“A Leap of Faith”

In a comment on my most recent post about Jesus’ use of the word “faith”, Stig Martinsen points to the phrase “a leap of faith” as evidence that Christians sometimes speak of “faith” in a way that implies belief that goes beyond reason or evidence.  I don’t plan to reply to his point here, but I think this phrase has an interesting history that is worth reading and thinking about.

According to the Wikipedia article on “Leap of Faith”, this phrase is generally associated with the philosopher Kierkegaard’s views about faith, although Kierkegaard actually spoke of a “leap to faith” rather than a “leap of faith”:


According to that article, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard was influenced by Lessing:

Kierkegaard’s use of the term “leap” was in response to “Lessing’s Ditch” which was discussed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) in his theological writings.  Kierkegaard was indebted to Lessing’s writings in many ways.

Lessing lays out his “ugly broad ditch” in an essay called On The Proof of the Spirit and of Power in 1777, the same year that Hume’s essays were re-published in a posthumous collection.   This essay by Lessing reads a lot like Hume’s skeptical essays (Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which includes his skeptical essay “On Miracles”, was originally published in 1748).

John Loftus provides several key quotes from Lessing’s essay On The Proof of the Spirit and of Power:


William Craig gives some incisive criticisms of Lessing’s Ditch:


Lessing’s essay laying out the ‘ditch’ is a short and pleasant read:


I found some interesting scholarly analysis of Lessing’s Ditch on Google books:

Lessing’s “Ugly Broad Ditch”

I have heard of Lessing before, I think from reading about the history of the search for the historical Jesus.  According to Schweitzer, the quest for the historical Jesus began with “the publication in 1778 of an anonymous article, ‘On the Intention of Jesus and his Disciples.’ ” (“Historical Jesus, Quest of” , Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p.326).  The author was Hermann Reimarus, and it was Lessing who published excerpts from the controversial writings of Reimarus under the title Fragments from an Unnamed Author.

The Fragments contained an attack on the historicity of the resurrection narratives.  The Fragments also included the infamous essay ‘On the Intention of Jesus and his Disciples’ which portrays Jesus as a Jew who was trying to establish a literal kingdom on earth, but who failed to do so, and died a disillusioned man believing that God had forsaken him.  This essay kicked off the quest for the historical Jesus. (Info in this paragraph is from “Historical Jesus, Quest of” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p.326)

Not only did Lessing have influence on the study of biblical history, his views, especially “Lessings Ditch”, influenced various important German philosophers and theologians, including Kant, Hegel, Schelling (a university roomate of Hegel), and Schleiermacher.

Karl Barth, the great 20th century Protestant theologian (born in Switzerland, professor of theology in Germany), wrote about “Lessing’s Ditch”:


Barth was also significantly influenced by Kierkegaard, and his theology was in reaction to the Liberal theology of Schleiermacher, both of whom were influenced by Lessing.

So, the phrase “a leap of faith” has a long and interesting history, and it appears to be closely connected with “Lessing’s Ditch”, specifically the attempt to “leap” over his “ugly broad ditch”.