1 Nephi 2:19 — LeGrand Baker — A Meaning of Faith

1 Nephi 2:19 

19 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart.

“Faith” is one of those scriptural code words that was never intended to be a code word.

In the New Testament, “faith” is translated from the Greek word pistis,{1} which is all about making and keeping covenants. In Paul’s time, pistis was not a religious term .{2} It was used either as a diplomatic word that had to do with making a treaty, or else as an economic term that had to do with securing the validity of a contract.{3} The closest modern English equivalent in meaning is probably “contract”— a legally binding contract.

Friedrich’s ten volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament has more than 40 pages discussing pistis and related Greek words. In his primary definition of pistis, Friedrich wrote:

Stress is often laid on the fact that this is a higher endowment than wealth. … Concretely pistis means the “guarantee” which creates the possibility of trust, that which may be relied on, or the assurance of reliability, “assurance’. … pistis is the “oath of fidelity,” “the pledge of faithfulness,” “security.” This leads on the one side to the sense of “certainty,” “trustworthiness,” on the other to that of “means of proof,” “proof.” In particular pistis denotes the reliability of persons, “faithfulness.” It belongs especially to friendship.{4}

Much of the remainder of Friedrich’s definition shows the chronology of the evolution of the word’s meaning. He begins by giving the classic definition of pistis as the intent of the contract and the evidence upon which trust is based. Then he shows how that meaning has changed over the years. Early Christians shifted the focus of pistis to a religious term, and in time reduced it to mean simply believing without any further reference to either the covenant, its object, or its evidence. Consequently, in today’s common usage the meaning of “faith” often slides along a continuum that ranges from wishing hard to just anticipating without any substantiating covenant to support the anticipation.

Because our most common meaning for “faith” tends to be entirely different from the way the authors of the New Testament used pistis, when we read “faith” in the scriptures we may superimpose our own meaning onto the scriptural text and miss the author’s intent altogether. Paul defined pistis with succinct precision when he wrote:

11 Now pistis [our Bible translation reads “faith”] is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).

The closest English equivalent to pistis is “contract.” Just as with a legal contract, there are five parts of Paul’s definition of pistis. Three are stated. Two are implied because they are obviously so necessary that they are simply presupposed.

1. (presupposed by Paul) There must be a covenant or contract that defines the agreement and the methodology by which it will be accomplished.
2. There must be a mutually understood “substance,” that is the object, objective, purpose, assurance, or intent of the covenant.
3. There must be binding “evidence” (a handshake, signature, or appropriate other token or tokens{5} ) that validates the agreement and guarantees the fulfillment of the covenant.
4. The next is a functional “hope.” That is, taking the covenant at full value and acting or living as though the terms of the covenant were already fulfilled.
5. (implied by Paul) Finally, the conclusion or fulfillment of the terms of the covenant.

Pistis (faith)always indicates such a covenant and the covenantal process—whether formal and explicit, or informal and implicit— because a covenant is the foundation of pistis. Were it not for the covenant, “faith” would only be acting on prior experience, or just wishing. But with the covenant “faith” is power.{6}

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FOOTNOTES

{1} For a discussion of “faith” as pistis see Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, First edition, p. 1007-24; Second edition, p. 696-721.

{2} New Testament writers often avoided using in-vogue religious terms when teaching the new gospel. LDS missionaries do the same. For example, in the South, missionaries avoid using the phrase “born again.” That is a powerful and very important scriptural concept, but it is a phrase Mormons cannot use when doing missionary work in the Southern States because the Baptists and others have already defined it their way. If Mormon missionaries used that phrase when speaking to those people, “born again” would be understood according to the hearer’s prior learning, and unless the missionary laboriously redefined it, his words would be understood according to their usage, so when Mormons discuss being “born again” we speak of becoming a son or daughter of God.

{3} “The words [beginning with] pist– did not become religious terms in classical Greek. . . . Nor did pistis become a religious term. At most one can only say that the possibility of its so doing is intimated by the fact that it can refer to reliance on a god.” (Gerhard Friedrich, ed., trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1964-1976), article about pistis, 6:179.

{4} Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 6:177. In the text pistis is written in Greek letters. In this quote pistis is written in italics. In the second to last sentence emphasis is added.

{5} Nibley completes the story:

These five things you have asked me about (the Lord tells the apostles after his resurrection, in the Kephalaia) appear very small and unimportant to the world, but they are really a very great and holy thing. I will teach you the mysteries now. These tokens (semeia) go back to the ordinances of the first man, Adam himself. He brought them with him when he came out of the garden of Eden, and having completed his struggle upon the earth, he mounted up by these very same signs and was received again into the Aeons of Light. The person who receives these becomes a Son. He both gives and receives the signs and the tokens of the God of truth, while demonstrating the same to the Church–all in hopes that some day these things may become a reality. So the apostles realized that these things are but forms and types, yet you can’t do without them. You cannot do without analogues. For us they may only be symbols, but they must be done here, the Lord says. They may be but symbols here, but they are indispensable steps to the attainment of real power. “In fact,” say the Pistis Sophia, “without the mysteries one loses one’s power. Without the ordinances, one has no way of controlling matter, for such control begins with the control of one’s self. The ordinances provide the very means and the discipline by which light operates on material things. “You don’t understand this now,” it continues, “but your level, or taxis, in the next world will depend on the ordinances you receive in this world. Whoever receives the highest here will understand the whys and the wherefores of the great plan.” “You can’t understand it now, but you will. Your faith is being tested here. It is through the ordinances that one makes this progress in knowledge, so that those who receive all available ordinances and teachings here shall pass by all the intermediate topoi and shall not have to give the answers and signs, nor stand certain tests hereafter.” (Hugh Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 310-311)

{6} For a discussion of faith as pistis see “Meaning of ‘Faith’ — Pistis” Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, first edition, 1007-25; second edition, 697-710.
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