Alma 56-58, Pistis in Helaman’s epistle to Moroni, LeGrand Baker, August 1996

Alma 56-58, Pistis in Helaman’s epistle to Moroni, LeGrand Baker,

The key to understanding Helaman’s epistle to Moroni (Alma 56-58) is the translator’s very precise use of the words “trust” and “faith.” In the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith used the word and concept of “trust” in the same way it is used in the Old Testament (having to do with one’s appreciation of God’s integrity in keeping his covenants; knowing that he is a God of truth who cannot lie); and he used the word “faith” in the same way that it is used in the New Testament (having to do with the personal relationship between God and the one with whom he has made covenants).

Today, most definitions of “faith” incorporate neither of those concepts. To many Christians, “faith” means something like: an academic or emotional belief that God needs to be pleased, so if one is especially obedient just now, or if one says prayers and wishes really hard, God can be bribed or persuaded to do what one wants Him to do. This is not a concept which can be found in either the Hebrew or the Greek portions of the Bible, but one which has evolved through medieval and Reformation Christianity.

        Faith is a peculiarly Christian concept. While other religious traditions have aspects of what the churches have come to name “faith,” none has the specific quality of intellectual assent that distinguishes faith from fidelity. The problem of faith and the central discussion of it arises in the context of the medieval attempts to codify and integrate the Christian experience into the emerging philosophical language of the scholastics. (David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, New York, 1992, vol. 2 p. 744-745)

The word, “Faith,” is hardly found in the Old Testament. The word which is otherwise always translated “trust” is translated “faith” in two instances, but otherwise “faith” does not appear in the Old Testament. “Trust” is the word which denotes one’s relationship with God. It is translated from a Hebrew word which has many of the same connotations as the New Testament “faith,” and has nothing whatever to do with the idea of persistently wishing hard.

        The Hebrew Bible [Old Testament], in fact, does not really have a word for faith….The Hebrew Bible uses the root (mn to express what we are calling “faith.” … In the Qal form it never means “belief,” but expresses the basic sense of the root “to sustain, support, carry.” … The general sense of the word in the Hip(il form is “to be firmly set in/on something.” (David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, New York, 1992, vol. 2 p. 744-745)

        [In the Old Testament] The meaning of faith [“trust”] must be seen in relation to the covenant…. The covenant implied a mutuality of obligation (Deut. 26:16-19). Yahweh can be relied on to keep his part of the contract, to “keep the covenant and the steadfast love” (Deut. 7-9); this is his “faith” or faithfulness. Faith on the side of his earthly partner is to be shown by keeping the “commandment and the statutes and the ordinances” (6:17;7:11)….In addition to this obligation to keep the commandments, the following words of Deuteronomy may be noted: man is to heed (lit. “hear”) the statutes (4:1; 7:12); to cleave or hold fast to Yahweh (4:4; 10:20); to seek and turn to him (4:29-30); to turn, in the sense of “repent,” after apostasy (30:2-10); to obey his voice (4:30); to love him “with all your heart,” etc. (6:5); to fear [respect] him (6:2, 13; 10:20); to remember him (7:18-19; 8:2-3, 18-20; 9:7). (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon Press, New York, 1962, vol. 2 p. 225-226)

        Both forms of that Hebrew root (mn are translated “trust,” so the meaning of the Old Testament’s “trust” is the stability of knowing that the covenants are mutually binding–that the Lord will keep his part of the covenant if people will keep their part.
In the New Testament, the word which is translated “faith” is pistis. Before the Christians adopted it, the word pistis was not associated with religion. (Christians chose not to use words whose meanings were already defined in terms of the old religions), but instead pistis was a diplomatic term. It meant the binding nature of a covenant or treaty:
1. That which causes trust and faith — faithfulness, reliability
2. Solemn promise, oath
3. Proof, pledge (William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich translation of Walter Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 662)

This usage of “faith” still exists in the colloquial “kept in good faith” expression applied to rural handshake contracts. Similarly, the phrase “faithful friend” means one who will do and say what he promised he would do or say. In the first instance, the pistis is the handshake, in the second, it is the thing which the friend does or says. So we still use “faith” in its original sense, even though we often change its meaning when we apply it to the scriptures. The New Testament writers used the word pistis (“faith”) to represent the covenants between God and individual persons. In the fulfillment of this covenant, the human’s pistis (faith) is doing the ordinances, taking upon oneself the name of Christ, forgiving, repenting, obeying, sacrificing a broken heart and contrite spirit, loving God’s children (consecration is functional charity), and doing whatever God instructs one to do. On God’s part, the pistis is the symbolism of ordinances and the fullness of the blessings of the atonement.

For many Latter-day Saints, “faith” begins as one presents God with one’s evening shopping lists, and then wishes harder for some things than he wishes for others. But with time and experience, that faith matures into something quite different. The following autobiographical statement by Stella Oaks is about her experience soon after her husband died, leaving her with three young children to rear. Her phrase, “I relaxed in my faith,” is an important key to understanding the maturation process which moves “faith” in God from a state of wishing hard, to an embrace and walk with a true and faithful Friend.

        One June night I knelt alone in prayer, utterly spent, wondering at that midnight hour how humble one had to be to receive an answer to one’s pleading. It was just at that moment that I felt an envelopment of the spirit of peace, a profound assurance that God is over all and that it was his will that was in command and not mine. I could finally say, “Thy will be done,” and feel the peace instead of guilt. I relaxed in my faith and discovered that I had a new trust in the Lord. … I was given to know that the Lord loved me and that I would be made equal to my mission. I felt an encircling love that has sustained me ever since that great moment of change in my life. I have had continual hardships and challenges but always the sure knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, our Redeemer, and that he sustains us through the opposition that must arise in all things. (Stella H. Oaks, “Thy Will Be Done,” in Leon R. Hartshorn, Remarkable Stories from the Lives of Latter-day Saint Women, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1975, vol. 2. p 183-5 quoted in Stella, by Her Children and Grandchildren, p. 156)

The marvelous thing about the scriptures is that “trust” and “faith” have a relevant and personal meaning, no matter where one is along the way. However, some passages can best be understood in light of the covenant relationship which is the original meaning of pistis.

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