Faith is not a Choice

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Just as I don't believe that Love is a choice, similarly I believe that Faith/Belief is not a choice.

Again, the proof is simple: try to believe something purely by willpower. I challenge you to believe that the Earth is Flat, or that George W. Bush is your biological father (note: this example doesn't apply to Bush's actual biological children). If belief and faith really were choices, then we would be able to beleive such things. But we can't.

That is not to say that we can't believe those things; after all many people did beleive that the Earth is Flat for millennia. It is to say that we can't beleive these things as a choice of the will. We can come to believe things if were are somehow convinced of them, but whether an argument is convincing isn't really a matter of choice either. It either convinces you, or it doesn't, but you don't make a decision about it.

Now it may at times seem like we've chosen to beleive something. If the case is borderline convincing, then we may realize that we think that the case is convincing (or not) and that realization may seem like a decision. Or alternately, someone may present to you a case that really ought to be convincing to you, yet for some reason it is not. You might then reject the case saying "I choose not to believe that", though in fact it simply did not convince you.

Ultimately, I think that we have very little (if any) direct control over what we believe and/or have faith in. Just as I think that we have very little (if any) direct control over what we love.

21 Comments

There are attitudes that you can choose to adopt, but I don't think those are rightly called beliefs. William Alston suggests that we should call that acceptance rather than belief. He thinks Christian faith is more like acceptance than belief. I don't agree with that last point, but I do think he's right that there are attitudes we can choose to adopt that aren't like the beliefs we find ourselves holding involuntarily.

You started the last post saying this wasn't going to be typical for someone who is Reformed, but the Reformed view of faith is that it's a gift of God and not a voluntary choice that we can simply make on our own. This does express that.

You started the last post saying this wasn't going to be typical for someone who is Reformed, but the Reformed view of faith is that it's a gift of God and not a voluntary choice that we can simply make on our own. This does express that.

Indeed. What I think is peculiar is that someone who is Reformed typically beleives that Love is a Choice but that Faith is not. They seem very much on the same level of volition to me and I made these posts back to back to highlight that and to wonder aloud why your typical Reformed theologian beleives the one and not the other. (Maybe I should have made that clearer in my posts...)

Augustine would agree very much, by the way. I've been spending a lot of time reading what he wrote about this very sort of thing. He saw the virtuous life as stemming from rightly-ordered emotion, especially love, something we can't bring ourselves to do but can only come from a work of grace. Once we have our desires reordered so that what's truly valuable gets the highest priority, we will make the right choices, but it's not as if we can just choose what we will find valuable.

Augustine would agree very much, by the way.

Augustine is of course where I got this from. He provides some of the earliest, clearest expositions of affective theology. My fellow affective theologians at my seminary formed a discussion group/book club. We called it "Friends of Augustine". (Sadly, it has now disbanded.)

Oh, and going back to your point that the Reformed view of faith is that it's a gift of God and not a voluntary choice that we can simply make on our own., I also wanted to point out that there is a significant camp in the Reformed tradition that beleives that "Faith is the choice of an enabled will". And I wrote this post in part to combat that view. They believe, in essense, that Faith itself is not per se the gift of God, but rather the ability to have faith is the gift of God. And the choice for Faith remains ours.

I was just reading Eleonore Stump's attempt to make Augustine consistent on the will, and she wants Augustine to have exactly that last view. I was going to type it up in a comment, but I've got to finish my Aquinas reading up and go to bed. I've been sleeping about 5 hours a night and will probably be up at dawn. So I suppose this would make a good post for some time after tonight.

The tricky thing about "trying to make Augustine consistent on the will" is that during the time Augustine was alive, "will" had a wider range of meaning than it does today. Back then it not only meant what we today mean by "will", it also meant "affection" or "desire". So various portions of Augustine can sound like "will" is the root of our decisionmaking even though, if you continue reading, it becomes clear that by "will", Augustine means "affection".

Well, he says emotions are acts of the will, but he pretty distinguishes between the will and desires. Desire is involuntary for him. The will is clearly voluntary.

This has very practical implications for all believers. How many people pray for something in prayer meetings, by saying, "God, we just want to believe you for this to be answered, and by faith we choose to believe you"? I've heard it many times.

The problem is, we can't "choose to believe" that a particular sick person will get well, or that someone will get the job he wants, because we know that it's not always the case. Jesus didn't heal everybody (see Acts 3 for one he probably walked by several times; see 2 Corinthians 12 for a prayer that was simply answered "no").

Many things we would pray for are not clearly promised in the Bible. It's always okay to ask God for them, but it's futile to try to manipulate our brains into a belief that isn't there. It's also not honoring to God.

This is where Richard Foster's, "prayer is original research" is helpful. We need to go into prayer with questions, rather than giving God the answers. Sometimes he leads us into an assurance we can pray with faith for these kinds of things, but it's up to him to do that.

How does this vibe with James encouraging believers to ask God without doubting?

Tom, you can choose to trust. People who say they're choosing to believe are just using the word 'believe' to refer to trust rather than what we're more restrictively calling belief here. I do think God gives indidividual gifts of faith that God will do a particular work, though I'm not sure if we can distinguish from within between these cases and wishful thinking.

Rey, I think James was telling people to trust, which amounts to the attitude of acceptance rather than what we're more restrictively calling belief. It may well be that the English word 'belief' and the English word 'faith' normally could include either notion, depending on the context.

Is it possible that when we're told that we're saved by faith the concept is trust instead of belief?

Well, it can't be mere intellectual assent. That's how James uses the word when he says even the demons believe. Could it be mere trust, though, or does it have to include some sort of propositional belief? I think it has to be the latter, or John's statements about believing the truth as necessary for salvation wouldn't make much sense. I think saving faith has to involve an affective component and an intellectual component in addition to the voluntary assent, and the affective and intellectual components are at least not entirely in our direct control. That's why a work of grace must be present. I think Calvinists and Arminians can both agree on that much.

Jeremy,

Good catch on my using "believe" and "trust" indiscriminately. I think in some cases, though, these pray-ers are trying to make themselves trust something they do not believe. At least, as I try to give assent to their prayers, there's something in me that says, "How do I know that God really wants to do this, and if I don't know, how can I say I believe or trust he will?"

Distinguishing between gifts of faith and wishful thinking is probably a matter of practice over years. (Scripture provides boundaries on possible "messages from God," of course.) Jesus said his sheep know his voice; I think that knowledge is acquired through testing and experience. It's never final and it certainly should not be raised to a level equal to revelation.

So the way to pray without doubting as James said, I think, is to be honest with God where we do have doubts, to be very patient, and to listen to him for his guidance as we pray.

Even with that we may still get it wrong. There's a trial-and-error aspect to it, as there is with all learning, and giving oneself freedom to fail (in safe ways) can aid learning; yet we need to treat impressions humbly and recognize the possibility of error.

These last two posts are interesting. I've been reading some things by Mortimer Adler recently that discuss the intellect and the senses as the two way of knowing things. I've been wondering if as Christians we might consider the possiblity of adding another dimension. Call it spiritual understanding and spiritual sense (or maybe make it one thing and call it spiritual orientation?). Things like faith and love would then include intellectual assent, physical affections, and a spiritual belief and orientation toward God. Therefore belief and love are not intellectual choices but are determined by the spiritual choices we have made.

This would answer the question of why we have preferences for one equally valid (or even a less valid) intellectual argument over another.

For love there would be

preferences based on physical affections - I love this song because of the pleasant memories associated with it. Or I love my husband when I remember our good times together.

intellectual choice- I love my husband because I made a commitment to do it

divine love- I love my husband apart from anything he has done for me or any duty I have toward him but simply because he is created in the image of God.


It certainly seems to me that this type of approach could solve a lot of Christian philosophical problems with the nature of revelation and spiritual experience, as well as the nature of our relationship with universals such as faith, love, justice etc.


