What is Faithfulness?

This really bugs me. Faith and faithful are words that (to me, at least), have unrelated meanings (see also grace vs. graceful). Faith is belief, but faithful does not mean being ‘full of faith‘. Faithful means reliable, dependable, steadfast, trustworthy. If somebody is full of faith, I would not say “He is faithful“, I would say rather “He has faith.” And if somebody were to describe someone else to me as “He is faithful“, I would not assume that the person believes in something, but that I might do well hiring him as an employee.

Consider the presidential oath of office:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

If faithful means full of faith, just what is it the President is required to believe in order to faithfully execute his office? Would history not judge his faithfulness not by his beliefs, but by his works?

And that’s just in the realm of natural English. If we look at Biblical usage, faithfulness is the obedience required of the Israelites to maintain their status in the Mosaic covenant: “Do this and live”. But the New Testament obsolesces that covenant, and everywhere proclaims that we are justified by faith, and faithful obedience is a consequence: “It is done. Now go live”.

Still not convinced? Well here’s the kicker, as far as I’m concerned. Faithful cannot mean ‘full of faith‘, because we know that God is faithful, but it is nonsense to say that God has faith. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. There is nothing God does not see; omniscience has no need of evidence; God, who declared the end from the beginning, has spoken, and will bring it to pass — there is no hope (or need for hope) when there is sovereign predestination.

Well that’s a nice little rant, but the fact that God doesn’t have faith doesn’t actually prove that faithful cannot mean ‘full of faith‘. It only proves that ‘full of faith‘ cannot be an unequivocal definition for faithful.

As it turns out, there do exist people who can look at the word faithful, and sometimes read it as ‘full of faith‘ (my pastor is one of them). Maybe you are one of them too! Googling turns up this as a first definition:

1. Full of faith, or having faith; disposed to believe, especially in the declarations and promises of God.

You are not faithful, sir. –B. Jonson.

2. Firm in adherence to promises, oaths, contracts, treaties, or other engagements.

The faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him. –Deut. vii. 9.

3. True and constant in affection or allegiance to a person to whom one is bound by a vow, be ties of love, gratitude, or honor, as to a husband, a prince, a friend; firm in the observance of duty; loyal; of true fidelity; as, a faithful husband or servant.

So spake the seraph Abdiel, faithful found, Among the faithless, faithful only he. –Milton.

4. Worthy of confidence and belief; conformable to truth ot fact; exact; accurate; as, a faithful narrative or representation.

It is a faithful saying. –2 Tim. ii. 11.

The Faithful, the adherents of any system of religious belief; esp. used as an epithet of the followers of Mohammed.

Syn: Trusty; honest; upright; sincere; veracious; trustworthy.

Well, Amazon.com: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (Book Only): Books: Merriam-Websterthat’s from Webster’s of 1913, and even though the “wrong” definition is given first, its wrongness is reinforced by a quote that makes no sense in our vernacular. Definitions 2., 3., and 4. express the actual current usage (and are interestingly biblical!)  Note also that none of the given synonyms match the “first” definition. Thinking that perhaps this was a feature of an outmoded dictionary, I checked my new Webster’s 11th Collegiate, but it also has “obs: full of faith” as the first (but obsolete) definition.

As a last resort, it might be possible to write off the non-relationship of faith and faithful as a coincidence of the English language. But Strong’s reveals that, in New Testament Greek, faith and faithful are indeed close kin: faith is pistis, and faithful is pistos, which both stem from root verb peithoto persuade. So there is at least some textual, Biblical justification for requiring or allowing a relationship between faith and faithful.

Tune in next time, when I introduce a specific example…

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16 Responses

  1. …just like to be simple is not to be simplistic, right?

    zrim

  2. Yes thanks! Other parallel examples are welcome as well — I’m sure they are legion! Are you capable of (ever) reading “faithful” and understanding “full of faith”?

  3. I’m curious about the Greek words. I wish I knew enough Greek to understand how the root verb became the two other words… What is it about “faith” that has “to persuade” as a root? Similarly, what is it about “faithful” that has “to persuade” as a root?

  4. Well I am certainly no Greek expert. I expect a seminarian or two to weigh in before long, but in the meantime, I would point you to click on the peitho link, and note that the definition appears to work in two directions: it can mean “to persuade”, and it can mean “to be persuaded”. The second one seems to fit: “I have faith” = “I am persuaded”. This reminds me of an old song from the church of my youth, from 2 Tim 1:12:

    For I know whom
    I have believ-ed,
    and am persuaded
    that he is able
    to keep that
    which I’ve committed
    unto him against that day.

