The Fork in the Road: Definitions: “Faith,” Part 1

One of the most important differences between conservative and progressive Church of Christ theology is our different use of some key words. For example, to a progressive, New Testament references to “faith” are references to faith in Jesus. To a conservative, “faith” refers to a system of doctrine. There is, of course, a huge difference between being saved by faith in Jesus and faith in a complete doctrinal system.

Wayne Jackson writes in the Christian Courier

Some suggest that the expression [“one faith” in Eph 5:4] likely means the “trustful acceptance” of Christ, or “saving faith” (Moule 1977, 105). Bruce calls it a “common belief in Christ” (1984, 336), which, as Smith (a Baptist scholar) observes, includes “the accompanying incidents and conditions,” i.e., the “‘faith’ by which men are saved” (1890, 61). This would embrace the exercise of “faith” in repentance, confession of one’s confidence in Christ, and immersion in water for the remission of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Romans 10:10, etc.).

On the other hand, the “one faith” can signify the unified body of Christian teaching, wholly consistent with itself and general biblical teaching otherwise. There are a number of passages that use pistis in this sense (Acts 6:7; Galatians 1:23; 1 Timothy 3:9; 4:1,6; 5:8; Titus 1:4; Jude 3; see Turner 1982, 157; Lenski 1961, 512).

Thus, in Jackson’s perception, the “one faith” that unites all Christians is the body of Christian teaching, “the body of revealed doctrine.” I think “faith” means faith in Jesus. In Jackson’s view, we must agree on all doctrine to be united. I think the seven ones of Eph 4:3-6 are quite enough. Let’s see whether Jackson has dealt fairly with the verses he cites in support of his view.

Acts 6:7

(Acts 6:7)  So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Does Luke mean that the priests obeyed a body of doctrine? Some argue that the definite article before faith means the author is speaking of a systematic theology rather than faith in Jesus. We’ll test that theory as we go as well.

Acts 6:7 is only the fourth time faith (pistis) appears in Acts. Previous to this, Luke had written,

(Acts 3:16)  By [the] faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.

(Acts 6:5)  This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.

The NIV omits the “the” in Acts 3:16, but it’s in the Greek — and it’s plainly not speaking about a doctrinal system. Nor does 6:5 refer to a doctrinal system. It’s really hard to come up with contextual reason to conclude the 6:7 is speaking of a doctrinal system, either.

I suppose we should work our way through every reference to “faith” in Luke,

(Luke 5:20)  When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

(Luke 7:9)  When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

(Luke 7:50)  Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

(Luke 8:25)  “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

(Luke 8:48)  Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

(Luke 17:5)  The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

(Luke 17:6)  He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

(Luke 17:19)  Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

(Luke 18:8)  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

(Luke 18:42)  Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”

(Luke 22:32)  But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

It’s pretty obvious that Luke is not using “faith” to refer to a doctrinal system!

Galatians 1:23

Jackson next references Gal 1:23 —

(Gal 1:23)  They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”

Was Paul preaching a doctrinal system? Not according to Paul —

(Gal 1:15-16)  But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man,

Paul preaches the Son. That’s not surprising, because he also wrote,

(1 Cor 2:1-2)  When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

You see, the Greek word often translated “preach” is the verb form of “gospel” — euaggelizo — to evangelize or to preach good news. Paul didn’t preach a cappella worship to the lost; he preached Jesus. I’ll not waste efforts tracing every use of “faith” in Galatians. Rather, I’ll just note the second and third —

(Gal 2:16)  know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

In Paul’s vocabulary, “faith” is faith in Jesus, not in a doctrinal system.

1 Timothy 3:9; 4:1,6; 5:8

(1 Tim 3:9 KJV) Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.

“Mystery” is a word we borrow from the Greek. In the New Testament, it’s generally a reference to something that was once hidden and is now revealed: the gospel —

(Rom 16:25-27)  Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him — 27 to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.

(Eph 1:9-10)  And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment–to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

(Eph 6:19-20)  Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

The mystery has been revealed and is the “gospel and proclamation of Jesus Christ.” (The NIV botches the translation, replacing “mystery” with “deep truths.”)

