An Earth-Shattering Understanding of “Faith” and “Belief”

Disclaimer: The post below is theologically and biblically wonkish. I don’t know if anyone else is interested or not, but I am, so I’m writing it. If you’re not interested, feel free to skip this entry.

I’m currently reading a mildly Earth-shattering book called Salvation by Faith Alone by Matthew W. Bates. He’s addressing an issue that has long troubled me: what is the best way to understand and translate the Greek word pistis into English. The two most popular words for translating pistis are faith and belief, but they never were exactly interchangeable with the Greek term and their meaning has shifted over the centuries and a lot of nuance and detail has been lost. 1 Bates summarizes much of my learning on this issue in one sentence:

the word pistis (and related terms) has a much broader range of meaning. This range includes ideas that aren’t usually associated in our contemporary culture with belief or faith, such as reliability, confidence, assurance, fidelity, faithfulness, commitment, and pledged loyalty. 2

As a result, the words faith and belief don’t entirely fit the context of the biblical writings in which we find the term pistis. They fit sometimes, but not always and their use with contemporary understandings of their meaning introduces unnecessary incongruity and tension between different parts of the Bible. (E.g. the Gospels and Paul’s letters) So how should we speak of pistis?

With regard to eternal salvation, rather than speaking of belief, trust, or faith in Jesus, we should speak instead of fidelity to Jesus as cosmic Lord or allegiance to Jesus the king. This, of course, is not to say that the best way to translate every occurrence of pistis (and related terms) is always or even usually “allegiance.” Rather it is to say that allegiance is the best macro-term available to us that can describe what God requires from us for eternal salvation. It is the best term because it avoids unhelpful English-language associations that have become attached to “faith” and “belief,” as well as limitations in the “trust” idea, and at the same time it captures what is most vital for salvation— mental assent, sworn fidelity, and embodied loyalty. But we do not need to avoid the words “faith” and “belief” entirely. 3

Before you burn me at the stake for heresy, reread that last sentence. I’m not seeking to get rid of faith and belief, but I do think they need to be folded into and seen as components of allegiance. There is more to pistis than faith and belief, but certainly not less.

All of this comes only five pages into the book. I’ve been exploring this issue for a long time, but have only been able to find snippets in various books and short articles up to now. I’m excited about an entire book devoted to the subject and the depth of biblical exegesis that Bates is providing. There’s probably more to come, I’ll keep you posted.

1 We’ve tried to regain some of this nuance by using the terms “I commit myself,” “I set my heart upon,” and “I place my trust in the Holy Spirit” in The Apostles’ Creed.

2 Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 3.

3 Ibid., 5.