A Brief Introduction to Faith as used by the New Testament Authors in Regards to Mankind's Rescue
Faith as a Disposition of Loyalty and Fidelity
- An argument from the English
- The Understanding of the Greek Scholars
- Examination of the use of Faith by the New Testament Authors
- Faith Define by the Authors of Scripture
The English word “faith” is certainly used a lot in the context of Christianity. Major Christian teachings such as salvation and future events place a lot of emphasis on the word faith. In the New Testament, the Greek word written from which we translate the word faith is “pistos”. The word is used in perhaps a few different ways in the New Testament, but today in Evangelicalism and Protestantism, one understanding of the word dominates the rest. It is because of this that major Bible doctrines are misunderstood and misappropriated by many in these camps. In this post, I am setting to out to help the reader be more familiar with the idea of “faith” being associated with a disposition of fidelity. I set out to do so by presenting the reader with arguments from the English usage, the understanding of Greek translators, the usage of the New Testament authors, and by the New Testament author’s own defining of what pistos is. In doing so, I hope for the reader to better understand the teachings of the authors of Scripture.
An Argument from the English
In English today we strongly associate faith or belief with something you ascribe to or hold to be true. The connotation mainly for faith is that it is a mental action that happens in your mind. It may be something you think about like “having faith in God” or believing in the existence of God. There is however, another way the English word is used that while more prevalent in older times and in older usage, is still alive in our day. Faith conveys the idea of fidelity and loyalty. Today we still use the word faithful and we use it contexts such as in a person’s responsibility to someone. If an employee is faithful in the work context then it probably means that he does his work well without slacking off on a regular basis. If a husband is faithful in the marriage context it probably means that he is sexually and relationally committed to his wife only. Now if we call people who are faithful “full of faith” then we understand that faith doesn’t simply constitute mental agreeance or understanding of a matter but rather a committed person in good deeds. “Faith” is a loyal disposition and to exercise or be in faith one must be demonstrating that disposition in action. The marriage relationship requires loving your spouse and abstaining from loving another. The worker needs to be busy in his work and refrain from doing things he rather would be doing. To be faithful is to live out action and that faithful action is the substance of faith.
Then when we come to the word believe which is simply the verb form of faith we have the same kind of thing going on. Believe also is commonly thought of as a mental action that pins an understanding to a person’s psyche in an affirming way. Although that is the common view of belief we as English speakers would still at times use it in others contexts. One example is when we tell others that we believe in them. In these contexts it is not a mental ascription of their existence or that we trust them, but rather we are affirming our loyalty to them in some way. It could be in the context of believing that they can do something such as win a sports event, accomplish a personal goal, or aspire to some field of office. In a sports game we will be rooting for those we believe in. In the context of the accomplishment of a goal we may remind our counterpart of their ability that they have demonstrated in the past. In the aspiration of a position or office one may support their counterpart in recommending them to the placement official. We as English speakers would never accept someone telling us that they believe in us if their actions were either contrary or they actually proved to be complicit in their lack of supporting us. The same goes for those in faith. Nobody can be said to be in good faith when your actions prove you to be contrary.
Faith in Old English
I have used etymonline.com to find a definition of the word faith that shows its older and archaic usage. Understanding how the word was originally used helps to better understand why early English translations of the Bible used the word faith in the first place and why translations today continue the tradition. Here is how it is defined.
“mid-13c., faith, feith, fei, fai “faithfulness to a trust or promise; loyalty to a person; honesty, truthfulness,” from Anglo-French and Old French feid, foi “faith, belief, trust, confidence; pledge”
Acknowledged definitions of πιστός
For those who aren’t aware I would like to present to you the understanding of Greek Scholars as represented in the common Greek lexicons.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon:
- Trusty, Faithful
- Believing, Confiding, Trusting
Liddell and Henry George’s Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon
- to be trusted or believed
- like πίσυνος, believing, trusting in, relying on
- faithful, believing
- with disposition to believe
Pistos and its forms are translated differently in English translations based on the author’s interpretation of the context. Check out this comparison of two verses where the same word is translated differently among the two verses. The leading English translations render these verses the same. So since older translations have been translating the word correctly as faith/faithful it is necessary for us to understand the older usage of faith as fidelity and not as a mere mental assent.
