Four Meanings of Faith

May 7, 2013 — 3 Comments

Logo Transparent jpeg without wordsMost Christians would agree that faith is an essential aspect of Christianity. But what do we mean when we use this word?

I certainly do not always agree with Marcus Borg. However, in his book The Heart of Christianity he offers some real insight into the way Christians have understood faith. Borg begins by suggesting the word has four historical meanings. One these is a “matter of the head” while the other three are more “matters of the heart.”  

Faith as Assensus (Assent/Belief)                                                                                                     The closest English word to the Latin assensus is “assent.” Faith is assensus when we give our assent to a proposition. This suggests faith as belief, that is believing certain religious propositions or doctrines to be true. After all, when the Philippian  jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved/rescued?” Paul and Silas answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  

I would argue, however, that even this word “believe” (Greek pisteuō) means a lot more than mental assent. The word was used by the Greeks to mean “to believe in something” not just to believe facts about something. It meant to trust in; to have confidence in.

Faith as Fiducia (Trust)                                                                                                                  The Latin word fiducia is usually translated faith, trust, or confidence. Borg uses an example to illustrate faith as trust. He reminds us that teaching a small child to swim requires getting the child to relax so they he or she will learn that their natural buoyancy will keep them afloat. He then concludes, “Faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God.” I like the fact that he insists “the opposite of trust is not doubt or disbelief, but mistrust. He goes on to press his point, explaining that the opposite of trust is anxiety and worry.    

Faith as Fidelitas (Loyalty/Commitment)                                                                                         The English word is “fidelity.” Faith as fidelitas means faith as “faithfulness” to God. Borg states, “Faith as fidelity means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the “heart.” He goes on to explain, “Faith as fidelitas does not mean faithfulness to statements about God, whether biblical, credal, or doctrinal. Rather, it means faithfulness to the God to whom the bible and creeds and doctrines point.” 

The opposite of faith as faithfulness is not doubt or disbelief, but rather infidelity or unfaithfulness. We use this language when a man has been “unfaithful” to his wife or a woman has engaged in infidelity. They have broken their covenant relationship and been disloyal to one another.  

Faith as Visio (Vision)                                                                                                                    Here Borg introduces me to a new way of expressing the idea of faith. He indicates that he got the idea from the mid-twentieth-century theologian Richard Niebuhr. The English word is, of course, “vision” which suggests faith as “a way of seeing.” 

To have faith in God as visio means we share God’s worldview. I suspect many readers would differ with Borg’s ideas about specific content of God’s worldview.  But surely, most of us will agree that it is important for us to share God’s view of reality. We should at least agree that when Jesus looked out over the world set before him, he felt compassion for a broken world. He saw with the eyes of agape love. 

Borg concludes by explaining that originally the word believing (pisteuō) covered all four of the meanings of faith. “But in the modern period, we have suffered an extraordinary reduction in the meaning of “believing.” We have reduced it and turned it into “propositional believing”–believing a particular set of statements or claims to be true.”  Finally, he states. “The premodern meanings of “faith generate a relational understanding of the Christian life.” 

If Borg is right, and I have no doubt he is, we can conclude that disciples are made by developing relationships, not by simply convincing others that our Christian doctrines are true. The same way Jesus did it.  

QUESTION: How would define faith? Does your faith in Christ include each of the four meanings as describes by Marcus Borg? Please respond in the Comments section below.

Dr. Gary Thompson

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I am a retired United Methodist pastor. I write adult curriculum for the United Methodist Church and have been doing so for over 10 years. My passion is helping the Christian Church more effectively fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ and to help individuals identify and fulfill their God-given personal mission.

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