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From True Belief to Confident Knowledge

I don’t want students to merely believe true things.  That’s a start, but it’s not enough.  I want students to know true things.  So what’s the difference?

What would you think if I said I know it’s raining outside, but I didn’t believe it was raining outside?  You’d be puzzled.  It doesn’t make sense to say I know something that at the same time I don’t actually believe.  All the facts we think we know are also facts we believe, so knowledge includes belief. 

What if I said I know it’s raining outside, but it’s not true that it’s raining outside?  Again, you’d be confused and wonder, “How can you know something that’s not true?”  You can’t.  A belief is true if it matches reality and it’s false if it doesn’t.  So to say someone’s belief is false means they don’t know.  Therefore, knowledge not only includes belief, but truth as well. 

Now, what if I said I know it’s raining outside and it turns out that I actually believe it and it’s true?  Would you say I have knowledge it’s raining outside?  At first glance, you’d probably answer yes.  But what if my true belief is the result of a lucky guess?  I don’t have any good reason to think it’s raining outside, it’s just pure speculation that happens to be accurate.  In that case, it doesn’t seem my true belief rises to the level of knowledge.  We wouldn’t equate dumb luck with knowledge.  So what’s missing?  What would transform my true belief into knowledge?  Justification. 

Justification is simply the reasons we believe things–it’s the “why” behind the “what.”  We may think our beliefs are true, but how can we be sure?  We justify those things with reasons and evidence.  Justification gives us confidence our true beliefs are not merely guesses, but actual instances of knowledge.  The more justification we have for the truthfulness of a particular belief, the greater our confidence will be.

This is why I’m not satisfied if students merely believe true things.  Indeed, many students attending our churches today will affirm all kinds of Christian beliefs while in our midst.  They believe God exists, they believe Jesus is the Savior of the world, and they believe the Bible is God’s Word.  All true.  But in a few short years, to our dismay we’ll discover that many have deserted those beliefs.  Why?  According to the groundbreaking study by sociologist Christian Smith and the National Study of Youth and Religion, student’s “intellectual skepticism and doubt” will overwhelm mere true belief.  Students who fell away from their faith reported, “It didn’t make any sense anymore,” and there were “too many questions that can’t be answered.”  Students often abandon belief because they have no good reason to continue holding them.

And that’s why I’m not satisfied if students know what they believe.  They must also know why they believe.  We must arm them with good reasons to think that what they believe is actually true, transforming mere true belief into confident knowledge. 

Not only will this knowledge prepare them for the secular skepticism of the culture, it will play a key role in their spiritual transformation.  Unlike much of what is offered by contemporary writers on spiritual formation, the Bible paints a picture where knowledge is absolutely central to our spiritual transformation.  As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).  Dallas Willard summarizes our discussion and its implications: 

“Knowledge has a unique and irreplaceable function in human life.  Unlike any other human capacity, it authorizes individuals to act, to direct, and to teach, and the lack thereof disqualifies one in those same respects…Knowledge therefore lays the foundation for confident and successful dealings with reality and, as such, is one of the most precious things one can acquire.  People ‘perish for lack of knowledge,’ as the Bible tells us, precisely because, without it, disastrous encounters, or lack of encounters, with reality are certainly to occur; most importantly, they occur with reference to God, God’s Kingdom, and any possibilities for an eternal kind of living” (in Willard’s foreword to the book,The Kingdom Triangle, by J.P. Moreland).

If we want to give our young people a “foundation for confident and successful dealings with reality,” we must see apologetics as necessary, not optional.  Apologetics offers students the “why” they so desperately need and ask for.
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Brett Kunkle is the Student Impact Director at Stand to Reason. He is a huge fan of his wife and 5 kids, surfing the Point in Newport Beach, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, in that order.