Τίς ἄρα ἐστὶν ὁ (πιστὸς) δοῦλος καὶ φρόνιμος ὃν κατέστησεν ὁ ⸀κύριος ἐπὶ τῆς ⸀οἰκετείας αὐτοῦ τοῦ δοῦναι αὐτοῖς τὴν τροφὴν ἐν καιρῷ;
“Who then is the (faithful) and wise slave, whom the master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their food at the proper time?” NET
εἶτα λέγει τῷ Θωμᾷ· Φέρε τὸν δάκτυλόν σου ὧδε καὶ ἴδε τὰς χεῖράς μου, καὶ φέρε τὴν χεῖρά σου καὶ βάλε εἰς τὴν πλευράν μου, καὶ μὴ γίνου ἄπιστος ἀλλὰ (πιστός).
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and examine my hands. Extend your hand and put it into my side. Do not continue in your unbelief, but (believe).” NET
The Greek renderings are taken from The Lexham Greek-English Interlinear New Testament: SBL Edition by Harris, W. Hall, III. The English translation is taken from the New English Translation (NET).
The New Testament Author’s use of Faith
I’d like to present some examples from Scripture where faith/pistos is used and discuss how it is being used in that context. In doing so I hope to present to the reader that the common “trust” or “mental assent” understanding is not being used by the author in these contexts.
Faith in Pauline Literature
Paul’s usage of faith is really interesting when one is mainly acquainted with a mental assent view of faith. His usage is different than what most Evangelical teachers understand it to be. In regards to Paul’s use of pistos I am going to present passages that have to do with his teachings on mankind’s rescue or salvation. I have chosen this context to show how Paul is using pistos/faith in another way.
Let me first explain one thing that will help the reader understand the first century context of what Paul is dealing with. Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions at the times in which Jesus lived was that the Scriptures taught that Israel was unconditionally elect by God to receive the great promises of God. I would even argue that this misconception lead to Christ being crucified. The fact that someone was a son of Abraham meant to some Jews in older times that you were guaranteed to receive the manifold blessings God had promised, such as Daniel’s resurrection to Eternal Life. In other words a man’s deeds and the condition of his lifestyle could be over looked simply because you were a son of Abraham. The faithful in the times before and after Jesus’ ascension such as the Apostles and John the Baptist also had to combat this false teaching. The Pharisees lived like they could be disobedient to God in some aspects of their life, but still inherit God’s blessings because they were sons of the Law. They were constantly rebuked by Jesus for this teaching of hypocrisy.
Paul has written a number of times to those who held this view it can be found in his letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, and Romans.
