A Faith of Trust, Allegiance, and Loyalty

Skeptics ridicule the truth of the Christian message because of the discontinuity they see between Christian belief and behavior. They may have a point. Modern Christianity seems grounded in cognitive experience, more or less anchored by formal theologies expressing ethics governing what we think and how we behave. The problem is that what we think often gets compartmentalized from how we behave.

We claim a transformative power but we seem to end up with a faith that seems to be mostly a matter of rules and propositional truth. It might help to step back a bit from our arguments with skeptics and think about what faith actually is. A book review by Kate Cooper recently caught my attention, in which she profiled Roman Faith and Christian Faith, by Teresa Morgan.

The review describes our primarily cognitive and ethical treatment of faith as anachronistic. In contrast, “…ancient moral writers tended to think of faith in the relational sense of trust, allegiance, and loyalty.” Cooper quotes from Morgan’s book, anchoring faith in an ancient context of “‘an exercise of trust which involves heart, mind, and action’”.[1]

I am looking forward reading the book to engage the historical context the book promises for the New Testament. It seems to square with my recent reading of Roman history and Roman authors.  But what Cooper calls modern faith might also have some quite ancient roots, courtesy of the Hellenic culture diffused across the Mediteranean and eastward following Alexander’s conquests.

Hellenism was under-girded by a world of ideas incubated in the life of the polis, or the Greek city-state. The clearest biblical connection with this was Paul’s encounter with Athenian aristocracy at Mars Hill,[2] when they brought Paul from the marketplace where he was preaching. They wanted to hear his unfamiliar ideas and proclamations of a foreign god, and to consider them within the business of the polis.

But the problem with this Greek world of ideas was its functional isolation. The city-states which gestated Hellenism were stratified into fairly rigid divisions between the activities of citizens (men), women, immigrants and their descendants, freedmen, and slaves. In the classical period citizens were the only ones who could own houses or land, or participate in public life and in the governance of the city. What this participation actually looked like might vary with the city but most of the actual work to support it was performed by someone other than citizens.

The result was that the Greek world of ideas was structurally disconnected from the practical and everyday. The intellectual heritage of the Western World owes a great deal to the ancient Greeks. But we may also owe them a tendency toward cooking down truth as a matter of bare cognition, separated from the activities of everyday life.

This does not mean faith operates in some sort of intellectual vacuum. Something must be true, and over the centuries Christians have done a fair bit of philosophy to engage this. But we used to also recognize that the truth statements within Christian creeds were never wholly reducible to propositions.

Unfortunately, some of our fine-grained modern theologies seem to do just that, resulting in a theoretical faith where the ethical content never reaches very far. It is a faith that has become very much like the philosophy of the ancient Greeks: positions to think about but that are mostly sectioned off from the ordinary day-to-day. And on those occasions we actually do drag them out of their boxes they are so wholly odds with that day-to-day as to discredit any message about Jesus.

It is a modern variant of something James was addressing in his letter to Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the ancient world.  He nails this in his discussion of faith and works (James 2:14-19).

What I have been told by someone who actually reads Greek is that the words translated as “faith” and “believe”[3] in English are really noun and verb forms of the same expansive word, encompassing a both a belief in the truth of something, as well as a far broader sense of trust and dependence concerning the fidelity of someone. The way the Greek word is heard depends on the context. James 2:19 is commonly translated in English as “believe,” and the context suggests a paraphrase:

You accept the truth that God is one. You do well. The demons also accept this and shudder.

A faith restricted to the cognitive and ethical can easily become a faith of bare facts — the faith of the demons.

In the preceding text, 2:14-18, the Greek word is commonly translated as “faith.” The context suggests something very different from 2:19.

And this difference would have been understood quite clearly by any Roman hearing the reading of James’ letter. The Romans who spread with their empire had some critical cultural differences from the Greeks of the city-states. Immigrants to Rome often became citizens, and sometimes this included freed slaves and their descendants. As Mary Beard has unpacked in SPQR, this making of immigrants and thousands of slaves into citizens is a major part of what enabled Rome to dominate the ancient world. And in their founding myths “…however far back you go, the inhabitants of Rome were always already from somewhere else.”[4]

As a matter of clarification I don’t want to convey any impression that this meant empire and the associated making of slaves was a good thing. It was not. A slave in a Roman mine was unlikely to live very long. And Romans were probably as exploitative, xenophobic and ethnocentric as anyone else.

But the point is that the Roman social stratification was somewhat less rigid than in a Greek city-state. It was more interconnected, with citizens bound together in patron-client relationships of mutual obligation. Roman citizenship did not inherently insulate everyday citizens from activities with outsiders, or from otherwise doing the everyday business of Rome. Ordinary Romans proudly put their ordinary occupations on their tombstones. And landless Roman wage laborers might find themselves working on the same project alongside of Roman slaves.

Commodus denarius – Wikimedia Commons

For the Romans hearing a reading of James’ letter, truth did not stand in a vacuum devoid of the business of everyday life. The context of James 2:14-18 would have been understood in the sense of fides, what Cooper’s review identifies as encompassing “trust, allegiance, and loyalty.”  Romans were accustomed to the sense of fides as found inscribed on coins and worshiped as a minor deity.[5]  It conveyed as sense of reliability, such as in the trust between two parties.

It is what a Roman would have heard when the Greek pistis was translated in Latin. In the ancient world these words appear to have been mutually intelligible. What we commonly translate as “faith” might possibly be heard like this by an ancient Roman:

Show me your trust, allegiance and loyalty, without works, and I will show you my trust, allegiance, and loyalty, by my works.

Our most common response to skeptics is to reach for some form of apologetic. Perhaps the proper response would be to recover a more ancient sense of faith.


[1]  Kate Cooper.  Review: Teresa Morgan, ROMAN FAITH, CHRISTIAN FAITH.  I’ve added the book to my list to acquire and read.  It’s quite expensive which suggests it is directed at an academic audience.
https://kateantiquity.com/2016/05/12/review-teresa-morgan-roman-faith-christian-faith/.  Also at: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/by-faith-alone-3/

[2] Acts 17:16 ff.

[3] James 2:14-18, faith: πιστιν – pistin, πιστις – pistis, Strong’s G4102.  James 2:19, believe: πιστευεις – pisteueis, πιστευουσιν – pisteuousin, Strong’s G4100.

[4] Mary Beard. SPQR: A history of ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015. p78

[5]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fides_(deity)