What Is Faith?

14 Jan


Atheists misdefine the Christian concept of faith. The chief offender is Peter BoghossianWhen Peter and the disciples (get it?) define faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know”, we need to ask: “What is their authority, their source for this definition? Have they done any basic exegetical work in the text? What is their justification for their interpretation? Where do they pull their definition from?”

No wise student of world religions and other belief systems should act as if all frameworks have an identical definition of this word/concept. A person may not agree with the way Christian theology defines faith – fine. But shouldn’t they at least understand how Christians have historically utilized the word and concept? If they are not attempting to do this – which appears to be the case—then what are they accomplishing?

Atheists, please understand: any evangelical worth their salt is not interested in some vague philosophy of religion definition of faith but rather the biblical – and especially the New Testament – use of the word and concept.

Will Peter B. be interested? Not likely. But then he will merely be defining something in a way that is designed to be favorable to his ultimate end. That’s not a linguistic consideration; that’s a cheap tactic. Read Peter Boghossian, Atheist Tactitian for more on this.

That is fine for him, but it’s not scholarship. Peter’s definition doesn’t reflect the way the biblical authors used the word. It doesn’t look at the way systematizers use concepts and it won’t reflect most streams of Christianity (sans fideists). Peter and the crew will talk right past all of us without blinking.

Recently, I looked over the Biblical definition of faith. I took some notes. As a Protestant Christian, I go to Scripture (as in ‘sola Scriptura’). I look to the actual Greek word pisteuō (verb form) and then go from there. I included some basic mini-word studies with a few examples of usage. I look to Scripture, its context (in the Greek) and the lexicons. Then I seek to collate and synthesize the data – this is what systematic theology *is*.

With these notes, I have no mere polemic in mind. I offer an understanding of what the Greek word translated as faith means in the New Testament. 

-Gk. noun pistis and verb pisteuō both occur more than 240 times (verb form used 98 times in Gospel of John), adjective pistos 67 times

-Verb pisteuō often followed by Greek word for ‘that’ (eg, “believe that…”); indicates New Testament faith is concerned with content. NOTE: it is still more than that, though, e.g., Calvin’s Commentary on Romans 3:14-15.

-“Pisteuō may be followed by the simple dative, when the meaning is that of giving credence to, of accepting as true, what someone says.” … it is “faith in the sense of trust.” (New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edition, 1996, from the entry for “faith” by Leon Morris).

-Common construction for saving faith in NT: verb pisteuō followed by preposition eis.
Literally means believe ‘into’ (as in, “believe/trust into Christ”).

-New Testament faith is not merely accepting certain things as true, but emphasizes trusting a person – Christ. 

Calvin comments: “To separate faith from trust (Latin, fiducia) would be equal to an attempt to separate heat and light from the sun” (Commentary on Ephesians 3:12). The emphasis is the object of faith: the person of Christ. The idea is that God is reliable, dependable, and truthful – therefore trustworthy.

– Sometimes pisteuō is followed by epi, ‘upon’ (e.g., Acts 9:42).

– Also characteristic of the New Testament is the absolute use of the verb pisteuō (e.g., John 4:41).

-Faith is used in New Testament often as the antithesis of WORKS – not of rationality or thought.

-For example, Paul writes that ‘A man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’ … ‘even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law’ … ‘because by works of the law shall no one be justified’ (Galatians 2:16).

-Here faith denotes relying on God’s grace as opposed to one’s own merit or work. This is what the Protestant Reformers meant by the Latin motto, “sola fide” (by “faith alone”).

-The author of Hebrews sees faith as a historic trait for the people of God (in chapter 11 he gives numerous examples)

John Frame comments: “…although faith is not blind, it is different from sight. The heroes of Hebrews 11 endured terrible sufferings, not seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises, the heavenly city. They walked by faith. They had God’s word, and that word was reliable. But it did not answer all their questions or tell each one why his or her suffering was necessary. Yet their prevailed. The very nature of faith is to persevere despite unanswered questions. Thus does God’s word encourage sufferers to hold on tightly to God’s promises and not to be overcome with doubt.” (Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction, John Frame, 1994), p 179.

-The author of Hebrews does contrast faith (Gr. pistis) with things seen (Gr. blepomenon) in Hebrews 11:1.

