WHAT IS FAITH? An Important Question About Definitions

What is faith? Is it blind? Dumb? Irrational? What do the Scriptures say about the concept of faith?

Pop culture (and many Christians!) wrongly define the Christian concept of faith. A chief offender: atheist activist Peter Boghossian. 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 for this definition?
  • Have they done any basic exegetical work?
  • What is their justification for their interpretation?
  • Where do they pull their definition from – what is their source?

No wise student of belief systems should act as if all frameworks have an identical definition of this concept (faith). A person may not agree with the way Christian theology defines faith but shouldn’t they at least understand how Christians have historically understood the concept? If not, what are they accomplishing? Maybe what they intend – to score points.

Any evangelical worth his or her 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 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’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. It won’t reflect most streams of Christianity – sans fideists. Peter and the crew will talk right past us without blinking.

Recently, I reviewed the Biblical definition of faith and took some notes. As a Protestant Christian, I go to Scripture (as in Sola Scriptura). I look to the Greek word pisteuō (verb form); I included some mini-word studies with a few examples of usage. I look to the Greek lexicons. I collate and synthesize the data – this is what systematic theology *is*.


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. With these notes, 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.
-it is still more than that, 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.” (see 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”).

-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).

-NT faith is not merely accepting certain things as true, but emphasizes trusting a person: Christ.
-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 of 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”).


Furthermore, Paul teaches that CHRISTIAN FAITH IS HYPOTHETICALLY FALSIFIABLE in 1 Corinthians 15. This means faith is based upon something trustworthy or reliable because if the reason for the faith can be shown to be insufficient, then we should cease to have the faith/trust! For example, see this IF/THEN scenario Paul creates in 1 Corinthians 15:

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


-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.


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

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”). Why does any one person begin trusting/have faith in the first place?

The source of this trust 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.

But that’s a whole new ball of beeswax.



RESOURCES: -I discussed/debated the definition of faith on Urban Theologian Radio w/Seth Andrews of The Thinking Atheist. Listen @24-minutes.
-Peter B. 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).
-Hear the RTB podcast Is Christian “Faith” Blind? (Apr 10, 2013)

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