‘Faith’ in St Paul’s day

by
22 July 2016

Cally Hammond on a study that puts his ideas into context

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Roman Faith and Christian Faith: “Pistis” and “fides” in the early Roman Empire and early churches
Teresa Morgan
OUP £95
(978-0-19-872414-8)
Church Times Bookshop £85.50

 

CAN there be a more important question for Christians than the one addressed by this book — what is Christian faith? In the past, answers have been taken for granted, with no systematic interrogation of the evidence, even though that evidence is relatively abundant.

Teresa Morgan’s intercultural approach dives straight in to the sea of texts both Christian and Graeco-Roman. Even restricting her analysis to the early Roman Empire and early Christianities makes for a complex read. She surveys the terminology of “faith” (in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin: no knowledge of these languages is assumed), clarifying clusters of meanings, embedded in different contexts — social, legal, military, and familial.

So the language of faith incorporates elements of belief, trust, good faith, reliability, piety, etc. At no point is the modern idea of faith as, by nature, opposed to reason evident. The key Greek word for faith is pistis; the key Latin word is fides. She tends to use the term pistis to encompass the breadth of meanings.

From this groundwork, she turns to religious meanings: God’s faith towards humankind, and humankind’s towards God, and thence to a rigorous reassessment of the New Testament evidence, tracing developments in the understanding of pistis.

One key antithesis is between “propositional” and “relational” faith: the former is faith in ideas, principles (which we might term “beliefs”); the other is faith in people, in relationships of trust and reliability (which we might term “trust”). One of the key arguments of this impressive survey is that St Paul comes to restrict faith to God-human relations, and exclude intra-human relations; and that, as his thought develops, he finds a place for the part played by Christ within this schema, at the centre of that God-humankind relationship.

She also highlights how St John the Evangelist, like Paul, makes Jesus-the-Christ a subject of belief (also pistis in Greek) rather than a model for imitation (to which the Synoptics tend).

By establishing that pistis (whether “faith”, “belief”, or both) is already deeply ingrained in Christian self-consciousness by the time of the New Testament’s composition, she casts it as a central identifier: “faith in God” and “faith in Christ”, whatever the propositional and relational content of those labels, are essential to Christian identity from the beginning. I appreciated the phrase “cascade of pistis” (to describe how God places pistis in Christ, then Christ in Paul, and he in others through his preaching, and so on: a fine model for how mission operates to disseminate faith).

This book costs nearly £100 in hardback, which puts it beyond the reach of most potential readers. It is a technical work of academic scholarship rather than a general read, but it is to be hoped that its conclusions cascade through the layers of modern Christianity to refresh more than just the thirst of professional scholars.

 

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