Faith,  John Calvin,  Sam Harris

Faith: Harris or Calvin?

American a-theist in residence, Sam Harris, says that faith is “the permission that religious people give one another to believe things strongly when reasons fail” (listen to the speech here). Harris seems to think that faith is something one does after all else falls short, a final leap in the dark, a punt. It is as if we can only get so far on our own steam and have to guess at the rest. And, having made the leap, we keep each other bolstered by excusing ourselves from rationality.

There may be many religious people who think this way, but by no means all. Christians have other, better ways to define faith. I have been thinking about John Calvin’s definition lately (it made an appearance in a recent post here). It is striking how different it is to the definition supplied by Sam Harris:

“Now we possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

For Calvin, faith was no punt, but a “firm and certain knowledge.” Christians do not have to make out that faith is a mixture of doubt and reason as if faith is only possible if it includes doubt. Rather, it is certain, sure and known. Faith, according to Calvin, is the knowledge of God’s favor. Such favor is undeserved and undeserved favor is more commonly known as grace. The basis for such favor lies not in oneself, but in Christ who died for sinful human beings. And the knowledge of God’s favor is given by the Holy Spirit who reveals it and assures the believer of its veracity.

Before one maligns people of “faith,” as Sam Harris appears to do, one ought to check out exactly what they mean by faith. Harris seems to think that faith makes up for a lack of reason, but, for the Christian, faith is what makes reason reasonable.

John Calvin

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.


  • Anonymous

    An excellent post, Ben. I am a once auto-described person of faith in the truth of the Bible. But for a the last couple years I have been slowly drifting further and further into doubt. I desire to have the "faith" that Calvin defined. A simple knowledge. Certainty in my heart that does not derive from countless hours of self-convincing. I hear Christians encouraging me to believe, but as you wrote and as I think the Bible teaches: only the Holy Spirit can reveal Truth to my heart if truly the Bible is the Word of God. I feel hopeless, I desire the Bible to be true, but there is no assurance in my heart. I feel completely in the middle of Christianity and Athiesm. There is no assurance either way and I don't feel I can do anything else. The lack of what seems to be the Holy Spirit nurturing my heart has been the propeller moving me from what I've always believed towards the frightening idea of a world under Atheism which appears most true at times.
    Do you have any thoughts? What am I missing?
    Thank you for your blog, your approach has been most helpful of all the resources I've been looking to.

  • Ben Holloway

    I am humbled by your honest comment. First let me say that you are not weird to be feeling the way you do. I pray the Lord might grant you assurance, his promises are eternal and irrevocable. If you believe in Christ, you are a favored child of God, adopted into his family and destined to eternal life. His love for you is not a whim, but an eternal, unchanging, never-giving up love. You are right to say that certainty in your heart will not derive from hours of self-convincing. Atheism, on the other hand, depends on a lifetime in the toil of self-convincing, of denying the truth that is plain to all people. We are deceptive people, capable of great suppression of truth. If you are a believer you are free from the bondage of such lies, free to believe the truth of the gospel, that you were chosen before the foundation of the world to be a child of God, to know the unmerited favor of the one who made you, based on the death of Christ, who died on your behalf. If you know such truth you want for nothing, only the continual repentance, the daily turning from unbelief to trust in Christ. Your crisis of faith, I pray, is not the abandonment of your faith and the adoption of lies, but the abandonment of the alternative possibility, the idea that there is another way to live this life. It is in Christ, and Christ alone, that all things come together, that anything can make any sense (Read Colossians for more on this). My prayers are with you. Please feel free to respond or email me or find me on fb for more conversation. Ben