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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is "Faith" blind?

Those Christians who are engaged in conversations with skeptics will often hear the argument that faith qua faith[1] just is “blind faith” or “belief without/against evidence”.  Dawkins made his famous remark that faith “means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.”[2] In support of this, they will commonly point to the verse in Hebrews 11:1 that says, “Now faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.” Like other issues surrounding common misunderstandings, I do not think that this is a complete strawman. It seems to me that what Dawkins and co. are responding to is actually present in some Christian circles that hold to a kind of fideism.[3] This is, sadly, not an uncommon view in modern evangelical circles these days – especially in the US. I have been to churches and met many Christians who take this position. So Dawkins and co. are responding to a real position within the Christian tradition. The question however is if this is what faith qua faith is, and, more importantly, if this is what the Bible teaches on faith. It seems to me that the answer to both is that it is not.

Now the fact of the matter is that even when Hebrews 11:1 is translated as it is in the NIV for example, it is not actually about the substance of the personal belief. That is that it is not about the warrant or justification for the content of what one believes. This is what Terry Eagleton has called the “Yeti Fallacy” where one’s faith is the same kind of thing as when one believes that they have seen the Yeti. Faith is not about the justification for the belief that God exists but is the act of the will to trust the God that one already believes exists. So the question is whether or not the previous statement of the Hebrews 11:1 is even a very good translation of the Greek. Often times I have noticed when I look at English translation that they are what is called “dynamic equivalence” translations – they are meant to portray the general meaning of the words or passage involved, and often reflect translation traditions. Frequently when I look at the Greek I think that a much better translation is possible than what we find in our mass market translations.[4] This verse is no exception.

The reason for this article is due in part to the fact that I’m tired of simply dancing around the issue with a he said/she said with skeptics – trying to convince them that my interpretation of the passage as it stands in major translations is the correct one. We often veer away from being too “academic” with people, especially when it comes to technical language issues that require in depth study of a dead language so we side step “going to the Greek” in fear of a kind of “it’s all Greek to me” response, or, more devastatingly, the “so you’re saying it takes a Phd in Greek to understand God’s word?!” But in this case I think the meaning in the Greek text has been too obscured by modern translation that revisiting the original Greek text is the only possible way forward.

With that said I will present a little Greek[5] break down on each word in the text and then provide what I think is a better translation, followed by some interpretive thoughts of the verse.

Hebrews 11:1 in Greek is: στιν δ πίστις λπιζομένων πόστασις, πραγμάτων λεγχος ο βλεπομένων

στιν – present active indicative 3rd singular of εμ, verb, I am , am, it is I , be, I was , have been
Usage: to be, to exist, to happen, to be present

 δ - conjunction, but, and, now, then, also, yet, yea, so, moreover, nevertheless, for, even, misc
Usage: but, moreover, and, now

πίστις – nominative singular feminine of πστις, noun, faith, assurance, believe , belief, them that believe, fidelity
Usage: Conviction of the truth of anything, belief; in the NT of a conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divinity, generally with the included idea of trust.

λπιζομένων – present passive participle genitive plural masculine of λπζω, verb, to trust, hope, hope for, things hoped for
Usage: to hope; to hopefully trust in

πόστασις – nominative singular feminine of πστασις, noun, confidence, confident, person, substance
Usage: a setting or placing under; a thing put under; foundation, that which has foundation, is firm; that which has actual existence; a substance, a real being; the substantial quality; nature of a person or thing; the steadfastness of mind, firmness, courage, resolution; a confidence; a firm trust

πραγμάτων – genitive plural neuter of πργμα, noun, thing, matter, business, work
Usage: that which has been done, a deed, an accomplished fact; what is done or is being accomplished; a commercial transaction; a matter of law, case or suit, that which is or exists

λεγχος – nominative singular masculine of λεγχος, noun, reproof, evidence
Usage: A proof, that by which a thing is proved or tested; conviction

ο - ο, not, no, cannot , misc
Usage: no, not, in direct questions expecting an affirmative answer

Βλεπομένων - present, passive, participle, genitive, plural, neuter of βλπω, verb, to see, take heed, behold, beware, look on, look, beware of
Usage: to see, discern, of the bodily eye’ behold with the bodily eye; to be possessed of sight; have the power of seeing; to turn the eyes to anything; to look at, upon or gaze at

With the lexicology of the words now in place we can see that a very literal translation of the Greek would be something like,

“Now this is faith: a steadfast confidence in the things that are trusted in; being convinced by evidence (or testing/proving) of the things that have been accomplished that you have not seen with your own eyes.”

The point of the passage is not an admonition to have blind faith apart from evidence. I mean one of the words in the text (λεγχος) means exactly a proof by evidence and testing! The entire passage is surrounded by examples of testimony and historical events from the Old Testament and nearly the entire book leading up to this point has been a testimony about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore the point of the passage in which this verse is found is that faith is trusting in (acting in accord with and submission to) a person, the finished work and the future actions of Christ, based on evidence and testimony, even though we may not have been among the eyewitnesses to the events described. It is an admonition not to blind faith, but to continued trust even in the face of adversity.

In fact, we can say the exact same thing about belief for any historical event. I was not an eye witness to anything outside of my own experience, which includes every single event in the history of the world from before my birth and every event outside of my direct experience in the world after my birth. Yet in many cases I trust the eye witnesses, the historians, etc. who give reasonable accounts and interpretations of these events that they were privy to or have studied – and I am reasonable to do so. The only difference is that trusting the historians about, say, WWII does not necessarily require any volitional action on my part – I may believe that it is true without it requiring any personal trust on my part. The point of Hebrews 11:1 is that within Christianity we alter our lives, we make decisions, we act in accordance to our “faith” (trusted belief). We take a step. We have evidence that the bridge will hold and we must either choose not to cross it or to cross it. There is no neutral stance. And we find this meaning of faith consistently throughout the Bible – faith is trusted belief. That is the meaning of faith in the Bible.

[1] That is, is it what makes faith faith – is it the essential essence of what faith, all faith, is.
[2] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, 198
[3] A good example of this is the downright terrible article found here:
[4] I think a fantastic example of this is found in Luke 11:5-8 which is Jesus parable of the “persistent” knocker. I will write a follow up article on this about how the meaning is actually radically different than what we usually conclude based on a commonly propagated poor translation of a single word in the text - ναδεια.
[5] Those interested in looking learning Koine Greek I think are best served by either Croy’s A Primer of Biblical Greek or William D Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar. Also there is a good website with the entire OT/NT in their original languages with good morphological breakdowns: