What is Faith?

By guest blogger, friend and colleague, Nathan Eubank, PhD

“Faith without works is dead” – so goes the famous protest of the Epistle of James against those who would claim that people are justified by faith alone. James’ counterargument is powerful, noting that Abraham received God’s approval because of his obedience and that even the demons have belief in God. It appears that James was pushing back against a form of Paulinism which taught that faith – in the sense of mere belief – is enough. Yet, “faith” for Paul himself does not boil down to mere belief.

Pistis

The Greek words behind “faith” are the noun pistis and the verb pisteuō. “Faith” is one possible translation of pistis, but pistis can also denote belief, trust, or faithfulness, among other things. There is a world of difference between mere belief – simply thinking something is true – and faithfulness – which requires not just belief but faithful action as well. The only way to decide how these Greek words should be translated in a given case is to study their context.

Paul sometimes uses pistis and its cognates to refer to belief or intellectual assent. In Romans 10:9 Paul famously says “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe (pisteusēs) in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Here pisteuō denotes intellectual acceptance of two propositions. One must believe in the facts of Jesus’ Lordship and his resurrection.

Trust in God

There are many occasions, however, when Paul’s pistis-language is best translated with the word “trust.”[i] Though there are many places in Paul where either “belief” or “trust” would be an acceptable translation, the difference between these English words is not inconsequential. The Epistle of James offers a particularly vivid example: the demons believe (pisteuousin) that God is one, but they do not trust in this fact. On the contrary, when they ponder this belief they “shudder” (2:19). When we say we trust something – say, a doctor or a car – we mean that we rely on it to be good to us.[ii] To trust something is to give oneself over to that thing and (to one degree or another) make oneself vulnerable to it. A good example of pistis as trust appears in 1 Corinthians 10:13 when Paul uses the adjectival form pistos while warning the Corinthians not fall into idolatry: “God is trustworthy (pistos): he will not leave you to be tempted beyond your strength but with the testing he will make a way out so that you will be able to endure it.” Paul here encourages the Corinthians to trust God to stand by them in their times of temptation.

Faithful Abraham

There are other times when pistis is best translated as “faithfulness.” A good example of this appears in Romans 4 where Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 to show the importance of pistis: “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed (episteusen) God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’” (Rom 4:3 NAB). The NAB renders episteusen as “believed,” but as Paul’s discussion unfolds it becomes clear that Abraham’s pistis involved something far more robust than mere belief. When God first promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations perhaps it would have been possible simply to “believe” or “trust” in what God had said, but as the years went by God’s promise seemed increasingly laughable. When Paul retells the story, he emphasizes Abraham’s long-suffering faithfulness:

Hoping against hope, [Abraham] trusted (episteusen) that he would become the father of many nations…He did not weaken in faithfulness (pistei) when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (being about a hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He did not hesitate with a lack of faith (apistia) in God’s promise, but strengthened in faithfulness (pistei), giving glory to God, being fully convinced that what God had promised he was also able to do. Therefore, “it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:18-22)

Paul makes it clear that Abraham was justified not simply because of ephemeral belief in a promise. Abraham trusted God in spite of overwhelming evidence that he and Sarah would never have a child. That kind of unwavering trust over the course of many years is what we Anglophones would normally call faithfulness.

Paul goes on to say that Abraham’s pistis is the template for us, the pisteuontes (the faithful), who also trust in God’s power to make life where there is only death:

The words “it was reckoned to him,” were written not only for Abraham’s sake, but also for us. It will be reckoned to us who trust (tois pisteuousin) in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. (4:23-24)

Paul beckons us to join Abraham in unwavering trust in the God who raises the dead so that it will reckoned to us as righteousness.

What does this mean for us during the Year of Faith? The English word “faith” is vague, denoting anything from a vaguely religious feeling to the motivating force behind the martyrs and saints. St. Paul reminds us that a life of faith is not merely the life of accepting certain beliefs, but a call to the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5) by which we are conformed to the image of Christ, the faithful one.


[i] When considering pistis as trust, one is reminded of the famous definition of Heb 11:1.

[ii] When a bank extends someone credit – from credo, the Latin word that frequently translates pisteuō in the Vulgate – they do so because they have reason to trust that person to pay it back.

Nathan Eubank recently completed his Ph.D. in New Testament at Duke University. He is the author of Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin: the Economy of Heaven in Matthew’s Gospel (De Gruyter, forthcoming). Recent publications include “Almsgiving is ‘The Commandment’: A Note on 1 Timothy 6.6-19” in New Testament Studies, and “A Disconcerting Prayer: On the Originality of Luke 23:34a” in Journal of Biblical Literature.

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