When a pseudo-intellectual Christian or a supercilious non-Christian wants to parody warm but naïve and superficial piety, he often cites the hymn “Trust and Obey,” which continues, “for there’s no other way, / To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Merely to recite these time-honored lines is enough to evoke images of the backwoods revival, the rescue mission, and similar phenomena, which, he will admit, may have survived into the twentieth century, but only to become a source of ridicule for the secularist and of embarrassment to the up-to-date, intellectually respectable Christian.

Yet why is this so? Trust and obedience are biblical concepts, and no amount of theological sophistication could make it plausible that happiness in Jesus comes from distrust and disobedience. Nor can either the concept of happiness or that of “in Jesus” be suspect: the one has been canonized even by our secular culture, and the other is firmly embedded in biblical theology. What, then, causes the suspicion?

Its real source is a wrong but common divorce of knowledge from trust. There is a touch of the adept’s conceit in this, just as there is in the similar divorce of knowledge (or science) from faith. Faith is often taken to be the unlearned man’s way of arriving at spiritual truth, which in the more learned or gifted man is obtained by theological science. This opposition, which has plagued Christianity ever since its earliest days, has been brought on to no small degree by the vanity of mediocre theologians who are unwilling to admit that a simple evangelical believer’s faith is as good as their own. In the same way, “trusting God” is disdained as the simple man’s easy substitute for the long hours of toil and intellectual wrestling that the scholar’s “intellectual integrity” demands he go through before he dare trust.

Nothing should ever be said to disparage the hard and honest labor that the theologian puts in, nor to suggest that genuine doubts and real problems should just be painted over from the pot labeled “Trust and Obedience.” But the theologian must guard himself against the illusion that the intellectual wrestling that precedes his trust is more honest, or deeper, than the non-academic but very real struggle that may, for example, go on in the hearts of believing parents when they learn of the tragic and apparently senseless death of a beloved child. Just as faith is not a substitute for knowledge, so trust is not an attitude based on ignorance, an alternative to true knowledge of what to expect. On the contrary, trust is one of the two fundamental means of arriving at knowledge.

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While others of his theological generation were struggling to achieve an ever greater knowledge of ever smaller questions, Professor Karl Heim of Tübingen (1874–1958) was turning his attention to some of the most fundamental human problems, among them the question of how we can arrive at certainty of knowledge. He finds two basic means of attaining certainty. For certainty about objects, there is the objective means of calculation based on observed evidence. For certainty about other subjects, that is, other persons, calculation is inadequate and must be supplemented or replaced by trust. In Heim’s view, trust is not merely my one-sided, subjective evaluation of another person: it is a relationship that engages us both. It really teaches me about the other person, thus resulting in valid knowledge, because it puts me in contact with his subject, his ego, not merely with his objective appearance, which I can observe by ordinary empirical means.

It was one of Professor Heim’s basic convictions that there is in each person a non-objective (or non-objectifiable) self. This difficult concept may be summarized by the statement that within each of us there is a personal self-awareness that neither I nor an outside observer can analyze objectively. I can look somewhat objectively at certain aspects of my personality—my intelligence, my fears, my skills, my incapacities, and so on; but there is something that I cannot get out into the open: the mystery of the self. This self cannot be observed objectively, but it can communicate and receive communication. It is this real, non-objectifiable self that reaches out in trust and is reached by trusting. Heim devoted several works to proving the reality of this self and of the whole personal world of selves, to showing that the ego is not just a kind of reflection of objective reality (a “secretion” of the brain the way adrenalin is a secretion of the adrenal glands) but is itself real (see his Christian Faith and Natural Science, translated by H. Norton Smith [Harper, 1953; Harper Torchbooks, 1957]). In the last analysis, of course, we cannot prove the reality of the personal world, for proofs exist only in the objective realm. In fact, modern man, that supreme authority for so many “modern” theologians, is supposed to reject any suggestion that there is something more than objectifiable, empirical reality. But aside from the fact that twentieth-century man is capable of believing in anything you can think of, we are constantly confronted with the inescapable importance of the personal.

