A Guide to Examining the Way We Believe So That What We Believe Will be Secure
I often tell people that when they are speaking there are a few ways to become more authoritative in the eyes of your listeners. First, speak louder. If that does not work, speak deeper. And if both of those don’t work, speak with a British accent! However, that is not all. I am going to give you some insider information by telling you two more ways to get people to submit to your authority. Mind you though, this only works with Protestants. First, include this phrase, “the Reformers taught this same thing.” If you want to get really fancy, designate them as the magisterial scholastic Reformers. Although most Protestants have no clue who the magisterial scholastic Reformers are, it does not matter. It will work. Second (warning: only use this with extreme caution and don’t try this alone), when you really want people to bow to your authority, throw in a Latin word here and there. If you combine all of these, people will have no choice but to fall under your spell. The audience is yours.
Thus far I have utilized my own advice (well, at least the last two). The scholastic Reformers talked about three aspects of true Christian faith: 1) notitia (content or knowledge), 2) assensus (conviction or intellectual assent), 3) fiducia (consent, rest, or trust). Now let me expand upon the assensus or conviction element just a bit.
We are talking about the anatomy of faith and all its complexities. Because of this, we must be diligent to distinguish and discuss all of its intricacies. When it comes to conviction, there are different types and sources. To ask for reasons for one’s beliefs requires that we be prepared for a variety of answers, sometimes they will be valid and sometimes they will be invalid. Nevertheless, the Bible tells us to always be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within us (1Pet. 3:15).
Why are you a Christian John? “Because it makes the most sense out of the world.”
Why do you believe in God Emily? “Because I have experienced his love.”
Why do you believe the Bible is inspired Nate? “Because of fulfilled prophecy.”
Why do you believe Christ is coming again Carrie? “Because he said he would and I trust him to do what he says.”
How do you know the Bible has been accurately handed down Tim? “Because Dan Wallace has studied the manuscript evidence and come to the conclusion that it is trustworthy.”
The conviction expressed by each answer here is based on different criteria. The scholastic magisterial Reformers (!) said that there are three types of conviction that make up one’s overall assent to their faith. I am going to use my own terms here in hopes to simplify things a bit (and because I like to start them all with the same letter!).
Take a look at our Belief-O-Meter. We are going to be adding some sub-meters to the top right meter of conviction. Again, one’s conviction is made up of all three. The more each are present, the greater one’s conviction.
1. Rational Conviction (What the Reformers called evidentia):
Rational conviction comes by means of intuitive logic. It can be described most elementary as sound judgment, common sense, perception, and that which is agreeable to sound reasoning. In some ways, its the stuff you just figure out. In a more technical sense, it describes the foundational principles of logic which produce, when used correctly, reliable inference. This would involve the principle of the law of non-contradiction (A ≠ -A at the same time and the same relationship). For example, I cannot be wearing shoes and not be wearing shoes when both propositions assume the same time frame and the same definition for “shoes.” “Duh?” you say. “Exactly!” I say. It is intuitive. It is common sense.
This is a very important aspect of our conviction. We want to have a faith that makes sense and does not fly in the face of other things that we know to be true. When something is not rational, we call it irrational. An irrational faith is a faith that will be necessarily void of much true conviction. Why? Because God, we believe, has created us as rational beings mirroring his own rational character. In other words, our beliefs cannot be illogical or formally absurd. Confusing, yes. Paradoxical, yes. Often mysterious, yes. But in violation of the rules of logic, no.
The question here is this: Does your faith do justice to rational thinking or does it violate it?
2. Real Life Conviction (What the Reformers called evidentia):
The second is real life conviction. This most broadly refers to human experience. It is often called “empirical,” meaning that which we can observe or experience through our senses. It has to do with the evidence. It is stuff that we can see, feel, taste, touch, or test. This can come by way of direct personal encounters or by historical verification. Whereas rational conviction comes intuitively and works primarily off of logical deduction, real life conviction comes by way of subjective encounter, evidence, and testing.
The Apostles believed that Christ rose from the grave not because of intuitive necessity (i.e. God, by definition, must raise from graves), but because of first hand experience. They saw Christ die and then risen from the grave. Many believe that the Bible is reliable because they have studied it and compared it to historical verification (e.g. internal evidence, external evidence) and their own lives (e.g. the Bible says I am a sinner and I have experienced sin). This would be real life conviction. It is based on the accumulation of various types of evidence.
The question here is this: Is there any evidence to support your faith claims or is it based only on subjective opinion?
3. Referred Conviction (what the Reformers called firmitas and certitudo)
Referred conviction is the assurance that you have which is not intuitively nor experientially your own, but from another source. Before you get too down on this one, I think it is important to know that the mass majority of things you believe are based on referred conviction. This doesn’t make it wrong or naive. In fact, the smartest people in the world have beliefs that are primarily dependent on another’s conclusions. The question is not whether or not you are going to have referred conviction, but how reliable are your sources.
Most people start with a referred conviction based on what mom and dad taught them. With little ability to be rationally critical and very little experience to draw from, a child’s conviction meter is going to be based on what others have told them. If they trust their parents (which most children do), then they will be convicted of the same things their parents are convicted about.
However, if most people are honest, they will realize that this referred conviction is not necessarily a black-eye to their beliefs. Nor would we suppose that eventually all areas of our belief must be subjectively attained. I, for example, believe in the existence of Mt. Everest. I think my conviction is pretty stable and secure. However, I have never actually seen Mt. Everest (that I can remember). Neither could I pick it out of a photo line up right now. I don’t even know what it looks like. However, I am secure in my belief due to the reliability of referred conviction. This often comes by way of common public knowledge and acceptance, but also by way of reliance on one or two trusted sources. I have never dated the New Testament manuscript called P52 or John Rylands Papyri. I would not be very good at dating it. However, there are scholars who know what they are doing who date it to around 125 A.D. I trust them because I am familiar enough with the field and with these scholars’ reputation to justify a referred conviction here.
In other words, it is okay to stand on the shoulders of another person’s conviction. What we must not do is blindly stand on the shoulders of another person’s conviction. But we will get back to this later.
Conviction is very complex. Yet, conviction is very simple. When it comes to our faith, we need to have strong conviction that it is true. We must engage the intellect. We must be willing to change according to the evidence. We must have trustworthy sources to whom we refer. But as we will see, there are those who will neglect one or more of these aspects causing their conviction to be seriously weakened. And, as I have been arguing, a weak intellectual conviction is going to ultimately produce weak faith.
Next I will break down each one of these and show what faith looks like without rational, real life, or referred conviction.
Hope you are enjoying this series.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (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. He can be contacted at [email protected]