For most people, “faith” comes in where knowledge is not sufficient. Faith and knowledge, in this understanding of the terms, are opposites. “I do not know (for sure), therefore I have to believe."
There are a number of biblical texts that do not support this understanding and use the term “faith” in a different way. Let us look at two of them, both at important junctions of the respective literary context in which they are found, one in the Old Testament, the other in the New.
In the Old Testament, related to the most important single historical event, the exodus, the report of the Israelites’ miraculous salvation at the Reed Sea ends with the following statement (Exod 14:31):
And when Israel saw the great power which the LORD had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in His servant Moses.
In the New Testament, we find the following passage in the last part of the gospel of John (John 20:30-31):
Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.
What we see in both cases is that seeing leads to faith – and not the other way round! Faith does not step in where there is not enough to see and know, but rather seeing precedes, and faith is a consequence of it.
In a number of cases, the knowledge gained from seeing (or more generally: historical experience) is conclusive/unambiguous, not open to random interpretations – which includes: not dependent on interpretations based on an already existing faith. Importantly, this is true for such crucial parts of biblical history as the two cases just mentioned:
In the case of Exodus 14, there is a link between the announcement of the act of delivery, the act itself, and the resulting faith of the Israelites. Verses 13 and 17 read as follows:
But Moses said to the people, Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever...
[And the LORD said:] And as for Me, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen.
The connection of the announcement and the subsequent act of delivery makes the meaning of the event unambiguous, and this in turn enables the Israelites to believe. Their faith is not the consequence of a subjective interpretation of history, but the quasi natural consequence of their experience of an event the meaning of which is absolutely clear because of the context, that is, the preceding announcement.
The situation is more complex in John 20:30-31, but ultimately the same. The mention of the signs that Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples is a reference to the visible acts of Jesus during his public ministry. These acts are called “signs” because the point back to Old Testament passages that predict what the coming Messiah would do. Again, as in Exodus 14, the correspondence between these announcements and the subsequent fulfillment in the life of Jesus makes it clear for the observer that Jesus is in fact the Messiah and therefore worthy of belief. “Observing," in this case, can mean two things: either observing directly with one’s own eyes, as in the case of all those who were present during Jesus’s earthly ministry and saw what he was doing; or observing indirectly, by reading the reports about him – as collected in the gospel of John – and thereby seeing indirectly, with the eyes of the disciples, especially the one who stands behind the reports collected in the gospel of John.
But what about the story of Thomas? Is this not a clear counter-example? After all, we read in John 20, right before the two verses just quoted (John 20:27-29):
Then He said to Thomas, Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.
Thomas answered and said to Him, My Lord and my God!
Jesus said to him, Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.
It seems as if Jesus reprimands Thomas for not believing without seeing, and as if there is more blessing on a faith that is not dependent on seeing than on a faith who seeks seeing. However, such an understanding of the scene would not just be at odds with the two subsequent verses, but is also unwarranted linguistically. Jesus does not castigate Thomas, he does not reject him because of his doubts, but takes him seriously and appears once again to his disciples one week after Easter so that also Thomas can see him with his own eyes. He grants Thomas his own experience of seeing the risen Lord, and based on this admonishes him to believe: “Believe, because you see." And it works. The confession of Thomas shows that he has come to faith in Jesus as the (risen) Lord. The final word, the blessing of those who do not see and yet believe, is a word that is addressed not to Thomas and the other disciples, but that describes the situation in the future, when Jesus will not be directly visible any more. It is addressed to anyone after Jesus’s ascension, until our own times. For this period, faith in Jesus cannot and must not depend on someone seeing Jesus directly with his or her own eyes; in this period, it must be enough to see indirectly, via the reports of the eye-witnesses. But this really is also a kind of “seeing," and therefore faith is never blind. Thus, what Jesus is saying is: Blessed are those who do not see me with their own eyes, and yet believe in me, because they have the trustworthy reports of those who saw me while I was still walking on this earth.
As a summary, we can state: There is a positive relationship between seeing (= historical experience) and believing/faith in the Bible. Biblical faith, then, is dependent on history, which also means, on the historical reliability of the reports about God’s actions in the Old and Jesus’s actions in the New Testament. The more we know about God and his actions, the better our faith is founded. Biblical faith is not believing in something without good reasons, or even against reason. Seen from this perspective, it is right to say: “I believe because I know," or even – if understood correctly – “I only believe what I see." The last phrase, however, must permit indirect seeing, via the reports of eye-witnesses.
Of course, not all aspects of what the term “faith” means in the Bible are covered with these observations. This blog only wants to question a common misunderstanding of “faith” that blinds people to a very important aspect of the biblical understanding of the foundation of faith.