What is faith? This probably sounds like a silly question – but only if we have given it no thought because we assume we fully understand it. Consider one small sampling of the evidence.
In the second and third centuries before Christ, Jewish scholars translated their Hebrew Bible into Greek. We call their work the Septuagint. Interesting questions might be: What Hebrew ideas were they trying to convey when they used the Greek word pistis (faith)? Was their understanding of faith broader, the same or narrower than ours? Let’s take a look.
Here is a list of the Hebrew words that are rendered in the Septuagint with pistis (faith):
‘emun – trusting, faithfulness: Deuteronomy 32:20; Proverbs 13:17
‘emunah – faithfulness, trust and truth because it is reliable as something that is firm and steadfast: 1 Samuel 26:23; Psalm 33:4; Proverbs 12:17,22; 2 Kings 12:15; 1 Chronicles 9:31; 2 Chronicles 31:15; 34:12; Jeremiah 5:1; Hosea 2:20; Habakkuk 2:4
‘amanah – faith, support. Hence, a sure or reliable covenant: Nehemiah 9:38
‘emet – firmness, faithfulness: Proverbs 3:3
‘aman – made sure. Hence, if something is not made sure then it fails: Jeremiah 15:18
When the Septuagint translators encountered Hebrew words conveying trustworthiness and faithfulness, they chose to use the Greek word pistis to convey these ideas. It would appear their core understanding of pistis revolved around the idea of something or someone being reliable, embodying trustworthiness or exemplifying faithfulness through actions.
What is intriguing about their usage of faith is that its core idea was not limited to always being an inner conviction or belief. Rather, their notion of faith revolved around being reliable – which could also be seen through action.
How does such an understanding compare with our ideas about faith? Can our view of faith embrace action or is it limited to the realm of inner convictions and beliefs?
Were they wrong to use faith in this way? Does the New Testament usage of faith also encompass faith as action? In other words, if our understanding of faith limits it to being a confident belief, are we in agreement with how the New Testament’s uses faith? James said no. For him faith in Christ involved living without prejudice (James 2:1). Similarly, Paul could refer to “works of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3).
If we assume that faith means just believing, we will obtain a message from the New Testament. However, will we comprehend the authors’ intended meaning and hence achieve an author-centered understanding? Or will we merely be listening to an echo of our own assumptions, thus confining our own reader-centered understanding?
All of these questions highlight the value of asking fundamental questions and exploring the evidence. Relying upon assumptions is not a reliable path. It has been said that unexamined assumptions are the most dangerous ones. Why is this so? Unexamined assumptions wield power without us realizing we are being controlled by them.