The other positive about postulating a spiritual dimension that is separate from sense or intellect is that it solves the idea of the spiritual as simply disembodied intellect.

I'm not really a philosopher so I don't know if this sounds reasonable. I would love some feedback on this idea. Especailly if anyone knows of a Christian philosopher who has already attempted to delineate an idea like this.

Jeremy, your examples (flat earth, George Bush as father) were untrue, while faith in Jesus Christ is in the truth. I think there is a fundamental flaw in your construct because of this and so you haven't disproved the ability to willfully believe in the truth, only to willfully believe in a lie.

What if George Bush is my father and I don't know that? Then run the example again. It's the truth, and I can't just willfully believe it. I don't have any reason whatsoever to think it's the truth. If I had convincing evidence that he's my father, then I would find myself admitting that he is, but that wouldn't be willful belief either.

In that case, you would be presented with evidence that he is your father and the issue would really be do you reject that evidence. If not and want it to be true you can willfully choose to accept that evidence and accept his acceptance of you. While it could happen, someone running away from Bush declaring to them that he is their father would seem outlandish, since the corrolary would be for them to think they were spontaneously generated instead, in essence having no father.

I'm trying to figure out how someone can fully understand and be convinced by evidence without believing it. If it's not fully convincing, then you won't believe it. If it is, you will. One way or the other, the belief isn't simply voluntary.

The alternative isn't spontaneous generation. It's that someone else is the father.

I have really appreciated this post. It has had me meditating on faith this past week. I think part of the problem comes in when we try to equate belief with faith. If I believe something because I am convinced by the evidence that may be belief but it is not faith.

Jeremy and Wink,
I am curious why you equate faith with belief rather than trust. I don't see how faith is closer to belief than trust.

In Heb 13 what were the heroes of the faith commended for? They believed without evidence, even contrary to evidence, on the word of God alone. They were willing to trust God. Abraham belived God that he would have a son even though there was evidence to the contrary (his knowledge that people this age don't have kids), ditto for the others in this chapter.

Our propositional beliefs about God are a result of our faith, not equivalent to it. No matter how convincing the argument for Christianity is, there has to be an element of trust, an acceptance of some authority, because there is no argument for Christianity that is irrefutable. I may have no choice about believing that 2+2=4 but spiritual truths are different since they are not fully comprehensible. There is always some level of uncertainty in our propositional beliefs about God. In order to combat the uncertainty, our beliefs about God must rest solidly on a trust in God and acceptance of the authority of God's word. To restate my point, I cannot see how belief is faith. At least not in the limited definition of belief you are using here.


I'm not sure anyone is contrasting belief and trust. The contrast is between belief and acceptance, not belief and trust. You can trust based on a belief as much as you can trust based on acceptance. It may be that salvific faith involves belief + trust. It doesn't seem to be acceptance + trust. My main reason for thinking this is not biblical but simply empirical. Almost everyone I now who has come to faith at an age older than childhood has described it as if they have just found themselves believing. It doesn't feel like a choice to them. There are subsequent choices, but it just feels as if they've found themselves believing.

Faith without evidence doesn't require acceptance. It could just as easily be belief. You can choose to accept some proposition that you have no evidence for, though this isn't very likely. People don't just choose to accept things they have no reason at all to accept. On the other hand, if they find themselves believing it, they're more likely to act on that belief and trust God, particularly if they came to have that belief because their interaction with God caused it.

You seem to be thinking of the idea of finding yourself believing as if the only way that could happen is if you're convinced by arugments. As it turns out, the vast majority of philosophers who are Christians say they simply found themselves believing, but they say it to contrast it with the idea that they believe because of arguments. They simply just found themselves believing. Arguments didn't convince them. God did.

Thanks, I was not thinking carefully about exactly what was meant by acceptance. With this clarified I agree with what you are saying.

One of the things I constantly have to watch is my sloppy usage of and interpretation of language. One of the reasons I like reading philosophers is it helps me correct this problem.

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