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The metamorphosis of the word `belief` and its relation to religious `faith`. Essay

In the New Testament, the words “faith” (pistis) and “belief” (pisteuein) are derived from the same root. The latter is a “verb form” associated with the former (Marthaler, 1993, p. 21). “Faith” in the Gospels “connotes the trust and confidence that arise from accepting the person of Jesus and his claims”, says Marthaler (p. 21).

As Christian thought developed and as the New Testament was translated into Latin and later into English, two different words were used for “faith” and for “belief”. In this usage, “faith” and “belief” are closely related but also distinct. In Latin, “pistis” was translated as “fides”, “pisteuein” as “credere”. “Faith” is often “associated with the body of truth to be found in the creeds, the teachings of the church” and in “scripture” (Hardon, 1975, p. 33.) In Christian thought, “faith” stands for the “assent of the mind in co-operation with the will under the influence of grace and a free gift of God” (Hardon, p. 35.)

The above quotation was from the Catholic Catechism but many Christians, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic see faith as God’s free gift to which people respond. Many Christians believe that individuals may accept the gift of faith or exercise free will and reject this.  Calvinists ague that individuals cannot refuse the gift of grace, because this is only bestowed by God this on those whom he predestined for salvation.

“Faith”, writes Marthaler, “is an undeserved gift.” It was “faith” that enabled “Christians to persevere … despite suffering” and “persecution” (Marthaler, p. 22). This “personal act of faith” came to be known as “fides qua” (Lane, 2005, p. 88). At bottom, it means personal trust in God. There is always a mystery about this, since faith ‘addressed the mystery of God revealed in Christ” (Lane, p. 88).  Faith as God’s gift of salvation operates internally. Once faith started to operate within the lives of individuals and through the Church, people began to try to make sense of their inner experience.

Lane describes “faith” as “objective”, “transcendent” and “personal” (p. 84) while “beliefs” are “subjective” and “prepositional” representing human effort to “understand the mystery of God.” “Beliefs” says Land “come from the side of humanity and are not given objectively from above” (p. 84). This process involved interpreting the scriptures, revelation and the life of Jesus and the relationship between Jesus and God. The Christian creeds can be understood as attempts to provide “faith” with content, hence the term “fides quae” (meaning the content of belief”) thus “faith is the form” and “belief … the contents” (Marthaler, p. 35).

Some Christians regard the complex creeds that emerged as the product of Divine Oversight, arguing Christians are required to  “believe in” the truthfulness of these beliefs, in the faith of the Church to be counted as true believers.  Thus, true believers “believe the same faith proposed to them by the church” (Hanson, p. 212). In this view, “answers” to questions about “faith” have been found. Others stress the subjective, provisional, tentative nature of “beliefs” as attempts to understand the truth about God, arguing that Christians can still be seekers. Pagels and others argue that this reduced faith to a set of definitive beliefs, whereas although faith “includes beliefs it involves much more: the trust that enables us to commit ourselves to what we hope and love” (Pagels, 2003, pp. 183-4).

Following Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Marthaler says that the way in which the meaning of faith metamorphosed into “belief in” “proved drastic” because it makes “faith” tentative when it ought to be “commitment that has transformed out life” (p. 23). Faith is internal, spiritual and mysterious; “beliefs” are cognitive and intellectual. The reduction of “faith” to “belief” says Pagels means that the “religious imagination of most Christians” expresses and supports what they have learned (p. 182).

Works Cited

Marthaler, B. L. (1993). The creed: The apostolic faith in contemporary theology. Mystic, Conn: Twenty-Third Publications.

Lane, D. A. (2005). The experience of God: An invitation to do theology. New York: Paulist Press.

Hardon, J. A. (1975). The Catholic catechism. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Pagels, Elaine. (2003) Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. NY: Random House.

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