Defining faith in Hebrews 11.1

I have always thought that Hebrews 11.1 sounded beautiful, with a mystical air to it:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)

Some of the mystery surrounding it resulted from its sounding so much like a riddle: a verse whose first few words signal a definition (“Now faith is…”) ends up leaving you more questions than the one you had about “faith” to begin with. What’s all this stuff about substance and evidence of the unseen? Faith is just “believing”, right?

Well, no. But this is the way many modern translations make it sound. When it’s said that “faith is the ὑπόστᾰσις of things hoped for,” a lot hinges on how one translates the word with funny letters, transliterated as hypostasis.

I could go way back into church history and show how this word is used by Christians to refer to how God was “grounded” or realized in the person of Jesus so that the man Jesus was also fully God (the “hypostatic union”). Or I could go much further back and break down its etymological constituents (Gk hypo– ‘below’ + stasis ‘standing’). But what do either have to do with Hebrews 11.1?

More helpful by far it is to make note of that term’s usage in pre-Christian Stoicism to distinguish actual existence, substance, from abstract existence. This is where the “substance of things hoped for” comes into play. Faith is the realization, the proof in the pudding of things hoped for, which not coincidentally is more or less equivalent to “the evidence of things not seen.” It’s parallelism.

So why, then, is hypostasis translated as “being sure” in the (T)NIV, “assurance” in the NASB, or “confidence” in the ESV? I mean, it’s obvious that there will be some “confidence/assurance/being sure” resulting from having evidence or proof, but is that rendering not heavily reliant on the idea of faith as “belief”? This verse in those translations leads to the impression that, “Faith is placing your hope in things that haven’t been proved yet.” That is not what faith is, in Hebrews or anywhere.

But especially in Hebrews: try inserting any of the above translations of hypostasis in Heb 1.3, where it is usually translated “nature” (which is…well, closer to the right meaning) or “being” (that’s much more like it). Let’s try plugging those words from Heb 11.1 into the NASB of 1.3 (which actually reads “nature”):

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His being-sure…

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His assurance…

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His confidence…

These highlight the eisegetical problem of the (T)NIV, NASB, and ESV translations of Heb 11.1; they translated it based upon what they thought we knew about what faith is, not what the author of Hebrews was telling us it is.

Next, look at the only other use of hypostasis in Hebrews, viz. Heb 3.14:

(T)NIV: We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.

NASB: For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end,

ESV: For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

These translations make a lot of sense to us on first blush due to our belief in the importance of persistent belief, which, it must be noted, is in no small part attributable to this verse (not exactly a favorite of Calvinists).

No doubt the “confidence/assurance” reading was influenced in v. 14 by the close parallel in v. 3, which happens to include a different word more consistently translated as confidence. But the parallelism between the verses cannot be credibly sustained upon close analysis: they’re saying different things, even though they use a similar construction.

It’s not “the beginning of our confidence” that must be held firm; this suggests “unwaveringly believing the same thing we did in the beginning,” placing the onus on uncompromising mental assent that’s easily extended to all kinds of doctrines and traditions learned “in the beginning” of our Christian walk. That interpretation’s great for keeping Christians in lockstep theologically. Here again, “confidence” and indeed persistence are involved, but in a more subtle way. Read the Holman Christian Standard version of this verse:

For we have become companions of the Messiah if we hold firmly until the end the reality that we had at the start.

[Unfortunately, then they go and legitimize the “confidence” translation by including it in a footnote.]

In other words, we may indeed be confident, but it’s confidence in the reality or substance we experienced at the beginning.

I think you can see that hypostasis hardly means confidence, particularly in Hebrews. It means ‘substance, reality, being, realization’ and other such.

Why does this matter? Because of what the other translations (“confidence”, “being sure”, etc.) have done to bolster the misunderstanding of “faith” parodied by Mark Twain: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Generally speaking, faith, translating Gk pistis, is much better translated by “faithfulness” or “devotion”. This is especially true of Hebrews. Look at 3.2-6’s contrast of Moses’ faithfulness over little versus Christ’s faithfulness over much more. That’s where the whole “hold fast” aspect comes into play in both v. 6 and v. 14!

So let’s plug this back in to Hebrews 11.1. “Faith is the actualization of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Notice that belief in the unseen is almost present in this verse, but it’s parallel to “things hoped for/not seen”, not “substance/evidence”. The real meaning of pistis in this passage is the on-earth realization of what, or rather Whom, is believed. The author of Hebrews is describing belief and trust as the motivation for faith. He goes on in that chapter to describe people living out their belief and trust in God by their faithfulness. That’s why James was so baffled that people would say they “believed” (=had trust in) God while not presenting any substance or evidence.

What are your thoughts on these observations? I probably sound a bit more “confident” than I actually am on a lot of these points, but at this stage I’m convinced. I ask for your help in nuancing my understanding.

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  • atimetorend

    I am in no way qualified to comment on your etymology, but from the perspective of someone who has wrestled with understanding that verse I will say your translation makes a lot more sense. The alternate is a verse which is impossible to understand, with special pleading made to the “mystery of God” to explain why we can’t understand it.

