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Holman Bible Dictionary
Our English word “faith” comes from the Latin fides , as developed through the Old French words fei and feid . In Middle English (1150-1475) “faith” replaced a word that eventually evolved into “belief.” “Faith” came to mean “loyalty to a person to whom one is bound by promise or duty.” Faith was fidelity. “Belief” came to be distinguished from faith as an intellectual process having to do with the acceptance of a proposition. The verb form of “faith” dropped out of English usage toward the end of the sixteenth century.
Old Testament Expressions The word “faith” occurs in the Old Testament only twice in the KJV, eighteen times in the RSV, and sixteen times in the NIV. This discrepancy becomes even more interesting when we note that the RSV and the NIV agree on only five of these verses of Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:51; Judges 9:16 ,Judges 9:16,9:19; Isaiah 26:2; Habakkuk 2:4 ), and the KJV concurs with them only on the translation of Habakkuk 2:4 . These differences revolve around problems with the translation of two Hebrew roots, ma'al and aman .
The first of these roots, ma'al , is a negative term that means “to be deceitful, treacherous, or unfaithful.” The RSV, NAS, and the NIV translate this word with the phrase “broke faith” (Deuteronomy 32:51; Joshua 22:16 ) or with “acted unfaithfully” (Deuteronomy 32:51; Joshua 7:1 ). The KJV translates this root in those same verses with the word “trespass.” While the Hebrew uses no single noun for “faith” in these verses, the translators have in each case rendered the sense of the Hebrew.
The second root, aman , is more difficult to translate because its meaning changes as it passes through the various Hebrew verb forms. There are seven such forms, but this root occurs in only three of them. In the first and most basic verb form the root means to support or nourish and is used of a parent's care for a child. In the second verb-form one encounters a range of meanings having to do with being secure.
Only the third verb form was rendered with the Greek word for faith in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, an early Greek version of the Old Testament originating in Alexandria. Aman expresses the idea of stability and steadfastness in this form and is translated as standing firm ( Job 39:24 , RSV; Isaiah 7:9 NIV), or “to trust” (a person) or “to believe” (a statement). One stands firm in one's convictions. In relationships, one trusts persons and believes their testimony or promises. Thus, we find no Hebrew noun for “faith” in the Old Testament, only verbs that have been translated with “faith” because of New Testament influence.
If we do not find the noun “faith” in the Old Testament, we surely find the concept named with other words. In the Old Testament faith is described as the “fear of God” (Genesis 20:11; Psalm 111:10; Ecclesiastes 12:13; Malachi 4:2 ), and in terms of trust (2 Chronicles 20:20; Psalm 4:5 , Isaiah 26:4 ), and obedience (Exodus 19:5; 1 Samuel 15:22 , Jeremiah 7:23 ). Faith is a New Testament concept that encompasses and enriches these Old Testament concepts. The English versions of the Old Testament have translated a pair of Hebrew verbs using the noun “faith.” They do so in order to express the understanding of God's relation to humanity that has grown out of the New Testament.
Because the Old Testament does not have a word equivalent to the English noun, “faith,” does not mean the idea of faith is unimportant for the Old Testament. Habakkuk 2:4 was properly taken by Paul as the center of Old Testament religion. God prepared the way for His people in mercy and grace, then called them to obedience. To accept the responsibilities of God's covenant was to trust His word that He alone was God and to commit one's life to His promises for the present and future. That is faith.
New Testament Expressions The Greek noun, pistis (faith), is related to the verb pisteuo (I have faith, trust, believe). The noun and verb are found virtually everywhere in the New Testament, with the notable exception that the noun is absent altogether from John's Gospel and occurs only once in 1John. The verb form does not occur in Philemon, 2Peter, 2,3John, or Revelation.
Classical Greek used pistis and piseuo to mean “trust” or “confidence.” In this period belief in the existence of the gods of the Greek pantheon would be expressed with the verb nomizo (to think, believe, hold, consider). In the Hellenistic period, however, both the noun and verb moved from secular to religious usage. The noun came to mean piety, and the verb took on the meaning “to believe”—a usage derived from debates with atheism in which faith required the overcoming of objections.
