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.


Scott said...

Nice post, looks like you've done some hard work here.

I agree reading the NT definitely shows faith is more than mere belief. The IVP New Bible Dictionary has a really good comprehensive article looking at 'faith' inthe OT and NT.

"Faith implies complete reliance on God and full obedience to God" (p.360).

Evangelicalism has definitely been plagued by an 'easy believism' which disregards the Lordship of Christ, and the connnection between trusting on him for salvation, and leaving behind a life which is antithetical to that trust. This 'saviour only' gospel is probably what you're reacting against?

incognito said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks for commenting. While I don't like "easy believism", my intention with this study was not to "react" against it - I simply wanted to find what pistis meant in the New Testament. I certainly agree it implies obedience, in addition to the other things I mentioned.

Regarding the idea of reliance or trust, I don't seem to recall finding pistis towards Christ paralleled with ideas of us relying or trusting, and I suspect my analysis of the word is more in depth than that of the IVP New Bible Dictionary. There are a number of other Greek words that mean things like "trust", but pistis is not paralleled with them, it is instead paralleled with what I have listed. After my study, particularly of extra-biblical sources, I think about it this way: If person A is faithful to person B, person B relies or trusts in the faithfulness of person A. So trust and reliance is at the "other end" of a connection of pistis. Considering pistis towards Jesus as being about trust/reliance seems to be grabbing the wrong "end". In other words, I don't think pistis towards Jesus is primarily about trust or reliance - I think it is primarily about what I stated in my post.

Now of course trusting and relying on God is an important aspect of Christianity - there are things we obviously need to trust and rely on him for. But all I mean here is that I don't think the idea of "trust/reliance on Jesus/God" is inherently found or intended in New Testament phrases that refer to pistis towards Jesus/God, and it seems like efforts to add that meaning into the word would obscure the meaning intended by the NT authors.

Scott said...

Interesting. I mean, this just seems a little far out to me. When I read say, Hebrews 11, of those who lived lives based on God's promises - faith there seems to be an expectancy that God will fulfill his promise to them, which enables them to persevere in their committment to him. Faith is the confidence that God is trustworthy and will reward those who built their lives on his promise. Now this seems very much an issue of trust to me. And in the context of the book of Hebrews - it is encouraging Christians to continue their committment to Jesus based on the superiority of his new covanent to the old one. This is an issue of trust - faith is their dogged insistence that Jesus is the greater Word, the greater Prophet, the greater sacrifice, and that it's through him they will recieve their inheritance. In Hebrews faith is a forward-looking expectancy, waiting for God's fulfillment of his promises of those who bank their lives on Jesus.

incognito said...

Hi again Scott,

I just want to make sure I'm understanding you correctly. To do that I want to make a distinction about who is acting. If I've understood you correctly, you'd see Hebrews 11 as a set of examples of people trusting that God will act in a certain way (to fulfill his promise to them). Have I understood you correctly? If so, it seems the element of trust that this would highlight is one in which God is going to doing things, and people are simply trusting that God will do them. In a practical sense, God is "active", people are "inactive". That's one kind of trust. The other side of the distinction is of course where the people are the ones doing things. If this were the case, then any related component of trust would pertain to the validity of their actions - i.e. they trust that their actions are good ones to do, and will lead to favorable outcomes. In this case, the trust relates specifically to the actions the people are undertaking. I'd appreciate you clarifying where your view fits with these two kinds of trust. From your last comment, it sounds very much like you refer to the first one.

Now whatever one's interpretation of Hebrews 11, it is exactly that - one's interpretation. There are always other interpretations. I interpret each of the examples in Hebrews 11 as highlighting the faithful actions done by the people mentioned, often despite the suffering or difficulty that those actions resulted in. Indeed, it is highlighted that they were faithful unto death. I interpret Hebrews to primarily highlight the faithfulness of the people mentioned, rather than their trust in God (although I'm sure they had that too). I also think this would have been the obvious meaning to anyone familiar with these stories. Jews memorised scripture from a very young age, so it's very likely that the readers knew the stories intimately. Given this, it seems a stretch to bring the idea of trusting God into some of the verses. Allow me to pick so short examples, such as v23:

By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king's edict.

Trusting God is not mentioned here, and it seems to miss the obvious point that they faithfully protected Moses despite the danger it put them in.

Then v24-26:

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christh to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward.

His "looking ahead to the reward" is given as a reason for the preceding descriptions of his choices, but that is certainly not the emphasis - the emphasis is on his faithfulness to his parents and Israelite kin, again despite the suffering it cost him.

Then v31:

By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

There is no mention either here nor in the original story of Rahab trusting God. She wasn't even an Israelite! The example points to the fact that she "received the spies in peace" as the key element of her pistis, which doesn't seem to involve trusting God.

v36-37 are interesting too, listing what people endured as examples of pistis:

Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,l they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented...

These seem to quite clearly refer to the endurance aspect of pistis I mentioned in my post, and seem to refer to their faithfulness in the midst of persecution.

