More on what NT faith is about

Under the typical Protestant understanding of “faith” as “not doubting something that one believes without proof”, I as a young Protestant could never fathom why God would be so tickled by us believing in what we had almost no evidence for. This question came home to me most clearly whenever I heard informal apologetics arguing that the reason God doesn’t just show Himself to us is that if He did, no faith would be necessary, and God really wants us to have faith. Obviously this is quite circular, akin to being asked, “Why do we have to have faith?” and answering, “Because faith is necessary.”

So when I found out in third-year Greek (undergrad) about a related discussion that had been going on in scholarly academic circles, I was intrigued. The main question was about the Pauline expression ek/dia pisteos iesou christou (e.g. Philippians 3.9), customarily, but probably inaccurately, translated as “faith in Jesus Christ”, whereas scholars such as Richard Hays have argued for the reading “faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ”; I just posted my exploratory paper on this topic yesterday. As I described in another recent post, the Greek word that we translate as “faith” also carried the meaning faithfulness (notice that English uses the root “faith-” in both “faith” and “faithfulness” as well). In fact, there is no other word in NT Greek that translates as “faithfulness” as directly as pistis. So theoretically, whether Paul had meant to describe a concept more on the “faithfulness” side or on the “belief” side of pistis, or some hybrid of both “belief” and “faithfulness, he would have in all likelihood used the word pistis in any case. “Belief” and “faithfulness” are two very different English words and markedly different conceptually in our modern understanding, but the fact that the NT often uses them in their divergent semantics in places where the meaning is ambiguous suggests that pistis meant not either/or but indicated a concept closely related to both of them. After all, belief is in a sense a commitment to an idea, and I recognize this usage for “faith” and “believing” (Gk pist-euo) in the NT as well.

But rather than mere cognitive assent to an unproved proposition, I think the best way of viewing the semantic center of pistis is in the words commitment, dependence, trust, and devotion. As I said, “belief” plays a part, since we devote ourselves to things we believe in, and believe in things we are devoted to. But because no facts are unfiltered and uninterpreted by our minds, holding fast to beliefs is in essence dependence upon ourselves and our ability to properly parse those facts. What God requires is commitment to and dependence upon Him, amounting to total surrender. At very least, surely it is obvious that the faith that pleases God is not the type that is taken up and held to without a basis; above all, faith is not about being dogmatic about something we have no evidence for, nor likewise something we have mounds of evidence against.

Paul is the one whose teaching is the source of the common focus on belief in certain propositions. But I am coming to think that he instead was more concerned (at least in some of his writing) that we depend on our identification with Christ, whose surpassing faithfulness to God was displayed by his surrender to the point of death. It is for the sake of his faithfulness that we are saved. In turn, we identify with Christ by sacrificing ourselves (Rom 12.1). Paul’s view was shared by the author of Hebrews, who more clearly articulated it in Hebrews 3.1-6:

Therefore, holy brothers and companions in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession; He was faithful to the One who appointed Him, just as Moses was in all God’s household. For Jesus is considered worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder has more honor than the house. Now every house is built by someone, but the One who built everything is God. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s household, as a testimony to what would be said [in the future]. But Christ was faithful as a Son over His household, whose household we are if we hold on to the courage and the confidence of our hope. [HCS]

Paul seems to have argued that God grants us grace by associating us with Christ’s work. God graciously identifies us as faithful to Himself through our identification with Jesus in a relationship of joint commitment, not from our accomplishment of the works of the Law, which was regarded as within the bounds of human ability alone. Our faithfulness is not the prerequisite to this grace, but its goal. In fact, one reason why many Protestant biblical scholars are not at all happy with Hays’ reading of pistis christou is the extremely close association in Philippians 3.4-14 between our being identified with Christ’s faithfulness and our participation in His faithfulness:

…and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through (the) faith(fulness) [of] Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith(fulness). I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this… [Philippians 3.9-12a NRSV]

Notice how Paul explicitly states that his participation is not complete and that, inasmuch as it is not, he entertains the possibility of his own failure to attain to the resurrection from the dead! Notice also that this possibility acknowledged by Paul does not disappear no matter how you interpret pistis christou. The author of Ephesians 2.8-10 put it this way:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

If we take the view I outlined above seriously, we notice that these verses essentially equate pistis with good works. A paraphrase of the verse reveals this: “By God’s grace you are saved through faithfulness, and this faithfulness is God’s gift as well, and not something the Law could have brought about. For it is God who has crafted us into instruments of doing good works [faithfulness] that He desires.” The key distinction is between “works” and “good works”. Paul never devalues “good works”; his criticism is of works of the Law (this post discusses what he probably meant by that), which is what Paul means by “works” when it is not qualified (unlike James). In fact, we are told that performing “good works” is what we are supposed to be about doing (2 Cor 9.8).

This understanding of what “faith” is becomes clearest when we look outside of the epistles recognized by scholars today as authentic Pauline epistles: see Col 1.10, 2 Tim 2.21, 2 Tim 3.17; cf. also Hebrews (discussed above) and James (discussed below). Ephesians 2.8-10 isn’t saying that good works are not necessary — indeed, the opposite — but that no one is able to hold up his/her end of the bargain by doing good works apart from God’s grace, simply by following the Law. Reading “faith” and “works” in this light actually reconciles an apparent conflict between the theology of Paul and James, who wrote, “Faith without works is dead”. James seems to be arguing against precisely the sort of misinterpretation of Paul that Luther championed; this is why Luther famously rejected the book of James and called it an “epistle of straw”. It is important to realize that unlike Paul, James does not use “works” to refer specifically to any ritual “works of the Law”. He clearly articulates the kind of works he expects that are part and parcel of “faith(fulness)”:

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. [James 2.15-17]

He seems to be referring to the “good works” of Ep 2.10, doesn’t he? And as if this weren’t obvious enough, James next appeals to the example of two individuals who lived outside the Law, Abraham and Rahab (vv. 21-26). I find myself under the impression that whether we are to try to please God by works of devotion or not wasn’t even an issue for Paul; this was taken for granted. Rather, he sought to emphasize that inasmuch as we accomplish good works, God is fulfilling His purposes through us:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. [Phil 2.12]

Paul certainly contends that we don’t depend on our good works to please God; rather, we depend upon (=”have faith in”) God, submitting and surrendering to (=”having faith in”) Him to follow Him in faithfulness. It seems that, although energized by God’s grace, Paul expected believers to take the maintenance of faith in its true sense as a responsibility.

I’ve known many Christians so afraid of trampling on the work of Christ by depending on good works for salvation that they, in effect, looked down their nose at good works, chastising congregations that spend “too much” time and effort with ministries and programs and not enough with “worship”, by which they meant praising God and basking in His love (especially with music). I understand that many of them spend so much of their lives trying to earn favor with God by proving their own merit that once they encounter the grace that is Christ’s meritorious faithfulness they become intoxicated by it, with the result that they neglect their own “reasonable service” in response.

Others find the notion of mental assent to true propositions to be the core framework for faith based on their misapprehension of what faith meant to the biblical authors, and understandably spend the bulk of their time in developing the perfect set of beliefs and disparaging those who don’t do likewise.

I think these are both distractions at best, and outright perversions of biblical faith at worst. We are to show true worship to God not only by thanking Him, but by committing our best effort to modeling the faithfulness set before us by Jesus.

No soteriological answers here. But it’s fertile ground for discussion, isn’t it?

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