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Faith (Word Study)


“Faith” is one of the terms most often used to translate the Greek noun pistis. Pistis and its relatives, including the verb pisteuein and the adjective pistos, are among the most widely used terms in the New Testament and were key concepts early Christians used to describe their relationship with God and Jesus Christ.

How should pistis be translated?

Outside the Bible, pistis has a wide range of meaning, centering on trust and trustworthiness and including faithfulness, loyalty, good faith, honesty, reliability, and confidence. It can also refer to things that create trust, including belief, testimony, proof, and pledge. For example, the historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Antiquitates romanae 1.58.4) reports that when the Trojans first settled Italy they made a pistis, a pledge of good behavior, to the local inhabitants, which allowed them to live in peace. When Christianity arose, there was no word for religious faith as Christians later understood it: a rich compound of teaching, belief, trust, obedience, hope, nonrational certainty, and mystery, together with practices such as prayer, shared worship, and the celebration of the Eucharist. Nor was there a word for the faith.

It is debated whether pistis already means faith or the faith in some New Testament writings or whether those meanings developed later. In the New Testament, pistis tends to mean trust, trustworthiness, faithfulness, or belief. For example, when Jesus tells the disciples, “Have pistis in God” (Mark 11:22), he is urging them to trust in God when they pray. When Paul speaks of God’s pistis (e.g., Rom 3:3), he is referring to God’s trustworthiness in fulfilling God’s promises. When Paul reminds the Corinthians “that Christ died for our sins,” he says, “so we preach, and so you episteusate,” meaning “so you believed” (1Cor 15:11). Sometimes it is unclear whether a writer is referring to trust, belief, or both. When Jesus says, “Pisteuete in God, pisteuete also in me” (John 14:1), we cannot be sure whether he is saying, “Believe in me as you believe in God,” “Trust in God and trust in me,” or both.

By the late first or early second century, Christians were beginning to stretch the meaning of pistis to describe the distinctive nature of their relationship with God and Christ. When the Letter of Jude exhorts a Christian group “to contend for the pistis that was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3), it may be using pistis to refer to a body of teaching or even the “new covenant” in Christ. When 1 Timothy says that servants must hold on to “the mystery of the pistis” with a pure conscience (1Tim 3:8-9), the writer may be thinking of pistis as something like the faith. Over the next three centuries, pistis gradually acquired further meanings until it became the complex modern concept of faith.

For much of Christian history, belief and faith have been seen as more important than trust between God, Christ, and humanity. Translations of the Bible have therefore tended to translate pistis as “faith” or “belief.” Since the mid-twentieth century, however, interest in the trust aspect of pistis has grown. So, for example, when Paul reassures his fellow-travelers that they will not be shipwrecked (Acts 27:25), the NRSV translates, “I have faith in God that it will turn out as I have been told,” while the New American Bible translates, “I trust in God….” Recognizing that pistis often means trust, trustworthiness, or faithfulness not only allows us to read many passages afresh; it also fits with the sense many Christians share that trust in God and Christ is an important part of their faith.

  • Morgan-Teresa

    Teresa Morgan is Professor of Graeco-Roman History at the University of Oxford, Nancy Bissell Turpin Fellow and tutor in Ancient History at Oriel College, Oxford, and McDonald-Agape Professor-Elect of New Testament and Early Christianity at Yale Divinity School. She studied classics at Cambridge University, theology at Oxford University, and violin and viola in London and Cologne. She is an Anglican priest and serves in two parishes on the edge of Oxford.