The Trouble with Faith

By Bernard Brandon Scott | 8.20.2018

Faith is a problematic word, so problematic that at times I think we should abandon its use. It’s a weasel word, with so many and varied meanings that what it means often is difficult to know. Given the importance of faith in religious discourse, the varied meanings have significant implications and ramifications.

Let me state the problem I want to discuss. We are trapped between the use of “faith” in English and “faith” as a translation for the Greek word pistis in the New Testament. They are different and so make understanding both the New Testament and our own usage difficult.

Sense #1: Faith as Allegiance

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives as its first definition (1a) “allegiance to duty or a person” with the gloss “Loyalty.” Then follows an example usage: “lost faith in the company's president.”

Within this first definition there is a second sense (1b) with two subsenses. “(1) fidelity to one's promises” and then “(2) sincerity of intentions • acted in good faith.

This first definition of faith, secular in character, understands faith as loyalty or allegiance and lays stress on relationship, “allegiance to duty or a person”. Except for 1b(2) this understanding of faith would work well for the New Testament. Here are three different examples.

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt 6:30 KJV)

This “how much more” argument, common in Rabbinic literature, contends, “if God cares for this little thing, how much more in your case.” So, God’s great care is contrasted with little allegiance or faith to God. The author of Matthew’s gospel is chiding the readers about their little loyalty to God.

Mark 5 relates a story of woman from the crowd who reaches out and touches Jesus. When he asks who touched him, she comes forward in fear and trembling. Jesus says,

"Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." (Mark 5:34 NRSV)

Her persistence or bravery in coming forward signals her “faith.” It’s her allegiance to Jesus that has healed her.

A final example is from Paul who uses “faith” extensively.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations"). (Rom 4:16–17 NRSV)

“Faith” in this passage refers to Abraham’s loyalty to God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations.

Sense #2a: Faith as Trust

“The faith of Abraham” takes us to Merriam-Webster’s second definition which is religious in nature. 2a(1) defines faith as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” which would seem to perfectly fit “faith of Abraham.” So why give the faith of Abraham as an example of 1b, the secular usage? First the distinction between the first definition and the second is not a matter of meaning but of usage, which is what a dictionary definition is supposed to do. So, this second definition is really an elaboration of the first. The meaning does not change, but the usage does. (For those interested in such issues, see the excellent and entertaining Kory Stamper, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries).

A second subsense (2) pushes the definition even further in a religious vein: “belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion.” The fact that this is a subsense of 2a indicates that Merriam-Webster’s editors see these two as very close in English usage. But pistis (faith) in this sense is not used in the New Testament.

There are two notable items in the subsense.

  1. Belief
  2. Doctrines

“Belief” and “faith” are often interchangeable in English and “beliefs” and “doctrines” are likewise synonymous. The first definition of belief in Merriam-Webster indicates a shift. “[A] state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” “Mind” is the important word, because belief introduces an aspect of mental activity which was absent in our examination of faith. “Faith” involves a relationship.

The belief/faith correlation is an English issue, not Greek. Greek does not make this distinction. The problem arises because the Greek root pist- can be formed into a noun, a verb, and an adjective. English has a noun, “faith,” and an adjective, “faithful,” but no verb. “He faiths God” is impossible in English; instead one must say, “she believes in God” or “he has faith in God.” “Has faith” makes “faith” a noun object, not an action. “She trusts God” is different from “he believes in God.”

The belief/faith dynamic is further complicated by the Council of Nicaea (325). One of Constantine’s objectives was to unify Christianity, which was divided and diverse. The Nicene Creed aimed to solve this problem. This shifted Christianity from a religion of praxis, in which it’s what you do that counts, to a religion of belief or faith, in which it’s what you believe that counts. Notice what is missing from the Creed—the life of Jesus. There are no ethics in the Creed. Faith now has an intellectual content, a set of beliefs. The meaning of faith has moved very far indeed from the New Testament.

Sense #2b: Faith without Proof

The b part of the second definition offers another feature: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Paul’s use of the faith of Abraham falls into this category. Abraham has faith, allegiance or trust, that God will be faithful to the promise to make Abraham the father of many nations. That fact that Sarah is barren mocks this promise. Paul plays up this aspect of faith in Romans 4.

It is important to notice that Paul’s use of this argument is not anti-reason, but rather that faith is loyalty or allegiance to God’s promise in spite of the fact that it has not yet come true. (See my The Real Paul, chapter 9)

The North African Tertullian in On the Flesh of Christ (about 203–206) pushed this argument in a slightly different direction.

The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.

Tertullian was a strong backer of reason and his argument that “it is certain, because impossible” is following Aristotle’s objection that the apparent unbelievability of a report can be an argument for its truth. If the witness was making it up, why would the witness not make up something more credible? It is a version of the criterion of dissimilarity.

After languishing for centuries, Tertullian’s statement came alive in the seventeenth century, when the English polymath Thomas Browne gave Tertullian’s statement a new twist. “Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith.” He argued that the more impossible something was to believe, the more it strengthened one’s faith. Voltaire defined faith as “believing things because they are impossible,” a riff on Tertullian, and later he referred to Augustine as saying “I believe because it is absurd, I believe because it is impossible.” Augustine, of course, never said any such thing.

Subsequently the phrase was translated back into Latin, Credo quia absurdum, giving it the authenticity and gravitas of an ancient language, and was applied to all religious belief and has become part of the standard argument against religious belief. “I believe because it is absurd” goes back to neither Tertullian nor Augustine and is a creation of the eighteenth century. (See Peter Harrison’s ”’I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme” for an excellent tracing of the history of this quote.)

This checkered history does not absolve faith of the charge but should serve as a warning. The situation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had drastically changed from the middle ages. Religion was the science of the Middle Ages, but the Enlightenment and rise of science challenged that dominance by demonstrating that Genesis as science had failed. Religious faith resisted science. Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin, chapter 2, is especially good on this aspect. The spoof in Alice in Wonderland is well placed.

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Sense #3: Faith as Religious Beliefs

Merriam-Webster spins out a third sense of faith: “3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs • the Protestant faith”.

This third sense identifies “faith” with a particular set of religious beliefs. This is a Western and Christian understanding of religion. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism are not beliefs or faiths, but practices, as Christianity was before Constantine and the Nicene Creed. These religions often accommodate to our understanding and refer to themselves as faiths, but that is only a form of cultural colonialism masquerading in English usage.

This understanding of “faith” is absent from the New Testament.

Examples Revisited

Those using “faith” in speech and writing frequently do not make the careful distinctions of the editors of Merriam-Webster. The distinctions are jumbled together and not carefully parsed. This causes a problem in reading the New Testament because the range of meaning of the English word “faith” exceeds the Greek word pistis, traditionally translated “faith.”

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt 6:30 KJV)

In this saying “little faith” fits definitions 1a and 2a(1). But if an English reader should slot in sense 3, that Jesus was chiding them for not adhering to Christian faith as a system, or sense 2a(2), the traditional doctrines, then the saying would go awry. In this way it could be understood as not having enough faith in Jesus.

"Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." (Mark 5:34 NRSV)

Again 1a and 2a(1) work, but this one can easily in English be understood as 2a(2), “belief in the traditional doctrines of religion.” Thus, it could be and frequently has been understood as her faith in Jesus healed her.

Because the English word “faith” is so liable to mislead a reader of the New Testament, the translators of The Complete Gospels and The Authentic Letters of Paul opted to translate pistis and its cognates as “trust” (Complete Gospels) or “confidence” (Authentic Letters) to enable a reader to more fully understand what the New Testament authors were trying to convey. Our three example texts make this shift evident.

He said to her, “Daughter, your trust has cured you. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:34)

If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and is thrown into an oven tomorrow, won’t you even more, you with your meager trust? (Matt 6:30)

That's why becoming heirs results from putting confidence in and relying upon God, so that the promise is entirely a matter of [God's] free gift and is guaranteed to all of Abraham's descendants, not only to those who claim to be heirs by virtue of covenant law, but to those who share Abraham's confidence and reliance upon God. (Roms 4:16)

Conclusion

I realize that my quest to banish the use of the word “faith” is tilting at windmills. Religious folk seem attached to the word, view it as essential. But could we at least be clear about what we mean when we use the word and not use is as a weasel word to avoid knowing what we mean? So try using “trust” or “confidence” in the New Testament, and in the other meaning be precise.

For more, check out:

"'I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme,” by Peter Harrison

Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, by Philip Kitcher

The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challengeby Bernard Brandon Scott

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionariesby Kory Stamper

This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

Photo of Bernard Brandon Scott

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

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