In discussions of the Christian religion, perhaps no word is bandied about more frequently than the word ‘faith’. Despite its frequency of use, defining precisely what it means based on usage often proves elusive. This is likely due to the variety of historical and religious contexts in which the term has come to be used. The central principle of the Protestant Reformation was salvation by faith alone. This established an ongoing debate about the relationship between faith and works in salvation. The Christian faith refers sometimes to the whole of the Christian religion, sometimes to Christian beliefs or dogmas, sometimes to a restricted list of core beliefs or dogmas which are seen as unquestionable. When dealing with the struggles and crises of life, people are told to ‘have faith’. Within certain American Christian circles, faith is seen as a spiritual power or force, creating the concepts of ‘word faith’ or ‘faith healers’. Atheists tend to use the word ‘faith’ to describe beliefs that are held despite insufficient or no evidence, in contrast with science. When the scriptures, particularly the New Testament documents, are read within the church, there is a tendency to import meanings for the term from these various contexts back into the text, either deliberately or through half-formed ideas of what ‘faith’ is. This inevitably leads to the skewing of the teaching of the text away from the understanding of the New Testament authors.
What unites several of the understandings above within mainstream Protestant thought is faith as a form of assent. What is meant by faith is the intellectual assent to the truth of certain propositions. This understanding stems from a particular reading of the story of Abraham through the lens of St. Paul’s references to Abraham’s faith in Romans 3 and 4. In Genesis, God repeatedly makes promises to Abram/Abraham and he believes that these promises will come to pass. It is because of this belief that Abraham is considered to be righteous. This idea is then extended into St. Paul’s milieu to argue that in the new covenant, the Torah has been set aside in favor of salvation, here generally defined as eternal life as opposed to eternal damnation for an individual, coming about purely through a human person’s assent to the truths of the Gospel as understood within the relevant groups. The ‘Christian faith’ then, by extension, refers to those doctrinal truths which must be believed in order to receive this salvation. Atheists as outsiders can then assess the evidential basis for this assent and choose to find it wanting, while a certain breed of apologists attempts to answer these criticisms by adducing neutral evidence that these propositions are, in fact, true.
The entirety of this understanding, however, is grounded in modern materialist presuppositions. This is why the apologist and the atheist can debate on the same terms of evidence. It assumes that the Christian religion is composed of a series of logical propositions about God and human salvation which relate to each other logically forming a mental construct. Correctly entering ‘true’ and ‘false’ on a doctrinal test is what renders one a Christian or not. Because thousands of Christian and pseudo-Christian groups disagree on various elements of this construct, debates occur regarding which elements are necessary to be believed for salvation and which are debatable and secondary. Not only is faith therefore intellectualized, but this also extends to the Eucharist, which is denied to those who are considered unable to understand it. Many groups take this even farther, denying Baptism to those who are not able to intellectually process its nature and meaning. One immediate sign that such conceptions are foreign to the authors of scripture is that no objective standard for assessing these matters, i.e. what beliefs are primary and non-negotiable and which are indifferent, what age or level of understanding of doctrines such as the Holy Trinity is required for salvation, what age or level of understanding of the Eucharist is required for its partaking, what age or level of understanding is required to be baptized, etc., is to be found anywhere in the scriptures.
The word often translated ‘faith’ in English would generally be better translated ‘faithfulness’. Likewise ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ would be better translated ‘the faithful’ and ‘the unfaithful’. It is better to speak of the Orthodox Christian religion, in the original Latin sense of religio, something to which someone is bound, than the Orthodox Christian faith. In order to understand why, a return must be made to the ancient worldview shared by all of the writers of scripture, both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament writings. Not only is the modern understanding of ‘faith’ incompatible with the world as understood by our fathers, but understanding their worldview allows a different understanding to emerge.
In the first place, there were no atheists, in the modern sense, in the ancient world or even monotheists in the modern sense. Those of the nations surrounding Israel did not deny that Yahweh existed. Neither did the Israelites deny the existence of the pagan gods, only asserting that they were evil spiritual beings of a created and lesser nature who were not to be worshipped. Having ‘faith’ in Yahweh, therefore, for Abraham or anyone else, did not refer to the belief that Yahweh existed. And this did not change in the centuries between Abraham and St. Paul, who said, “For indeed there are also many who are called gods, either in heaven or on earth, as also there are many gods and many lords, but for us there is one, the Father, from whom are all things and we for him and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him” (1 Cor 8:5-6). St. Paul’s statement here, which formed the basis for the formula of the Nicene Creed, also brings across the central element of faithfulness which is grounded in the gospel message as St. Paul preached it.
