, but even on that rare occasion such information from my instinctive emotions us just that, emotional. I have to then enter a rational and reasonable framework where I mentally process the facts and make a decision, fully informed. Mm

    • Michael T.

      “…Truth informs me about a matter…”
      “…trained to respond to right thinking and right decision making…”

      And one determines these things (truth, what right thinking is, what right decision making is) how???

    • Missy M

      Through thinking which is how we evaluate, determine and come to conclusions.

    • Luke

      @Michael T:

      And one determines these things (truth, what right thinking is, what right decision making is) how???

      Among other things, by respecting the evidence: when we do something that hurts another human being, do we introspect and see which belief led to the hurt, and then repent? Or do we rationalize away the hurt and thus accept lies which will spread throughout our being?

    • Michael T.

      “Through thinking which is how we evaluate, determine and come to conclusions.”

      “by respecting the evidence”

      What criteria go into evaluating something? How do you determine the criteria and the weight given to them?

      How does one interpret and weight the evidence?

    • Missy M


      Well, if a person does not have a value system or a source from which a values can be gained then they are up the creek. But if they have a value system for the matter which can lead to objective determinations then that is criterion.

      Many situations use a similar value source but not always. A math problem uses math values, a moral problem uses moral sources and a bad hair day uses a few sources and so on.

      And for the Christian life, God has left his Word and Spirit which illuminates his Word.

    • Luke

      @Michael T.

      What criteria go into evaluating something? How do you determine the criteria and the weight given to them?

      How does one interpret and weight the evidence?

      These are good questions. I have made the following observation about humans: we are very good at knowing when we have been harmed, and very good at rationalizing away when we harm others. So I suggest that ‘the evidence’ is the harm that others feel have been caused them, not our evaluation. Nicholas Wolterstorff makes the following in Justice: Rights and Wrongs:

      If one thinks exclusively in terms of obligations, and if, furthermore, one thinks of guilt as guilt for violating the moral law rather than guilt for wronging the other, then the person who has been wronged falls entirely out of view. (Kindle 498)

      I haven’t given you a complete answer, but I think it is a part of the answer, and a part that we humans are highly prone to not include—because it exposes our sinful behavior better than anything else.

    • “Missy M” is the better Christian thinker and philosopher here! You can run, but ya can’t hide! 😉

    • theoldadam

      Thank God that my faith is a “gift of God”…not because of anything that I think, say, feel, or do…but in spite of those things, for God’s good pleasure.

    • But TOA, God uses and presses through our own person and spirit: “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for HIS good pleasure.” (Phil. 2: 13) It is an I/thou relationship, but GOD In Christ always gets all of the glory!

    • Michael T.

      “But if they have a value system for the matter which can lead to objective determinations then that is criterion. ”

      What are the sources of these value systems? Is not the framework in which you think about things formed to greater and lesser degrees by your intellect, experiences and traditions? Even in the Christian Life it would seem that the Spirit often works to illuminate things in these areas. Thus the intellect of the believer is (hopefully) different from that of the non-believer. However, it is still the intellect we are talking about.

      Also are there not some things which are inherently subjective and for which no objective determination can be made?

    • Luke

      @Michael T.

      Also are there not some things which are inherently subjective and for which no objective determination can be made?

      We don’t know whether they’re “inherently subjective”, or simply subjective just like science is (see Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge if this surprises you). That being said, is it really so hard to ask someone whether they are suffering? Yes, some will use this to manipulate, but if we demand perfection with no spurious or deceptive signals, we might as well throw up our hands in despair.

      Phrased differently, is there a better way to figure out whether someone is suffering, than to ask him/her? I suppose we could get into situations like addiction, but then we could simply talk about before the addiction started.

    • Michael T.

      @ Luke

      I wasn’t really responding to you Luke. I was more responding to Missy. I think where you are going is a completely different direction than what we are discussing. That being said I’m not sure asking whether or not someone is suffering is sufficient unless one assumes that suffering is inherently bad or even unwarranted. A child rapist sitting in prison for the rest of their life is probably “suffering”.

    • Luke

      @Michael T.

      I wasn’t really responding to you Luke. I was more responding to Missy.

      Sure; you were asking about systems of evaluation. Philosophers of science now know that even the allegedly objective realm is actually viewed through a grid of preconceptions. There are ways to act that this ‘grid’ still lets in new, fascinating data that leads us toward better approximations of reality.

      Now, what about the moral realm? You seem to be implying concern with any given system of rules, which could be quite unjust. One need look no further than the Inquisition to see such injustice. What I’m implicitly proposing is that there is no “be-all and end-all” moral system. Instead, we must constantly improve, as we are becoming more and more like our Lord and Savior, from one degree of glory to the next. This doesn’t completely answer your question, but I wonder if it’s a start that you can completely agree with. If not, I’m interested in how you’d disagree, and I’ll bet such an answer would provide helpful to Missy M as well.

      That being said I’m not sure asking whether or not someone is suffering is sufficient unless one assumes that suffering is inherently bad or even unwarranted. A child rapist sitting in prison for the rest of their life is probably “suffering”.

      Nowhere did I say all suffering is wrong. 🙂 On the other hand, the treatment of Jews and African Americans at the hands of Christians says a lot. If Christians respected self-reports of suffering, I think we’d be a lot further along than we are.

    • theoldadam

      “But TOA, God uses and presses through our own person and spirit:…”

      Absolutely right.

      He gives it. He sustains it. He uses it.

    • Michael T.

      @ Luke,

      I think you misunderstand what I was getting at and the direction of my questions. Missy took issue with certain parts of CMP’s original post. The point of my questions was to lead to the conclusion that her and CMP are ultimately talking about the same thing, just using different words. In fact given that I was saying that one cannot be truly objective about evaluating things I think you may have had some of my posts and Missy’s confused

      As far as a “be all and end all” moral system I agree on the level that us humans are all tainted by the fall and see things in a mirror darkly. As such we all, both individually and collectively, have room to grow in our level of moral understanding. That being said I think that such a system does exist (i.e. God) towards which we are striving.

    • theoldadam

      God is not trying to make us ‘better’.

      He is trying to put an end to us.

      The patient must die.

    • Btw, before we can get into any real lasting subjective aspects, we must lay the groundwork of the Christian Objective first! This is much of TOA’s points I believe, as Missy.

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