What Exactly is Faith?

“Increase our faith!”

As our Gospel lesson for Sunday opens, we find the disciples imploring Jesus for more faith, but that leads me to wonder, “what exactly is faith?”  My wondering has been exacerbated by a question from a friend and regular commenter here at DT, WEV, who is in his fourth year of Sewanee’s Education for Ministry program.  The early part of this year’s program is dealing with faith, including reading a book by a guy with the best theologian name ever, Diogenese Allen, called Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.  His question came from the text provided by Sewanee, and I took as snapshot of it to remind myself of what was going on (you’ll have to pardon any inherent copyright violations, and if you get bored with academic wrangling over language, jump down to the *).

2013-10-01 18.02.08

The first thing that comes to my mind is, “why is Sewanee quoting a book copyrighted in 1979 that isn’t the Book of Common Prayer, and don’t say ‘because Urban Holmes was once the Dean of the School of Theology,’ because my brain will explode.”  The second thought was, “And why are we looking at the Latin forms?”  It is always best to go back to the original language in matters of Biblical study, so why this extensive block quote of a tertiary source evaluating a primary source based on a secondary one?

So, I dug deeper.  That one time that “belief” appears in the Authorized Version, it comes from 2 Thess 2.13, “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.”  The argument of Holmes and Westerhoff is that this is somehow different than the 233 times that “faith” is used.  Except, when you look at the Vulgate, the Latin word isn’t “opinor,” but rather “fide,” which Holmes and Westerhoff already translated as faith.  Digging deeper, assuming we’re using different Latin versions (I don’t have an LXX handy), the Greek root is “pistos,” which is the same word used for faith all throughout the Greek New Testament.

As the New Testament made its way from Greek to Latin, translators attempted to put nuance to the Greek word “pistos” and chose to translate either as “fide”, as in fidelity or “credo”, as in creed. (Side note: my ability to search the Vulgate brings no mention of “opinor”).  In English, translators have attempted to do the same thing by using variants (something Holmes and Westerhoff ignore in their text) of “faith” and “belief,” but even in that most famous line from John 14.1, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God.  Believe also in me.”  Both times the Latin word is “credo” and the Greek “pistos.”

Marcus Borg, a man much smarter than me, has written a whole chapter on this subject in his book The Heart of Christianity, and I suggest you check out chapter two, “Faith: the way of the heart”, in which he expands on “fide” and “credo”.  Suffice it to end this digression by saying that there seems to be some real difficulty in getting into the mind of the Greek authors as we try to nuance their language for ourselves.

* Which brings me back to my original question, “what exactly is faith?”  The disciples ask Jesus to “increase their faith” (Gk “pistos” and VUL “fide”), so what are they asking for?  Do they want a stronger conviction that Jesus is who he says he is?  Do they want to be more loyal to him?  Do they seek a deeper relationship with him?  I’m pretty sure they are asking for all of the above, but most importantly, they want to know that they’ve got the chops to be his disciples.  To borrow from Marcus Borg a bit, they’ve given their heart over to Jesus, they have trusted him this far, but as Jerusalem looms, they’re pretty sure they’re going to need a double portion of faith.

Who of us can’t relate to that feeling?  Which of us hasn’t said, at one time or another, “God, I need you a little bit more today”?  As Saint Paul famously wrote, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is what carries us through when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Faith is giving our heart (And everything else) to God: credo, fide, pistos, or otherwise.  Faith is a relationship with the Lord.

3 thoughts on “What Exactly is Faith?

  1. Another way to put faith and belief in perspective is the famous quote from the American Quaker author/theologian D. Elton Trueblood: “Faith is not belief without proof, but rather trust without reservation.”

  2. Steve,
    My quick check, based on your work, seems to be that the piste- roots get translated into Latin as credo forms for verbs and fides forms for nouns. As near as I can tell that is the difference there. I would hesitate to put too many distinctions between them, myself, but again, this was a quick check. Thanks for the stuff you bring up for us to look at.

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