I suppose there is some way in which the idea of trusting God could be put into the examples in Hebrews 11. To me, though, it seems like doing this would completely miss the obvious point being made by continually referring to the actions of the people demonstrating pistis. To me, these stories seem to be very clear examples of people being faithful, but rather obtuse ones if they refer to trust.

Would you mind explaining your reasoning behind seeing the stories alluded to in Hebrews 11 as referring to trusting God?

Scott said...

Hi Reuben,

This is an interesting discussion. Thanks for your response.

About the two types of trust you outline... I feel that you create a false dichotomy here, and my position doesn't fall into either category you describe. I don't at all think the definition of trust is simply us 'being inactive'. The nature of it is very much dependant on what that trust is placed in. For example, inaction is not the right response to trust in my invitation to coffee. In this instance, trust is turning up when I said I would. But also notice that it cannot be seperated at all from my promise that I'll be there - it's entirely dependant on that promise. That very roughly describes how I see faith working here in Hebrews 11. It necessarily depends on God's promise and faithfulness, but calls for a response of faith. There's no need at all, and it's quite unwarranted, to draw a distinction between the faithfulness of the OT examples and their trust in God - the two are deeply interlinked as I think an analysis of these examples will show. But it's more important to notice how the entire list is framed- that faith is an assurance of something hoped for (v1), and trusting that he rewards those who seek him (v6), and the whole tone of looking forward for something promised (v39-40). Again, this isn't defined by inaction - but a right response of trust to God's plans/character/promise, which can very much entail action.

As for the examples you mention:

1. Moses' parents - I admit that this one is a bit obscure, but it could be suggested that vs23 implies that Moses' parents suspected that God had big plans for him - especially given the importance of Moses and God's work through him. That could be hinted by the phrase "because they saw he was beautiful" (c.f. NIV translation - 'saw he was no ordinary child'). It would seem particulalry strange to commend them for saving him merely because he was a cute baby! Either way, the over-riding emphasis of the section is on living in a way which trusts God's purposes in spite of opposition - which Moses' parents apparently exemplify here.

2. Moses' faithfulness in identifying with God's people - the emphasis is certainly on his understanding of the greater worth of being part of God's people, or 'the reward'. The writer of Hebrews is evidently thinking of this incident in the context of the entire narrative of God's dealings with Israel and Egypt, and although the burning bush incident where Moses recieves God's promise comes just after this, the writer implies that Moses knew something of this promise - otherwise he could not have 'looked forward to the reward'. Again, we have to read this in the light of the entire section in Hebrews. He speaks of Moses considering the 'reproach of Christ of greater wealth' than Egypt, drawing a parallel between Moses' trust in God's purposes, and the Christians'.

Rahab - You said: "There is no mention either here nor in the original story of Rahab trusting God."
But in her extended speech in Joshua 2:8-13 she says to the spies "I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you.... for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below...". This was the faith which was the basis for her welcoming the spies.

The 'others' who endure -
What is it that motivates these people to endure such hardship? Surely it is trust in God's purposes!
"Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life."(v35)

All of this is quite evident from other examples: Noah who had the promise of coming judgement; Abraham who had God's word about 'the land of promise'; Sarah who had the promise of an heir, as did Abraham who trusted God to fulfill this despite sacrificing him; Joseph who knew of a promised land and so gave directions concerning his bones, etc. The entire story of the Bible is driven by God's purposes and promises, and these people are commended for living in right response to that redemptive flow, in active trust.

To say that trust might bear some faint resemblance of what Heb 11 is talking about, but that it isn't central and distracts from the main point, suggests to me that you are committed to some external framework which is preventing you from reading the very clear meaning of this chapter. It's a good example of how, as valuable as word-studies are, they are prone to lead people away from accurate exegesis at times.

incognito said...

It is the usage of the words in the 1st century that gives them their meaning, not 21st century protestant theology. To assume the opposite is anachronistic, and it leads to eisegesis, not exegesis. I find your insinuation that we should meddle with the meaning of works to fit a particular theology abhorrent. Rather, we should let the words mean what they New Testament authors intended, and align our theology with theirs accordingly. This is my approach.

I consider not my theology to be authoritative, but Scripture. If I were to find that the evidence of Scripture teaches the idea that faith refers primarily to trust, I would believe it. Indeed, apart from my desire to be faithful to Scripture, I would in fact prefer to believe such an idea. But I do not, because I find the evidence overwhelmingly in support of the meaning I have pointed out here. So I will choose to not take offense at your baseless assertion that I am seeking to modify the meaning of pistis to fit my theology, because it is you, not me, who is advocating such an approach is valid: "as valuable as word-studies are, they are prone to lead people away from accurate exegesis..."

Now to Hebrews, it seems to me that your interpretations are grasping at exegetical straws to advocate an idea of pistis that you dubiously support not with the bible, but with an arbitrary analogy of meeting you for coffee. Given that you consider your speculative eisegesis of those scriptures to be reasonable, I will not waste my time by trying to reason with you concerning the exegesis of them. But let me use your analogy, though... Imagine I had perfect trust that you would meet me for coffee. I could also have perfect trust that someone else would meet me at the same time elsewhere. So my trust in you is worthless if I choose to not meet you. Which then, is more important, the fact that I trust you’ll be there, or my choice to meet you? Surely whether or not I choose to meet you is more important, and that is an illustration of faithfulness, not trust.

The whole of Hebrews 11 is used by the author to build the case for encouraging the reader to endure and persevere in faithfully following Jesus. This is to encourage faithfulness, not trust. You cannot simply point to the "rewards" of their faithfulness, which are the motivators of their faithfulness, and conclude that trusting that they will get those rewards is more important than their being faithful. Yet that seems to be exactly what you are doing by asserting that pistis is primarily about trust - ignoring the authorial intent of the writer of Hebrews.

Scott said...

Hi Reuben,

Sorry mate, I was quite surprised at your response here - I think there might be a little bit of misunderstanding about a few sentences in my last post. I wasn't advocating meddling with the meaning of words to fit a particular theology, but the careful reading of particular texts. I agree that our approach should be to find what the original meaning was. That was my point when I mentioned that although word-studies can be valuable, they can lead us away from reading a particular passage carefully in the context of the work in which it is found. I'm sorry if that was unclear, but I wasn't advocating bad exegesis! (I actually had hoped you wouldn't think I would stoop that low, but oh well :)

As for the coffee thing, it was just an illustration of my position - I'm not sure I meant it to be argued against as if I was using it as supporting evidence. But anyway - it's easy to see that when you actually turn up, trust is still an integral part of the arrangement. If the analogy was something like 'turn up for coffee at this time/place because your house will explode at that time', your trust would very much include action. But yeah, it was a pretty weak analogy in terms of illustrating the concept I admit.

That's why I think interacting over actual exegesis is quite fruitful - contrary to your suggestion. For example, the Rahab thing shows that faith involves responding to God's promise and plans. Although she wasn't a natural Israelite, she was indeed a 'spiritual' Israelite, because she trusted in the same promises that they were to trust in - God had given them the land they were entering. Perhaps this incident is a much better illustration than my lame coffee one(!) It shows the deep connection between trust and obedience - we can't pit one against the other as you seem to be doing. If Rahab was to say 'I trust that God has given you the land - but I won't let the spies in,and I don't care about this supposed coming destruction', we can see that she doesn't trust God at all (or that she's insane!). On the other hand, if she let the spies in etc, but had absolutely no awareness of God's promise to Israel, and what he had done in punishing Egypt etc, then I doubt very much that the author of Hebrews would commend her for her faith/allegiance, because she had none - she wasn't responding at all to God's purposes and promise.

Even if you don't agree with my position, I hope you can see that I am seeking to be faithful to the text of scripture, rather than impose a theological framework on it. I hope that can be seen by the fact I'm keen to talk about the text.

In your last paragraph, I feel that you misrepresent my postion, and draw that false dichotomy again. I'm not saying that trust is more important than faithfulness- I'm saying they are inextricably linked and almost synonomous. You seem to want to divorce the two so that you can completely do away with the trust aspect. I'm simply saying that this isn't possible, because the author of Hebrews is encouraging them to trustful faithfulness based on the promises of God. Maybe that's a helpful (if badly worded) phrase - trustful faithfulness.

All I'd ask is that you would try and see that my intentions are to understand what scripture is saying. My comment about the limited value of word-studies was not means to suggest that your intentions are not the same.



incognito said...

Yes, evidently I did misunderstand you. Sorry about that, please forgive my misunderstanding of your intentions and related comments. I think we obviously see things differently, but I think we’ll both benefit from understanding each other better, even if we don’t end up holding the same position.

I agree that trust and faithfulness are inextricably linked. We wouldn’t do things if we don’t hold a certain degree of trust relating to those actions or the consequences of those actions. This seems to be the link you’re making by your coffee/exploding house analogy: that if I trusted someone who told me my house would explode at a certain time I certainly wouldn’t be there at that time because of that belief. Is this what you’re highlighting? If so, then that link is obviously true, and I certainly don’t disagree. In this respect, faithfulness requires trust. Trust is a requirement for faithfulness.

But that doesn’t seem to mean that trust necessarily leads to faithfulness – that’s what I was trying to highlight. You seem to see trust as a necessary and sufficient condition for faithfulness, which would explain why you place such emphasis on trust – because it seems like you’d see trust as the thing that will always initiate faithfulness. But I don’t see it that way. People could trust/believe that God would reward them for living a certain way, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will live that way, because they may prefer to live a different way. In other words, while faithfulness requires trust, having trust does not automatically generate faithfulness.

