“Faith” in Hebrews

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Lincoln Hurst at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class on Hebrews.

 

What is faith in the letter to the Hebrews? Is this theme platonic, i.e. focused on the true things in heaven rather than the copies here on earth? Is it purely intellectual? Furthermore, how does faith function in Hebrews? What purpose does this theme serve? It has been suggested that faith in Hebrews is platonic, that it is understood to be an intellectual understanding of the true heavenly nature of the copies seen on earth. Although the theme of faith in Hebrews might appear to be platonic and purely intellectual at first glance, it is actually quite practical before a Jewish-apocalyptic background. In order to demonstrate this theme’s practical nature in light of its Jewish-apocalyptic background, we will examine two important parts to faith in Hebrews. First, we will look at what faith is and how it is understood in Hebrews. Second, we will look at how this theme functions in Hebrews. Then, after having looked at these two parts, we will briefly determine why faith in Hebrews is not platonic or purely intellectual.

What is faith in Hebrews? Donald Hagner defines faith as follows: “Belief, trust, and obedience to God as revealed in Jesus Christ” (2002, 202). Faith has a prerequisite—belief in God (2002, 145). Faith cannot exist unless one believes that God exists because it requires obedience to God; if one does not believe in God, then one cannot have faith, because it is impossible for one to obey someone that does not exist. Faith is also possible only because Jesus enables it for us (Lindars 1991, 45). Thus, faith is belief and obedience to God, which is made possible through Jesus Christ. Yet, in Hebrews faith is much more developed than this simple definition. It is also a response that is not merely intellectual but practical too (1991, 98). Jesus is the object of faith in Hebrews (1991, 48). Faith is also required and expected of all believers in this letter (Lindars 1991, 107, 112-3). But still, it is much more complicated than this simple understanding of it. Faith is an attitude of the mind (1991, 108), but it is also a response from the heart (43). In addition, faith is “a believing response to the promise of God” (Lane 1991, 315). Barnabas Lindars adds, “Faith in Hebrews is a moral quality of firmness, fidelity, and reliability” (1991, 109). William Lane agrees, stating that faith “is characterized by firmness, reliability, and steadfastness. It is trust in God and in his promises” (1991, 315). Faith in Hebrews “is the proper response to God’s act of salvation through Christ” as well as “a moral quality which should be constantly expressed in Christian living” (Lindars 1991, 110). George Ladd writes, “In Hebrews faith is the faculty to perceive the reality of the unseen world of God and to make it the primary object of one’s life, in contrast to the transitory and often evil character of present human existence” (1993, 631). Furthermore, “Faith is that which makes real to the believer the unseen world of God” (1993, 631). Hagner states it similarly in the following words: “Faith makes concrete what is unavailable to our sight” (2002, 143). To sum up all of these various facets of faith in the letter of Hebrews, we might want to try to produce a working definition of faith that attempts to include as many of the aforementioned elements without becoming so complex that it transforms into something that is unhelpful.

We can define faith as follows: faith is an attitude of the mind and an active response from the heart that is required of every Christian in which firmness, fidelity and reliability should characterize him or her in a constant expression of devoted living through following the example of Jesus Christ, so that the struggle against sin might be maintained, suffering persevered, and persecution withstood. Note the major elements of faith in this definition. Faith is an attitude and a response. Faith is required. Faith is characterized by firmness, fidelity and reliability. Faith is a constant expression of devoted living. Faith is living by the example of Jesus Christ. For Hebrews faith encompasses all of these and much more. Faith is also perceived as the human responsibility in the covenant God made through Christ’s death on the cross (Lindars 1991, 108), which is why it is so important for a Christian to have, so that his or her salvation might be brought to completion (1991, 108). Now that we have seen the intricate understanding of faith in Hebrews, we can look at the function of this theme.

Hebrews uses the theme of faith in order to accomplish several things, such as, but not limited to, to highlight secured forgiveness of sins through the completed work of Christ (Lindars 1991, 103), to exhort the recipients to make extra effort and take extra care to be full participants in all aspects of Christian living (117), to ensure that the struggle against sin would be maintained and suffering would be persevered (113-4). As per our working definition, faith in Hebrews functions to help fight against the struggle with sin, to help persevere through suffering, and to help withstand persecution. This three-piece function is demonstrated in Hebrews 11 and 12, where faith is used to persuade the readers in such a way that they not give up against their struggle with sin, that they persevere through suffering, and that they withstand persecution. Now that we have looked at the function of the theme in addition to its understanding in Hebrews, we can now explore why faith is not platonic or purely intellectual.

If faith were platonic in Hebrews, it would follow that the object of faith would be the true thing in heaven as opposed to its copy on earth. However, Jesus is the object of faith, and although he is in heaven, we are not focused on him being in heaven as opposed to his copy that is on earth. In fact, there is no copy of Christ here on earth; there is only Jesus Christ, the human being that died, was resurrected and ascended into heaven where he sat down at the right hand of God. It is this Jesus that Christians center their faith on. Furthermore, Jesus is not a copy but an example to be emulated, so that while being the object of faith, Christians have a responsibility to emulate Christ’s example. This responsibility proves faith to be active, not passive, which means that it cannot be purely intellectual. If it were purely intellectual, it would not allow for any sort of active demonstration. However, the very nature of faith demands that it be an active expression of focusing on the example of Christ. In addition, faith in Hebrews follows Jewish-apocalyptic thinking, in which there is a horizontal aspect to faith. This horizontal aspect looks at faith on a temporal plane, where the perceptions of “before” and “after,” “past” and “present,” and “promise” and “fulfillment” influence this theme rather than the platonic vertical element, which perceives of the “above” and “below,” “heavenly” and “earthly,” and “archetype” and “type.” Therefore, the theme of faith in Hebrews is certainly not platonic, but rather, Jewish-apocalyptic, and it is not purely intellectual, and instead, practical.

Faith focuses on Jesus Christ in the things not yet seen. It is practical, being an attitude and a response that demonstrates daily loyalty and devotion to God through emulating Christ, the perfect example of faith. Faith in Hebrews is not platonic, but rather, Jewish-apocalyptic, and it functions to persuade the recipients of the letter to persevere and withstand persecution. Such a faith is expected and required of Christians, which is not terribly difficult for them because they have Christ, the author and perfecter of their faith, who helps to enable them to continue on towards completion in their faith.

Bibliography

Hagner, Donald. 2002. Encountering the Book of Hebrews: an exposition. Grand Rapids: Baker

Academics.

 

Ladd, George. 1993. A Theology of the New Testament. Rev. ed. Donald Hagner, ed. Grand

Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

 

Lane, William. 1991. Word Biblical Commentary: Hebrews 9-13. Vol. 47b. David Hubbard,

Glenn Barker, and Ralph Martin, eds. Columbia: Word, Inc.

 

Lindars, Barnabas. 1991. The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews. New Testament Theology.

James Dunn, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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