How would you define faith, particularly as it relates to God or Jesus?
For some time we have equated “faith” with “belief.” I have faith in God=I believe God. This preoccupation with “believing” and “beliefs” has a crucially important effect: it turns Christian faith into simply a “head matter.” Faith becomes primarily a matter of the beliefs in your head–of whether you believe the right set of claims to be true. This virtual identification of faith with believing a set of statements is thus a serious impoverishment of the word “faith.”
Faith is at the heart of Christianity. All but 2 of the 27 New Testament books uses the noun “faith” or the verb “believe.” Moreover, the New Testament gives it crucial significance. Jesus said things like, “Your faith has made you well.” From Paul we are “justified (made right by God) by grace through faith.” The author of Hebrews extols its heroes has having lived by faith. And of course, the most widely known verse in the Bible, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
In this history of Christianity, it has 4 primary meanings. Let me explain each using the 4 words from Latin that we could translate “Faith.” I owe the origins of these thoughts to Marcus Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity” chapter 2.
1. Faith as Assensus: The closest English equivalent is “assent.” This is faith as belief, as giving one’s mental assent to a proposition, as believing that a claim or statement is true. This notion that Christian faith is primarily about assensus, about belief, about a “head” matter is recent.
2 developments account for its dominance in modern Western Christianity.
The first is the Protestant Reformation, which not only emphasized faith, but also produced a myriad of new denominations, each defined by its distinctive “beliefs” or doctrines. So faith began to mean “believing the right things.”
The second development was the Enlightenment and the birth of modern science. The Enlightenment identified truth with factuality. Truth is that which can be verified. The Enlightenment called into question the factuality of parts of traditional Christian teaching. So “belief became about believing a notion contrary to evidence, contrary to what reasonable people know.” For instance, when do you use the word “believe?” Probably when you’re not sure, or when you don’t know. There are some things you know, and other things you’re not sure about, and so you can only believe. Believing and knowing are contrasted. Faith is what you turn to when knowledge runs out. Even more strongly, faith is what you need when beliefs and knowledge conflict.
The opposite of faith as assensus is doubt, or even stronger, disbelief. Faith as belief is relatively impotent, relatively powerless. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can still believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about other ways to understand “faith” that bring power and change to the Christian’s life.