What does Faith mean? Of course many people say “faith” is the same thing as what I would call “blind faith.” Believing something with no evidence or even despite of the evidence to the contrary. As a Christian we want to know what God wants us to do when he says we should “have faith” or “believe”. So I have investigated what the New Testament authors/Holy Spirit would have meant by “faith” when they enjoin us to believe and/or have faith. The conclusion I have reached is a fairly straightforward definition. Faith is belief and trust in God. It might be blind faith but that is not the expected variety of faith. In acts we see Paul would normally reason with people to try to help them become Christian.
“As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.” (emphasis added)
Acts 17, 2-4
Of course, there are places where it appears Paul worked miracles and people gained faith through witness of those miracles. Which, of course, seems a perfectly rational way to gain faith and would likely be more convincing. But as the above passage states his “custom” was to spread the faith through reason.
Why is there this misunderstanding of faith? Well there are various reasons. Obviously Christian detractors would like to label everyone of faith as being irrational so their motivation can be obvious. But that clearly is not even close to the whole story. Although most early church fathers and apostles were in favor or reason, some early church fathers emphasized a sort of rejection of reason such as Tertullian. During the protestant reformation protestant churches seemed to take a hard turn against faith and reason coexisting. Eg., Martin Luther “Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding,…” Calvin seemed to have them operating as two completely different types of belief. The Catholic Church has clearly emphasized that they work together and are never in conflict. Pope John Paul II even described them as two wings for the human spirit. It is obvious that certain evangelical faiths also want to embrace reason.
But lets get to scripture and what was meant. The word that was translated as “faith” in Paul’s writing is the Greek word “Pistis”. The word “believe” in John’s Gospel is the word Greek word pisteuō.” I don’t intend to dive into that too much here but it is worth noting that these words had meanings and were not completely made up when the new testament was written.
Now I would like to look at scripture and address one interpretation that of a verse that I think is the most often cited by those who would claim Faith is irrational. It comes from Hebrews 11:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” King James version.
No doubt this is a rather odd wording. And if we just examine this phrase without the context it may lead people to think the author is saying our belief itself is the evidence for our belief in God. But in context I think it is pretty clear (albeit still admitting the passage could be more clear) that the author is saying that the faith of the people who came before, and Gods treatment of them, is evidence for us. To understand my point ask yourself “whose faith?” is the author referring to? If you read the entire chapter you will see he is referring to the faith of the ancient Jews and describing how they were rewarded by God. The fact that God was trustworthy to them is evidence that he will be trustworthy for us.
The overall tenure of the Hebrews seems to be one of a spiritual pep talk. In Chapter 11 the author explains how many of the earlier Jews were rewarded by God by taking his word. Moses, Abraham, Elijah etc. These people all had faith in God and were rewarded. Accordingly their faith is evidence for us that God is and God can be trusted. This is actually quite reasonable. If someone has proven to be trustworthy time and again and several people trust (have faith in) that person, well their trust is evidence for us. The author makes this explicit when he says:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Hebrews 12.
Relying on the witnesses that God is trustworthy is not unreasonable and relying on witnesses is not believing with no evidence.
But what about my definition. Well that definition is actually in Hebrews as well. We see the two elements (belief and trust in God) spelled out in Hebrews 11 verse 6.
“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”
So the author identifies two beliefs both of which must be held in order to have faith. 1. “that he (God) is” and 2. “that he (God) is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” If you believe in God and diligently seek him, I think this is tantamount to saying you believe he exists and trust him.