Imagine, for example, a different analogy. You’re a soldier in the 1st century in the army of the King, who is in the battle with you. You trust that the King’s cause is worth fighting for. You may trust that the king is a good soldier. You may trust that your side will win. But none of those things mean you need to fight. You could go to the back line, out of harm’s way, and do nothing to fight for the King. Failing to fight, when you’re a soldier, is being disloyal and unfaithful to the King. To be faithful to the king, you’d go and fight for him, and risk your life. You wouldn’t just trust things to be so. Given this analogy and my explanation before it, do you see why I don’t understand how you conflate ideas of trust and faithfulness under the same label of “trust”?

Now if indeed you mean “trust and faithfulness” by writing “trust”, why are you only writing “trust” instead of “trust and faithfulness”? Perhaps we have a different understanding of these English words. In the English I speak: trust is about a mental belief, faithfulness is about behaving faithfully.

So to Hebrews again, and the story of Rahab as our example… I see the story differently to you. Sure, she believed that Jericho was going to be slaughtered by the Israelites, this is clear. She may have believed that Israel’s God was going to make sure that happened. That’s all fine. But she could have trusted those things and not helped the spies – as you point out. I fail to see how you can suggest that she was “not trusting” in this scenario, using the English word “trust” in anything like the normal way. You seem to be suggesting that real “trust” always leads to “faithfulness”, and I simply don’t see how you can justify that statement.

You seem to say that if she had acted in the same way but hadn’t been responding to God’s purposes and promises, then she wouldn’t have had any faithfulness. That seems plainly incorrect, because she would still have been being faithful to the spies and the Israelites by helping them, rather than getting them captured. He faithfulness does not need to be directed towards God to be faithfulness. Plus, it seems that the emphasis is in fact on her actions, not her “trust in God’s purposes and promises”. Consider how James mentions her in James 2, he points out her works as the important thing. Because of this, I disagree with you assessment that her story would not have been mentioned if she hadn’t known of God’s “purposes and promises”.

So I think it’s misleading to suggest that Rahab’s story, and the other’s in Hebrews 11, are emphasizing trust. For this reason, I do not think you are being faithful to the text of scripture, and that is why I said so. It seems to me like you are in fact imposing your own theological framework on the text, because the idea you’re taking from the text doesn’t seem to be an obvious one.

I think that I’m not drawing a false dichotomy between trust and faithfulness – I feel you are trying to conflate the two concepts in a way that to me seems unwarranted and misleading. Even in the phrase “trustful faithfulness”, the way I see it, trust doesn’t change anything in and of itself, it is that faithfulness that ultimately matters. You see to see it differently, that the faithfulness doesn’t change things in and of itself, and that it’s the trust that ultimately matters. I simply can’t understand how you can support that biblically, so perhaps you could explain more.

incognito said...

Hi again Scott,

I should add that I think even if Hebrews 11 is not clear on the meaning of pistis, it is the weight of evidence throughout the New Testament that convinces me of the meaning I've outlined, not simply Hebrews 11. So even if Hebrews 11 did relate to people trusting in God's promises, there is still an overwhelming amount of evidence that remains in support of the parallels I mention. If indeed it did refer to people's trust, all it would mean is that I'd have to add a sixth parallel of "trust" to my five paralleled concepts - as that list is attempting to be a comprehensive list of related concepts in the NT. The meaning of pistis cannot and should not be determined from Hebrews 11 alone.

Scott said...

I just wrote a whole bunch of nonsense trying to interact with all those analogies, but I gave up because it was just silly.

So to cut to the chase...

I think both of us would agree that whatever 'faith' is - it necessarily entails obedience/faithfulness/action. I have no problem with this, and never did. I think part of our confusion is that you keep arguing against my definition of faith as if I think it is about mere belief (which isn't my view).

However, I have a big problem with the assertion that someone can have 'faithfulness/obedience' without trust in God's purposes. I don't think that can be supported from Hebrews 11 or James 2.

The burden of proof is on you in this situation. We are talking about a hypothetical situation, and the original narrative highly emphasises Rahab's trust in the God of Israel (something you actually negated in a comment above), and I don't think it can't be sustained that if (hypothetically) Rahab didn't place her trust in the God of Israel and his purposes, but still gave lodging to the spies, that she would still be commended for her faith. Her trust in God's purposes and promise was seen in her actions. It's nonsensical to split these two things up as you do and ask, 'was she commended for her trust, or her actions?', because neither of them make sense without the other. This is the precise point of James 2, where faith is proved/completed/worked out but actions. There's no sense there that faith would be faith if it was all works and no faith (gosh that's getting confusing).

This is where I don't understand the fact you agree that trust and obedience are inextricably linked at one point, and then contradict yourself by saying Rahab can have faithfulness without trust!

... Just read your recent comment.

I agree that we are just discussing the meaning in the book of Hebrews, and I very much think you should add trust/reliance to your list of concepts as a vital and integral part of a definition of faith. I suspect that the same argument could be had over numerous other passages though, because the disagreement seems to be more of a philisophical one about what ultimately matters. I'm just saying, you can't have one without the other in 'faith'.

I'm going to bed - later :)

p.s. don't necessary trust (!) anything in this post coz I'm fading quickly.

incognito said...