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As Dr. Francis Schaeffer has cogently argued in The God Who Is There, the significance of personality is quite understandable in a world created by a personal God, but would be incomprehensible and absurd in a world that came into being only by chance. Schaeffer argues that no one can live consistently on the assumption that the universe is impersonal; this would mean, in Heim’s terms, that no one can help thinking, acting, and relating to others as though individual personality were significant, whether his official world-view has a place and an explanation for personality or not.

Communication And Trust

Within the realm of persons, knowledge of one person by another depends not on observation but on communication. This communication has a verbal aspect, its content, but it also has a non-verbal aspect, its trustworthiness. One does not learn what another person really is without words: the same behavior may mean two totally different things, depending on the words of explanation that accompany it. But a person’s words alone do not tell you what he is unless you engage yourself with him to the extent of trusting them to be true. Trusting them to be false also constitutes a kind of engagement with the other person and also can produce an experience of what he really is. The act of trusting—or distrusting—establishes contact between the persons; the communication between them takes on a different dimension. They not only inform each other but also begin to influence each other. By trusting another person, I influence his behavior toward me.

In the realm of theology, abstract, detached study of God and his self-revelation is not even as neutral as historical research into the life of an ancient monarch. The state papers of Louis XIV do not address me, threaten me, or make promises to me. I can believe or discredit their contents, but I do not trust or distrust them. The Christian message, however, does address me, and there comes a point at which, voluntarily or involuntarily, consciously or unconsciously, I meet it with trust or with mistrust. By my trust I set up one kind of relationship with its Author, by my mistrust another. How well I come to know him will depend on what kind it is.

The danger of credulous trust must not be overlooked: The advice, “Just have faith,” may even become “faith in faith,” belief in something just because it makes you feel better to believe than not to believe. But a warning against credulity cannot discredit the importance of personal trust for knowing God, any more than the existence of mirages in the desert does away with the need to keep your eyes open in order to find a water-hole. It is not necessary to adopt Professor Heim’s whole, elaborate theory to recognize the crucial importance of personal trust for personal communication.

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The kind of message we receive from God through his Word can be understood only in the act of being accepted. This is a basic tenet of biblical faith, and the danger that naïve trust will obscure our vision cannot change the fact that without trust we cannot see or understand at all. We understand that trust in this sense does not mean, for example, signing the Westminster Confession or another full statement on the dotted line: it means setting forth in the direction in which Christ calls us. It means, in other words, engaging ourselves in a kind of dialogue with the Master, but one that goes beyond mere verbal exchange; we are obliged to do things we would not do unless we trusted him, and in so doing we begin to understand why we can trust him. Obedience is a very practical counter to pride, and pride feeds our penchant for self-deception.

Slogans like “Trust and obey!” can stand for a blind faith, but this danger is often exaggerated, especially by contrast with the alternative, which seems to be: “We must demonstrate our theological honesty by distrust and disobedience.” A “naïve believer” who does in fact trust and obey is likely to attain a valid if unsophisticated theology, while the sophisticated theologian, intent chiefly on preserving his reputation for detachment, will wind up with inadequacies in both his faith and his theology.

A Theology Of Trust

While guarding himself against an uncritical (and, incidentally, unbiblical) religious sentimentality, the Christian must never forget that trusting God is not an after-effect of a sound theological method but a necessary part of it. The words for to hear and to obey are closely related (like the English hear and hearken) in both Old and New Testament language, and also in practical life. He who is unwilling to hearken will be unable to hear, and no amount of study will help him over this obstacle.

The challenge to the evangelical theologian, then, is to affirm the integration of knowledge and trust. His personal commitment to a living Lord whom he has to trust and to obey, far from being a handicap that other theological scholars do not have, is the touchstone not merely of his faith but of his theology. There is a place for scientific detachment. There is sometimes a need to entertain an unreal hypothesis in order to make progress in a certain question. But there is no way to get around the fact that, just as we come to know another human person not by calculation but by a relationship of trust, so too we cannot know God apart from trust and the practical obedience it implies. This is more than an article of our Christian faith; it is a fundamental requirement of a truly scientific theology. St. Augustine was expressing not merely his faith but the facts when he wrote, “If you do not believe, you will not understand.”

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