(1 Tim 4:1)  The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.

What is this “faith”? Look at the immediately preceding verse —

(1 Tim 3:16)  Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.

Paul had just finished summarizing the mystery of the gospel. Context matters!

The closest Paul comes to including doctrine in “faith” is —

(1 Tim 5:8)  If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Let’s see. 5:8 is plainly comparing “denied the faith” with being an unbeliever. He’s not saying that if you fail to support your relatives you misunderstood Paul’s doctrinal instruction. He’s saying you’ve denied Jesus. But why does being uncaring toward your family deny the faith?

The commentators are uniform in noting that, in the First Century, even the pagans insisted on the necessity of caring for one’s relatives. Barclay quotes E. K. Simpson: “A religious profession which falls below the standard of duty recognized by the world is a wretched fraud.” He goes on to quote a number of Greek philosophers who insisted on the necessity of care for relatives.

Paul’s point isn’t that there’s a rule being broken. It’s that someone who is so unloving as to refuse to care for his own relatives — when even pagans do this — brings shame on Christ and his church. He’s worse than an unbeliever because only a believer can do this kind of damage to the cause of Christ.

“Deny” does not mean “disobey the commands.” Rather, it can also be translated “disown.”

(2 Tim 2:12)  if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us;

Titus 1:4

(Titus 1:4)  To Titus, my true son in our common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.

Seriously? I really don’t know where Jackson finds a doctrinal system here. Paul speaks of Timothy as his “son” repeatedly, but this is because Paul converted him (Compare 1 Cor 4:15.) They share a faith because Paul preached Jesus to him and he believed.

Jude 3

(Jude 1:3)  Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

Other than the “the,” what makes this sound like a doctrinal system? He’s speaking about our salvation, which is from faith in Jesus. He immediately warns his readers against false teachers, and then makes this contrast —

(Jude 1:4)  For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.

Seems like he has faith in Jesus in mind. He then writes,

(Jude 1:20-21)  But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. 21 Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.

Jude is not an exposition on how to conduct the Sunday morning assembly. It’s about fighting against those who deny Jesus.


20 Responses

  1. Jay, I don’t understand Greek grammar and syntax well enough yet to be certain of this, but when I look at verses like 1 Tim 3:9 and 3:16, Eph 1:9-10 and 6:19-20, and even Acts 2:38 (the gift of the Holy Spirit), I can’t find any reason for the translators to use the word OF at all. I see that they’re possessive (or genitive, rather) but using “of” in these spots makes it read as if the first thing is part, but not all of, the second thing.

    These places, and I’m sure there are others, but Acts 2:38 sets the pattern for them, look for all the world like appositive statements. They look like they should be translated thus:

    “And you shall receive the gift, the Holy Spirit.”
    “Holding the mystery, the faith, in a pure conscience”
    “And he made known to us the mystery, his will, according to his good pleasure”
    “I will fearlessly make known the mystery, the gospel, for which I am an ambassador”

    I know I was taught that Acts 2:38 could be accurately translated that way, but I’m speculating on the others.

  2. This post raises a truly interesting point. Because even more fundamental than the contrasts in meanings which Jay highlights, Jay misses one point:

    I think if a conservative reads this post, he/she is likely to deny these disagreements over the meanings of words. But in actual practice these differences in meanings actually do exist.

    For example, using Jay’s first point, I expect conservatives would deny they teach faith in system of doctrine rather than faith in Jesus. It’s very unlikely they would ever use those words. But in practice, they do teach faith in a system of doctrine.

    And this seeming unwillingness to acknowledge the implications and consequences of their teachings is why it is so difficult, generally speaking, to reach reconciliation between progressives and conservatives.

    One of our greatest failures, as disciples of Jesus, is our failure to accept one another in the same way Jesus accepted each of us.

  3. David, do you think they would parse it as, “Faith in Christ = faith in ‘the unified body of Christian teaching’?” or a different way?

  4. They might say it that way, Nick. But in my personal experience, they don’t make an overt connection between faith and “the unified body of Christian teaching”. But if you stand back and listen to the implications of what they say, then you reach the conclusion that they do equate faith with the proper system of doctrine.

    I acknowledge it may be a subtle point — but I think it is very significant.

  5. I hope you’re right — but Jude 4 is a linchpin in so many traditional arguments. I think you’re right, David, that they don’t typically make the overt connection in regular teaching and instruction. But when a closely-held tradition is challenged, the implication becomes a clear assertion rapidly.

  6. Grr. Jude 3, not 4.

  7. One point which should not be overlooked is that believing in a system of doctrine can replace faith in Jesus. If we believe Jesus is Lord, then we’ll believe in whatever HE taught, either personally or through His apostles. If we believe in a doctrinal system, faith in Jesus is optional. “The faith” can easily refer to what was taught by Jesus and His apostles. Yes. Often, as is made clear by Jay and others, it refers simply to faith in Jesus Himself and in His power and in His knowledge of truth. By implication, faith in Jesus might well include faith in His teachings. But it’s always a mistake to think faith in man-made laws will save sinners. When some include in “the faith” their inferences concerning what they may think Jesus wants, others should be wary. If the Bible speaks, we can know what is included in the system of faith taught by Jesus and His apostles. Where the Bible is silent, we have no right to claim that Jesus has spoken. Some deny Jesus by replacing His teaching with their assumptions even as they claim to possess “the truth.”

  8. Jay,

    (1) You seem to assume that when a word is used in the NT, it’s always used the same way, or that when one author uses a word, he always uses it in the same way. That is a very unlikely axiom. That’s like saying that when Plato used the word “good,” he always employed it the same way–no philosopher i know of has been able to apply coherently that axiom to that term in Plato. i don’t even employ that axiom in my daily life–conversations, emails, letters, etc. i’m not saying all other uses of the term by an author are irrelevant, but i don’t see why finding all the other employments of a word in an author’s writing *necessarily* implies for us the intended meaning of a particular employment of the word. Just seems like very unrealistic hermeneutical standards to me. Jackson seems to want “faith” to be always ‘systematic,’ and you seem to want faith to always mean personal faith in the person Jesus. Perhaps “faith” doesn’t always mean one thing. In fact, i think it’s highly unlikely that it does. It seems like though you take opposite positions, both you and Jackson miss the point for the same reason.

    (2) You say that faith refers to “faith in Christ” and not a “body of doctrine.” The term “Christ” arguably caches out into at least the matters of incarnation, identity, atonement, resurrection, and Lordship–about which the NT provides teaching and expects people to believe certain things about these topics. i don’t see then how you’re position is any different than Jackson’s, since even understanding “faith” as “faith in Christ” still requires a system of doctrine inherent in the term. The difference between you and Jackson seems only to be how many tenets/which tenets of doctrine get included in the term.

    (3) i could pick on some of the specifics of each verse you mentioned, but i’ll just pick one. In Jude, you’re arguing that “deny Jesus Christ our only sovereign Lord” is exegetical of Jude’s use of “the faith.” Why does that phrase get special exegetical status but not the one just before about “turning the grace of God into license for immorality”? Why do you get to bold-face one and not the other? Why isn’t it that both of these phrases explain the use of the term “faith”? And if so, then “faith” includes some sort of moral proscriptions.


  9. Guy,
    The English word, faith, obvious has multiple meanings, but the real point to discuss is whether the Greek word translated here common carried multiple meanings at the time of its use then. (And I’m not qualified to comment on that point).

    But, it is difficult to read Hebrews 11 and conclude the writer is talking about a system of doctrine with the multiple uses of the word, faith.

  10. David


    Only a legal mind could concoct what we have done to Church.


  11. Nick,

    Like you, this is a bit out of my Greek skill set. But these posts may be helpful —

    The experts seem to agree as to Acts 2:38 —- and it appears that distinguishing a genitive of apposition from other possibilities is mainly a matter of context.

    I short, I think you’re right.

  12. Ray,

    While we should certainly study and obey everything the Bible teaches, “faith” does not include all that the Bible teaches. If so, as faith is a condition of salvation, only those who have mastered all doctrine would have faith and so be saved.