Scott, a few quick points:

1) How can you say faith isn't about mere belief, but also define faith as "faith is trust" as you have done on your post? You wrote: "Faith is the confidence that God is trustworthy and will reward those who built their lives on his promise. Faith is an issue of trust." Yet here are a few definitions of "trust" I pulled from the Web that I think represent the most common ideas of "trust":

believe: be confident about something; "I believe that he will come back from the war"
confidence: a trustful relationship; "he took me into his confidence"; "he betrayed their trust"
hope: expect and wish; "I trust you will behave better from now on"; "I hope she understands that she cannot expect a raise"

Those sound a lot like beliefs to me. Your own definition of trust is in fact portraying the idea that you think it IS all about mental belief.

2) You seem to be conflating ideas of trust and faithfulness in your head in a way that most people simply don't do. Hence, I believe you assertions that "faith is about trust" are rather misleading.

3) As I have mentioned, I have over 170 New Testament references, a wealth of extra-biblical Greek texts, and about a dozen well-respected scholars that consistently are in support of the idea of pistis that I have outlined. In what way do you not see that as evidence?

4) I will accept that Rahab's story is ambiguous. So let's take another example... How with your idea of pistis do you explain the NT occurrences where the faithful actions of servants are described as illustrating pistis towards their masters?

Scott said...


If 'faith' means a dutiful disinterested allegiance elsewhere in the Bible or ancient Greek literature, cool - but that's not what it means in Hebrews. There it is a confidence that God is trustworthy in his promises, and a forward-looking expectance that he will fulfil those promises for those who live by them. I think it's perfectly reasonable to say this from reading the book of Hebrews.

I agree that this doesn't prove that this is what faith means in every other occurance in the Bible - I never claimed that. Each case would have to be looked at individually, as I think context is often a far better guide in knowing how a particular word is being used. I will have a look at the 'faithful servant' occurances though.

Scott said...

Surely it's enough to say that 'pistis' has a large semantic range which can encompass ideas of 'trust, persuasion, confidence, assurance' and the characteristic of being 'faithful, trustworthy, genuine' or actively being 'believing, loyal, obedient' - and that the precise meaning must be determined from the context.

incognito said...

Hi again,

Yes, the faithful servants are interesting. In addition, the adjective form of pistis, pistos, is widely regarded as the adjective "faithful" - and most occurences clearly have this connotation. I am aware of no precedent in the Greek language that would warrent the assumption that pistis refers to a concept different from pistos. Justifying such an assumption would require significant explaination to outline the reasons for breaking the normal conventions of the Greek language.

Couple of things I'd like your further comment on:

A) I'd still like you to clarify how you understand "trust" according to my question #1 in my previous comment, as I consider this important.

B) I'd also like your comment on one of my previous ones regarding the purpose of Heb 11: "The whole of Hebrews 11 is used by the author to build the case for encouraging the reader to endure and persevere in faithfully following Jesus." To me it seems like the author is building a case for faithfully enduring in following Jesus through hardship, rather than trusting God's promises.

C) You're correct that pistis has a large semantic range, that certain includes belief. I'm simply noting the distinction between pistis towards propositions and pistis towards people, and that the meaning changes accordingly. I also agree that meaning needs to be determined from context. That is exactly the nature of the study I did - I looked at how the word was used in context. I found that when directed towards people, New Testament occurances of pistis generally have the connotations I have outlined. Perhaps Hebrews is an exception (although I think it is not), but regardless, there are still a vast number of other references that seem to demonstrate the connotations of the word I have mentioned. Given this large number of references, I think connotations of faithfulness, obedience, loyalty, committment, endurance etc are far more apparent than connotations of trust.

Scott said...

I'm going to get RSI before this thread ends...

A) I think there's a significant difference between the idea of 'trust' and mere belief. Trust implies reliance and confidence placed in something. I don't trust that the moon revolves around the earth - that involves no personal committment on my part. I trust Jesus to save me from death by placing my life in his hands, turning and following him. This is no dutiful allegiance, because I come to Jesus in need. That's what I mean by trust.

B) Yes, but. The author is encouraging them to endure and persevere by trusting in Christ and who he is and all that he has done in enacting a new covanent. God has shown himself to be a trustworthy 'patron', and faith is the trusting response of perseverance.

(I'd like to know how Heb 11:3 squares with your understanding of pistis, if the author is using it consistently.)

C) I would have no problem if the occurrance of 'loyalty' usages outweighed the occurance of 'trust' usages. Again, it would have to be argued from the context. But given your reading of this chapter, I have reason to doubt your conclusions on others if you're willing to rule out any connotation of trust in a section which is replete with examples of trusting promises.

"By faith Sarah herself recieved power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised." (Hb 11:11)

I think I'm ready to make this my last comment - but feel free to respond again :)

incognito said...

Hi Scott,

I feel I owe you another apology. Reading back through my posts I don't think I've been discussing this in a very good way, so please forgive me. I think I could and should have discussed this with you in a better way.

