Saturday, June 07, 2008

Do Christians sell the faith short? Part 2: is "faith" defined as "the evidence of things not seen"?

This post continues the excellent conversation Dr. Pursiful started this past week. I mentioned that since God raised Christ from the dead, therefore we know God exists. Dr. Pursiful picks up with the most common response that I hear when I mention it:
More importantly, if that were the case then I’m no longer sure what faith is. It certainly isn’t “the evidence of things not seen” anymore if clear-cut evidence existed right in front of all our eyes.
Exactly: we do, in fact, have radically different definitions of faith. Faith, I would submit to you, most commonly means trust. Consider something Jesus said at the Last Supper, in two different translations:
Ye believe in God; believe also in me. (AV)
Trust in God; trust also in me. (NIV)(John 14:1)
When he is talking to people face to face, what on earth does it mean for someone to be called to have faith in him or believe in him? Think about it: if faith is defined as the evidence of things not seen, then how in the world can Jesus be discussing faith in him with people who see him face to face? But he is not asking people to believe he exists or some set of theological propositions; he is asking people to believe he is trustworthy. "Faith" is used to mean "trust" very often in the New Testament.

Consider this: the "Faith Hall of Fame" in Hebrews 11 also uses "faith" to mean "trust":
By faith Abraham, even though he was past age -- and Sarah herself was barren -- was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who made the promise. (Hebrews 11:11)
Here "faith" means "figuring that God will keep his word." Our faith, then, is our confidence in God, which includes confidence that he will keep his promises. That is how faith comes from hearing the word of Christ, as Paul said to the Romans: it is through hearing of Christ that we know God is faithful and trustworthy. When someone shows us that God is trustworthy, we trust him. That is faith. That is also how faith is "evidence of things not seen": if we trust someone, then their word is good enough for us. It's as if, at work, some Employee of the Month type said they'd get the job done; everyone would take it for granted from there -- when dealing with someone who keeps his word, that word is all we need. Replay in your mind the conversation (from a distance) between Jesus and the Roman centurion: "I say to someone 'do this' and he does it", and Jesus said "I have not found such faith in all of Israel." Faith, again, is shown as figuring that someone is trustworthy.

For the record, I believe that "the evidence of things not seen" was never intended as a definition of faith and is not a definition of faith at all; I believe it is a description of how faith behaves when all we have is a promise of things not seen. When all we have is a promise of things not seen, then "faith" (the trust in the one who made the promise) is what takes effect. However, if "the evidence of things not seen" is faith, then Peter, James, and John didn't have "faith" in the resurrection since they had seen the risen Lord; neither did they have "faith" in Christ since they had seen Christ. If "faith" is based on non-evidence, then the thousands of people who personally saw Jesus perform miracles did not have "faith" in Christ as such, though we might suppose they had "faith" that Christ would return.

By now I am hoping I have made the point: I do not believe that "the evidence of things not seen" was ever intended as a definition of faith, and I believe it leads us to problems interpreting the words of Christ and the words of the apostles -- not to mention some problems in theology -- if we take it as a definition of faith rather than a description.

Why do I discuss this under the heading of selling the faith short? Because that definition of "faith" is then only meaningful if it occurs with a lack of evidence, absence of evidence, or even contrary to evidence. Over the years I have even heard a few people -- though not Dr. Pursiful -- discuss "faith" as if it were their own merit or decision or contribution towards salvation, as if they got bonus points for a "leap of faith" -- so that their own faith was significant only if Christianity were not credible. And so certain Christians reliably proclaim that Christianity is not credible on its own, so that their "faith" (of that sort) is then meaningful in that way. That kind of message I find directly opposed to the message that I would send and I believe the New Testament sends: that Christianity is credible, and that God has shown himself in Christ, and that faith -- i.e. trust in God -- comes from hearing what Christ has done.

The different places you get from defining a single word differently! But then again, "faith" was always an important word.
My life on her faith. -- Othello.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

"Evidence of things not seen" is an attempt to put the Greek into English that quite fails.

Faith is the "substance of things hoped for and the evidene of things unseen." But "substance" is a too-literal translation of "Hypostasis," meaning an existence or a subsistence. It means the things hoped for already exist as faith. Faith is their alternate mode of being. Faith is their subsistence.

"Evidence of things unseen" should be "evident-ness" or "obviousness" of things unseen. It's a thought parallel to the one about things hoped for.

When we have faith, the things hoped for are already present, here and now, and the things unseen are obvious. That's the sense of the verse.

Weekend Fisher said...

Now that's an interesting light. Thank you.

I wonder, have you ever seen an English translation that you thought did justice to that passage?

I wonder ...

"Faith is the manifestation of things hoped for, the showing-forth of things not seen" ... not quite it ...

I would be very interested in knowing the closest we could get that into English.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF