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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Faith and Faithfulness, Having Faith and Being Faithful

Listening to conversation about Hebrews 11 drove home the need for better training in Bible reading.  The verse under discussion was 11:7:
By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith (NRSV).
It could have been most any verse in this chapter my Dad often referred to as "the roll call of faith."  Here, looking back at the story of Noah, forms of the Greek pistis occur twice, and some translators add a third implied "faith."  The noun is here translated "faith."  The verb form, pisteuo, is usually translated "believe." 

In the contemporary church, perhaps especially in the traditions born of the Enlightenment and the United States "nation with the soul of a church," these terms faith and believe take on a highly intellectual aspect.  That is, we tend to think of faith as believing in something, or in other words, accepting certain statements to be true.  Sometimes this aspect of faith is called "assent" to propositions or confessional statements.  Faith or belief, in this way, is a mental act, a matching of mind to concepts embedded in sentences.  "Jesus is the Son of God" is such a statement.  Popular notions of faith might tend toward, "Yes, I buy that.  I accept that.  That is what I think.  Thus, I have faith in that."

Greek (and Hebrew for that matter, if I were to go into another ancient language of scripture) do not make such an easy distinction.  I'm not going to cite numbers of New Testament and extrabiblical texts to provide statistical support, but let it suffice to say that very few, if any, uses of these words in Greek literature indicate this kind of mental act of assent.  Faith as assent is an emptying out of scriptural reasoning and replacing it with something alien.  For scriptural reasoning, faith or belief takes on richer meaning that may require more than one English word to adequately express.

For those who think I am being excessively picky or misrepresenting the churches' conversations about faith, let me first acknowledge that I would be lying to say that many preachers, teachers, and other church folks have regularly pointed out to me that faith means "trust," and believing means "trusting in."  The Hebrews text above makes this very clear through contextual analysis, without even having to look beyond the single verse.  Warned by God, Noah respected the warning.  That respect was trust in what God had revealed to Noah.  Faith in God means trust in God.  Trust in God means putting one's life in God's hands.  Trust in God means accepting as reliable what God has said.

This is more than simple assent.  It is relying on God.  It is resting and moving within the embrace of God, walking on the ground laid out for us by God. 

And this relying, resting, walking, and moving presses our understanding toward the additional aspect of scriptural reasoning with the words faith and believe.  Trust is nothing without acting on it.  Faith is nothing without faithfulness.  Noah's trust included a confidence to act on God's guidance, even against the conventional wisdom of his day.  As the Hebrews text says, Noah respected what God had said and built an ark on dry land when there had been no rain since who knows when.  The righteousness (or justice, an other word for another post) that comes by faith is not based on a person's knowledge, or intellectual assent.  It is not a mental righteousness.  The righteousness that comes by faith is demonstrated in faithfulness.  It is the confident action that comes from trusting God.  It is the life lived as God has called.

This complexity is why I encourage my seminary students, and my Sunday school classes, to exercise discipline as Bible readers.  When they come to the words "faith" or "have faith" or "believe," they should practice substituting that additional aspect of pistis and pisteuo which does not come through in contemporary English:  faithfulness or be faithful.  Thus, after reading Hebrews 11:7 in the NRSV, I want to go back and reread
By faithfulness Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faithfulness (NRSV, adapted).
It emphasizes the acting in confidence based on trust that is crucial for a biblical understanding of faith.  Moreover, the discipline reminds me that Bible reading is more than first impressions.  It is more than making a scriptural text conform to my cultural biases and mean whatever pops into my head.  It is disciplined work, and there are great mysteries to be unfolded as I continue to search this deep sea of divine wisdom passing through and into earthen vessels.

Just for the sake of expanding this point, let me give a few other examples.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who is faithful to him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3:16, NRSV, adapted).

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who is faithful, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faithfulness for faithfulness; as it is written, The one who is righteous will live by faithfulness (Romans 1:16-17, NRSV, adapted).

Just as Abraham was faithful to God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, so, you see, those who are faithful are the descendants of Abraham.  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faithfulness, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.  For this reason, those who are faithful are blessed with Abraham who was faithful (Galatians 3:6-9, NRSV, adapted).
How else would Abraham's belief appear than in his faithful obedience to God's call to go to another land?  Those who by faithfulness are righteous shall live.  To do what God commands demonstrates the trust that encompasses the life of faith/faithfulness.

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