Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Understanding the Meaning of "Faith"

by Rob Lundberg
The other day I was involved in a conversation with a group of men at a Men’s Breakfast at our church. One of the discussions we were working over was the meaning of this word, “faith.” The definition of faith is very much misunderstood by Christians and maligned by skeptics, depending on which side of the conversation one finds themselves.
Allow me explain what I mean. Many folks, Christians and atheists alike, will define this word “faith” by stating that “faith is believing something with no evidence.”  Some well meaning Christians would even say that they have no need of evidence, and that they “just believe” in Jesus. On the other side of the “ledger,” atheists would like us to take their definition of “faith” to mean “believing something that you cannot see” or to mean the most popular accusation, “believing something without evidence.”
Even though I have written on indirectly on this subject in a past blog posting, what I would like to do is to “hit this subject head on.” My reasons for this are simply because many Christians find themselves in conversations with skeptics on spiritual matters where often times this subject comes up. Those of us who step in the arena with atheists know that this is a favorite “hot button.” We need to have a good grasp on how to respond to this subject as it is due to come up in conversations with the groupies parroting the arguments of the “popular atheists.”
I am going to approach this subject using one of my favorite methods, the question and answer inquiry. [1] First, I will start with the question of what is “faith” from the dictionary perspective. From there, I will answer some of the questions which could follow from various translations in the BIble from Hebrews 11:1. In this section, I will address two common English renderings that lead to, what I believe, is the source of confusion for Christians regarding a lack of understanding of the definition of “faith.” Lastly, I will close with what it means when we use the term, “the Christian faith.”
Please note that this will not be an exhaustive presentation on this subject due to the scope for this setting. At the same time I believe it is an important enough subject to engage and possibly further the discussion. I do have a goal to do more writing on this subject at a later time, perhaps in the form of a position paper.
What is the definition of faith?
Many folks, when looking for the definition of a word turn to a dictionary. Having had a few discussions with those embracing “popular atheism,” one thing is certain. Of the five different definitions presented in the most dictionaries, the “objection” fomenting from the atheist is centered on only one of the five definitions listed in most dictionaries.  When approaching the dictionary for a definition for “faith,” we need to look at all the definitions and fit them into their proper context.
This cannot be understated. It is of most importance to understand that in many cases where there are multiple definitions for a word, it will depend on a certain context where the word can be used. “Faith” is one of those words. Let me demonstrate this by breaking down the definitions. Wading through Webster’s dictionary.com  there are five sub-definitions for “faith.” [2]
The first definition of faith implies a type of confidence or trust in a person or a thing, i.e., “having faith in another’s ability” (to do something). This definition draws in a strong reference to an object, whether that object is a person or a thing, that is believed with strong conviction. This can refer to marital fidelity, faith in a religion, or faith in a person.
In the context of religious faith, there are many people in our culture who have this kind of faith in whatever religion they embrace. The interesting thing is that they are convinced that their religion is true, but the question is, have they tested those truth claims to know they are true. There is a conviction, but the question is toward a validity of truth for the religion that is embraced. This idea is going to be important in the remaining sections.
The second definition is in favor of a fideistic view of “faith.” The definition implies a “belief that is not based on proof.” It is like one having a kind of faith that is based more in hypothesis or theory than substantiated by fact. Again, there is a faith that is believed as true, but the question is toward a validity of truth for the religion that is embraced. I think of those who embrace religions based upon feeling, but the religion itself has not been tested for its truthfulness.
There is a third definition this more in the religious context. From the dictionary, it is the faith or “belief in God or in the doctrines of religion” or a particular religion or ideology. The definition is used with an object, i.e., the firm faith of the Pilgrims. May I insert here that this third definition can refer to those on both sides of the “belief line?” Many skeptics have a “faith,” though they will not admit it, in the idea of scientism, thinking that science will one day prove all truth. I call this the unreasonable faith of the skeptic.
Fourthly, there is a definition which refers to the “belief in anything as a code of ethics, or a standard of merit. This can be religious in its context or it can be patriotic in another context. To give an example of this kind of “coda” faith, I have some friend that are up the road about 40 minutes from us at Quantico Marine Base. Those of you who have served in the Corps or know someone in the Marines will be familiar with the saying, Semper Fidelis  (Always Faithful). [3] This is that kind of “faith.”
Lastly there is a usage of this word “faith” that reflects a description of “a system of religious belief”, i.e., the Christian faith or the Jewish faith. I will address this in the final section of this posting.
But if faith involves conviction, strong allegiance, and the belief in someone’s ability to do something, how do these line up with the biblical understanding of faith?
What About the Bible and Faith?
In a conversation between fellow believers, the Bible translation one uses can either keep a smooth conversation or muddy the waters. In either case it surely sets the ground for how the rest of the conversation goes. That is because some translations do not use the word, “evidence” in the Hebrews 11:1 definition of faith, even though the reasons for evidence are present. Demonstrating this using two popular translations, the New American Standard Bible and the New King James Version, I think we will see what I am trying to convey.
