Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on faith. Next post.
This article is the first of twelve that will serve as an overview of the great “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11. In this introductory article, I would like to address the question, “What is faith?” It might seem like this little word faith, so familiar to every Christian, would be easy to define. It occurs all over the Bible; various forms of it are used nearly one hundred times in the gospel of John alone. But what is faith? Often, Hebrews 11:1 is cited as a definition of faith. In the ESV, it reads, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Though this might sound like a definition of faith, New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen is likely right when he says that Hebrews 11:1 gives us more a description of faith than a definition of faith.1
In the New Testament, faith is often referred to as the subjective means by which the people of God receive the Word and blessings of God. But it is also used to describe the content of what God has revealed in His Word and in the gospel in particular. In Jude 3, for instance, the church is exhorted to “contend for the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints.” The faith in view here is not the faith of the believer per se, but rather the content of gospel revelation given to the people of God. The truth they were to stand for is referred to as “the faith.”
Machen rightly suggests that the New Testament usage of faith is nuanced, and that we need to be careful about equating descriptions with definitions. In other words, Hebrews 11:1 tells us something about what faith is, but it does not tell us all that faith is. It tells us what faith looks like in the life of a believer; it tells us what it meant for the Old Testament people of God to wholeheartedly embrace the promises of the covenant, which they could not yet physically see, as they trusted God at His word. Faith, in Hebrews 11, is the means by which God revealed His covenant promises not only to His people, but also through His people.
It is for this reason that the verse is sometimes translated rather differently. In the King James and New King James versions, it reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (emphasis mine). In this view, faith is the “substance” and “evidence” of things unseen. The ESV, and many other translations, make faith something subjective; faith is “confidence,” “assurance,” or “conviction.” The King James Version and others describe faith as more objective—that which displays something. This difference in translation is likely due to the way that the Greek word (hupostasis) behind “substance” is used elsewhere in the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 1:3, Jesus is referred to as the “exact imprint” (ESV) or “express image” (NKJV) of God. This is the same Greek word (hupostasis) that the NKJV translates as “substance” in Hebrews 11:1. Jesus is clearly being described as the revelation of God in Hebrews 1:3. The author’s point is that God spoke in the past through the Old Testament prophets, but in these last days, He has revealed Himself through Jesus—the greater revelation of God. Thus it would seem that Hebrews 1:3 supports the idea of a more objective description of faith in Hebrews 11:1.
The second main word for describing faith in Hebrews 11:1 is “evidence” (elenchos). Of the two words, its usage is more clearly objective, as it was a term for the evidence used in legal arenas to defend a case. It took on a similar usage later in its Latin equivalent, and is recognized in the title of a great work by Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology. An “elenctic” theology is a dogmatic one that defends the faith with objective evidence against errant expressions. If this Latinized use of the term grew out of the Greek term, it would make sense that when we look at Hebrews 11:1, the description given is one that highlights the fact that God was not simply speaking to His people, but He was also speaking through them. They were witnesses to the promises of God in history. In that sense, they were true martyrs of the faith (martyr primarily means “witness”). Thus, if this view is correct, what God surrounds us with in Hebrews 11 is a great cloud of witnesses who testify, by faith, of the truthfulness of God’s Word and His ability to fulfill all of His promises in history. Even though the Old Testament saints did not live to see the fulfillment of those promises (Heb. 11:39), they nonetheless testified to them by faith.