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The New Testament

In the New Testament, the notion of faith continues earlier developments with the consequence that instead of a cohesive meaning of ‘faith’ we find a variety of meanings and interpretations sometimes divergent from one another. The reason for this variety is the unique combination of influences on New Testament authors: Old Testament literature, Alexandrine culture, the role of the Qumran sect (where the ancient notion of the faithfulness of God and the community have an apocalyptic setting) and, at some points, the presence of popular, mainly Stoic philosophy. In the background, we see the impact of the belief-language of the mystery-cults as well (1Tim. 3.9).

There are about fifteen different meanings of the noun ‘faith’ (pistis) and the verb ‘to believe’ (pisteuein) in the New Testament. These meanings converge to some extent, but this does not mean a seamless unity. We can say, rather, that a scrupulous investigation of these meanings reveals even more differences, resulting in the picture of the New Testament as a melting pot of various notions of faith. The meanings can be discriminated either by their object (God, Jesus, the Gospel: Mk. 11.22, Jn. 14.1; Jn. 4.21, Rom. 3.22; Mk. 1.15), by the kind of act they involve (faithfulness, trust, hope, realization: Heb. 11.1; Mk. 13.21, Mt. 6.30, Phil. 2.19, Phlm.1.5; 2 Cor. 10.15; Jn. 20.31), or again by their results (works, conversion, resurrection, eternal life: Jas. 2.14; Heb. 10.22; 1. Cor. 15.14; 1 Tim. 6.12). There is a notion of faith as virtue (Gal. 5.22, 1 Tim. 1.5), and we have the peculiar expression of ‘the faith of Christ’, pistis Christou (Rom. 3.22, Gal. 2.16, Eph. 3.12, Phil. 3.9). The ‘faith of Christ’ may refer grammatically either to faith in Christ or the faith Christ had, and while the biblical expressions are certainly about the former, we can speak of the problem of the faith Christ had. Most importantly, Jesus’ amen-sayings (‘Verily [amen], I say to you...’, which occur about eighty times in the Gospels) can be seen as expressions of a specific kind of faith, a kind of fundamental firmness as the expression of divine self-consciousness. In the Revelation of John, Jesus is referred to as a personified Amen: ‘These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God’ (Rev. 3.14). One has to add a further kind of faith in the New Testament, the so-called pisteuein eis (‘to believe on.’) expressions, a novelty of New Testament Greek, especially the Gospel of John, and an obvious Hebraism with no parallel in the classical Greek language (Jn. 1.12 etc.) ‘To believe on’ expresses strong emotional, volitional and intellectual dynamism.

Historically, the amen-sayings may have been the origin of all the other varieties of the notion of faith in the New Testament. Jesus’ self-affirmation as the Son of God was the expression of his fundamental faith or firmness, an attitude rooted in the central Old Testament meaning of faith. This faith is reflected in the sayings about the essence of faith as firmness in the miracle-stories of the Gospels where a miraculous event is often depicted as a result of faith. The sayings about little or great faith have a similar meaning: with little faith, we cannot achieve anything; with great faith almost everything is possible (Mt. 8.26: ‘Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?’; Mt. 8.10: ‘I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel’.) The other meanings of faith may be interpreted as derivative of these fundamental features, such as faith as ‘coming to believe in’ or to ‘convert to’ God, Christ, the Gospel, the resurrection and so on. Faith as faithfulness, as in the Letter to the Hebrews, stands the closest to the notion of emuna in the Old Testament. The famous definition of faith in Heb. 11.1 (‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence [argument] of things not seen’) generated endless meditations during the subsequent centuries about the exact meaning of ‘substance’ and ‘argument/evidence’ and their relationship, until scholarship realized that we are dealing here with a parallelism, characteristic of Hebrew rhetoric, so that the two words have the same referent, namely ‘reality’.

The most important difference of all the New Testament expressions of faith from the Old Testament is that faith is the act of the believer personally believing in the physical presence of God in Jesus; the emphasis is not on the faith of the community hoping for a future fulfilment, but on the faith of the individual related to an already realized fulfilment. Already the amen-sayings of Jesus reflect this new emphasis. Acts 2.44 (‘And all that believed were together’) refers to the believers’ community and not to the community as believing; and even when Paul speaks in terms of ‘we’ (‘we have believed in Jesus Christ’, Gal. 2.16), he means the community of individual believers. The strongest witness of the new Christian community of individual believers is the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. In his understanding, the community of the Old and the New Testaments forms one body in which the followers of the old covenant exemplify those of the new covenant with Christ. Just as the head of the old covenant was Moses, the head of the new one is Christ; Christ is the eternal high priest of the community of the believers (Heb. 7.26), in which the individual’s responsibility before God is unavoidable (‘with whom we have to do’, Heb. 4.13). The individual piety is recommended (‘Let us hold fast the profession of the faith without wavering; for he is faithful that promised’, Heb. 10.23). Within such a context, we may say that the New Testament’s novelty is the encouragement of individual faith with a strong personal dimension. This is concretized by the contents of the faith in Christ, in God or in the Gospel. The recurring expression of ‘by faith’ in the Letter to the Hebrews is obviously about faith as an act, just as Paul’s famous ‘justified by faith apart from works’ proposition (Rom. 3.28; translated by Luther as sola fide) does not mean that many expressions referring to faith in the letters of Paul are not about the contents of faith, such as ‘the word of faith’ (Rom. 10.8).

If we want to find a simple definition of faith in the New Testament, then we can refer to faith based on concrete fulfilment. In the Old Testament, the psalmist desires the presence of the Lord and he prays for it; in the New Testament, this presence is

already realized in Jesus Christ. This is the case even if the definition of faith in the Letter to the Hebrews applies a slightly different emphasis. The fulfiller of faith is the Holy Spirit, as we see it in the person of Stephen, ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost’. It is the fulfilled character of faith which gives its solidity, strength, power; it is the concrete vision of faith that leads to martyrdom (Acts 7.56). This fulfilled faith is enriched by all the other meanings, which made possible the development of this notion during the subsequent centuries of theological, spiritual and philosophical interpretations.

Study questions

  • 1. Why is the notion of faith unique to Christianity?
  • 2. What are the basic meanings of faith in the Old Testament?
  • 3. What is the original meaning of Hab. 2.4?
  • 4. What are the basic meanings of faith in the New Testament?
  • 5. What are the ‘amen-sayings’?

Further reading

Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (London: Doubleday, 2007).

Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011).

Brown, Raymond E., Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible (New York: Paulist, 1990). McKenzie, Steven L., How to Read the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

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