Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Concept of Faith in Hebrews

One of the verses of Scripture that on the surface seems to argue against my suggestion that Abraham’s faith in Gen 12:1-4 cannot be distinguished from his obedience is Heb 11:8:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.”
But in saying that the Hebrew text of Gen 12:1-4 does not in and of itself distinguish between faith and obedience, I am not saying that it is not logically possible or illegitimate for subsequent inspired interpreters of Scripture to make such a distinction. It all depends on how faith is defined by each author of Scripture. This requires us to read Scripture carefully to pick up the particular definitions and nuances of each writer.

The Apostle Paul, for example, holds that Israel was under law during the old covenant age (Gal 3:23-25; 4:1-5). He speaks of faith coming with the coming of Christ (Gal 3:23-25), and he speaks of the law as being not of faith (Gal 3:12). In other words, in Paul's typical way of thinking, old covenant Israel was under the law, not under faith. The writer of Hebrews, however, views faith as something that was always operative throughout salvation history.

For Paul, faith is primarily a christological concept, as Gal 3:23-25 suggests. It centers on the confession “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9). In Paul’s thought it is a response that is directed towards Jesus (e.g., Rom 3:26; Gal 2:20; 3:26; Php 3:9; 1 Thess 1:3) more so than to God per se (although note Tit 3:8). In Paul’s usage, therefore, it was not possible for faith in this christological sense to exist prior to Jesus being revealed to Israel (Gal 3:23-25), yet faith in the gospel was nevertheless preempted in the person of Abraham (Gal 3:6, 8). Paul read the Old Testament prophets as predicting that, after the age of the law, faith would once again define righteousness, namely, in the eschatological age when the precious stone of stumbling would be laid in Zion (Hab 2:4 in Rom 1:17; and Isa 28:16 combined with Isa 8:14 in Rom 9:33).

But for the author of Hebrews, the term faith is used somewhat differently. Sure, faith in the new covenant age centers on Jesus; it involves the confession that Jesus is the Son of God, the great High Priest (Heb 3:1; 4:14; 13:15). But the author of Hebrews also views faith as being something that was operative (at least on the part of a remnant) throughout redemptive history (Heb 4:2; 11:2). Faith begins with the fact of the power of the word of God as revealed in the creation of the world (Heb 11:3). It was a virtue possessed by all the saints of old, from Abel until Samuel and the prophets (Heb 11:4, 32). Noah was an heir of the righteousness of faith (Heb 11:7). For the writer of Hebrews, faith is connected with the idea of patience, and has to do with inheriting (i.e., experiencing the realization of) the promises (Heb 6:12). Faith in its fullness has the boldness to follow in the footsteps of Jesus into the eschatological temple to encounter God (Heb 10:22). For the author of Hebrews, therefore, faith is not an eschatological concept per se, but it possesses a strong eschatological orientation where the faithful look to God for salvation and reward at the time of the realization of God’s promise at Christ’s second coming (Heb 10:35-39; 11:6).

For the author of Hebrews, faith believes that God has the power to bring that which is not into reality (Heb 11:3). It leads to genuine sacrifice (Heb 11:4), to pleasing God (Heb 11:5-6), and to obedience (11:8). It looks forward to the eternal city of God rather than focusing on life in this world (Heb 11:10, 13-16). It includes confidence in the faithfulness of God to keep his word (Heb 11:11). Faith believes in the power of God to raise the dead (11:19). It leads to worship and understands God’s intention to bless his people (Heb 11:21). It prepares for when God will keep his promise (Heb 11:22). It acts to protect God’s people (Heb 11:23), identifies with God’s people (Heb 11:24), and chooses to suffer persecution together with God’s people (Heb 11:25-26). Faith does not fear the godless (Heb 11:27). It results in victories won (Heb 11:28-30), and brings salvation to the Gentiles (Heb 11:31). Through faith the saints of old
conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth (Heb 11:33-38).
In sum, the concept of faith in the book of Hebrews confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, but it also includes a strong assurance that the fullness of what God has promised will come true (Heb 11:1), which results in power to persevere despite opposition.

That is a rich concept of faith, and one worth celebrating. Nevertheless, it is the concept of faith of the author of Hebrews, which is similar yet different in various aspects from the concept of faith found in Paul and in the Old Testament. The distinctive voice of each part of Scripture needs to be noted and acknowledged.


Dave said...


Paul saw Christ as being the object of faith AND he also recognised how this was true in the OT (Rom 3:21).

Paul also recognises that faith is Christological AND relates to works etc (Eph 5:1-21, Romans 12:1).

Paul also talks about perseverance through opposition (Romans 5:3-4).

The author of Hebrews recognises that the 'operative' aspect of faith comes as a result of the faith in CHrist. After all his own definition of faith in Heb 11:1 does not contain any 'operative' aspect, and yet is was "by faith" ie a result of faith) that Abel etc DID what they did. Why? Because good works come from faith. However, good works do not equate faith.

Steve, I found time to drop by. Probably will not happen often. There is no difference in how Paul or the author of Hebrews view faith, though they certainly wrote regarding different aspects of the faith, to different people for different reasons. BUT I think you make too much of this...because you are trying to use it to support your perspective IMHO.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Dave.

I think that Paul and the author of Hebrews probably operate with the same basic definition of what faith is, but it's interesting that there are still differences in how they actually use the language of faith. The christological use of the term is particularly strong in Paul.