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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Unconscious Faith

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UNCONSCIOUS FAITH.—Faith is a venture of the soul. In the highest instances the soul stakes its all, and if the faith proves vain, is then of all most pitiable; but if the venture be justified, discovers that it has lost itself only to find itself as never before, and so in its endurance the soul is won. Can faith thus understood be unconscious? Assuredly it can. On the one hand, ignorance may conceal the fact that any venture is involved; and, on the other hand, where the actual stake is known, it may be welcomed through sheer exuberance of spiritual vitality without any such reflexion on the risk as to make it a conscious venture. An investor may put his capital into some undertaking without knowing that it is a speculation, or he may do so because his native enterprise prompts him to seize an opportunity without reflecting that the best opportunities are connected with larger risks. And the soul which ventures faith may do so without consciousness of what it is doing, either because its knowledge of life is restricted, or because it acts from instinct rather than consideration. But usage gives to the expression ‘unconscious faith’ a wider scope than this its strictest meaning. A faith conscious of its own activity may yet be unconscious of the person or fact on which it is actually set. The soul’s venture may be made on the ground of an object of faith which is either unrecognized or unperceived, and which is yet, in point of fact, the ground of such a venture being made at all. Where the real object of faith does not come into consciousness, there is still warrant for calling this ‘unconscious faith,’ even though verbal exactitude might stickle at such phraseology. But when this degree of latitude is conceded, it ought not to be forgotten that the definition of ‘unconscious faith ‘is made more difficult, not only in respect of its connotation, but of its denotation also. For the cases in which there is no consciousness of the true object on which faith rests, pass by imperceptible gradation into those in which there is some consciousness of the object, but no true perception of its real nature, and even into those in which the perception of this is markedly imperfect. But, of course, there are few cases of faith where this perception is anything like perfect; for not only is our knowledge usually very far from complete in matters spiritual, but where it is most nearly coextensive with the truth, least occasion is left, as a rule, for faith. Bearing all these limitations in mind, however, ‘unconscious faith’ stands for an experience by no means rare in human life, and of very great importance in the Kingdom of God. Our object must be to understand its nature, and to realize the place it holds, and has held, in the relations of mankind to Christ.

1. At the outset we must recognize fully Jesus Christ’s constant requirement of faith from all who sought or needed His help, and His refusal to give help where this requirement was not met (Matthew 13:58, Luke 23:8-9). Only so shall we appreciate the welcome He always showed for every sign of unconscious faith. ‘He that is not against us is for us’ (Mark 9:40) is a principle which recognizes what may be far short not only of full avowal, but also of conscious faith. It is obvious that in saying, ‘I know that Messias cometh’ (John 4:25), the woman of Samaria had little consciousness of the real meaning of her words, yet her imperfect faith drew the disclosure, ‘I that speak unto thee am he.’ Similarly the faith of the Syrophœnician woman, who won the help she sought, can hardly have been conscious of what she was pleading for when she urged that ‘even the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs’ (Mark 7:28). A more striking instance is that of the cripple who was cured of his infirmity on Christ’s order to rise, of whom it is recorded that ‘he that was healed wist not who it was’ that had healed him (John 5:13). And to this the case of the blind man who received sight in Jerusalem is somewhat similar; for when the Lord afterwards confronted him with the question, ‘Dost thou believe on the Son of God?’ he was only able to reply, ‘Who is he, Lord, that I may believe on him?’ (John 9:35). An instructive passage as to Christ’s estimate of faith which is unconscious is Luke 11:29-32. He was condemning the contemporary generation in Galilee for its want of faith shown in the repeated demand for a ‘sign.’ In contrast with this He set two instances of greater faith recorded in much earlier days where less might have been looked for. The first is that of the men of Nineveh, whose repentance on Jonah’s appearance among them is told in the Book of Jonah; the second is that of the Queen of the South, whose visit to Solomon’s court is picturesquely narrated in the Book of Kings. In the one case it is written, ‘The people of Nineveh believed God, and they proclaimed a fast’ (Jonah 3:5); in the other the queen says: ‘I believed not the words until I came … and, behold, the half was not told me’ (1 Kings 10:7). The credit given to the prophet’s message, and to the fame of Solomon’s wisdom, is taken as evidencing a deeper and unconscious faith in the righteous God who was judging the iniquity of the great city, and in the all-wise God whose inspiration was the source of the king’s wonderful ability. And this unconscious faith of heathens is deemed worthy to shame and condemn the faithlessness of the generation which demurred to Christ’s claims, and demanded signs.

