Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

faith, in the Bible trust in, or reliance on, God who is himself trustworthy. The NT and the Greek OT express the understanding of faith primarily with two terms (pistis, pisteuein), which are related to the primary OT verb ‘to be true’ or ‘be trustworthy’ ('aman). The OT concept is considerably broader than this term and its cognates, yet 'aman remains the most profound expression to describe faith in the OT.

Faith in the OT : It is important to recognize the context in which the concept of faith functions in the OT. God stands at the center; it is his initiative and faithfulness as described by the OT writers in creation, in the Exodus event, in the covenant and the subsequent history of Israel that allow his people to respond to his fidelity. Since God’s promises are intended for his people, the emphasis of faith is not focused primarily on the individual, but on the relationship of the people of Israel to God. However, in the Psalms, and to a limited extent in Deutero-Isaiah (i.e., Isa. 40-55) and elsewhere, the individual expression of faith is given attention. The prophets intensify the covenant dimension of faith and in Isaiah the imagery of faith is given a new and creative impulse. Throughout the OT the focus of faith is exclusively on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: ‘And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did against the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses’ (Exod. 14:31). God’s mighty acts allow and call for trust and belief in him.

The Hebrew verb means, for the most part, ‘to be true’; lying behind this is the root meaning ‘solid,’ ‘firm.’ This sense of ‘to be true’ is intensified in the passive (Niphal) form of the verb so that one can speak of a person as ‘trustworthy’ or ‘reliable.’ The causative (Hiphil) form of the verb suggests the acceptance of someone as trustworthy or dependable. Thus, one accepts God as trustworthy and believes his word (Deut. 9:23) and his promises, as is the case with Abraham in Gen. 15:1-6: ‘And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ It has been argued that it is the use of the verb in the causative form that encompasses the most personal relationship of faith between God and the believer.

The primary nouns derived from the verb ‘to trust’ ('aman) are ‘firmness, stability’ ('emunah; Isa. 33:6: ‘and he will be the stability of your times…’) and ‘truthfulness, fidelity, faithfulness’ ('emet; Ps. 71:22: ‘I will also praise thee with the harp for thy faithfulness, O my God’). Throughout the OT stability results in security and together they are signs of God’s fidelity to his people. Another term used in this connection refers to Yahweh’s loving-kindness in a covenant context (h\esed; Ps. 33:18: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love”). God chose Israel (Deut. 7:6-7: ‘the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession…’) and his loving-kindness is demonstrated by the many blessings they have received. This covenant relationship presupposes a mutuality of obligation (Deut. 7:9: ‘Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments…’); Israel’s response of faith is possible only because of God’s prior and continued faithfulness. Out of this mutuality of obligation the paradoxical relationship between faith and fear in the OT (Exod. 14:31 above) becomes more intelligible. The covenant relationship between God and his people results in an exclusive demand (Exod. 20:3; Deut. 6:5; 18:13; 1 Kings 8:61; Isa. 38:3) of obedience (Noah in Gen. 6:9, 22; 7:5; Abraham in Gen. 22:1-18; Joshua in 1:7-8; 24:22-31; Samuel in 1 Sam. 15:17-33) in which idols must be totally rejected (Isa. 42:17). In fact, the opposite of faithfulness is apostasy, as, for example, in Deut. 32:20, in which the phrase ‘children in whom is no faithfulness’ is synonymous with idolatry. Since the faith of Israel is always reflective of God’s fidelity and loving-kindness, it must be expressed not only in obedience but also in praise (Pss. 5:11; 9:10; 13:5; 18:1-3; 22:1-5; 27:14; 62:1, 5-8; 141:8).

The prophets deepen the meaning of faith in several ways. For Isaiah (7:1-9) security does not rest in political power but in utter trust in God; in fact, the totality of life must be based on such trust in him (Isa. 7:9: ‘If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established’). This point is also stressed in Isa. 28:16, a verse of importance for the NT : ‘Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘He who believes will not be in haste.’’’ Deutero-Isaiah broadens the concept of faith in the direction of hope and knowledge. Typical of the former is Isa. 40:31: ‘But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’ Faced with difficult predicaments, the energy of faith results not in despair, but in hope. The broadening of faith in the direction of knowledge is particularly evident in Isa. 43:10: ‘ ‘You are my witnesses,’ says the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe and understand that I am He.’ ’ Knowledge is not used here in a speculative sense; the reference is to the knowledge of God’s fidelity and loving-kindness experienced in history.

Faith in the NT : For the NT understanding of faith, Hab. 2:4 is an important reference: ‘Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faithfulness.’ Here the characteristic meaning of trust ('emunah) is well summarized: fidelity to God as the sign of the righteous person. God alone can be the object of trust and faithfulness because he ‘is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold’ (Ps. 18:2).