In the New Testament “faith” is used in a number of ways, but primarily with the meaning “trust” or “confidence” in God. This basic meaning is particularly evident in the Synoptic Gospels. Mark 1:15 introduces and summarizes the Gospel with Jesus' charge to his hearers to “repent ye, and believe the gospel.” (The word usually translated “believe” in this verse is the verb form of “faith” for which there is no English equivalent. The call is repeated as “Have faith in God,” using the noun form, in Mark 11:22 .) Thus, Jesus called His hearers to place their confidence in God. It is common in the Synoptics for Jesus to say after healing someone, “thy faith hath made thee whole” (Matthew 9:22; Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50; Luke 8:48 .) One's confidence in or allegiance to God makes one whole. John expressed a similar understanding of faith in Luke 6:29 and Luke 14:1 where people are called to have faith in the Christ. The difference between John and the Synoptics is a grammatical one; John used only the verb and never the noun for faith.
Outside the Gospels faith is related to the keynote concepts of the Christian message: the state of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9 ), sanctification (Acts 26:18 ), purification (Acts 15:9 ), justification or imputed righteousness (Romans 4:5; Romans 5:1; Galatians 3:24 ), adoption as children of God (Galatians 3:26 ). Each of these comes by faith. As in the Gospels, faith is an attitude toward and relationship with God mediated by Christ Jesus. It is surrender to God's gift of righteousness in Christ rather than seeking to achieve righteousness alone.
Faith is also called a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22 )—something God creates in a person. In another place “faith” is used quite differently as a gift of the Holy Spirit that is given to some but not to others (1 Corinthians 12:8-9 ). Apparently such special gifts of faith refer to the ability to do great acts for God, what Jesus called moving mountains (Matthew 17:20; 1 Corinthians 13:2 ).
The New Testament sometimes uses “faith” to designate Christianity itself or that which Christians believe (Acts 6:7; Ephesians 4:5; Colossians 1:23; Tim. Colossians 1:19; Jude 1:3 ). In this usage it is clear that an element of what we call belief is essential to the personal relationship we are calling “faith.” Here it would be well to note Hebrews 11:6 also—”But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is” In this verse also the word translated “believe” is the Greek verb form of “faith.” Context here dictates that we understand it in the sense of intellectual acceptance of a proposition, “belief.” To have a right relation with God, it is necessary to “believe” that God is, that God has revealed Himself in Christ, and to accept God accepts you.
If faith is the religion itself, it is so in more than an intellectual way. Faith is also the living out of the religion; it is Christianity in action. This is the meaning of “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7 ). “Walking” represents the totality of one's way of life. Paul wrote that “faith,” both in the sense of Christian piety and of the trust and confidence one puts in God, determines action in life. Faith changes the standards and priorities of life. Similarly, using the imagery of a soldier's armor, Paul said that faith is a shield against sin and evil in our lives (Ephesians 6:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:8 ).
If Christianity itself may be called “the faith,” then it is a small step to the New Testament usage of the participle of the verb form of faith to designate Christians. This form is often translated “believers” (it occurs most often in the plural) or “those who believe” (Acts 4:32; Romans 1:16 ). If we continue our distinction between faith and belief, we would prefer the translation “those who have faith” or the ungrammatical “those who faith.”
The nearest the New Testament comes to presenting a definition of “faith” per se is in Hebrews 11:1 . Here faith is called “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (RSV). Thus, Hebrews closely ties faith very to Christian hope. The personal conviction of faith encourages the Christian to continue hoping for the fulfillment of the promises of God, but it is not the substance (as in the KJV) of these “things hoped for” in any normal sense of “substance.” The “things hoped for” have a reality greater than anyone's hoping for them. Faith is then meant as a sort of foretaste of the hoped for things.
Faith as the Way to Salvation. The concept of faith is primarily that of a personal relationship with God that determines the priorities of one's life. This relationship is one of love that is built on trust and dependence. We receive it by trusting the saving work of Jesus. Faith is the basic Christian experience, the decision for Christ Jesus. It is the acceptance of Christ's lordship (i.e., His God-given, absolute authority). In this sense faith is doubly a break from the past: it is one's removal from sin, and it is one's removal from all other religious allegiances (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ). As a break from the past, faith is the beginning of relation to God and not an end. It is, especially in Paul's letters, the inauguration of incorporation “in Christ,” in which one continues to grow and develop.
If faith is primarily a relationship into which one enters through acceptance of Jesus' authority, it also includes a certain amount of “belief.” As a derived use, then, “faith” may also denote the content of what is believed. In this sense faith is the conviction that God acted in the history of
Israel and “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19 ). In theological usage “the faith” may refer to many more doctrines and dogmas that have been developed since New Testament times, but in the New Testament “that which must be believed” was more limited as Romans 10:9-10 may demonstrate. Conclusion Faith is what we believe, it is Christianity itself, but primarily it is the relationship we have with God through what Jesus accomplished in His death and resurrection.
William L. Self
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Faith'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/f/faith.html. 1991.