Now I understand that what we mean by "trust" is different. I use it to mean things that don't necessarily involve action on my part. For example, I read a story in the paper and trust that it reflects events that actually occured with reasonable accuracy. I don't have to do anything to trust this. It involves no active response. If I understand you correctly, you'd say that's not trust at all.

So with my understanding of trust, I see faithfulness as an idea than encompasses the idea of trust. But I don't see faithfulness as being encompassed in trust. It was for this reason that I felt your definition of "faith is trust" was omitting the component of faithfulness. I see faithfulness, obedience, loyalty, etc as a much bigger concept than trust that encompases it, but I suspect you see these concepts as being all encompased in the word "trust". While I don't think that's a common understanding of the word, if that's your understanding of it then what you've said makes much more sense to me.

In my head, I consider the mental beliefs that form the reasons for us doing things to be faithful to others or God as being relatively small compared to the actual actions of themselves - necessary, but small. When I talk about faithfulness, I take for granted those mental beliefs that are the reasons behind those actions. Perhaps this has been a source of confusion between us.

Imagine these 4 things:
1. "beliefs based on evidence regarding past of current events" --> that leads to --> 2. "actions to be faithful to someone (incl. God) based on those beliefs"
3. "trust based on unsufficient evidence regarding future events, relying on the actions of someone else (e.g. God) " --> that leads to --> 4. "actions to be faithful to someone (incl. God) based on those beliefs"

In my mind, "trust" refered to only number 3. You seem to call 3 + 4 together "trust", and I'm not sure about where 1 and 2 would fit. When I refer to faithfulness, I have all ideas 1, 2, 3 and 4 in mind. What's important also is who or what you're being faithful to: is it yourself, an evil agenda, a loved one, people you're trying to help, God, etc... I believe that everyone is always thinking and behaving in a way that's faithful to something or someone, all the time. So, when I think of faithfulness to God, I have in mind all our thoughts and behaviour being in line with what God would approve of.

So, the point is that I think we probably both agree that part of having authentic pistis towards Jesus is acting in faithfulness, obedience, loyalty and committment to him, his teachings, his example, etc. Is that correct?

Do my above efforts to explain my perspective clear up any misunderstandings?

PS: Heb 11:3 is very unclear in the Greek. There have been more interpretations that you can shake a stick at. I consider this verse to be simply too unclear in the Greek for me to base any conclusion on.

Re: Heb 11:11... yup, looks like her confidence in God's faithfulness provided a basis for her pistis. I've no problem with that. I might go back to my big spreadsheet of all the usages of pistis and look for parallels with trust. I'll try and get back to you on that.

incognito said...


If I could trouble you for one more question... I just got home from work and helped a stranger jump-start his car. After some time, pushing it to a new location, and trying more, we eventually got it started. I see this as a small example of loving others in accordance with Jesus’ teachings to love others (e.g. Luk 6:31), a small example of being faithful, obedient, loyal, committed, etc in following him and his teachings. Hence, I see this as a small example of pistis towards Jesus. Would you see it as this also? Do you see it as relating to trust?

Scott said...

Thanks for your apology - no worries. I totally understand the limitations of this meduim of communication in aiding gracious discourse!

I don't think many Christians would deny that authentic faith involves obedience, and I certainly wouldn't. So we're agreed on that at least.

Your example of helping the dude with the car - I'm certain that is a faithful response if it's being obedient to the command of Jesus and trusting that we need no repayment here because our true reward is eternal (Luke 6:35-36). I think that's what I'd want to stress - that the reason we are able to serve and live faithful lives is incredibly important, because it's where our trust is placed which enables the Christian to live a righteous life. Faith can never be merely a disinterested allegiance, because Christ offers us life and the eternal reward of heaven - and faith frees us from self-centeredness by the boundless promises of God.

incognito said...

OK, so if I helped the guy with the car for only reasons of showing love to him, and to follow and obey Jesus, while not thinking of or trusting in my reward for doing so would that change my action from being one of pistis to one not of pistis?

If I understand you right, you're saying that trust (by which you seem to mean a belief that God will reward us) is the thing which enables us to serve and live faithful lives. That just doesn't seem to resonate with me. I find that it is my love for God and others is the reason that I serve and live a life faithful to Jesus to the best of my ability (with the help of God). If I did not get rewarded in the afterlife for loving others and living faithfully to Jesus, I still would love others - because I believe there is reward enough in the acts of love themselves anyway. That is the depth of my commitment to Jesus, that even if God were to not benefit me for loving and living faithfully - I still would. Now I do trust that God will reward me, but that is not the reason I love God, love others, or seek to follow Jesus. The reason I follow Jesus is because I believe it is the way God intended us (not just me) to experience life in community, and I have found that it is the best way to live (for not just my own sake). Perhaps you might call that trust in God, but I do not know.

In helping the guy with the car, trusting that I'd be rewarded for it was the last thing on my mind - I wanted to help him. So perhaps I don't see trust as essential as you seem to because I see the reasons I follow Jesus as not typically being trust that God will reward me in the afterlife. In fact, if I did everything just so I could be rewarded, I wouldn't feel like I'm actually loving out of a pure heart - it would seem selfish to me. Do you understand what I mean?

