In this post I am continuing the discussion of “Does the New Testament Affirm ‘Faith Without Reason’?” because my response to a comment on it is longer than said post. The first part of this post does not necessitate familiarity with the aforementioned post; however, I recommend that you read it (and the comments by birdisflown/mogg) that you might understand the context of the discussion. With this said, let me begin.
First, I would like to qualify my statement above concerning using the text out of context—rather, I would like to bring to mind a distinction between two different meanings that can be derived from the text. One is the legitimate meaning: this meaning is restricted to the individual interpreter and occurs (or at least should occur) more in the context of devotional reading and application of the text. In this case, a deep study of context, etc. is impractical; though, this method can lead to mistakes akin to the one you have experienced regarding the verse in question. When deriving the legitimate meaning of the text it is recommended that one keep in mind general principles of interpretation. This brings us to the meaning with which we are concerned, namely, the normative meaning, which is the wider meaning of the passage/verse as discerned through the study of the following: background information; genre; general structure of the book; the relationship between the passage/verse being studied and those immediately surrounding it; significant textual issues, words and syntactic features; the meaning of the passage/verse within its immediate context; and the meaning of the passage/verse in regards to the greater text (the book, and the wider canon). Keep in mind that the meaning of the passage/verse derived from the text should not contradict with the meanings at various contextual levels. (Granted this may be assuming that on any given issue the wider canon has “internal harmony” (Smith 5), a topic of pointed debate.) Also, it is possible that the legitimate meaning can be the same as the normative meaning. (From now on the use of “meaning” refers to the normative meaning unless otherwise noted.)
I am glad to see that you are taking into consideration the rest of chapter eleven. However, you are neglecting the immediate context of the passage of which this verse is a part. Consider the “now” at the beginning of the verse. It leads us to recall everything that has been said up until this point. The author of Hebrews has established the superiority of Jesus Christ to the prophets, to angels, to Moses, and to the priests and the Aaronic priesthood; he has also established the superiority of His ministry and the new covenant, as well as their significance (1.1-10.18). At this the author moves on from the “doctrinal” discussion to practical exhortations (10.19-13.17). He calls the audience to come together, and to persevere in faith, hope, love and community (10.19-25). This is followed by an admonition of (coming) judgment (10.26-39), which is connected to a string of admonitions scattered throughout the text (2.1-4; 3.7-19; 5.11-6.20; 12.18-19), which are concerned in one way or another with faith and faithfulness (and perseverance). Now the audience is led to persevere by faith, to look ahead while acting in the present: consider the “Hall of Faith” (11.1-40). Then, it receives the call to have perseverance and faithfulness, a call which is based in the faith of those preceding and the perfect faith of Jesus (12.1-3), being yet more informed in discipline and perseverance (12.4-17). With these things in mind, faith is “the assurance of [things] hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11.1 NASB). Faith is having confidence in God’s character and his promises, and persevering in trusting obedience. (The Greek for “assurance” and “conviction” is not translated consistently among the many English translations. If you do not have access to a Greek lexicon, check out the Greek on BlueLetterBible.org.)
Now that I have given some more basic information on interpretation and provided what I take to be the normative meaning of 11.1 (admittedly omitting some points of study for determining normative meaning in order that I might avoid being verbose if I have not already been), I would like to address points of contention regarding your reply. Though, I will not be responding exhaustively and will be providing links with some of my points to save myself some time and energy and to allow you to respond to my point and to make clarifications before I go too deeply into them.
First, in talking about the “most basic reading,” you seem to be making a couple assumption about the nature of reading the Bible, assumptions I do not agree with. I am not entirely certain what you mean in saying this, so I could be wrong; however, these are the assumptions about the Bible you seem to be making: “Democratic Perspicuity,” and “Commonsense Hermeneutics” (Smith 4). Democratic perspicuity is the assumption that “any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text” (Smith 4). Commonsense hermeneutics is the assumption that “the best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts” (Smith 4). These quotes are from Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, which may be the subject of future posts on Christ My Redeemer.