The Promise to the Jew and Greek in Rome
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live.” (NET)
I believe the main theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans is God’s Faithfulness. Not a fan of purporting theme verses for any Biblical writing, but I would say Romans 1:16-17 could be considered the thematic verse of Romans. The “because” that starts out these verses kind of helps in pinpointing “purpose verses” for the reader. Having an understanding that pistos goes beyond mental assent, it is clear that the Pistos (faithfulness) of God is more evidently a fulfilling of promise, making it synonymous with God’s Righteousness. Paul asserts in his greeting that he wishes to come to Rome and preach the Gospel to them. After this, he begins to preach the Gospel to them in print. In verse 16, Paul explains that the Gospel is news of deliverance and rescue from death. This deliverance is testified by God before Jesus stepped into history. This good news is the promise of blessing given to Abraham which finds its fore-promise in God’s promise to the woman (Gen 3:16). So we can equate the good news to these promises, as Isaiah and Peter do (Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:22-25), and we can term these blessings as “the promise.” Now a promise is first given to those who do not yet see it. So if it is a promise then it is necessary that the one who promises comes through on his promise, or in other words be faithful and righteous. Now God is faithful, He is righteous to bring His promise to pass. To not do so would make Him unrighteous. God is righteous. Now Paul says that the Gospel is revelation of God’s righteousness. The Gospel, while not being the only showing forth of, is a great way to show that God is righteous. How so? In Paul’s words it is “from pistos to pistos”. The implication is God promised this manifold blessing and righteously, faithfully He brought it to pass. If pistos is to be understood as mental ascription how does one understand this passage? God’s righteousness is revealed from belief to belief? Who does God believe in and how would that make sense in Paul’s passage of teaching? Then Paul quotes Habakkuk to show that those who are righteous receive God’s faithfulness. The righteous live by God’s faithfulness. God faithfully brings the promise through Jesus atoning sacrifice and resurrection. Then the believer receives the promise of life by being faithful to God. Being faithful to God is equated with being righteous in Scripture, but more on that later.
“What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness?”(NIV)
Some translations have the words “unbelief” for man’s deed and “faith” for God’s deed in this passage, but I think the NIV really captures Paul’s thought better.
Paul explains in Romans that it is not by being a Jew, but by being alleged to Christ which allows someone to inherit the promise of God. Here in chapter 3 the Jew is blessed because He was given the oracles, but not all were (faith)ful so not all will receive the promise. Does God’s (faith)fulness become annulled by some Jew’s un(faith)fulness? The answer is no. When we look at how pistos and its forms are used here it is a more natural understanding to read it as a disposition of unfaithfulness of the Jew and faithfulness of God rather than having a “belief” understanding of this passage.
“Galatians; Against a Law abiding Gospel”
It would seem that the purpose of writing Galatians for Paul was to settle the dispute for the Galatians the ever present first century debate on whether the Law of Moses needed to be obeyed for “justification” with God. After showing his acknowledgment by the twelve Paul tells the Galatians of a time when the he acted as the Galatians now were acting. Later he gives the example of Peter. Peter met a sharp rebuke by Paul in his practice of separation from gentile Christians. The Law is not necessary to receive the promise of Eternal Life, neither is obedience to it. He reminds them that when they were first given the faithful message of Christ that they were not blessed by the hearing of the Mosaic Law. It is by the pistos of Christ and not by ergon nomos (works of the law). He asks them was the Spirit received by ergon nomos or by the hearing of pistos? The rest of the book from here on lays out that Christ is the Abrahamic promise, which supersedes the Law of Moses being before it and appearing after it. The Promise when delivered puts away the need for the Law, which Paul declares never was a means of life in the first place. In other words being a Jew, being circumcised, and keeping the Law of Moses cannot give life or make someone unconditionally right with God. He argues life comes by the faithfulness of Messiah Jesus. Understanding Galatians in its context puts to rest the works vs. faith argument as it was never about man’s response, but God’s promise. Man’s allegiance must not be in the Law, but rather whole heartily to the promise, which is Messiah Jesus. Let’s see how faith is used in this context.
“We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” NET
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” ESV
Because of the rendering in many English Bibles the reading of Galatians 2:16 leads people to believe that Paul is arguing for the mode of appropriation of life rather than arguing for what gives life. He is arguing with nouns and not adjectives. Many people will then go on to assume that Paul is arguing that doing works, and works in general as oppose to the Mosaic Law, cannot appropriate the Promise to us. However, Paul is actually arguing that the Mosaic Law is not the Promise in that it cannot give life. The promise—and the promise alone—is that which can give Life. The Mosaic Law should not be practiced for the means of or be taught as a means of obtaining life. Now how is the promise defined? The synonym for promise here is “pistos Ihsou Cristou” (Faithfulness Jesus Christ). So instead of our “faith”, or faithfulness in Christ being the primary point of the passage, it is Faithful Christ who bestows the blessings (although our need for individual faithfulness is mentioned in the illustration of Abraham). Understanding the context to be Christ as justifier can only lead to understanding Pistos as faithful here. The NET Bible translates Pistos, at least in regards to Jesus, as faithfulness. They rightly do so because the context isn’t your faith or mental belief. This context shows that mental ascription isn’t how Paul is using Pistos here. The faith is in regard to Jesus and Jesus has no need to exercise “belief” in anything in this context. This faith is that of fidelity.