    “Faith” is what is required to be saved. It’s what we believe in order to be baptized.

  13. Guy,

    Is there some plasticity in the NT use of “faith”? Certainly, but it’s not so plastic that any NT writer would use “faith” to mean “sing a cappella only.”

    In an earlier series, I investigated in detail the meaning of “gospel” — which is the intellectual content of faith — although faith is more than intellectual acceptance.

    As you point out, there is substantial content to “gospel” and “faith” — but “faith” does not include ecclesiology and such. “Faith” is what you have to believe to be saved.

    One of the great mistakes the church has made throughout history is to pile onto “faith” a bunch theological conclusions only hinted at in the Bible. Thus, the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church split over the filioque — whether the Spirit proceeds from Jesus — because that’s a matter of “faith.” And on and on and on.

  14. I copied the excerpt below from John Mark Hicks blog. It is taken from his series on Hermeneutics in the Stone Campbell Movement. IMO this was an outstanding series and everyone that want to lead or teach in the CofC would benefit from reading it. As Jay has mentioned, there have been some that have claimed that in order to be faithful or have faith in Christ one had accept an extensive broad bodyof doctrine. this excerpt may held us understand how er arrived at that point.


    As Churches of Christ ended the 1950s they were involved a acrimonious debate over institutionalism. This was not simply a hermeneutical discussion but it became the focal point. I will write more about this in another post. But I mention it here because perhaps the most significant book of that era among the institutionalists (the “liberals”) in the discussion was J. D. Thomas’ ‘We Be Brethren’: A Study in Biblical Interpretation (Abilene: Biblical Research Press, 1958). His subsequent books extended his discussion in defense of his method–Heaven’s Window: A Sequel to We Be Brethren (Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 1975) and Harmonizing Hermeneutics: Appplying the Bible to Contemporary Life (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1991). It represents a thirty-three year continuous defense of Baconianism.

    Thomas is quite explicit that he is indebted to the Baconian method (p. 12) and notes that Churches of Christ are in general agreement about its legitimacy. He writes (We Be Brethren, 16-17): “In general our brethren have used the Inductive-Deductive Method of reasoning in a practical way in the past and their conclusions have been quite satisfactory for the most part.” His phrase “for the most part” leaves considerable room for doubt in a method which is supposed to produce and verify the “Temple
    of Truth.”

    I think I can best make my point about the influence of Baconian methodology by illustrating it. Schematically, the method looks like this: isolated text + isolated text = deduced truth. The deduced truth+ isolated text = another deduced truth. Deduced truth+ another deduced truth= another deduced truth. The deductions (inferences) become as true as andas significant as the explicit statements of the text itself. In fact, the deductions often become the cement as well as a critical blocks in the “Temple of Truth.”

    2 John 9 has been particularly abused by this method. The “doctrine of Christ” is taken to mean “anything Christ teaches” or, more specifically, “anything the New Testament teaches post-Pentecost.” This is a fairly wide circle and everything the New Testament teaches is thrown into it, including deduced (inferred) truths. As a result we get syllogisms like this (and I have heard one’s like this on many occasions–and the minor premise can be a whole list of the “marks of the church” as well as other

    Major Premise: No one who goes beyond what the New Testament teaches post-Pentecost is in fellowship with God.

    Minor Premise: The New Testament teaches Post-Pentecost that communion is every Sunday and only on Sunday.

    Conclusion: Anyone who practices communion on any other daty than Sunday andless than weekly is not in fellowship with God.

    … Fourth, “doctrine of Christ” is lifted from the historical context of the text and set in a new context. In its new context–as a premise in a syllogism–it now can mean just about whatever we want it to mean. Extracting it from its original context, we give it a new context.

    Hope this is of some benefit to a few and that some will read the entire series.

