Saturday, June 09, 2007

What "faith" really means

I have recently completed a detailed study regarding the New Testament meaning of “faith”. I studied all occurrences of the pistis-group words in the New Testament, their usage in extra-biblical works, and recent scholarship regarding the words. Pistis is typically translated as “faith” or “belief” in many English versions. I thought I would briefly share my findings here.

Its range of meaning

Pistis is a word that has a much larger range of meanings than the English words “faith” or “belief”. In understanding how it has such a range of meanings, I have realised that pistis denotes a general concept of a firm and stable “connection” between two entities. These connections of pistis can be formed between a wide variety of entities: people, God, Jesus, traditions, practices, groups, purposes, facts, or ideas. The English terms that suit this connection depend on the nature of those entities, which I’ve tried to outline in the table below:

From (who/what is characterized by having pistis)


Suitable English ideas relating to the connection


Message, idea, proposition, etc

Belief / assent / trust



Commitment / Faith-fulness / fidelity / reliability of a person / loyalty / trust / a pledge


Purpose, tradition, practice, things, etc

Commitment / faith-fulness / perseverance / endurance / being made faith-ful, being entrusted

Proposition / Fact


Evidence / reliability of a statement / proof

This concept that pistis refers to a stable, firm connection between two entities is consistent with all the occurrences of pistis that I found both in the New Testament and in extra-biblical sources. It is also consistent with a range of opinions scholars have put forward as it’s meaning (e.g. Pilch, Malina, DeSilva, Stowers, Crossan, Reed,
Campbell, Howard, Lindsay, Hay).

New Testament usage

I found a total of 563 occurrences of pistis-group words in the New Testament. Only 62 occurrences clearly refer to pistis toward propositions, ideas, or statements. Far more commonly, pistis is directed towards people rather than propositions. The NT denotes pistis towards the person of Jesus 94 times by name, which far outweighs occurrences of pistis toward ideas concerning him. Pistis towards God is mentioned 20 times, and we also mention of it directed towards Paul, Peter, John the Baptist, Moses, the Prophets, false teachers, spirits, and masters. Jesus followers are described as having pistis about 149 times, but there are others who are described as having pistis. For example, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses' parents, Moses, the Israelites, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets all had pistis. Jesus is characterised by pistis, similarly, God’s pistis is referred to a number of times. “Words” are also described as having pistis.

Concepts strongly related to pistis in the New Testament

Five concepts that pistis is strongly related with became obvious. These concepts occur frequently in the context of pistis, and are sometimes used synonymously. I found that pistis is strongly paralleled with:

  • Faithfulness
  • Obedience
  • Loyalty and “following”
  • Endurance and perseverance
  • Right thoughts and behaviour

I have used over 170 of the New Testament occurrences of pistis-group words as references for these related concepts, so I do not have room or time here to list them. In percentage terms, these five parallels of commitment are evident in about 30% of the occurrences of pistis-group words, and are typical when pistis towards Jesus is referred to. Only about 10% of occurrences clearly refer to mental belief in propositions or ideas, but a similar theme of commitment towards those propositions is evident. The remaining 60% of occurrences are “abstract” usages of pistis, in which no related concepts are evident to help clarify what pistis means.

Some conclusions

Based on the New Testament usage of pistis, I would describe pistis towards Jesus as something like this:

Pistis towards Jesus: being faithful, obedient, and loyal to follow Jesus, his teachings, his way of life, and his mission; with endurance and perseverance, and ensuring our lives, thoughts, and behaviour are consistent with this.

Comparable connections between pistis towards Jesus and belief in propositions and theories regarding his work on the cross and atonement are negligible, especially measured against the strongly related themes listed above. In addition, other Greek words which refer to concepts like trust, assurance, being convinced, confidence, being persuaded (e.g. peitho, plerophoreo, pepoithesis, or hupostasis) are also hardly used in connection with propositions and theories regarding his work on the cross and atonement. If pistis towards Jesus was about mental belief concerning these matters, these lack of parallels are difficult to explain in light of the massive number of parallels with ideas of faithfulness, obedience, loyalty, following, endurance, perseverance and right thoughts and behaviour.

After doing this study, it seems clear to me that the New Testament uses pistis to convey an idea of following Jesus that is perhaps quite different to the ideas many Christians today mean by “faith”. For me, this New Testament idea of pistis towards Jesus seems far more meaningful, powerful, and practical than mere belief.