  5. Rube,

    Meaning is not contained in etymology. If faith is derived from the word that means to persuade, and faithfulness is derived from the same word, there is still no grounds for conflating the meaning of the two words. Indeed they are related, but no more so than the English words. When asking the meaning of a word, you can never really nail down something that it ALWAYS means.

    Just think about English. Consider the word queen. What does “queen” mean in the following sentences?

    1. The King and Queen received the crowd’s praise graciously.
    2. Yeah, that guy is a real queen, at night he dresses up like a woman and goes to strange clubs.
    3. I remember 30 years ago going to a Queen concert, that’s where I met my wife.
    4. That woman is such a queen, always trying to make everyone bow to her every wish.
    5. He treats his wife like a queen.

    You see here that one word can have many meanings. They all derive from the meaning in number one, but if I am trying to refer to a transvestite, I do not have royalty in mind at all. But if I do have royalty in mind, I can mean it either positively or negatively. It can mean someone who rightly is considered royalty, such as an actual Queen, or it can refer to a woman who wrongfully claims that status for herself. But in number 5, we’re not saying anything about the woman at all, but we’re saying something about how her husband treats her, so we’re actually saying something about her husband, not about her.

    Linguistics is a funny business. The same word can be high and exalted, referring to someone of the highest station, and it can also be derogatory for something most of us find repulsive. It can be used seriously or ironically, meaning something different almost every time.

    And how do you tell the difference? Context. It’s all about the context. You see how I didn’t have to tell you about 5 different ways “queen” can be used, but I just gave you examples, which allowed you to see how it was being used differently, and you got the differences in meaning purely from the context.

    A dictionary’s job or a lexicon’s job, is to give us a list of all the possibilities, but it is up to us to discern which one is right from the context. This is why biblical interpretation can often be shades of gray rather than black and white. This is why careful scholarship is so important, but even that isn’t fool-proof. There’s no substitute for the scholarly study of context and linguistics and all the rest of it. And you can even look at all the English translations you want, but often times on difficult passages, the meaning will still remain obscure.

    If you want a challenging example, look up Romans 1:17. The ESV translates that as “from faith for faith”; the NIV “by faith from first to last”. From this alone, you could think about it all you want, and you still won’t discern the meaning. Here’s an experiment. Try to articulate what you think this phrase means. You are allowed to use any English translation you wish, and any Greek tools you wish. Try to figure out not just what it means, but what Paul means by saying it here in this context. I am sure that once you have undertaken this experiment, you will be convinced that interpreting Scripture is tough work.

    At any rate, to say that since faith, faithful and faithfulness mean the same thing is fallacious. Even in English, the meanings of these two words is heavily influenced by the book of James, when he says that faith without works is dead. So having faith, in English, usually refers to believing something, while being faithful usually refers to doing something. The meaning is that we associate being full of faith with doing the deeds that result from that faith. For “faithful” is a judgment. It is a pronouncement. It is not abstract, but it must characterize something. It is not like “faith”, which simply “is”, but someTHING must be characterized by faith for us to call that thing “faithful”. Well, even as Scripture tells us, the only way that we humans, who cannot look upon the heart, can judge someone or something to have faith is by their fruit, for faith without works is dead, and by their fruit you shall know them. God, of course, does not have any need to see our deeds to be convinced that our faith is genuine, because if it is genuine, it came from him in the first place.

    And this brings us to the point of faith and faithful and faithfulness. Conflating these words is how Norman Shepherd built works into the very definition of faith itself, thus destroying the doctrine of justification by faith alone, effectively implying that God needs to see us working in order to discern if our faith is genuine or not, that he might justify us based on having a genuine, living, active faith. Shepherd implies that God cannot look upon the heart, and that God did not give us this faith. Because if God gave us this faith, he’d already know it to be genuine, even before it produced any works in us. But also, God can look right onto our hearts and discern what is there, apart from our works. As Paul says, our hearts will accuse or excuse us on the day of judgment. Yes, we will be judged according to what we have done, but what we have done serves as evidence of what is on our heart, and God judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Furthermore, what we have done is only the beginning of the evidence, because our hearts may accuse us (say, if we have done good out of evil motives) or excuse us (if we have done evil from good motives). And as it says, if our hearts condemn us (because we doubt our salvation because we keep sinning), God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:20) Not only is God greater than our heart, thus having greater authority to judge us, but he is the only one who actually knows everything, granting him alone access to all the evidence. So not only does his judgment have the greater authority, but also his is the only legitimate judgment.

    So when Shepherd says that we need to prove the genuineness of our faith before that faith can lay hold of Christ and justify us, he is sorely mistaken and misguided, even heretical. For what does such a thing say about God?

    And all of this begins with the fallacious interpretation of words, insisting that similarities of roots MUST govern meaning. Not so. Meaning is governed by US who use the words. The dictionary is not a King but a newspaper reporter. It merely observes how words are used and reports on it. That’s all. Roots of words don’t govern meaning: the author governs meaning.

