So a while back I was working on what it is to be faithful according to the bible. While it is common knowledge that faith and belief are different words with different meanings in English, most people are unsure about what the bible means by the word “faith.”
In earlier blogs I have pointed out that the bible never once uses the word “belief” in English, and that is because there is no Greek word for the English concept of “belief.” Instead, the bible uses the word for “faith”-pistis. But since there is no word for “belief” as we understand it in Greek, we are unable to definitively say which the bible means by pistis: does it mean “faith” or “belief?”
Part of what informs this dilemma for us is an assumption that we make without even realizing that it is up for debate: we look beyond the bible to discover the meaning of the words the bible uses. Where does the bible, especially the New Testament, get it’s understanding of terms and theological concepts? From the Old Testament. You see, the idea of faith didn’t plop into the minds of the New Testament writers from nowhere. Paul didn’t make the term up.
“But hold on,” you might say. “The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, whereas the New Testament is written in Greek. How can we figure out what a Greek word in the New Testament means by looking at the meaning of the Hebrew word that is translated the same way in English? The answer is quite simple, actually. By Paul’s day, the Old Testament had been translated into Greek. It is called the “Septuagint.” Paul quotes the Septuagint almost exclusively when referring to the Old Testament, and so we can therefore safely understand that Paul and other New Testament writers are using the terms such as pistis in the same way the Septuagint is using them.
So when we are trying to sort out something as messy and convoluted as the three language (four if you consider Latin a player in this game) pile-up of figuring out what the bible means by pistis, we need to look at the Old Testament. How does it use that word?
In order to make my case, I am going to start with the most basic understanding of faith in the Septuagint: the appropriate state of marriage. This understanding is most obviously used in the writings of the prophets, and since he gets so little attention from theologians, I will use the book of Malachi as my example.
Malachi begins with YHWH’s categorical declaration of love for his people. When challenged on his love, he articulates what he means by love. Central to that articulation is the idea of covenant faithfulness as in a marriage. YHWH declares that Israel’s calamity is the result of their faithlessness to him by virtue of the unfaithfulness of the leaders to their wives (spouses). This is the first and primary way the bible uses the word faith: as the way of being in covenant with YHWH. This covenant is compared to a marriage, yet in a profound twist, it is the status of the actual marriage that indicates to YHWH the status of the covenantal marriage to YHWH’s self to Israel.
This understanding begins to illuminate what the New Testament means by pistis. We are faithful to Jesus in the same way that we are faithful to our spouse. This is the foundation of how the bible understands Faith.