In general, faith in the New Testament is seen as synonymous with trust. It is usually contrasted with “works” – NOT REASON! The exception (to a certain extent) is the Book of Hebrews. The author uses the concept in a somewhat different way. Still, if a person reads the whole book – or at least all of chapter 11 – they should be able to see how the author seeks to tie faith to the concept of hope. The author doesn’t seek to divorce it from reason (the idea of true faith vs. true reason is not even in the Bible). With that being said, the author of Hebrews does show there is a “not-yet” aspect; there is something still in the future still, which we have not yet seen or experienced but trust God that it will happen.

-Often uses faith to denote intellectual assent, as in demons who believe God exists in James 2:19.

IF Christ has not been raised

THEN Paul’s preaching is vain (Greek kene: empty, without content, purposeless, untrue)

IF Christ has not been raised
THEN the Corinthians faith is also vain (Greek kene: empty, without content, purposeless, untrue)

IF Christ has not been raised
THEN the apostles are misrepresenting God

IF Christ has not been raised
THEN your faith is futile (Greek mataia: worthless, powerless, without effect, useless)

IF Christ has not been raised
THEN Christians are of all people most to be pitied


As a Calvinist, I ask what others in the Reformed tradition have said: a theologian (Frame), a philosopher (Van Til) and an exegete (Calvin), all who represent the Reformed Christian tradition. Then we may ask, “How have others understood the concept of faith historically?”

“Christianity is not irrational” … “it must not be taken on blind faith”
(Common Grace and The Gospel, 1972), p 184.

“…the Christian faith is not a blind faith but is faith based on evidence…”
(A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 1969), p 250.


“Our faith cannot rest on anything other than his eternal truth” (aeterna eius veritate) – Commentary on Genesis 17:4

“Faith is a knowledge of the divine will toward us received from his word” (Institutes, 3.2.6).

“We make the foundation of faith the gratuitous promise, because in it faith properly consists” (3.2.29).

*All of Chapter 2 of Book 3 of Calvin’s Institutes is on faith; he defines it and explains its properties. 


On a slightly different trek, one may ask what is the source or cause for said faith. Well, that gets us into what is called the ‘ordo salutis’ (Latin,” order of salvation”).

The source of this trust (why does any one person begin trusting/have faith in the first place?) is understood to be an effect resulting from the supernatural work of the person of the Holy Spirit upon the mind of an individual. Sometimes this is talked about under the rubric of something called “effectual calling”.

Reformed types believe regeneration is a gift and must precede genuine faith – or trust. Arminian or Wesleyan types think that people believe (have faith/trust) on via their own means and then as a result are born again (regenerated) after. People often go to the Greek of Ephesians 2:8-10 to discuss this question.

RESOURCES: Peter debated Tim McGrew on this topic on Unbelievable Radio here. It was good overall (not to say I agree with Tim 100%, I don’t). Also, see the RTB podcast “Is Christian “Faith” Blind?” (Apr 10, 2013).

7 Responses to “What Is Faith?”

  1. Gregory Hurd January 15, 2015 at 1:40 am #

    The fact that jesus rose from the dead cannot be empirically verified in any sense. Therefore, to claim that you know he rose, is to pretend you know something that you don’t actually know. Same goes for all the miracle claims and most everything else your religion claims. You may think your faith is not blind because God himself has revealed it to you, but you have no way of even verifying that claim either. Faith is the most intellectually dishonest position that a person could ever take.

    • Vocab Malone of Backpack Radio January 15, 2015 at 2:37 am #

      Greg, you comment postures that you KNOW Christianity is false. I do not count your assumption as knowledge because your assumption is false.
      Why should I share your definition of faith, merely because you desire to force it into my noetic structure? I should not, especially when you have no lexical basis, no basis rooted in the tradition which you seek to critique.

      How do you believe people should go about empirically verifying things? Can you empirically verify your recommendation is the correct process?
      We all make a priori assumptions (e.g., I exist, other minds exist, etc.) which we can not empirically verify. Empiricist verificationsim fails.

      Ironically enough, the resurrection has been empirically verified – see John 20:24–20:31 and my sermon on it

      Thank you for checking out the lil’ ol’ blog!