The term translated as ‘gospel’ in English is the Greek evangelion. This term was used in external Greek literature primarily in the plural, evangelia. It referred to the formal reading of the victories and titles of a ruler, official, or general at their arrival in a place. The construction of the creation story in Genesis 1-2 is patterned after such an enthronement of Yahweh after his great works of creation. It is to this understanding of creation that St. Paul appeals in 1 Corinthians. There the apostle emphasizes that the work of creation is not only a glorious one but is one performed by God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf. The king is our benefactor. This pattern recurs several times in the scriptures, notably at Mt. Sinai in the creation of the people of Israel following their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. St. Paul’s gospel, then, is the culmination of this pattern, its fulfillment, in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and enthronement, and return of Christ to judge the living and the dead. The gospel as proclaimed by the apostles is the recounting of the great victory won by Christ over the spiritual powers of evil, sin, and death itself.
This understanding of gospel is linked directly to the scriptures’ understanding of covenant. The covenants of scripture are structured around ancient covenants issued by kings to their new vassals upon their accession or conquest. It is not a bargain or a contract to provide certain benefits in return for certain behavior. Rather, it consists of the ruler who has power and authority delineating his expectations to those ruled including consequences for disobedience. As the Creator of all things including humanity, Yahweh is owed a set of obligations by his creatures. After being delivered from bondage in Egypt, made into a nation, and given the land of Canaan as an inheritance, the people of Israel owed a series of obligations to her Creator and God. In the new covenant, all of humanity owes a series of obligations to their Lord Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again to deliver all of humanity from the powers of sin and death and Hades. Christ sits enthroned, invested with all authority in heaven and on earth, and at his glorious appearing it is to him that every human person will give account for the things done in this life (Matt 16:27; Jn 5:28-29; 2 Cor 5:10; Gal 6:7-9; Rev 20:13; 22:12).
Central to every one of these sets of responsibilities and covenant obligations is faithfulness, loyalty, and allegiance to Yahweh as king. This is true not only in the case of creation and the Sinai covenant, but also the covenant promises issued to Noah, Abraham, David, and others. Whether this is the general statement that Abraham must walk before Yahweh and be righteous or the specifics of how the newly created nation of Israel must govern its communal life, faithful obedience lies at the core of the human response to God’s saving actions. This loyalty and allegiance must be undivided, making idolatry and the following of sinful passions the paradigmatic sins of the scriptures. Without the loving allegiance described as faithfulness, no outward observance of commandments, shows of piety, or rote performance of ritual has any value. This is true throughout the scriptures, not only in the new covenant.
St. James describes this faithful loyalty as the soul which makes physical observances, both of worship and of moral life in this world, to be living and valuable (Jas 2:26). Every demonic power assents intellectually to the truth of every proposition which makes up the gospel and the teaching of the Christian religion (v. 19). It avails them nothing because there is no loving loyalty for their Creator. Such faithfulness is expressed and perfected through the way in which our life in this world is lived (v. 21-23). Cain offered sacrifice to the same God as Abel, yet his works were evil, his worship did not proceed from faithfulness (1 Jn 3:12). The promises to Abraham were sure, yet for Abraham to receive them he had to leave his dwelling in Ur and travel across the known world to the land promised him. This proceeded from faithfulness and loyalty to the God who had given him those promises.
St. Paul is clear that salvation, eternal life which comes as the reward given by our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ on the great day of his coming again as well as all of the fruits of the Spirit in this life, come to us through faithfulness (Eph 2:8-9). We do not receive these things by doing generally more good things than bad things. We do not receive these things by checking off a list of do’s and don’ts with regard to outward observance. We do not receive these things through intellectually acknowledging certain tenets and rejecting others. Christ is not for St. Paul an intellectual construct composed of theological propositions which he considered to be true. Christ is for St. Paul a person whom he encountered on multiple occasions throughout his life. These encounters and the faithful loyalty with which St. Paul responded to them transformed his entire life. ‘Faith’ is not a transaction that bestows certain benefits upon an individual human person. It is a way of living one’s entire life as a good and faithful servant of the Lord who loved us and purchased us with his own blood (Acts 20:28).