Second, you seem to be making assumptions about the nature of divine revelation, one of which I will address later in this response. You seem to be assuming that divine revelation is limited to some sort of “palpable” message from God, consequently grafting this assumption to the figures used as examples in chapter eleven. Revelation is not limited to a “distinct…audible voice,” or “visit from an angel.” I can reasonably believe that God has revealed some truth or message to me by means of some ineffable sense, what is known, perhaps, by many as “intuition.” I think I am safe in saying that everyone has had an experience of “intuition” (a thought or feeling one cannot quite place), independent of appealing to the divine or “supernatural.” This, taken in consideration with my interpretation of Heb. 11.1, bleeds into the next point.
Third, you say, “How, then, does this context work for your modern day believer?” Modern believers are able to have reasonable, justified beliefs about God’s character and his workings. Absolute certainty is not a reasonable nor necessary criterion for knowledge as it is not practically applicable to daily life and as it is self-defeating: do you know with absolute certainty that absolute certainty is a reasonable, necessary criterion for knowledge? If yes, how; and are you absolutely certain about that? Also, the point of this passage is not that the audience’s predecessors had these special experiences but that they acted obediently in their present situations, hoping for the future promised them. What promise have we received according the author of Hebrews? The hope of being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, as established in the constructive argument of found in 1.1-10.18. As for the reasonability of trusting in the Bible, or at least the New Testament, there are plenty of great books and articles on the subject, which you ought to check out. Some names to know/check out: Mike Licona, William Lane Craig, and N.T. Wright. Also check out our blog roll.
Fourth, you make a major assumption about your status as a non-believer. You say, more or less, that if you had “evidence”, you would believe. There are many problems with this statement. First, your claim that you would believe conflicts with (Judeo-)Christian tradition. If Jesus was who he claimed to be, and I believe that he is, then many people in his day were unable to recognize him for who he was. (Please, interact with some of the sources which I have suggested previously and which provide good support for this claim.) What makes you think you would believe if you did see? Rather, the real question is this: what makes you think you would respond accordingly? I say this because the “belief” you speak of seems to be belief that, not belief in, a distinction I made in my post. The latter results in obedience. If it is true that hell and demons exist, then there are plenty of beings beyond our world who know that God exists but have refused to align themselves with him. Elsewhere I have asked you to provide your criterion for evidence. Our discourse has led me to belief that your criteria for evidence is unreasonable; however, I will wait until you respond to comment further. Meanwhile, you say, “‘belief with evidence.’” If you are not using the quotation marks rhetorically but are trying to quote me, you have misquoted me. “‘Belief with evidence’” is redundant because “belief” (if it is justified) entails “evidence.” (Revisit Chris’ post here.) Again, I will wait for your criteria for evidence.
Fifth, you say, “it just doesn’t happen (except, it seems, for those unfortunates who have a definable psychological disease).” I have problems with this statement on many levels. First, it follows from your narrow view of revelation, which I have previously rejected. Second, it seems to be an intellectually arrogant (or at least dishonest) generalization based on the assumption that some form of naturalism or empiricism is true, both of which seem to be self-defeating (and impractical) as they cannot prove themselves. Perhaps, I am overextending your claim on account of my own stance on revelation. If so, I apologize. In any case, if I were to characterize atheists as having “definable psychological disease” because they do not believe in God or because they have not had or recognized some form of revelatory experience, would you not think me intellectually arrogant (or at least dishonest)? Third, I doubt you have reviewed all or even most of the case studies on such persons. Because of what seems to be your assumed naturalism, or empiricism, any such case of revelation, anyone with some revelatory experience would automatically be either greatly mistaken or psychologically diseased. At this, please provide “evidence” for your belief that naturalism, or empiricism, is true.
Finally, you say, “I have no particular reason to think it really happened to Abraham, Noah et. al. either, given how similar the stories sound to other legends and how easily we dismiss them as just that – legends.” What reason do you have to think such a thing? If I were to claim that figures who play in important role in your history/tradition were mere legends, you would ask me to support my claim. (That is not to say that I believe all figures in the Bible existed in history.) I can imagine what some of these “other legends” may be, but, please, inform me of these legends. Since, when does “sound[ing] similar to other legends” make something a legend? Also, just because we can do something, does not mean we should. This seems to be self-evident to me.
Some things to think about.