2. There were times when the Lord Jesus put this point of view into express teaching with more of generality. Perhaps the words, ‘If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed …’ (Matthew 17:20, Luke 17:6), were not intended solely to suggest the diminutive size of the seed, but also the inert grain in which the life lies latent for the present, though hereafter it will become active and develop. At all events when ‘he called to him a little child and set him in the midst’ (Matthew 18:2), bidding His disciples ‘become as little children,’ no characteristic of childhood can have counted for so much in His mind as the spontaneous readiness to trust without limit where love is, which at the same time makes a child so wonderfully teachable, and gives it charm too apt to he robbed by increasing years. A child is the very personification of eager instinctive faith unconscious of itself. There were times too when Christ’s gaze ranged wider, and He welcomed the unconscious faith in Himself of those who had never known an opportunity of trusting Him. Such was the case when the Greeks who were introduced by Andrew and Philip seemed to Him the first-fruits only of a far greater harvest, and He looked on to the time when, ‘being lifted up,’ He ‘would draw all men unto himself’ (John 12:32). It is impossible to limit this forecast to cover those only who in time to come should consciously become His disciples. He has drawn, and is now drawing, many to Himself who are unconscious of the power which is attracting them. And there seems to be a similar recognition of a widespread unconscious faith which needs to he made conscious that it may be perfect, in the saying, ‘Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold; them also I must lead, and they shall hear my voice’ (John 10:16). A still more remarkable recognition of an unconscious faith in Himself, in days long anterior to His manifestation in the world, is to be found in the saying, ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad’ (John 8:56).

The instance last cited opens out a view of the propaedeutic character of the whole life history of Israel, as it has been well called. Not Abraham alone, but all the prophets in Israel, and even all ‘they that feared the Lord, and thought upon his name,’ rejoiced to see Christ’s day, and saw it with joy; for all of them are included in the Divine saying, ‘They shall be mine in the day which I do make, even a peculiar treasure’ (Malachi 3:16-17). For whatever of Divine truth, of spiritual life, was discerned in those earlier ages, was just so much of the revelation of God made in Jesus Christ His Son. He ‘was the light of men,’ and those who saw His light saw Him, and rejoiced to see Him. This, of course, was the real nature of prophecy. It was not its function to be predictive of historical detail before the event, but to discern and disclose the unseen and eternal in the things that were seen and temporal. Inasmuch as the eternal belongs to no one epoch more than another, the teaching of the prophets was bound to find its realization in after times so far as it concerned itself with the real principles and laws of spiritual life; and to this extent it was predictive in what concerned ‘the deep things of God.’ But the special power of prophecy was insight, not foresight. This, however, was of necessity both preparatory and anticipatory, since the revelation of God was an evolution in time. So the prophets are accurately described by St. Peter as ‘searching for what, or what manner of season, the spirit of Christ which was in them was disclosing, protesting beforehand of the sufferings destined for Christ (τὰ εἰζ Χριστόν) and the glories that should follow them’ (1 Peter 1:11). The faith of the prophets was thus an unconscious faith in Christ no less truly than it was a conscious faith in God. And this view is explicitly taught both in His own words and in the NT Epistles. To the professed students of Scripture round Him He said: ‘Ye search the Scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life: and these are they which bear witness of me; and ye will not come to me that ye may have life’ (John 5:39-40). And among His own disciples, ‘beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27; cf. Luke 24:4; cf. Luke 24:47).

There are two sections of the NT in which this idea of unconscious faith is developed at some length, and given the emphasis which its importance deserves. The more obvious is in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the great roll-call of those sons of faith in many ages who were ‘looking unto the Pioneer and Perfecter of “faith, even Jesus’ (Hebrews 12:2). Of these it is written that they ‘all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth’ (Hebrews 11:13, cf. Hebrews 11:39-40). The faith by which they lived and in which they died was no doubt a more or less distinctly conscious faith in God and in the unseen world; but the writer of the Epistle is not content to view it so. To his eyes it was also an unconscious faith in Jesus Christ, who alone embodies faith in its conscious perfection, and is Himself the ultimate ground of its reality in all.—The other, and the deeper treatment, is in St. Paul’s later Epistles. In his earlier writings there are occasional passages in which the same thought is expressed, e.g. ‘They drank of a spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was the Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:4); but it is only in the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians that St. Paul discloses his whole mind. In these he dwells with enthusiasm on ‘the mystery which hath been hid from all ages and generations … which is Christ in you (Gentiles), the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:26-27, cf. Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 3:12). St. Paul is not so deeply moved by the thought of a secret kept out of sight in the Divine counsels, while for ages men were being destroyed for lack of knowledge, and only disclosed at the last. God’s purpose, he felt, was an eternal purpose; and if salvation through faith In Christ—in whom He ‘purposed to sum up all things (Ephesians 1:10)—remained for long a hidden mystery, it was not for the interval ineffectual. All through the long time of waiting, here was a secret hope for all men, though theirs might be an unconscious faith as yet. And ‘in the fulness of the times’ this hope was revealed through Apostles and prophets and saints in the Church (Ephesians 3:5, Colossians 1:24), that the faith which had been unconscious and incomplete might become conscious and resolute and full of glory, working in power in all (ἰνεργουμέιη ἐν δυνάμυ). It is a truly magnificent view of life which is here unfolded to sight. It brings all time before Christ’s earthly manifestation, and all races which have not known Him, and—we may fairly add—all souls which love and revere the holiness which they see in Him, though they do not feel able to confess His Name as the Saviour, or the Son of God, within the reach of healing and help in virtue of their unconscious faith. This is not, indeed, universalism, for it does not anticipate the ultimate judgment of God; but it does teach that it is God’s will ‘that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of truth’; and it teaches that this is through faith—conscious or unconscious—in ‘one mediator between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom on behalf of all, the testimony being appointed for its proper seasons’ (1 Timothy 2:4; 1 Timothy 2:6).

E. P. Boys-Smith.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Unconscious Faith'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/u/unconscious-faith.html. 1906-1918.

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