What Is Christian Faith?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the most abused words in the English language is the word faith.  For skeptics, faith is believing in something despite reason.  For some religious folks, faith is simply the expression of positive emotions toward God.  Others claim faith is purely intellectual.

Can we more rigorously define what faith is?  I think we can, and I will call on Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli to help out, from their book Handbook of Christian Apologetics.

Kreeft and Tacelli first differentiate between the object of faith and the act of faith.

The object of faith includes all the things that are believed about God, as communicated by the Bible.  These things that are believed are expressed in propositions (e.g., Jesus is the Son of God).  These propositions, however, are only pointers.  They direct our attention to the real object of faith, God.  If the real object of faith is God, then why do we need all the propositions that capture our beliefs about God?  Kreeft and Tacelli explain, “Without propositions, we cannot know or tell others what God we believe in and what we believe about God.”

The act of faith consists of more than just belief.  There are four components of faith: 1) emotional, 2) intellectual, 3) volitional, and 4) heart.  Let’s look at each of these one at a time.

Emotional faith is “feeling assurance or trust or confidence in a person.  This includes hope (which is much stronger than just a wish) and peace (which is much stronger than mere calm).”  Emotional faith is the weakest component of faith because emotions change so frequently.

Intellectual faith is belief.  According to Kreeft and Tacelli, intellectual faith is more stable than emotional faith.  Strongly held beliefs will tend not to change often.  They cite the definition of intellectual faith from the Baltimore Catechism: “the act of the intellect, prompted by the will, by which we believe everything God has revealed on the grounds of the authority of the One who revealed it.”

Volitional faith is an act of the will.  “This faith is faithfulness, or fidelity.  It manifests itself in behavior, that is, in good works. . . . For the root of volitional faith – the will – is the faculty or power of the soul that is closest to . . . the ‘heart’.”

Heart faith is the very center of a person’s being, the center of their soul.  This is the “I” where the emotions, intellect, and will reside.  “The heart is where God the Holy Spirit works in us. . . . With the heart we choose our ‘fundamental option’ of yes or no to God, and thereby determine our eternal identity and destiny.”

All four of these components of faith work together, with the heart being the intersection of them all.  Faith is, therefore, not just about emotions or intellect.  Faith involves the entire person – every part.

The interaction of the intellect and the will are particularly interesting.  Kreeft and Tacelli describe how they work together:

The intellect is the soul’s navigator, but the will is its captain. . . . The will can command the intellect to think, but the intellect cannot command the will to will, only inform it, as a navigator informs the captain.  Yet the will cannot simply make you believe.  It can’t force the intellect to believe what appears to it to be false, or to disbelieve what seems to it to be true.

We could also add that if the emotions are predisposed against believing, then faith can be thwarted.  This is why purely intellectual appeals to a non-believer may not be effective.  If their emotions and/or will are set against faith, then intellectual arguments cannot bring them to God.  Likewise, purely emotional appeals may appear to work for a short time until that person has time to think about their beliefs and decide they are not reasonable (they have an intellectual problem).  There are even people who will to believe, but their intellect and/or emotions stand in the way.

Christian faith deals with the whole individual, so the takeaway is that the church can never become one dimensional and forget that will, intellect, emotions, and finally the very heart of a person must all express faith.

  • Armand Massie

    Another good definition of how Christianity defines and understands to meaning of the term “faith” is a three-part definition cited by the Reformers. Here’s a definition taken from the Soteriology Student Workbook of The Theology Program:

    The reformers definition of faith:
    1. Notitia: “knowledge” (Heb. 11:6)
    2. Assensus: “assent” (Heb. 11:1; Isa. 40–48; Ex. 4:1–9; Resurrection
    3. Fiducia: “trust”

    Here we can also see elements of the intellect, the will, and emotions.

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