What is faith?
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Consider these three views:

  1. A "faith healer" named Benny Pophagin offers to heal Joe of his lumbago. Benny lays hands on Joe and prays, but the lumbago remains. Benny waves Joe away, saying, "This is your problem. You don't have enough faith."
  2. A Christian faces several objections to his beliefs that he cannot answer. He says, "I don't care what people say, I still have faith."
  3. The famous skeptic Mark Twain said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

Can anyone guess what is wrong with this picture?

The answer is that all of these examples offer an incorrect definition or understanding of what Biblical faith is all about. Twain's own definition does correctly (with some negative emphasis) embody the way "faith" is understood by far too many today -- but it does not match the Biblical definition of that word, and as the first two examples suggest, "faith" is a badly misunderstood concept in the church at large.

Our prime resources for this essay are three works we have come to find extremely useful of late: Malina's The New Testament World; Malina and Neyrey's Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality [87, 167] and deSilva's Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity [95ff]. These books offer us a glimpse into the ancient world of the early Christians and an understanding that their "faith" was understood as anything but a matter of believing against the grain as our examples suggest.

Lately we have also found the same information laid out in Zeba Crook's Reconceptualising Conversion in more detail, but it adds nothing new that is crucial to our presentation.

The Greek word behind "faith" in the NT is pistis. As a noun, pistis is a word that was used as a technical rhetorical term for forensic proof. Examples of this usage are found in the works of Aristotle and Quintiallian, and in the NT in Acts 17:31:

Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

If you are used to thinking of "faith" in terms of our first two examples, this will assuredly come as a surprise. The raising of Christ is spoken of here as a proof that God will judge the world. However, if we think about the missionary preaching of the book of Acts, this makes perfect sense and teaches us a certain lesson.

Here is more food for thought: Is there anyplace in the NT where we can find someone giving their "personal testimony"?

The answer is yes -- but it is in Phil. 3, where Paul gives his personal testimony about his former life, when writing to fellow Christians. He does not use it in a missionary setting to unbelievers.

Indeed, one will find nowhere in the NT an example of missionaries, or anyone, giving their personal testimony.

This is for good reason. The ancients conceived of personality as static; the way you were born is the way you stayed. Personal change was not a focus, because it was thought impossible. This is why the church remained suspicious of Paul even after his conversion, and until Barnabas (who probably knew Paul previously) testified on his behalf.

But note well: The following is not the sort of thing one will find in the NT:

Acts 2:48-52 And Peter arose and said, Men and brethren, I testify to you that whereas I formerly smoked mustard leaves, drank wine, cursed daily, and smelled moreover of fish, when the Lord Jesus Christ entered my heart I became clean. Now I no longer smoke, I no longer drink, my language is no longer filthy, and I bathe daily. Praise the Lord!

On the contrary. Here is what we do find in the missionary preaching of the NT:

Acts 2:22-36 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved...Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear... Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.

Peter's primary appeal here was threefold:

  1. He appealed to the evidence of the wonders and signs performed by Jesus;
  2. he appealed to the empty tomb,
  3. and he appealed to fulfillment of OT prophecy.
In short, his appeals were evidentiary. One of course might wish to dispute the validity of the evidence, but in context this is beside the point. The point is that Peter grounded belief in Christianity on evidence -- or, as the definition of pistis in Acts 17:31 would put it, proofs.

Now before you re-read various passages on "faith" in this light, bear in mind two things.

First, this does not necessarily mean abandoning personal testimony as a form of witness. Changed lives may be, and often are, appealed to as proofs of the Christian faith, and in our individualistic society which has lost a sense of history (to the point where many people cannot even name our Vice-President), such appeals may actually be better in some contexts than an apologetic for the empty tomb.

Second, note that in very few cases is this form of pistis, as meaning a proof, in view. The meaning does give us a clue as to the nature of other meanings. It is often used as a noun to refer to the Christian "faith" as a set of convictions. In far many more cases the meaning intended is in the sense of faithfulness, or loyalty as owed to one in whom one is embedded for service (in this case, the body of Christ).

This now leads to an expansion of the pistis concept as derived from deSilva. As deSilva shows, the relationship between the believer and God is framed in terms of an ancient client-patron relationship. As God's "clients" to whom he has shown unmerited favor (grace), our response should be, as Malina and Neyrey frame it, a "constant awareness" of prescribed duties toward those in whom we are indebted (God) and the group in which we are embedded (God's kin group, the body of Christ).

