Biblically, faith is trust, confidence in, or assurance. However, the biblical definition of faith differs from its modern definition. Before we look at the difference, let’s look at why we say biblical faith is trust, confidence in, or assurance.
The New Testament was written in Greek, not English, and the Greek noun “pistis” is translated “faith” in many translations of the Bible. For example:
- “…If ye have faith (pistis) as a grain of mustard seed…”
- “…Have faith (pistis) in God.” (Mark 11:22-KJV)
- “(For we walk by faith (pistis), not by sight:)” (2 Cor. 5:7-KJV)
That pistis means trust, confidence in, or assurance, can be checked in any good Greek lexicon (“lexicon” is a word scholars use for “dictionary.”). For example, Friberg’s Analytical Greek Lexicon has “confidence, faith, trust, reliance on.” Vine’s lexicon says, “firm persuasion,” and Bullinger’s lexicon says the same thing. Thayer’s lexicon says, “conviction of the truth of anything.”
When the people of the first century got the letters of Paul, for example, they did not say, “What is pistis?”, as if Paul had invented a new word. Pistis was in common use in the Greek language, and had been for centuries. It is in the writings of the Greeks, including Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, etc. The first definition of pistis in the Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon, sold in college bookstores to students of ancient Greek, is “trust in others.” That is why we say pistis means “trust.”
When the Greek New Testament was translated into Latin, fides was the natural choice as a translation of pistis, because fides means “trust, confidence, reliance, belief.” The Bible was then read in Latin for hundreds of years. As the English language developed, our English word “faith” came from the Latin word fides. There should be nothing mysterious about pistis, fides, or faith. We know what trust is. Merriam-Webster defines it as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”
If both pistis and fides mean “trust,” how did “faith” come to be defined in our culture as “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition)? To understand this, we must remember that a dictionary definition is only a record of how people are currently using the word in their speech and writing. This is why dictionary definitions change as time passes.
What happened to change the definition of faith from “trust” to “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” was: (1) people started to use “faith” as “belief in something for which there is no proof,” (2) that usage was put in the dictionary as a definition of faith, (3) people who did not know what faith was looked it up in the dictionary, saw that definition, and used it that way. This process continued over time until now almost everyone thinks “faith” is “belief in something for which there is no proof.” In fact, that definition of faith was used in the popular television medical series, “House,” in April 2006.
Sadly, it is now safe to say that most people do not know that the biblical definition of faith is “trust,” and furthermore that they do not have the knowledge or the tools to research that for themselves. Serious consequences come from believing that the Bible asks us to believe things even though there is no proof for them. Believers become confused about faith, not knowing what it is or how to get it and grow in it. Unbelievers, thinking the Bible asks people to believe things without proof, say it is an unreasonable and illogical book, and reject it—to their own doom.
How did the idea that faith is “belief in something for which there is no proof” enter into the Christian culture in the first place? The actual historical process is long and tedious, but the concept is simple. The Church asked people to trust doctrines that were neither logical nor clearly backed up by Scripture. For example, the doctrine that the “host” (bread) and wine that are used in Roman Catholic Mass become the body and blood of Christ is not logical (for example, it still looks and tastes like bread and wine, not meat and blood), and it is not backed by solid Scriptural exegesis. Priests know this, and so they ask people to “take it by faith.”
Please understand, there is nothing wrong with “take it by faith (trust)” if there is actually something (such as a promise) to trust. When Jesus told the blind man that if he washed in the Pool of Siloam he would be healed, the blind man had faith in, trusted, Jesus and his promise, washed, and given sight by a miracle. However, if there is nothing to trust in and nothing “trustworthy” to believe, then to ask people to “take it by faith” is wrong, and contributes to the misunderstanding of God and the Bible.
No one can force trust. It develops over time. We all know this every time we have a new repairman come to our house to fix something, or have to take our car to a new mechanic. We desperately want to trust the person to be competent and honest, but that comes only in time. If he says, “Trust me,” that often only makes things worse. If, on the other hand, he does the work when he says he will, does a good job, charges what he said he would, and seems to be honest and fair, our faith (trust) in him grows. Biblical faith is the same. It is neither magic, unreasonable, nor illogical, “it is simply trust.”