      • Gregory Hurd January 15, 2015 at 2:48 am #

        I never suggested that I KNOW christianity is false. I don’t believe it because it has not been sufficiently demonstrated. There is a difference.

        I might check out your sermon when I get time, although I can’t imagine how you would empiracally verify something that supposedly took place 2000 years ago. If you have actually proven the ressurection, then where is your Nobel Prize? It should at least be breaking news on the FOX network. The only record of jesus even existing is the bible. You can’t use the bible to prove the bible. That’s circular.

  2. Gregory Hurd January 15, 2015 at 2:52 am #

    The scientific method is the best and most reliable method we currently posses for finding truth.

  3. Vocab Malone of Backpack Radio January 15, 2015 at 3:11 am #

    Maybe I misunderstood; I’m sorry for that.

    Help me understand you better, Greg: are you saying you do not claim to KNOW Christianity is false? You just say you BELIEVE it is false? Is that correct?

    Please answer how it is you arrived at the demand for empirical verification? I’m gonna bet you did not arrive at that belief by empirical verification (how would even be possible)?

    If you’re gonna say only empirical things count as evidence, then you’ve gotta justify your reasons for postulating that using empirically verifiable means, don’t you (to be consistent)?

    Do you allow yourself to merely assert “The scientific method is the best and most reliable method we currently posses for finding truth” without showing us how you utilized the scientific method to arrive at that conclusion? Or did you use some other means to arrive at that truth about the best means to arrive at truth?

  4. Gregory Hurd January 15, 2015 at 6:23 am #

    Apology accepted 🙂

    I don’t think it is possible for you to know anything for certain. We can always be mistaken in any belief that we hold. A belief is simply the acceptance of a proposition as true. Everyone has beliefs. My beliefs are tentative and are based on the evidence provided to me. Faith is a different kind of belief. It is believing what is written in an ancient book without evidence or even in spite of the evidence. If you had sufficient evidence, in other words, you would not require faith to believe it!

    The reason I believe that science is the best method we currently possess to discover truth is because it works! Consistently! It is the reason we are able to have this friendly debate via the internet. It is responsible for all of the wonderful technology that we currently possess. Science makes airplanes. FAITH flies them into the World Trade Center!

    • Vocab Malone of Backpack Radio January 15, 2015 at 7:12 am #

      You are welcome, Greg. And thank you for all of your comments.

      You said, “FAITH flies them into the World Trade Center!” This statement is not *literally* true. It is more precise to say people fly planes, in this case people of Islamic faith. This literally has nothing to do with anything I am advocating. Maybe it’s best not to lump Christians in with a belief system which they think is false – similar to the way they view atheism.

      Even saying “science makes airplanes” is not *literally* true. Again, people make airplanes. In fact, the Wright Bros. appear to have been Christians themselves. See C. Ludwig, ‘The Wright Brothers—They Gave Us Wings’ (Mott Media: Milford, MI, 1985, p.172).

      And when you write, “Faith is a different kind of belief. … If you had sufficient evidence, in other words, you would not require faith to believe it”, you are using the word faith in a way that is completely foreign to me and the Christian wisdom tradition. Please re-read my little post and maybe even check out some of the links.

      You can disagree with Christianity but please do not re-define our words. We are not going to go along with you. We do not believe faith “is believing what is written in an ancient book without evidence or even in spite of the evidence”. The ENGLISH word faith comes from the Greek word pisteuo which denotes a confident trust or reliance in a reliable source.

      It’s not blind faith floating in the ether. It is TRUST and it has an recipient – Jesus. The object of one’s ‘faith’ makes all the difference in the world. You would do better to attempt to dismantle the object of our trust, instead of artificially employing a concept against us which we do not embrace.

      Enough of that: I put the question to you again. Science does not have a category for truth – that is a philosophical question. If it does, then truth would have to be something one could empirically verify. It seems you only think physical things can be empirically verified – is this the case?

      You, as an atheistic materialist, have a bigger challenge: your worldview does not have a category for any non-physical immaterial conceptual realities. Your reductionist presuppositions undercut the very foundation needed to even begin scientific exploration. For example, how do you account for the fact that the universe is uniform (and real), or that logic *is*?

      You can not arrive at the needed presuppositions needed to make science work via materialistic means.

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