Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Meaning of Faith in the Gospel of John

Some time ago I decided to look into what the Apostle John had to say about faith. I turned to the Topical Guide, found the appropriate page and discovered that there was nothing there. There were references to faith in each of the other gospels, and in many of Paul’s epistles, but not a single entry for the fourth gospel.

This surprised me and disappointed me at the same time. Faith is a doctrine I often ponder. And the Gospel of John is one of my favorite places to find answers. How could this very insightful man have nothing to say about the first principle of the gospel? It bothered me.

Then I decided to look under the heading for belief. And again I was surprised. Just like before, I found several references in the synoptic gospels and in the epistles. But there was a difference when I looked at the listings for John. Instead of nothing, or just a few, there were dozens, and they took up well over an entire column. In fact there were more references than for all of the other gospels combined.

This relieved me but it also puzzled me. What was the reason for this change? Was there a big difference between these two principles (of faith and belief) of the gospel that John had recorded? If so, it seemed to me that the frequency of the listings would have been the other way around. Why did John have more to say about belief than he did about faith?

I was about to learn that he didn’t. As I looked deeper into the subject, I was to discover that John had very much to say about faith. In fact his gospel and epistles are among the greatest records we have in all of World literature on this pivotal doctrine of Christ. But you have to read his writings in Greek to understand this.

The important Greek word is pisteuw which is a verb referring to faith. The trouble that translators have is that the word faith in English is a noun. A rare verbal form of faith does exist but it is awkward. To translate pisteuw more literally requires adding an auxiliary verb, something like exercising faith. But this can also be cumbersome. What is not apparent in most languages is that John does not refer to faith as a noun. He only uses it as a verb, but the verb is not translated as faith. It is translated as to believe.

Very often this word (to believe) worked well. At other times, though, it introduced a subtle change of doctrine that plagues us to this day. The long process of diluting faith from a profoundly life focusing first principle of the gospel to the passive or indifferent nod of today largely begins with this early awkward translation of pisteuw.

Consider, for example, the beloved verse in Chapter 3 (verse 16): “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoseover believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. Now this verse is one of the great treasures of the English language. To change it would seem profane. But it has clearly been misunderstood through the centuries.

It strains the imagination to think that Christ is here admitting the uninterested sluggard, who guesses that he believes in God, into His kingdom. But if this is not what John is telling us, what are we to understand from this verse? What does this pisteuw mean that rewards its possessor with everlasting life?

To answer this question requires that we look at how John uses pisteuw. And a good place to start is in the first chapter of his gospel. This is where he presents the panoramic view of Christ that begins with the unremembered past and the Creation of life. It identifies Christ (the Word) with the cosmic order as the great bearer of light.

“In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (Verse 4). “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (Verse 5). And then note Verse 7. “This same [John] came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all men through him might believe”.

This is the light that is given to “every man that cometh into the world” (Verse 9). And yet not all men continue in this God-given light. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of god, even to them that believe [pisteuosin] on his name” (Verse 12).

So here we have a vital clue as to what John means by pisteuw. It means comprehending the light of Christ, continuing in it, receiving Him.

Another important element of John’s faith is that the Holy Ghost will be manifest by those who have this faith. In Chapter 7 we learn that living water will flow from those that believe, and this living water is the Holy Ghost. In contrast, those without this belief (pisteuosin) deny that the holy spirit can quicken our understanding and give life (6:64).

These are two powerful images of pistis - manifestly more profound in a hot sunny Mediterranean climate like Palestine. Life giving light and rivers of water cut to the heart of mankind’s vital needs. If we translate pistis either as faith or as believing without this vital dependence, we have missed the core of what John wants us to understand.

But there is more in this remarkable book. One of the important doctrinal contributions that John makes regarding pistis is that it is not to be understood as something different than knowledge. One can have both faith and knowledge at the same time. In fact we should aspire to this dual understanding of God.

In the great High Priestly prayer Christ thanks the Father that his disciples have received his “word and known them and have believed [episteusan] that thou hast sent me” (17:8).

In Chapter 6 (verse 69) Peter indicates that he and the other apostles “have believed and have known that thou art the Christ”. And again in Chapter 10 (verse 38) Jesus tells the Jews that they should at least believe His works, “that ye may know and believe”.

In a scientific age where knowledge is so valued and so little understood and where the expert and the specialist are more honored than an experienced farmer or a devoted mother, this may be hard to comprehend. We have come to believe, somehow, that faith and knowledge are either opposites or at least mutually exclusive values. How can someone have both faith and knowledge at the same time?

John would have thought the question ridiculous. For him, faith is its own form of knowledge. Faith is not a tentative belief system that comes from wishful thinking. It is a motivating inner light that comes from experiencing the power of God in one’s life. Faith is the basic element in the Redeemer’s Plan of Happiness.

Which brings me to one more insight from John: his understanding that faith is the path to truth. Truth is not a single “a ha” moment of discovery that acknowledges a new insight and is never doubted again. The way to truth is rather a continuous path of following the Light of Christ.

“Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, if ye continue in my word,” that is, continue in pistis, “then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Chapter 8:31-32 ). Here, indeed, is a view of truth very different from the one used in our empirical world. It is also a perspective that helps us understand Christ’s silence before Pilate.

Remember that the Roman ruler asked Christ, “what is truth,” and that the question went unanswered. Pilate wanted a definition that he could spell out. He wanted a logical construct. But Christ’s truth is not so easily defined. It comes from faith. It comes from pistis. And this faith is based on an understanding of light and the Holy Ghost. Truth for John is knowledge that comes from the experienced journey of this faith.

For Pilate, who lacked this experience and lacked the light of truth, a short dictionary definition would not do. He was not capable of understanding. It would be like describing the taste of chocolate to a child that had never eaten it.

The greatest truths in life are like this. They involve the deep yearnings of the soul and the profound joy of finding divine truth. Religious ritual is an acknowledgment of this important silence. And this is also the lesson that John wants us to learn.

He couldn’t bring himself to tell us about faith as a static noun - as a mere mental place-holder of beliefs. To John, faith (pistis) is a silent active taxis towards truth. It is the cardinal response to light. It is the first principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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