  15. David,

    Neither could Hebrews 11 mean strictly “faith in Christ” since none of the OT figures mentioned knew who that was. Hebrews 11 demonstrates that “faith” doesn’t always denote the same thing.

    i’m not sure why Greek would work generally any different from English in the sense that various speakers use the same term differently and the same speaker can use the same term in different ways given different occasions, moods, and contexts. i think to say that all instances of a term must always denote the same thing paints people as far more robotic and/or language as far more rigid than they are.


  16. Guy,
    My comment did not relate to the phrase, “faith in Christ”, but rather, to the word, “faith.” The fact that Greek is different than English may be seen in as simple an example as the English word, “love”, which has many English meanings, but Greek uses many distinctly different words, such as eros, phileo, agape and others (all of which are translated into English as “love”).

  17. Jay,

    i certainly agree that no NT writer meant his use of the term “faith” to denote or even imply “sing acapella only.” But consider this: Around the time of Christ (give or take a century) would the term “Roman rule” have denoted running water and public toilets? Strictly no. But neither can we say that running water and public toilets have no connotative connection to the term “Roman rule.”

    There’s more than a little plasticity to terms. You have a string of Luke quotes all trying to make a case for what the word means. But on one occasion, Luke is representing Peter’s speech. On another, he’s reporting the list of criteria other people used to select men for a task. On another he seems to be reporting a fact in his own words. In his gospel, it looks like he’s mostly representing the words of others. What reason is there to think i can view the term to denote the same thing in all those contexts? Furthermore, the use of a word can evolve over time, and Luke’s written work represents several decades of history which include a burdgeoning new religion and people figuring out how that religion works. There’s a great deal of reasons to think that the term will, in fact, not be the same throughout those cases.

    Point being, i agree that Jackson doesn’t have a case to say it always denotes a system of doctrine. (And i certainly agree he doesn’t have a case that “faith” denotes the modern list of conservative CoC peculiarities.) But that’s primarily because i don’t see how a case could be made that it *always* denotes the same thing period–whether that be a “system of doctrine” or “faith in Jesus.”

    But maybe i’ve misunderstood you. Perhaps, you’re simply taking issue with the *particular instances* which Jackson claims refers to a system of doctrine, and claiming that they, instead, refer to “faith in Jesus”? If so, then i’ve definitely misunderstood before–my bad.

    Either way, to speak more to the point, i’d be more cautious about taking such a reductionist view of the term. Paul says in Titus that “grace” “teaches us to deny ungodliness” and such. While i don’t think Paul’s words there have virtually anything to do with non-IM or women’s head coverings (how much Jackson have you read, by the way?), it nevertheless makes me realize that those terms can be more robust than we might think. (i definitely don’t see why Acts 6:7 can’t be rather dense even if Jackson’s particular understanding of it is wrong.)


  18. David,

    Fair enough–i was speaking to Jay’s point, not yours. True, Greek has a more nuanced repertoire for handling a concept like “love,” but we’re all working with “pistis” and “pisteo” for the current topic in hand, aren’t we?

    But even with anyone of those Greek words for “love,”–say “eros”–that still doesn’t mean it can’t have a range of denotations given context and purpose. The word may or may not have sexual connotations. The word could be used somewhat metaphorically for food (even we have blogs in modern times that are all about “sexy food”). In fact the passionate love denoted could even differ in degree and kind given the context or object of love. Etc. My point is nothing more than–few words admit of blanket, categorical definitions.


  19. Guy,

    In fairness to Wayne Jackson, he doesn’t argue that “faith” always means a system of doctrine, only that it often takes on that meaning, so much so that the system of doctrine must be agreed with as a salvation condition. See

    My contention is that Jackson — who is very typical of conservative Church of Christ orthodoxy — is mistaken. That’s not what “faith” means in the New Testament. It normally means “faith in Jesus.” It can also mean “faithfulness.” It often means both. It never means “getting every doctrine right.” Rather, when “faith” is mentioned as a condition of salvation, it always means “faith in Jesus” — exactly what we require of people to be baptized. We don’t require them to confess allegiance to the Law of Generic and Specific Authority to become saved, because that’s not what “faith” means then. And it’s not what “faith” means after they come out of the water.

  20. Randall,

    I’m a big JMH fan — and his analysis is spot on.

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