In chapter 9 of The Lost Message of Paul, Steve Chalke urges us to leave our Reformation-shaped prejudices and get back to the thought world of the apostle Paul. If we do so, he insists, we will discover that the word pistis (usually translated ‘faith’) means something other than we thought it did.
‘I believe,’ says Chalke, ‘that it is far more accurately translated as “faithfulness” than “faith”.’
How does he know that? Well, because Paul was steeped in Hebraic thinking. Hebrew thinking was concrete, rather than abstract, and Hebrew religion was a way of life, rather than a set of beliefs.
When we come to the Greek word pistis, we in the West have come to think of it as ‘faith’, in the sense of ‘assent to a concept, belief or doctrine’. But neither Greek nor Hebrew thought supports this.
The Greek New Testament, when using pistis, draws deeply on the meaning of usage of equivalent words in the Hebrew Old Testament. For example, aman (ןמַ אָ) is used over 100 times in the Old Testament. It is used in Genesis 15:6 – ‘Abram believed (aman) the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness’. This, says Chalke, is usually understood to mean that Abram believed God’s promise; but, no, it really means that Abram gave the Lord his allegiance, he committed himself to the plan and purpose of God.
Given this background, Chalke concludes, pistis can only mean ‘faithfulness’, ‘reliability’, ‘allegiance’.
When we limit the meaning of ‘pistis’ to mere belief – ‘the ability to hold to a particular set of intellectual positions’, we not are guilty not only of profound misunderstanding but also of missing the powerful ethical thrust of the gospel.
But, says Chalke:
Biblical ‘faith’ is not intellectual assent to a concept, a commitment to a set of doctrines and theories, or a mystical sense of peace and well-being. Instead it is a risky commitment to a radical way of living; a call to action, a way of walking, a summons to loyalty and allegiance. This, and only this, is pistis.
While we can enthusiastically agree with Steve Chalke that biblical words must be understood in their biblical and cultural contexts, he fails, in my judgment, to show that this leads to a radical redefinition of ‘faith’.
I think that Chalke is wrong in both his major assertions about pistis.
1) On the one hand he assures us that pistis always means ‘allegiance’.
But this is a simple assertion. In the absence of convincing evidence and reasoning, I for one am not willing to take Chalke’s word for it. He mentions, with approval, the work of Matthew Bates. I assume (because Chalke doesn’t tell us) that he is referring to Bates’ 2017 book ‘Salvation by Allegiance Alone’. But the fact that Chalke has read a book that appears to support some of his ideas doesn’t make those ideas true. We were taught at school to ‘show our working’. In other words, let’s have a look at the evidence and the reasoning. Although I haven’t read Bates’ book, I can recommend this review by Reformed scholar Thomas Schreiner as showing that it is possible (necessary, even) to embrace some of the things that Bates is advocating without going the whole way with him. But Chalke doesn’t appear to deal in both/and, but only in either/or.
2) On the other hand, Chalke dismisses as entirely inadequate the ‘traditional’ understanding of pistis as mere assent to a set of doctrines.
This is an outrageously misleading caricature of evangelical teaching. And, as an ex-evangelical, he should know better.
The truth is that from the dawn of the Reformation to the present day, evangelicals have consistently and strenuously denied that faith is mere assent to a set of beliefs.
At the dawn of the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote:
‘Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light fires.’ (Preface to Romans)
Closely following Luther, William Tyndale agreed:
‘Faith is a lively thing, mighty in working, valiant, and strong, ever doing, ever fruitful so that it is impossible that he who is endued therewith should not work always good works without ceasing.’ (A Prologue upon the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans)
Coming right up to our own day, J.I. Packer notes:
‘Older Reformed theology analyzed faith as notitia (“knowledge,” i.e., acquaintance with the content of the gospel), plus assensus (“agreement,” i.e., recognition that the gospel is true), plus fiducia (“trust and reliance,” i.e., personal dependence on the grace of Father, Son, and Spirit for salvation, with thankful cessation of all attempts to save oneself by establishing one’s own righteousness: Rom 4:5; 10:3). Without fiducia there is no faith, but without notitia and assensus there can be no fiducia.’ (Rom 10:14) (Concise Theology)
So, far from thinking that ‘faith’ in the New Testament always means ‘allegiance’, Tom Wright (a scholar who Steve Chalke would regard as more to his own way of thinking) is clear that ‘faith’ in the New Testament carries a spectrum of meanings:
‘Faith in the New Testament covers a wide area of human trust and trustworthiness, merging into love at one end of the scale and loyalty at the other. Within Jewish and Christian thinking faith in God also includes belief, accepting certain things as true about God, and what he has done in the world (e.g. bringing Israel out of Egypt; raising Jesus from the dead). For Jesus, ‘faith’ often seems to mean ‘recognizing that God is decisively at work to bring the kingdom through Jesus’. For Paul, ‘faith’ is both the specific belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9) and the response of grateful human love to sovereign divine love (Galatians 2:20). This faith is, for Paul, the solitary badge of membership in God’s people in Christ, marking them out in a way that Torah, and the works it prescribes, can never do.’ (Tom Wright, in his ‘For Everyone’ series of popular commentaries)