Sunday, June 16, 2013

A word about "faith", and about Christ

Here I want to look closely at one word in the New Testament: "faith". That word is important to Christians, and to Christian life and thinking. As we look at "faith", I'd like to look at one passage in particular that says something striking about faith -- or nothing at all, depending on the translation.

The New Testament has come down to us in Greek, even if some works may have been written in other languages originally. It is from the Greek that we translate into the languages that we use ourselves. The main Greek word for "faith" is πίστις (or Strong's G4102, for searching with that method). It is used 244 times in the New Testament, and in the AV (King James) it was translated almost always as "faith". Of those 244 uses, it was translated 239 times as "faith", 3 times as forms of "belief" or "believe", once as "fidelity", and once -- only once -- as "assurance". It is a word which was almost always taken to mean "faith" as used back in the day when that translation was made. In some modern translations we also see other words like "trust" used to translate that some word. "Trust" is particularly apt in many cases. Still, it is the once  -- only once -- that the AV translates it as "assurance" rather than "faith" that I want to look at more closely:
He (God) has given ______ to all by raising him (Christ) from the dead. (Acts 17: 31)
What exactly has God given to everyone by raising Christ from the dead? The translators of the King James here decided against the normal translation of "faith", instead turning towards "assurance" (AV). The old NIV went with "proof of this", which is not at all how they typically translated that Greek word. These special and unusual translations of the word are probably because the translator was firmly convinced that the sentence "God has given faith to all by raising Christ from the dead" makes no sense. Of course the words make sense; but who thinks Paul could have really meant that? Let's look a little more at translations of that word, and that it does have more than one meaning as we would see it in English, before we get back to this question.

Paul, the righteousness of God, and faith: Romans

Many people know more than one language, and know that translations can be tricky. For any word in one language, there can be several different words with different shades of meaning in another language. This creates a pair of problems: not only which word to choose, but also how to show that there was not such a huge difference between the concepts for the original writer.

With that in mind, let's look at "faith" and we'll start with a less controversial sentence, I hope: Paul's topic sentence in writing to the Romans:
For the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith." (Romans 1:17)
The AV sticks with "from faith to faith" even though that's hard to understand in English. The NIV drops "from faith to faith" entirely and tries to find the meaning, saying "by faith from first to last".  But the more I read Romans and follow the train of thought and the line of argument, the more I think "from first to last" is not what Paul meant. Let's watch Paul develop his train of thought, then, and come back to "from faith to faith". The whole book of Romans is worth re-reading but I will hardly quote the whole thing here. I'll quote from the parts that are most directly developing the topic of faith, and hope that the reader reads along for more than is directly quoted here.

1.  Here Paul contrasts human lack of faith with God's faithfulness.
What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? May it not be! Let God be true, and every man a liar. (Romans 3:3)
Paul contends that God is true: he is constant in his faithfulness, unchanged by our lack of faith.

2. Here Paul speaks of Abraham's example of faith, and we read Paul's introduction and concluding remarks about Abraham's example:

What does Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." (Romans 4:3)

Yet he (Abraham) did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. That is why "it was credited to him as righteousness". (Romans 4:20-22)
Paul argues that Abraham's faith consisted in trusting that God could keep his promises. Abraham thought that God was trustworthy and faithful. "Faith" is what you call that attitude towards someone when you consider them to be trustworthy and faithful.

3. Here Paul explains how Christ fits into the picture of the righteousness that is by faith:

But the righteousness that is by faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down) or 'Who will descend to the deep?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you: it is in your mouth and in your heart", that is the word we are proclaiming. That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame." For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile -- the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romans 10:6-13)
Again we see Paul proclaiming God's faithfulness: that the one who trusts in God will not be put to shame, that he blesses all who call, that all who call on him will be saved. So God's faithfulness is the basis of our faith.

Paul has already mentioned Christ in the passage that we just read, about how Jesus is Lord, and how God raised him from the dead. Here he continues about how we come to faith:

Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
It is in Christ that we know God's faithfulness: his love for creation, his commitment to heal, his promise of resurrection, the justice to come at the last day, the mercy of forgiveness.

4. So back to Paul's topic sentence for the letter to the Romans:

For the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith ...

Based on how Paul develops his thoughts on "faith" throughout the letter, I expect Paul was using more than one sense of the word here. The same word means "faith" and "faithfulness". I think he was saying that God has proven himself to be faithful (trustworthy) towards us, and that God's trustworthiness is the basis for our trust in him. Once we grasp God's righteousness, once we understand God's faithfulness, that is what it means to have faith in him. And so our faith consists in our understanding of God's goodness, in our conviction that he has promised a good thing and will accomplish it as he said. And that faith is credited to us as righteousness. That is how there is something "revealed": The righteousness of God is revealed in his faithfulness, which gives us faith (from faith, to faith).

By raising Christ from the dead

So what should we say?
He (God) has given ______ to all by raising him (Christ) from the dead. (Acts 17: 31)
You can fill in the blank with "assurance" or "proof" if you like. But when we resist saying "faith" here, it is because in our language we do not think of "faith" in the way Paul did, where God's raising Christ from the dead was the full demonstration of God's trustworthiness and faithfulness toward the world, seen as proof enough for the world of how right it is to hope in God through Christ. It was seen as proof enough for the world of everything that the message of Christ entails: hope of the world to come, new life, resurrection from the dead, justice and mercy. Christ's resurrection is the ultimate mind-opening, heart-opening, hope-inspiring event of all time. It is our message, and it is the message that brings faith.

What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? May it not be! Let God be true, and every man a liar. (Romans 3:3)
Some people will say that faith is a gift of God (Eph 2:8, and assuming that the gift being referred to is faith).  But when we see a passage that says that same thing is given to all by a generally known event -- Jesus' resurrection, arguably the most momentous event in the world's history -- what will we say? Will we say that God has given faith to some but not others? Does God's act in establishing our faith consist in something more than putting proof (or assurance) right before our eyes? Granted that some do not have faith; but God is still faithful, and has still shown it to all.

That is how people come to faith: "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." Consider also that Jesus said that, when the Son of Man is lifted up (on the cross), he will draw all to himself (John 12:32). Because
God has given _______ to all by raising Christ from the dead.
When we hear that God gives us faith, and that God draws us, time and again we hear that it is through the message of Christ. I wonder very much: Is it right to look for any other giving and drawing, or is it all in the message of Christ? Regardless of how you translate that one word here, we can be sure that there is something unique that God has given to all in raising Christ from the dead. How exactly should we understand that unique thing that God has given to all in raising Christ? And why would Paul choose that word for it?


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Where is the "like" button?

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you. :) Btw I saw your post on the state of Greece, & every time I see the news from over there I think of you. Hope things are going ok.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Howard said...

Really helpful series of posts... much to consider and delight in.

Martin LaBar said...

As usual, well done. I need to read this again. Thanks.

Weekend Fisher said...

You all are such an encouragement to me. When I am struggling to find the time to write, all of you are a blessing.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF