Lost in Translation: The Abuse of “Faith” in Modern Society

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faithI’ve been told on several occasions that I as a Christian cannot have reasons for being a Christian because Christianity is a religion, religions rely on faith, and faith cannot have reasons otherwise it will cease to be faith. The result is that Christians don’t know why they believe in Jesus more than Thor, and what’s worse is that they don’t think it is their place to figure out why they believe what they do. The secular world seems to expect Christians to accept a faith that has no basis in anything other than arbitrary whims, or, at best, a “feeling.”

Most devastating is that the church seems to have bought into this line of reasoning; often using cliche phrases such as “You just need to have more faith,” or “You need to pray that God will take your doubt away.” This is the kind of thing that I was told when I brought a difficult question to a respected leader in a church that I have attended concerning the integrity of Scripture. Rather than taking me through the reasons why we trust the documents we have today to be largely accurate, they simply asked me, “Do you believe the Bible is true?” I wanted to say, “I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking!” But, since I was talking to one of the main intellectual leaders in my church, I just said, “of course” to which he replied with a smile, satisfied with his work. Meanwhile, I walked away thinking there must not be a rational answer to my question.

Both the secular world and the church expected me to have what our society thinks of as “faith.” Sadly, faith as it is often thought of in 21st Century English is not what was talked about in the books of the New Testament. So after reading this article, it is my hope that the reader will have an understanding of what the original Greek word which we translate to “faith” is, the different senses with which the word can be used, and how this applies to the answer-seeking Christian.

chapelOrigin of the Greek word for faith: The Greek noun for faith is pistis (πίστις) which is translated as “belief” or “faith,” and is often taken as the opposite of sight or knowledge when used in a religious sense. While this sense of the word can be close to the meaning of pistis, it is far from accurate in all uses of the word (especially since “believe” is such a vague word without further definition). We may see this for several reasons. The verb form of pistis is pisteuo which comes from peitho (πείθω). Peitho means ” to prevail upon, win over, persuade.” This suggests that believing is a fundamentally reasonable action (in the sense that it takes reasons to persuade somebody). Thus, we already see difficulty for the common idea that faith is apart from knowledge, as the verb for having faith is derived from the verb which means to be persuaded. Therefore, pistis is essentially “a persuasion of a thing.” The information concerning Greek vocabulary may be found here.

In addition to the origins of the Greek word for faith, (pistis) which suggests that faith ought not be as devoid of reasons as we make it out to be, we may look to the context of instances where pistis is used, and evaluate the meanings implied by the various senses of the word.

There are three  senses in which the word for faith is used.

1. Faith as a system of beliefs: Colossians 1:23 states, “εἴ γε ἐπιμένετε τῇ πίστει” which translates in the NASB to “if indeed you continue in the faith…” Tῇ (The) πίστει (Faith) evidently refers to a very specific kind of thing. It is not a personal state of belief that a person has when used in this sense. Rather, it is a creed; a body of truths to which one subscribes.

2. Faith involving personal knowledge: As Paul wrote to Colossae, his focus was in dealing with gnosticism as a movement aimed at attaining a kind of mystic knowledge. The entirety of Paul’s introduction to Colossians is focused on what it means to have knowledge of the faith. This flies directly in the face of the idea that faith is apart from knowledge as Paul’s letter is charged with cognitive language as he described what it means to understand the faith. In Colossians 1:9 Paul writes, “ἵνα πληρωθῆτε τὴν ἐπίγνωσιν τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ καὶ συνέσει πνευματικῇ” which translates in the NASB to “For this reason also, …we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Paul also uses the word “μανθάνω” (to learn, as in to learn a fact) several times throughout his introduction. Paul explicitly states that he desires for the Colossians to attain knowledge, wisdom, and understanding (all being cognitive things which involve knowledge), and he frequently writes of himself learning what it means to live the Christian life. This explicit call to learning, knowledge, wisdom, and understanding undercuts any kind of conception that the Christian life ought to only involve faith as some sort of blind belief without any sense of knowledge.

3. Faith as trust: Now I’m sure that at this point there are some who are thinking, “But even the demons believe! Pistis must mean something more than belief in mere facts!” And yes, you are correct. That is where we must turn to the remaining translation of pisteuo which is “to trust” or “to credit.” This is the sense of the word which is found in John 14:1 in which Jesus tells his disciples to believe (πιστεύετε) in Him as they believe in God, and to believe that He would prepare a place in heaven for them. This is the kind of pistis that transcends the knowledge that can be learned in a factual sense. This is the kind of trust that we so often associate with faith. This is the kind of faith that is essential to our salvation. When Jesus said that one must be as a child, he was talking about this kind of faith which gives a picture of a child reaching up to their father; trusting that he will not let them fall as he picks them up.

Conclusion: Without the faith and the personal knowledge of the faith that comes through learning,bible knowledge, wisdom, and understanding we have nothing in which to place our trust. Thus, the faith of the Christian has many sides. The trust-based side is the one which requires that we take a leap of faith, and go beyond our factual knowledge to trust that God will indeed prepare a place for us in heaven. But, this sense of faith has been conflated with and placed above the other two senses of the word for faith which are indispensable as we decide where we put our trust.

Even when a child trusts their parents, it is not without reason. That parent has cared for, nurtured, and shown affection to that child; therefore, the child trusts them. The child has knowledge of their parent, and trusts them accordingly. In the same way, we must know and know about God before we can trust Him. The Faith is the creed, the system of truths, to which we subscribe that lead us to our knowledge of the true God. We come to a knowledge of the tenets of the faith by our personal knowledge; a more subjective sense of faith as our personal beliefs which come about by learning, knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.

Therefore, when someone comes to us asking for answers concerning the basic tenets of Christianity, we ought not tell them to simply trust the dogma which we throw at them as that is not the proper place for that kind of faith. Rather, that is the kind of knowledge that is essential to the faith which we come to know through cognitive learning of sorts (reason) rather than blind trust.

The trust which we place in God to save us from our sins is a beautiful, sacred thing that ought to be taken very seriously. It is nothing short of heretical to claim that the trust which we place in our salvation ought to be applied to everything we believe within the faith as that is completely contrary to what Scripture has ordained. Thus, when a person wants reasons to come to a knowledge of Christ, or knowledge of the faith, we ought to be prepared to give them a persuasive case to learn and understand that knowledge.

Paul was persuaded by Jesus’ awe-inspiring appearance to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), John the Baptist was persuaded to believe by the miracles which Jesus showed his messengers when John doubted who Jesus was (Matthew 11), the Greeks to whom Paul ministered were persuaded by intellectual engagement (Acts 17), Galatians and Romans are full of appeals to Jesus as a fulfillment of the law in order to reach the Jews and help them understand, and Thomas was persuaded by feeling the holes in Jesus’ hands (John 20). Let us never judge the merit of our Christian walk by an overuse of blind trust as a substitute for the divine persuasion that leads us to our personal knowledge of the faith, since there is no precedent for such false piety in Scripture. To the contrary, it is divine persuasion through history, philosophy, theology, and/or personal experiences that have been demonstrated in Scripture to persuade a believer to hold to the knowledge of the faith (which is proclaimed in the Gospel alone) from which they may trust and be saved.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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