The longer I am in ministry, the longer I teach theology, the more I see that some things are not quite as clear as they used to be. At one time, I had pretty much everything figured out. Ministry was just about transferring this information effectively. That is the peril of theology. If you want to have it all figured out, don’t get into this business!
At the same time, there are many things that I have believed and about which I continue to grow in conviction. One of these, ironically, is the simplicity of the Christian life. The center point is really not too difficult. God wants us to believe him. Trust, belief, conviction, assurance. These are all words we use to describe this act of the will – faith.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines faith this way:
- Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
- Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
- Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one’s supporters.
- The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will.
- The body of dogma of a religion: the Muslim faith.
- A set of principles or beliefs.
Each one of these, in the right context, could describe some aspect of the Christian faith. But we need to go one step further in understanding this term “faith” in a particularly Christian way.
The Reformers sought to distinguish true faith from false faith. The battle cry of sola fide (justification by faith alone) demanded that they define faith in a precise manner.
As started by Luther and developed further by Melancthon and others, the understanding of faith was expressed in three separate yet vitally connected aspects: notitia, assensus, and fiducia.
1. Notitia: This is the basic informational foundation of our faith. It is best expressed by the word “content.” Faith, according to the Reformers, must have content or substance. You cannot have faith in nothing. There must be some referential, propositional truth to which the faith points. The proposition “Christ rose from the grave” or “God loves you” for example, provide a necessary information base or notitia that Christians must have.
2. Assensus: This is the assent, confidence, or assurance that we have that the notitia is correct. Here we assent to the information, affirming it to be true. This involves evidence which leads to the conviction of the truthfulness of the proposition. According to the Reformers, to have knowledge of the proposition is not enough. We must, to some degree, be convinced that it is really true. This involves intellectual assent and persuasion based upon some degree of critical thought. While notitia claims “Christ rose from the grave,” assensus takes the next step and says, “I am persuaded to believe that Christ rose from the grave.”
But these two alone are not enough, according to the Reformers. As one person has said, these two only qualify you to be a demon, for the demons both have the right information (Jesus rose from the grave) and are convicted of its truthfulness. One aspect still remains.
3. Fiducia: This is the “resting” in the information based upon a conviction of its truthfulness. Fiducia is best expressed by the English word “trust.” We have the information, we are persuaded of its truthfulness, and now we have to trust in it. Christ died for our sins (notitia). I believe that Christ died for my sins (notitia + assensus). I place my trust in Christ to save me (fiducia). Fiducia is the personal, subjective act of the will to take the final step. It is important to note that while fiducia goes beyond or transcends the intellect, it is built upon its foundation.
The Church today seems to lack #2. Nominal Christianity lacks #3. Postmodernism lacks #1 and #2.
The change occurred during the Enlightenment. Rene Descartes introduced the criteria of absolute certainty (absolute assensus) about all things. Hume responded with radical skepticism (non-assensus) about all things. Kant provided a mediating position which provided the basic framework for our current epistemology. Kant proposed that while we cannot be certain about all things, there is no reason to be skeptical about everything, either.
He relegated all knowledge into two categories: 1.) The real world, which can be known and understood through observation (the phenomenal), and 2.) that which cannot be known because it is unknowable (the noumenal). Religion and all matters concerning the knowledge of God and metaphysics were placed in the noumenal category. Kant was basically saying, you can believe in God, but you cannot believe in Him like you believe in your friends, car, or your popcorn machine. However, when you believe in God, you must understand that your belief is not based in knowledge and intellectual conviction, but in faith.
Hence came the now popular dichotomy between faith and reason. Hence rose anti-intellectualism in the church; hence came the unbiblical banishing of assensus from the Christian faith. Unfortunately, the church has bought into this Kantian philosophy and has been plagued with it for the last 200 years.
We have a song to commemorate this. You know the one? It goes like this, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” In other words, I don’t have any true assensus, therefore I appeal to emotional conviction and say it is from the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it could be from the Holy Spirit, but it could just as well be self-produced or from a demon. How do you know the difference? Many in the evangelical church today have the right information (notitia) but they blindly trust in that information without considering it in a critical manner. Notitia and fiducia without assensus is blind faith.
Please do not get me wrong. I am not saying that this kind of faith cannot be real, but I am saying that it is dangerous. The more I read about those who have “walked away from the faith,” the more I see that their faith was void of this important element that solidifies the truth in their heart.
This can be illustrated by the different seeds in the Parable of the Soils. Two of the three seeds that take root (believe) fall away after a “short time” (it is interesting that we don’t know how short the “short time” is – another blog). Why do they fall away? One reason is probably because they are not really persuaded of the truth. In the end, other truths prove more convincing. Like the character “Pliable” in Pilgrim’s Progress who is never convinced of any particular truth, there are those who wander from “truth” to “truth” based upon the expediency of the day. In the end, I fear, there are many out there who, like Pliable, are really not convinced of who Christ is and what He did.
Am I saying that assensus is the most important aspect of faith? Not at all. All three are equally important. What I am saying is that it is the most neglected. When assensus is neglected, Christianity has no more legitimacy than any other worldview. This is unfortunate. While I believe every other worldview must necessarily exclude assensus to survive, Christianity is the only worldview that does not.