This "constant awareness" is the expression of our faithfulness of loyalty -- in other words, this is our pistis, or faith. "Faith" is not a feeling, but our pledge to trust and be reliable servants to our patron (God), who has provided us with tangible gifts (Christ) and proof thereby of His own reliability.

There are some further considerations, with specific reference to the modern idea of a "personal relationship with Jesus," which is the modern staple of evangelism.

Given the above data, the actual description that fits an authentic faith is not a personal relationship, but a patronal relationship. Modern sentiments that call Jesus our "friend" and suppose that we ought to talk to God as to our best buddy are, in this context, clearly misplaced.

John MacArthur once lamented over a story of someone who said he spoke to Jesus every morning while shaving. He asked the person, "Do you keep shaving?" The casualness with which we approach a relationship to the Almighty is decidedly far from what the ancients would have ever considered; indeed, the client seldom if ever spoke to or saw the patron (here, the Father) and had even limited contact with the broker (here, Jesus). As such, Jesus' admonition to make requests of him hardly signifies a constant appeal for every possible need to be met as we desire.

In addition, the "personal relationship" paradigm shatters upon the point that the "personal relationship" as we know it is a modern phenomenon. Malina notes in The New Testament World [66] that in a collectivist culture, people "did not know each other very well in the way we know people, that is, psychologically, individually, intimately, and personally." People were not considered "psychologically unique worlds" to each other; personal idiosyncrasies obviously existed, but were considered unimportant and uninteresting. (Modern persons, Malina notes, would think such people were rigid or highly controlled, or fearful of others; which bespeaks the bigotry and misunderstanding of those Skeptics who i.e., say Paul is an obsessed personality, or that he and others acted in a highly controlling manner.)

The bottom line for us here is that the "personal relationship with Jesus" model is an anachronistic product of our own times, a remaking of God and Jesus in our own image.

With this in mind, we now turn to a study of specific examples of "faith" in the NT, and how they are misunderstood -- and we will close with a revisit to our examples above.

With a form of pistis used over 240 times in the NT, it will not be possible to examine every instance of it. But it is enough to highlight some of the more obvious examples.

Matthew 8:5-10 And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed... When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.

We very clearly see here the definition of "faith" in terms of loyalty to, or trust in, a deserving patron. The centurion knew of Jesus' miraculous abilities (v. 8). His faith was not "blind" but based on the evidence of Jesus' past works. He considered Jesus worthy therefore of his trust and came to him for help.

This is the sort of "faith" also exhibited by other people who come to, or are brought to, Jesus for healing. The man with palsy, the woman with the issue of blood, Jairus, the blind man (Matt. 9), the Syrophoenician woman (Matt. 15) -- all came knowing of Jesus' abilities to heal. Their actions were based on evidence and proof.

Of course one may argue that their trust was misplaced and that Jesus was a charlatan, but contextually that is beside the point. Our point is that faith is not "blind trust."

Matthew 17:19-20 Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

This passage is one of the leading "make hay" passages for charlatans like our Benny Pophagin. Not healed? You needed more faith!

Instead, understand "faith" as loyalty and "unbelief" as disobedience. So what is the implication? Matthew 17:21 ("Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.") is missing from the best manuscripts of Matthew. The parallel, Mark 9:29, shows textual data indicating that only "prayer" was part of the original (see here). Wherein then lies the disciples' disobedience and disloyalty? It is in lack of prayer, and a false perception that the gift of exorcism was something inherent in themselves rather than being conveyed through them by God.

Note that the exorcism is preceded by a note that the scribes were questioning the disciples [Mark 9:14-16] -- most likely challenging them to perform an exorcism. We find a parallel lesson in Luke 10:17-20: "And the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name. And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven."

This is a firm caution against pride and focus on self, and a loss of concentration on the real power behind the ability to exorcize demons.

A similar lesson may be drawn from Matthew 21, in which Jesus states, "Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive."

This needs to be combined with our comments elsewhere: No Jew would recognize such statements as giving believers carte blanche to ask to have mountains turned over (see more here). This is simply a way of emphasizing God's commitment, as a patron, to bless and show favor to the believer -- who would be expected not to ask for silly or selfish things in the first place, no more so than any client in the Roman world would be foolish enough to ask his patron to give him a million bucks to blow on video games. A person with pistis does not knowingly ask for that which God would not or does not will, and does not ask for something to happen if it is against God's will.