    I love what you wrote here:
    This verse in those translations leads to the impression that, “Faith is placing your hope in things that haven’t been proved yet.” That is not what faith is, in Hebrews or anywhere.

    If the proof is in the pudding, maybe having the verse make sense is a sort of validation? Confidence that the writer of Hebrews was able to make rational sense?

    • attr,
      Your comment made me chuckle. Yeah, although I’m no concordist/inerrantist, I do expect any human being writing any sort of literature to not be rambling nonsense, particularly in the middle of a work like Hebrews, universally recognized for its eloquent and lofty writing style. I certainly expected the author to be saying something that made “ration sense”, but IMO outside of this understanding of hypostasis (which certainly implies its author’s familiarity with philosophy), it’s rather difficult to make any sense of what he said.

  • atimetorend

    I am in no way qualified to comment on your etymology, but from the perspective of someone who has wrestled with understanding that verse I will say your translation makes a lot more sense. The alternate is a verse which is impossible to understand, with special pleading made to the “mystery of God” to explain why we can’t understand it.

    I love what you wrote here:
    This verse in those translations leads to the impression that, “Faith is placing your hope in things that haven’t been proved yet.” That is not what faith is, in Hebrews or anywhere.

    If the proof is in the pudding, maybe having the verse make sense is a sort of validation? Confidence that the writer of Hebrews was able to make rational sense?

    • attr,
      Your comment made me chuckle. Yeah, although I’m no concordist/inerrantist, I do expect any human being writing any sort of literature to not be rambling nonsense, particularly in the middle of a work like Hebrews, universally recognized for its eloquent and lofty writing style. I certainly expected the author to be saying something that made “ration sense”, but IMO outside of this understanding of hypostasis (which certainly implies its author’s familiarity with philosophy), it’s rather difficult to make any sense of what he said.

  • Sounds good to me. Of course, my biblical training contains no Greek or Hebrew, so this is based on my understanding of the rest of Scripture. You’re right, we must remember:

    Faith is acting out your beliefs in what you understand to be reality. Faith is not “believing despite evidence”… although, God does seem to place a high value on that aspect of faith: Being faithful–acting according to God’s will–despite the meltdown around you (a la Job).

    ~Luke
    .-= Luke Holzmann´s last blog ..A New Beginning and a Quickly Coming End =-.

    • Hi Luke,

      Interesting point about “believing despite evidence”. Job’s belief was trust in a God about Whom relatively little theological truths were known. His circumstances and God’s response to his friends’ articulation of their prior beliefs about God’s ways (we call these “doctrines” nowadays) shattered those beliefs, but Job stood firm on Who God was, trusting His righteousness above anything else.

  • Sounds good to me. Of course, my biblical training contains no Greek or Hebrew, so this is based on my understanding of the rest of Scripture. You’re right, we must remember:

    Faith is acting out your beliefs in what you understand to be reality. Faith is not “believing despite evidence”… although, God does seem to place a high value on that aspect of faith: Being faithful–acting according to God’s will–despite the meltdown around you (a la Job).

    ~Luke
    .-= Luke Holzmann´s last blog ..A New Beginning and a Quickly Coming End =-.

    • Hi Luke,

      Interesting point about “believing despite evidence”. Job’s belief was trust in a God about Whom relatively little theological truths were known. His circumstances and God’s response to his friends’ articulation of their prior beliefs about God’s ways (we call these “doctrines” nowadays) shattered those beliefs, but Job stood firm on Who God was, trusting His righteousness above anything else.

  • Sounds like I was correct in my other post. You're trusting in your own faithfulness. Sinful men are capricious at best. Better to trust in God's faithfulness to keep His promises than to trust in your own faithfulness. You're unfaithful.

  • Thanks for the laugh, Charlie. I have seldom been told what I believe (in contradiction to what I know I do believe) with such smug self-assuredness.

  • WoundedEgo

    ISTM that by considering the verse in isolation you have missed the whole point of the passage. What he is saying is that faith is the realization of things that were previously only set forth in “shadows.” From the very outset he describes the “complex and convoluted” messages to the Jewish ancestors and contrasts them to God’s “avatar” or “icon” and God’s speaking clearly in a son.

    “Faith” here is “justification by faith” ala Jude: “contend for the faith, once delivered to the saints.”

    • Hi WE,

      Although your point about the Platonic view of shadow/reality is certainly in line with the theology/philosophy of the author of Hebrews, and although I don’t doubt that this is a part of the “substance” aspect, I really don’t think I’ve missed the main point of the passage. The faithfulness of the saints is the focus of the whole chapter. It begins with a description of what “faith” is and gives many examples. The substance, or realization of the faith is in a lifestyle of action, a la Hebrews 11’s heroes of faith and the book of James.

      I’d like you to expound on how “justification by faith” and Jude’s contention for the faith are related. I must say I’m missing the link.