Notice with me first the New American Standard Bible (NASB),
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Next notice the rendering in the King James Version (NKJV),
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Hebrews 11:1 indeed gives us the clearest definition of “faith” from the Bible. Entering into a very quick word study, this verse uses words like “assurance” (NASB) and “substance” (NKJV) in the first part of the verse. If we were to look at the original language for these words in the text, we run into this “fun” Greek word, hupostasis (ὑποστασις) [4]; which simply means “assurance.” This kind of assurance imparts the meaning of a confident assurance and not some blind assurance. There is a sense of a “guarantee,” or an “attestation” where the object of one’s faith is true.
Moving to the second part of this verse, we see this idea reinforced with another word building off of the Greek word, “hupostasis.” Looking at the second clause we read the phrase, “the conviction/evidence of things not seen.”
Conviction and evidence are the same word in the original language of the text, the word, elegchos (ἔλεγχος). This word denotes “evidence” or “proof” and originates from the word that was used in ancient papyri for legal proofs where there was an accusation. [5]
What are we being accused of? What we are being accused of, by the popular atheists, is embracing a blind faith, or believing in something for which there is no evidence.
The problem with this accusation is that Christians have a strong confidence or assurance in Jesus’ finished work of redemption for our sins. This is not only evidenced by His historical death on a cross, His burial, but it is also capped off by His physical resurrection from the dead.
This is not some kind of “I hope I win the lottery” kind of faith, nor is it some blind leap in the dark. No, this is a faith that packs an assurance because of the eyewitness testimony from biblical historical sources.  We also have external sources from those who followed and trusted the testimony of the biblical writers. We move forward in history and we are trusting the same eyewitnesses. So this is not a blind faith by any means, but one that is loaded with circumstantial evidence attesting to its veracity. By the way, this is also why Christians should care about the evidences for their faith, particularly in the days in which we live.
Let’s move now to answering the question about what we mean by the “Christian faith.
What do we mean by the Christian faith?
It was the great preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who gave us a great way of explaining what “faith” is all about by bringing in three ingredients for faith: “knowledge, belief, and trust.”
In order to gain some kind of object for ones faith one must have knowledge about certain facts that are believed to be true.  Those facts better be good if they are going to provide us with a solid object for our faith.
As Christians we base our knowledge on the historicity of Christ, and key historical events which have been proven reliable through ancient eyewitness testimony, sacred history, and even secular history.  We have knowledge of the good news of the gospel message and knowledge of how one may receive the free gift of salvation (Romans 10:9,10).  There are plenty of solid reasons to know that the Christian faith is packed with truth.
On the other side of the “belief line,” atheists bases their knowledge on theory or strings of theories that God does not exist.  They believe that God does not exist, and they base that belief on science, drawing together all kinds of logical fallacies which can be turned over and used against their arguments.   Both Christians and skeptics know certain “facts” that they believe are true. (Who has the most faith between the two “camps?”)
As we examine all the knowledge based upon the evidences of God’s historical intervention in the history of mankind, the historical life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we then take the next step.  It is the step of belief.
This is not some kind of mental assent. There is a lot of evidence for what we believe about God’s existence, the life and work of Jesus, and the historical reliability of the Bible; whereas not to believe would be destructive.  You see biblical faith is not believing against the evidence.  When all is said and done the Christian faith is a believing and a knowing which in turn results in action.  What is that action?  It is the final step in Spurgeon’s description on faith.  It is called trust.
Going beyond some kind of assent, the Christian faith is not just about believing that it is true. The Christian faith demands the action of taking what we know, what we believe, and taking it to the final step. The Christian faith is about personal trust in the God of the Bible, the Trinity–Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The center of this trust involves a personal relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, in which we recognize our dependence on Him not just for our existence but for our salvation.
We acknowledge that we are not the people we were created to be, that we have abandoned God and gone our own way.  Acknowledging this, we turn (repent) and rest in the assurance that Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection, has reconciled us to God. As a result we are able to be honest about who we are (rebellious and broken people in need of healing and a transformation of character), and we are able to hope, and have a growing confidence that Jesus Christ is sovereign over all of reality, that His kingdom is being realized, and that He is indeed returning us to the arms of the one holy and loving God.
The Christian faith is not believing something that has no evidence. As Bible believing Christians do not deny reality, we discover it; and once we discovered it there is no turning back.  We are called and must act upon it.
We are called to love God with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind.  We have biblical mandate to act upon that calling, by loving our neighbor as ourself by first denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following the One who gave His life and rose from the dead for us.
What we have are better evidences for believing the Christian faith than the atheist. What does the atheist have?  Well, I’m still waiting to hear something them worth believing. I think we’ll be waiting a long time. Perhaps they are the ones believing in something for which there is no evidence and not the Christian.
[1] This is known as the “Socratic method” a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas.
[4] Hebrews 11:1 in Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Corporation, 1976: 706.
The original posting for this article can be found here. . .

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