“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.” NET
Probably the greatest passage in Ephesians that sparks some of the most controversy in Christendom today is chapter 2. Pistos is right at the center of it. Paul is showing forth that the promise of God is world changing. Since the initial fall, the sons of men have all been by nature those who deserve wrath. God’s grace is that which gives us life, making it possible for us to no longer walk in the flesh, which equates to death. We are taken out of the kingdom of darkness and seated with Christ in the Heavenly realms. Therefore by the regeneration and resurrection we are now seated with Christ, at least figuratively. Paul explains that this is by God’s grace and it is deliverance! He says it is also by pistos and not by works. Some other characteristics Paul mentions here is that it is done this way for the purpose of no one boasting and that we are now His new Creation who do good works. Paul then goes on to talk about Jew and Gentile. Now mainline evangelical and reformed thought today would say that Ephesians 2:8 proves that God saves us by His Grace and the means by which we appropriate it is by our faith in Jesus. I would say it is God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promise by faithful Jesus. We see His grace and His faithfulness in fulfilling His promise. The pistos described is not from “yourselves” it is God’s gift. Now if the pistos is His, how does God have faith? He does not “believe” in anyone for He is the greatest. What is being conveyed here rather is that He gives us (His) faithfulness. Now no people group can boast because it is not by circumcision or the Law, but rather by the grace of God which has appeared to all men. It is not of Mosaic works. This is supported by the rest of the passage as Paul explains the difference in former times of Gentile and Jew. The good works which we are to do in Christ Jesus further alienate us from the Law as we are the nation bearing God’s fruits.
Pistos defined Biblically is not merely mental assent
Pistos is hope’s assurance, the proof of things not seen.
Hebrews chapter 11 is arguably the greatest witness we have of a New Testament’s writer’s explanation of the word Pistos. Starting out this chapter, the writer defines the concept he will be addressing in this passage of teaching. The assurance of the hope someone has is pistos. It is the proof by which the promise is validated, at least before the promise actually comes to visual fruition. During the time a promise is still hoped for the proof of it coming to pass is pistos, or faithfulness. Others can know God’s oracle is true by those who live according to it. The examples of those who had pistos, or exercised faithfulness, in this passage was those whose actions were deemed right in accordance to what they heard God say, either directly or second hand.
The ancients received a witness by Pistos. It is assumed that the ancients were the righteous and received a good “witness” for their pistos, faithfulness. See verse 4.
Those who know that God created the world are the ones who understand the reality of it, as opposed to those whom also know but do not understand or apprehend this truth. So those who affirm the truth of creation do so in faithfulness.
By offering what God desired, which was known to them, Abel was commended as righteous and as the type of person God avenges. The author writes Abel sacrificed in pistos.
Enoch was translated in Pistos. The author says that before Enoch was translated he had already received witness from God that he had pleased Him.
“Pleasing to God”
The full understanding of Pistos as given by the author here denotes not only an acknowledgement that God exists, but also that one is only given the blessings of God if they obey Him. Seeking God presupposes that you will do things that are in accordance with His commands. So human pistos in relation to God is the human’s acknowledgement of God’s person and what He is like. God’s likeness is Supreme Creator—fully in control, who neither tolerates nor blesses rebellion.
Faithfully Noah constructed what He had been commanded of by God. This construction again was the proof that condemned the world and made Him an heir of God’s righteousness.
