J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).
“Faith has a public relations problem.”
With that sentence, J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler launch In Search of a Confident Faith. The authors are professors of philosophy and Christian education, respectively, at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, and evangelical Christians. Their book is not an apologetic for the Christian faith directed at unbelievers. Rather, it is an exercise in spiritual formation for believers, aimed at “overcoming barriers to trusting in God,” as the subtitle puts it.
One of the reasons faith has a public relations problem is because it’s so widely misunderstood. The rash of books published recently by atheists reinforces this misunderstanding by tagging faith as an intellectual leap in the dark. This partially explains why, for example, Richard Dawkins and his ilk annoyingly refer to themselves as “Brights.”
Chapter 1 looks at “What Faith Is…And What It Isn’t…” Moreland and Issler note three synonyms of faith (confidence, trust, and reliance) and define faith as “trusting what we have reason to believe is true.” Rather than an intellectual leap in the dark, then, faith has its reasons. Interestingly, faith is not merely a spiritual act, it is an inherent part of the intellectual enterprise, for much of what we know we take on faith (confidence, trust, and reliance) from acknowledged authorities. Moreland and Issler go on to note that in the Christian tradition, faith is further delineated as noticia (content of belief), assensus (personal assent), and fiducia (ongoing commitment). Philosophy helps clarify the nature of faith by pointing out that there are degrees of belief, by distinguishing confidence in persons from confidence about truths, and by showing us how beliefs are changed indirectly rather than directly.
Chapters 2 and 3 offer advice about how to deal with intellectual and emotional barriers to belief, what the authors call “distractions of the head” and “distractions of the heart.”
Much of the reason why faith has a public relations problem in the West is because of the “plausibility structure” of modernity are so thoroughly naturalistic. That is to say, whereas in earlier ages—and even in other places today—belief in the supernatural is presupposed, in our age and place, unbelief is presupposed. “Our current Western cultural plausibility structure elevates science and scorns and mocks religion, especially Christian teaching. As a result, believers in Western cultures do not as readily believe the supernatural worldview of the Bible in comparison with their Third World brothers as sisters.” Moreland and Issler offer a “four-step procedure” for reducing intellectual doubts: (1) “Spot the activating source…and be alert while being exposed to it.” (2) “Explicitly state to yourself exactly the doubt-inducing cultural assumption that lies beneath the surface of the activating source.” (3) “Challenge and question the truth of the cultural assumption. Is that really true? Doubt the doubt!” (4) “Replace the cultural assumption with a biblical truth…and make it your goal to grow in God-confidence about the alternative.” Underlying this advice is the author’s commitment to the rationality of the Christian faith and the biblical world, which they believe to be both defensible and truth.
Many doubts arise not because of intellectual questions but because of emotional issues. “Life fundamentally consists of two basic movements,” the authors write: “either we’re moving toward God, or we’ve moving away from him—there’s no neutral or middle zone. They go on to conclude: “a fundamental life skill for all believers is learning how to discern the subtle ways our heart moves us in either direction.” An important goal of the spiritual life, then, is to identify and feed those desires that draw you closer to God, and to identify and starve those desires that draw you away from him.
If the first three chapters define faith and name intellectual and emotional challenges to it, the final three chapters talk about “expanding expectations for our belief in God.” For my money, Chapter 4 is worth the price of the book. Titled, “Making Sense of Jesus’ Incredible Promises,” it asks, “What is the normal Christian life?” Many Christians struggle with Jesus’ promises, which seem to set the standard of spiritual experience too high. Moreland and Issler suggest that we approach the issue differently, asking, “What kind of Christian living is humanly possible?” Rather than taking our current experience as “normal,” they suggest that we have set our sights too low. So, they suggest four “God-Confidence-Nurturing Projects. (1) “Personal/relational,” focusing on prayer and Scripture meditation; (2) “Content/worldview,” based on serious biblical and apologetic studies; (3) “Action,” putting your beliefs into practice through your behaviors; and (4) “Progression,” which is paying serious attention to growth or progress you have made in your spiritual journey.
If naturalism describes the plausibility structure of modernity, and if it is opposed to the biblical worldview, then it has to be undermined. This can be done at a philosophical level, but also at the level of credible witnessing to supernatural events by contemporary persons. Chapter 5, “Bearing Witness to God’s Activity in the World,” does exactly that. Moreland and Issler provide personal testimonies of supernatural experiences, and they cite the supernatural experiences of people they know. They argue that these testimonies are credible and inexplicable by naturalistic means. Faith is built through credible confirmation, so it is important for believers both to share and to hear such credible testimonies.
God-confidence is also strengthened as we receive divine guidance for life. Chapter 6, “Learning to Trust in God for Guidance about Life Decisions,” addresses the numerous ways God guides believers: Scripture, wise counsel, spiritual promptings, etc. As a Pentecostal pastor, I was especially encouraged to see Moreland and Issler emphasize the important role the Holy Spirit plays in all this: “The Holy Spirit is not just some force or power, but is a Person of power, who mentors and coaches us and makes it possible for us to live by faith and grow into Christlikeness.” “Furthermore, although we are always indwelt by the Spirit, we also need constantly to be ‘filled by the Spirit,’ to intentionally coordinate our decision making and life walk with the Spirit.” Once upon a time, Biola University, the home of Talbot Theological Seminary, was a hotbed of cessationist theology. Evidently, not any more!
In Search of a Confident Faith is an excellent book. It patiently defines terms; supports its arguments through Scripture and reason; is richly illustrated with salient personal testimony; and provides wise advice for believers. I recommend this book to any Christian interested is strengthening his faith, but especially to high school grads, college and graduate-school students, and pastors. They are on the frontlines of the conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism, both intellectually and experientially, and could benefit from Moreland and Issler’s advice.