Scott said...

I don't think the Christian ethic is selfish, no. But I don't thing it is disinterested in personal benefit, and I don't think it can be divorced from inheriting the kingdom of God after death. I was just trying to reflect the emphasis of Jesus in Luke 6 which you quoted. As far as I can tell, Jesus isn't saying - be nice to people by trying harder because it's just a nice thing to do. He allures people with the value of the kingdom! You have to explain the reason Jesus does that so often - allures people with the fact that following him will bring much reward, and that it's a good thing to desire that! I think any Christian ethic which can't account for that is severly lacking. For example,

"32"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12)

Jesus isn't saying - do good and have absolutely no regard for your own benefit. He actually say 'Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out' - in other words, actively seek that which will be of ultimate reward! He's not saying - don't have treasure anywhere at all, just do good. He's saying - place your treasure in the infinite value of the kingdom!!

But yeah, I think that's a huge philosophically driven issue - how can an act be 'pure' if it is interested in the benefit to self. If I'm correct, Kant was quite into that stuff.

Perhaps this should go under another topic - although I think it's related. I sense an unwillingness to emphasise 'trust' could come from a philosophical committment to a 'pure' ethic of disinterested dedication. Just a suggestion.

Scott said...

In fact, Heb 11:6 connects faith and believing that God rewards those who seek him quite closely.

incognito said...

Hi Scott,

I absolute agree with you that throughout the NT we find rewards being highlighted to encourage us to do good, be faithful, love others, etc. Without doubt that needs to be included in any Christian system. I believe the early Christians were highly motivated by the hope of rewards for living according to Jesus' teachings, etc. I believe that final judgement is based on our life and character, so of course this is something I consider important. I think this theme is not just in Hebrews 11, but lots throughout Paul's writings, Peter's, and the Gospel writers.

However, I think as we mature to become more like Christ in mind/spirit/etc, we do things more out of a desire to simply love others - not to be rewarded for the actions themselves. God's promises of rewards spurs us on towards Christ-likeness, and he is portrayed as having done what he did out of genuine love for others, not to be rewarded by God. That's the example I'm seeking to follow.

I'm not sure if I'll have time to create another worthwhile post on the issue you suggested.

And I'd still like to know whether or not you think my helping the guy with the car was an example of pistis.

Scott said...

"and he is portrayed as having done what he did out of genuine love for others, not to be rewarded by God"

Totally, Jesus did what he did out of abundant love for others. But I don't think it's necessary to drive a wedge between this and the concept of reward. He did his work out of love for others by considering the reward. You read stuff like...

"Jesus... who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross..." Heb 12:2

Wow. Now does that make his actions less-than loving? I don't see why that would necessarily have to be the case.

And the church of God "was obtained by his own blood" - Acts 20:28- Jesus bought us for himself by his death. Is that a reward? Yes. Is it loving? Yes also.

Jesus died so that he would be crowned with glory and honour (Heb 2:9), just as he prayed before his death "Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world began (John 17:3). I guess that has to be a loving thing to do also!

He died that he might be Lord of both the living and the dead(Romans 14:9). The whole design of his death was to purchase a kingdom for God, and be Lord of that kingdom.

Is that selfish? No, it's loving - for we recieve great benefit when he recieves glory as King of Heaven.

I just don't see in the Bible the idea that love can't be genuine if it contains any consideration of the personal benefit of the action. Jesus died for the reward - but that was actually a loving thing to do, because in that joyful reward of reigning over God's redeemed people is that those people are lovingly brought to glory! And I just think that's fab.

With you're example, I guess based on the range of meanings that pistis can take, the question would be - what type?

But I think I'd better leave it there. It's been an interesting and enriching discussion. Thanks :)

incognito said...

Hi again Scott,

Yes, thanks for pointing out those verses. I agree that getting rewards don't negate doing things out of genuine love, as you said. The whole rewards thing I've generally connected with final judgment, and I've seen it as a motivator for having pistis towards Jesus/God. As you've pointed out, there's an obvious element of trust in there, and think I can understand your perspective more now.

Yes, I've also found it a useful discussion... I look forward to the next time =)

Katherine said...

Far out, you lads have been busy!

A couple of thoughts - despite the fact that you've probably both lost interest by now :p

James 2:14-26, which I am assuming is about the word pistis (?), seems to me to suggest that, whatever it is, it is something that can be either alive or dead, latent or active, and it is action that makes it alive. That seems to imply that its own nature is something other than action - that it is something that can in some sense exist without being followed through with action - but that it needs action to become anything more than an empty form.