    For example, this post and everything in it means exactly what I intended it to mean. If someone thinks that something I have said here implies something that I did not intend, while it may be interpreted to imply it, it actually does not imply it. Meaning is not governed by the interpreter but the author. That’s why when someone’s words offend us, the first thing we should do (I’m preaching to myself here) is discern just what the person meant to convey. We should double check to see whether or not the person was TRYING to offend us. We should, in other words, take offense only when offense is intended. Why? Because the author or speaker governs meaning, not the listener/reader/interpreter. We have been taught to be careful of what we say, because people will take certain things certain ways. People by nature think that they can interpret statements however they want, and that meaning is governed by the listener (what does this passage say to you?) but that is fallacious. It’s illogical and irrational, in other words.

    So when we come to Scripture, the thing we’re trying to discern is the intended meaning of the author. What it means is not up to me, but up to the author. In the case of Scripture, there are two authors, the human and the divine. Both have intent that can and should be discerned. But whoever the author is of a given text, one thing is certain: the interpreter does not give the text meaning, but only seeks to discover the meaning.

    E

  6. Rube,

    In related news…

    http://jimost.wordpress.com/2007/02/21/you-say-arminian-i-say-albinian/#comment-1894

    There is a relation to this hyperlink and the above post #5. Thinking in linguistic terms is helpful and useful.

    E

  7. I see faithfulness as directly related to faith. If faith is the evidence of things not seen, faithfulness is acting in accordance with things not seen. There’s no “out of sight, out of mind” with Christianity.

    Unfortunately we behave in an “out of mind” capacity all the time, giving in to the flesh. Ultimately it comes down to a mind/body dilemma: are we intelligent spirit, or are we base matter? For an interesting take on the mind/body question, why believing in things not seen is important, and original sin, try this one:

    theforester.net: dust you are

  8. Echo said:
    “At any rate, to say that since faith, faithful and faithfulness mean the same thing is fallacious. Even in English, the meanings of these two words is heavily influenced by the book of James, when he says that faith without works is dead. So having faith, in English, usually refers to believing something, while being faithful usually refers to doing something. The meaning is that we associate being full of faith with doing the deeds that result from that faith. For “faithful” is a judgment. It is a pronouncement. It is not abstract, but it must characterize something. It is not like “faith”, which simply “is”, but someTHING must be characterized by faith for us to call that thing “faithful”. Well, even as Scripture tells us, the only way that we humans, who cannot look upon the heart, can judge someone or something to have faith is by their fruit, for faith without works is dead, and by their fruit you shall know them. God, of course, does not have any need to see our deeds to be convinced that our faith is genuine, because if it is genuine, it came from him in the first place.”

  9. To be clear, I completely understand and affirm that faith is coincident with faithfulness. True faithfulness requires true faith, and true faith always has the fruit of true faithfulness. But the faith and the faithfulness are distinct, and to conflate them is (as Echo reminds us) heading into the dangerous lands of Norman Shepherd and Frank Valenti himself (but that’s F.V. to you and me).

    Echo comes dangerously close to unveiling my secret verse for the next post when he mentions “from faith to faith” in Rom 1:17. That is indeed a confusing phrase, and I’m not 100% satisfied with “faith from first to last” (NIV) or “faith from beginning to end”

    But I’m not going to be able to post the next part until next week; busy, busy, busy!

  10. I recently gave a 10 minute homily on what this phrase means. While my presentation merits critique, I remain convinced, and have been confirmed in that, that I understood it properly, but it was neither intuitive nor did it come apart from a lot of work and humilty. Paul’s quote of Habakkuk gives a good clue.

    In other words, read Habakkuk. Paul is referring to the entire book, which has a particular structure to it that gives this meaning away.

    E

  11. While he is affirming justification by faith alone, it’s more than that.

  12. Habakkuk is where I’m headed — eventually… I’m glad to hear you’re all studied up to address my concerns!

  13. Your Pa can send ya the little homily. ONly 10 minutes to read it out loud.

  14. i chanced upon this, but would just like to say that i had this question before and i asked my leader that’s very wise. her first response to me was: “does the definition really matter?” which i found it to be very true. as long as you are faithful in your terms to God and His people, you are justified. cos it is your conscience that God looks at. and how i cleared it up was basically just using 2 different words for 2 very different meanings: faithful and faith-filled. :)

  15. Sorry, but “as long as you are faithful…you are justified” sounds to me the same as “as long as you are obedient you are justified”, where the bible specifically and repeatedly insists that we are justified not by works, but by faith alone. We are not justified because we are faithful; we are justified through faith, by grace, because of Christ — then we are faithful because we’ve been justified.

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