Yes! Yes! Yes!

I ran across this in my Theological Journal Library in Logos a few weeks ago, and I literally laughed with delight. Maybe you’d have to be living in the country I live in right now (Dissertationastan) to find this as perfectly glorious as I did, but perhaps people in neighboring countries will also appreciate it. The author is discussing πίστις (pistis, the Greek word for faith).

I am not sure that the first Christians can be shown to have done much more than use some of the semantic resources of the group with an unusual frequency and characteristic focus dictated by the subject-matter of their gospel.

—Colin Hemer, Tyndale Bulletin 38:1 (1987) pp. 79-80.

Why did I find this so delightful? Because I genuinely believe that a more accurate appraisal of how much theological meaning we are supposed to find in individual Greek words—namely, not as much as we have been led to believe—will help us all understand Scripture better.

What Hemer is saying is that faith in the New Testament means faith. Sure, the word is used most frequently of faith in God (though you might be surprised to find out how many times it isn’t). But pistis doesn’t mean “faith in God” or “Christian faith.” It’s not a Christian technical term that other Κοίνη (Koine) Greek speakers of Paul’s day would necessarily have misunderstood when they read “the just shall live by faith.”

The Bible is written in what was the normal, everyday language of its original readers. There is generally no hidden meaning deep inside the individual words. Faith means what we usually mean by faith, love means love, eat means eat, street means street. If Bible teachers try to teach people what simple, everyday words in their Bibles really mean, people will start to mistrust their translations, and their responsibility to read their Bibles will be undermined.

Yes, language changes. We can’t assume that all the things we can mean by love or faith all match up one-to-one with all the things Greek speakers could mean by their (more-or-less) equivalent words. But I’ll give you a hint: if very smart English translators picked a given English word—and especially if multiple translations agree—you can assume that that English word had adequate semantic resources to express what God meant. And context will narrow the interpretive possibilities sufficiently for most words in most passages.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

Leave a Reply