Reuben, this seems to me to explain how, insofar as pistis can be understood as something to do with trust/belief, it could be meaning something other than what is sometimes meant when (English-speaking) people talk about trust/belief/etc. We often use those words carelessly, but also have an understanding of a more restricted meaning. We commonly talk of belief and trust in terms of mere intellectual assent (e.g. ethical or political beliefs, scientific beliefs, trust in the authority of those who give us information, confidence in a person's loyalty to ourselves), but in the end we all know that if we were put to the test, it would be our actions that would show whether our belief was genuine. If I play that horrible annoying trust game where I'm supposed to fall backwards and trust you to catch me, I might say at the outset that I trust you; but if I can't bring myself to fall, I will have to admit, shame-facedly, that I guess I don't really trust you after all. Or perhaps that there's a sort of sense in which I trust you, but it could well be described as 'dead'.

So to get back to pistis: all this could still apply if we're understanding it as meaning 'faithfulness' in the sense of committed allegiance. Like your example of the soldier in battle who has pledged allegiance to his leader (whom he trusts intellectually) but doesn't take the corresponding action, his allegiance is dead, a mere form of words, an empty corpse.

Regarding rewards: one could surely read the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven as talking about the kind of life and society that will result on earth if we act lovingly - 'the kingdom according to the divine/heavenly way'. This seems to meet the two requirements that, on the one hand, there is something to be personally gained by obeying Christ that can motivate us when we're feeling lazy (the hope of a community of love in which to live), and, on the other, the 'good' aspect of right actions is intrinsic to themselves, and is not at all diminished by the benefits I receive by doing them, because they are one and the same (a community of love in which to live). The example of Jesus enduring the cross 'for the joy that was set before him' seems to me a similar case. The joy set before him was precisely the joy of seeing wrong made right in the world, seeing his loved ones freed. The good act was directly creating the 'reward': a better world.

I'm not meaning to suggest here that final judgement is irrelevant in the whole deal - I'm not sure what I believe about that, in fact, but it seems to me it could either be included or not included in this picture quite happily. Please don't bother taking me up on that - I have nothing particularly useful to say on that point.

No need to reply if you've had enough of this discussion - just wanted to get my two cents in :)

Christina said...

I agree with your stuff on the kingdom of God, Kat (was wondering that as I read the last couple of comments, and what people mean by the phrase "kingdom of God"). In the last few years I've understood it more to be a community / how the world should be, and something we can contribute to in the here and now.

Maybe I should read that bit of James again - that's a really fascinating idea, that trust/faith is kind of like one of those chemicals that just sit there doing nothing until they're activated when another chemical is added.

Maybe we could about it a bit at heresy sometime? Would be keen to discuss it further :)

Also: seriously, do you boys have jobs or what? :P

incognito said...

Hey Kat,

Do you know what Venn diagrams are? In not Google it. In James 2, I think it makes sense to understand him to be referring to pistis in the sense of a mental belief. He uses the demons believing "that God is one" as an example of the sort of pistis he's talking about - it is pistis toward a proposition, not a person. He then points out that that needs to be coupled with works to become a full, living means of being righteous.

Paul, on the other hand, seems to group both those things, mental beliefs and how we live, into the same category of "pistis". He seems to be using it in the sense of pistis toward the person of Jesus, while James seems to refer to pistis towards propositions. As I tried to point out, these have quite different connotations. I Paul's writings, I see pistis as including both the works and the beliefs (incl. trust) that James refers to (iagine a venn diagram).

If Paul is not using pistis in this sense, then it gets tricky understand how both can be teaching correct doctrine... Paul says, "justification is by pistis"; James says "justification is not by faith alone, but by faith and works".

The other alternative I see is that James views works as an included subset of pistis (use the venn diagram idea). That would mean he's talking about the same kind of pistis as Paul, but spelling out that works are a part of that pistis if it is to be the sort that leads to justification. I don't think there's much use in talking about pistis that doesn't lead to justification. So either way, it seems you wind up with the same conclusion - appropriate good works must be evident if we are to be justified by pistis. And if that's the case, I don't see any meaningful seperation between pistis and those works.

You can also reach this conclusion by saying that we not really "trusting" unless we are acting because of that trust. But as you point out, the word "trust" is commonly used to connote mental belief/confidence that does not necessitate action as a result. That's why I don't like saying "faith is trust" (as Scott an I were discussing).

I also don't like to restrict pistis by saying that true pistis only occurs when we are "trusting God / relying on him" and not trying to do things "in our own strength." To me this seems to suggest that God hasn't actually empowered and commissioned Jesus' followers as autonomous beings to follow his example and continue his mission of loving people, which seems wrong to me. In the soldier analogy, that would be like the soldier saying "I can't do anything to fight for my king even though he trained me to fight, I need to sit and do nothing and trust him to fight for our side all by himself." In other words, I think it can be harmful sometimes to say "faith is trusting/relying on God and not doing things in our own strength", because it seems like this can lead to apathy toward actually living in the way Jesus taught. I see pistis towards Jesus as being far more concerned with how we live, think, and behave, so that we are faithful to Jesus, his vision and mission. Of course, some Christian's doctrines don't work so well if faith is about that.

I agree with what you said regarding the Kingdom of God.

And yes, Christina, I am currently at "work" =)