After hearing the command Abraham left his land and went where God led him. He went faithfully, he went in Pistos.
He offered Isaac in pistos as a sacrifice because He considered God true and able to deliver on His promise to Him even if Isaac died.
Sarah received the power to birth Isaac because she considered Him faithful who had promised. Now consideration is an action and is the product of testing the one who speaks.
Isaac did what was right and invoked the blessings on Jacob and Esau, which reminded them that God’s promise was on them and for them, although the primary promise would be through Jacob.
Joseph did like Isaac, knowing that God was going to bring about a future exodus and asked his bones to be carried to with them out of Egypt.
Moses’ parents were found faithful in hiding Moses to continue the promise and to not be found murderers. He himself was faithful when He committed to Israel’s God in renouncing the works and lineage of Egypt. He left Egypt leading Israel just as God commanded. He obeyed God in the Passover. Moses lived Pistos.
Called rebellious elsewhere here they are pistos. The actions they did faithfully are recorded. Crossing the Red Sea and marching around Jericho.
Another example of James’ definition of faith is found here in Rahab. As James says, her work of welcoming the spies saved her.
What is recorded of these people is that they received promises and blessings, but also unfortunate sufferings. The blessings and the sufferings came from their obedient acts, but they still died not receiving God’s great promise.
These many witnesses were ascribed by the word pistos. The English translations supply the word “by” before pistos before each person to help the reader get the idea that they were in pistos, but the particle is not supplied in the Greek. The cloud of witnesses are characterized by “Pistos”, their specific actions, and that they received the commendation by God that they pleased Him. Now these three are connected. I say this: the faithful are commended by God because of their actions. The commendation from God as right is not by their belief only, but rather by their actions that were in accordance to God’s commands. It is a disposition of right and good action.
Now the author has already lain out that the purpose for writing Hebrews is to show that Christ and the covenant He mediates is far better than the Old Covenant and even Moses himself. The Old Covenant is of genealogy, but the New Covenant is by the Faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. It is when we get to the later chapters of Hebrews that he exhorts them to be totally committed to Christ by not teaching Law for salvation and by staying clean and unspotted from the world, which is to not practice sin. These characters are Paul’s example and the practice of obedience to God within any covenant was necessary to be recipients of the promise of rest. So a disposition of faithlessness to Jesus and obedience to sin is death, but obedience to Christ and casting away every besetting rebellion is life.
James, of course
How could we ever neglect what James says concerning pistos? James chapter 2 gives an example of a wrong understanding of pistos/faith by telling a story of a person who claims they can be faithful without having any good works. We know James says that this person’s pistos is no good and does not “justify”. He goes on to say that Abraham’s pistos cooperated with works and that his works completed pistos. The word for cooperate in Greek is synergy if that helps to better promote an understanding of its meaning. Abraham’s pistos was that of faithful works according to James. Let’s stop explaining away James.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. NET
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” NET
James argues that pistos cannot be separated from works. This type of pistos without works cannot bring deliverance and is dead. This kind of pistos isn’t what God is looking for. This is unfaithfulness. You are commanded to love one another, but what if you don’t give to the needy brother and sister? You are not committed to the Lord, you are unfaithful. James says he shows real pistos by his works. So understanding that faith is merely “belief” in the context of justification is certainly combated by James himself.
The word faith as used by the authors of the New Testament in contexts of mankind’s rescue and salvation have a little more depth to them than simply mental agreeance. I hope that by seeing how the older English usage of faith is used one can appreciate how English translations of the past had it right in their choice of rendering. I also hope that the reader can understand that the common usage of faith today is not how the word was originally used in contexts of salvation. The reader can see in the Greek lexicons how this is not a new teaching, but something that translators have known all along and demonstrated in their choice of rendering throughout the English translations. The teaching of God’s promise of eternal life is rich and having a better understanding of the word faith will really help in understanding how great the authors of Scripture thought it to be.