In the NT the noun and verb denoting faith (pistis/pisteuein) appear frequently. In the synoptic Gospels, they are used least frequently, and among them it is used with least precision in the Gospel of Mark. Faith for Mark can have as its object God (Mark 11:22: ‘And Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God’ ’) or faith in Jesus as the manifestation of God’s power (Mark 5:36; 9:23-24). Closely related to this last usage are the direct references of Jesus to the faith of his audience (Mark 2:5: ‘And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’ ’; Mark 5:34: ‘And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease’ ’; Mark 10:52: ‘And Jesus said to him [the blind man], ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well’ ’). Finally, Mark can have the gospel, in a way not dissimilar to Paul, as the object of faith (Mark 1:15: ‘Jesus came…saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’ ’). Lack of faith can be referred to in a similar way (Mark 4:40: ‘He [Jesus] said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’ ’). In the Gospel of Luke faith is often used in the most general sense of faithfulness (Luke 16:10-12; see also 1:20, 45: ‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord’). In addition, faith is used with the verb ‘to save’ (7:50: ‘And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’ ’; 8:12: ‘believe and be saved’).

The Gospel of Matthew further intensifies the theme of faith. At the conclusion of the story about the healing of the centurion’s slave, Matthew adds the words: ‘And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; be it done for you as you have believed’ ’ (Matt. 8:13). Similarly, Matthew modifies the Marcan and Lucan account of the healing of two blind men by inserting the question from Jesus: ‘ ‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ They said to him, ‘Yes, Lord’ ’ (Matt. 9:28). Other Matthean passages also emphasize faith. In the account of the Canaanite woman Matthew alters the Marcan account precisely for this purpose: ‘Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly’ (Matt. 15:28). Similarly, in an encounter with the chief priests and the elders Matthew elevates the issue of faith: ‘Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him’ ’ (Matt. 21:31b-32; cf. Luke 7:29-30). In a polemical passage dealing with scribes and Pharisees Matthew accuses them of neglecting the weightier matters of ‘the law, justice and mercy and faith’ (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42 does not contain the reference to faith). In the passage dealing with the false christs and false prophets Matthew twice uses the verb ‘to believe’ while Luke does not (Matt. 24:23-25; Luke 17:23-24). This same pattern can be found in Matt. 17:19-20 and in Matt. 21:21. The former is an account of the boy possessed by a spirit who was healed by Jesus. Of the three evangelists, only Matthew adds this statement of Jesus by way of response to the disciples’ question, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’: ‘Because of your little faith.’ In Matt. 21:21 there is a clear intensification over against Mark 11:22. In Mark Jesus answers, ‘Have faith in God’; in Matthew Jesus answers, ‘Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt…’

Paul’s Concept of Faith: In the apostle Paul one finds the broadest and profoundest articulation of the concept of faith in early Christianity. Faith has as its object God (1 Thess. 1:8), specifically God’s salvific manifestation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 4:14). This act of God in Christ is preached (Rom. 10:17: ‘So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ’) and is received by faith (Rom. 3:25), a faith that rests ‘in the power of God’ (1 Cor. 2:5). Those who have received the good news of God’s act in Christ, namely, the gospel, are called ‘believers’ (1 Thess. 1:7). There is only one gospel (1 Cor. 15:11) and its goal is salvation (1 Cor. 1:21).

For Paul the concept of faith is a dynamic one. Thus, he can refer to the ‘activity of faith’ (1 Thess. 1:23), an activity that manifests itself in love (Gal. 5:6: ‘faith working through love’). Faith involves ‘progress’ (Phil. 1:25); it is not something static, captured once for all, but involves striving (Phil. 1:27: ‘with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel…’) and it increases (2 Cor. 10:15) and it is an energy at work in believers (1 Thess. 2:13). Since faith is not a static possession, Paul urges that faith be established (1 Thess. 3:2) and made firm (1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Cor. 1:24), for it is possible not only to have deficiencies in faith (1 Thess. 3:10; Rom. 14:1) but also to believe in vain (1 Cor. 15:2; Rom. 11:20). Essential for Paul’s understanding of faith is the conviction that God assigns to each the measure of faith he wishes (Rom. 12:3, 6; 1 Cor. 12:9). Yet no matter what that measure of faith is, the obedience of faith is expected from all (Rom. 1:5; 16:16).