In Jewish thought, God was sovereign. Nothing happened that God did not permit or cause. "Early Jewish teaching did celebrate God's kindness in answering prayer, but rarely promises such universal answers to prayer to all of God's people as the language suggests." [Keener, 245] Only a small number of sages were considered pious enough to ask for and receive whatever they wanted -- and that piety was their key indicator that they weren't going around asking for just anything they wanted (like Hanina ben Dosa, and Honi the Circle-Drawer), but only what they supposed to be in the will of God. "Such a call to believing prayer supposes a heart of piety submitted to God's will..."

Limitations upon what we may receive are clearly set by the context. The Lord's Prayer instructs us to pray for daily needs (Matt. 6:11) -- it does not say, "Give us this day a Rolls Royce." Earthly children ask for bread or fish (7:9-10) which are "basic staples in the Palestinian diet" that were provided to children on a regular basis. We can ask for "good things" (7:11), a term which sometimes referred to prosperity generally, but also "referred to agricultural produce that the righteous would share with others (Test. Iss. 3:7-8)."

Neither the Jewish nor the Roman client-patron background would understand the mountain-moving phrase as literal permission to request whatever our selfishness desires -- or to expect something to be given to us contrary to the will and desire of the patron.

Mark 4:39-40 And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?

By now it should be easy to see that Jesus rebukes the disciples for a lack of trust and loyalty, which by this time he should have justly earned from them, having already shown his miraculous powers and wisdom.

Mark 6:5-6 And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages, teaching.

We've seen a lot of skeptics quote this verse lately, saying that it indicates that Jesus was a charlatan who (like our modern "faith healer" Benny) needed people to have "faith" and excused away ability to heal real diseases as a lack of faith. The word "unbelief" here is apistia, meaning a lack of pistis.

In light of our better understanding of pistis, the problem is indeed not with Jesus but with the lack of loyalty and trust by those who reject Jesus. Like the ungrateful client in the client-patron relationship, the people rejected Jesus as a patron in spite of his acts of grace, thereby dishonoring him. (Note how this affects the meaning of Mark 6:4: "A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.") To reject a gracious act was the height of dishonor.

Jesus could not heal these people not because of a lack of power, but because of ingratitude and a rejection of his gracious patronage. A rejected patron could and would never force his gracious gifts upon a client who didn't want them!

Finally we look at this most-often abused use of pistis by Skeptics who prefer the Twain definition:

Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Blind faith? Not at all. The list that follows offers examples of people who had been given undeniable proof of God's existence and power. Pistis here is a matter of trust in a God who has demonstrated His ability to be a worthy patron, and the examples are those of clients who, knowing this ability, trust in God's record as a patronal provider.

Hebrews 11:1 therefore is telling us that faith (trust in our patron, gained by conviction based on evidence) is the substance (the word here means an assurance, as in a setting under, a concrete essence or an abstract assurance) of things hoped for (this word means expected by trust, which is something earned!), and the evidence of that which is not seen, which in context means we expect, based on past performance, continuing favor from our patron, who has already proven Himself worthy of our trust by example, and this trust is our confidence in the fulfillment of future promises.

Blind faith? No -- it is faith grounded in reality.

With these things in mind, let's now look back at our case examples and see where they go wrong.

  1. A "faith healer" named Benny Pophagin offers to heal Joe of his lumbago. Benny lays hands on Joe and prays, but the lumbago remains. Benny waves Joe away, saying, "This is your problem. You don't have enough faith."

    As Mark 6:5 shows, Benny is full of bologna. Anyone who trusts God already has all the "faith" they need. What Benny misses is the central truth that this trust is not something giving us carte blanche to get everything we want. What we do get remains in the patron's good grace.

  2. A Christian faces several objections to his beliefs that he cannot answer. He says, "I don't care what people say, I still have faith."

    Our Christian probably does have "faith" even by the right definition -- but it needs to be grounded in something firm and not held blindly.

  3. The famous skeptic Mark Twain said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

    Like our friend Benny, Twain was badly misinformed. "Faith" is believing what you know to be true and trustworthy. Once again, one may argue about whether the evidence is indeed trustworthy, but contextually it remains that true faith is far, far from blind.

In conclusion: If you as a Christian have held one or more of these views of faith, we offer this in humbleness as a corrective. Your faith does not have to be, and was never intended to be, a blind trust -- not in God, and not as something you hold even in opposition.

A reader summed it up well:

"If our faith was supposed to be blind and not grounded in evidence, then there is no reason for God to reveal anything. There would be no reason for Jesus to perform miracles for all to see, or no reason for Jesus to teach things about the Kingdom of Heaven, no reason for Jesus to appear to his disciples after he resurrected, etc."