Paul on several occasions uses the triadic formulation ‘faith, love and hope’ (1 Thess. 1:3; 5:8; 1 Cor. 13:13). On the one hand, as noted above, faith must be active in love; without love faith is empty. On the other hand, faith must be grounded in hope so that it recognizes that the first-fruits of God’s promises manifested in the death and resurrection of Christ will be fulfilled on the last day (Gal. 5:5; Rom. 6:8; Rom. 15:13: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope’). The specific hope of faith is rooted in the resurrection of Christ as an anticipation of the fulfillment of the last day (1 Cor. 15:14, 17; 2 Cor. 4:14: ‘knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence’). Yet this faith that is received in baptism (Gal. 3:27-28) and allows one entrance into the body of Christ, the church, is a faith that has as its model the suffering and death of Jesus and so during this earthly sojourn faith may well be called to a cruciform existence (Rom. 8:18; Phil. 1:29: ‘For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…’). Further, this new act of God in Christ received by faith involves not only new existence for the believer but for the world itself (Rom. 8:18-25).

Particularly in Galatians and Romans Paul links his concept of faith to terms like the righteousness of God and justification and to a negative attitude toward the works of the law. This development of his thought is brought about, on the one hand, by his conflict with certain Judaizers, and, on the other hand, his reflections of the relation of Jews and Gentiles. Thus, in Gal. 2:16 he can write that ‘a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ…’ and in Rom. 10:4 that ‘Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified.’ These points are articulated at length with much use of the OT, including Gen. 15:6, in such chapters as Galatians 3 and Romans 4. For Paul the villain is not the law, but sin, which renders its usefulness ineffective. Thus the basic dilemma of the human situation is captivity to sin (Rom. 3:9-18). Christ has come to free humanity from this captivity; whether Jew or Greek, all have sinned and all can come to God in Christ only through faith (Rom. 3:21). Thus Paul can ask rhetorically: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Rom. 7:24-25a).

The same dynamic of faith is evident when Paul links faith with righteousness/justification language, as, for example, in Rom. 1:16-17: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ’ The righteousness of God, which faith receives as God’s gift, is viewed as part of a much broader historical and eschatological context. It is for Paul God’s sovereignty over the world that reveals itself eschatologically in Jesus. When Paul speaks of the ‘gift of righteousness’ in Rom. 5:17 he is referring to a gift that is both present and future, already received and still expected. It is a gift that recognizes God’s sovereign power and the fact that the believer is placed under that power in obedient service. For the person who is justified, who has received the gift in faith, salvation is not yet completed in the present; it has still to be consummated and fulfilled on the last day. Only as Christians wait and hope are they saved (Rom. 8:23-25; Gal. 5:5). It is precisely for this reason that the apostle is so careful in his language about present and future as, for example, in Rom. 6:8 (‘But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him’) and Rom. 5:9 (‘Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God’). This process of the Christian life is similarly emphasized in Philippians (2:12-13; 3:9-14). While the Christian life is for Paul a single process, he does stress three different nuances of the process: justification, an initiating event that is actualized and made concrete through sanctification; sanctification, a present process, dependent upon justification, that has future implications, namely, consummated salvation; and salvation, a gift to be consummated in the future, already anticipated and partially experienced in justification and sanctification and definitely dependent upon them.

Other NT Writings: Other NT writings that stress the concept of faith include the Gospel of John, where only the verb form is found. The author describes his Gospel as intended to produce faith: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:30-31). This Evangelist’s view of faith is very much linked to the contingency of his situation, especially his dialogue and polemic with Judaism, many of whom do not believe (9:18) and reject faith in Jesus (5:38) despite the signs performed (4:48) and the testimony of Scripture, Abraham, and Moses. The view of faith found in the Fourth Gospel is also closely linked to its understanding of Christology, namely, Jesus as the one sent by the Father as his revealer (John 6:29: ‘Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’ ’). The Acts of the Apostles is also a rich witness to the NT concept of faith. Here the term ‘believer’ is used with frequency (e.g., Acts 2:44) and the object of belief is the preaching of the apostles (Acts 4:1-4). In James 2:14-20, the view of faith that insists that faith without works is useless is most likely not a criticism of Paul, but of those who have lost sight of the Pauline relationship between the activity of faith and its expression in and through love. The oft quoted verse from Hebrews, ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (11:1), has no specific Christian emphasis as it stands; the entire chapter serves as a model for the purposes of exhortation and reaches its culmination and Christian interpretation in chapter 12: ‘Therefore…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…’ (12:1-2). This reference to Jesus as ‘the pioneer and perfecter’ of faith expresses concisely the dynamic conception of faith found in much of the NT.

To explore Hebrew and Greek words translated as "faith," as referenced in S&H, browse:


All glossary terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
Top of page