Trust in God: Recovering a New Testament Vision
Why should we believe in the God of Christian witness today? When we reflect on this question, one thing we rarely ask is how else it might be phrased. But Christian faith is complex: we could equally say, “Why should we pin our hopes on God?” or “Why should we love God?” For the past decade, my research has focused on what “faith” meant to very early Christians, and their understandings can, I think, enrich our thinking about it today.
We have a powerful and persistent intuition that whatever mystery lies behind creation is, by grace, accessible to our humanity.
The word we usually translate “faith” or “belief” in the New Testament and other early Christian writings is pistis in Greek or fides in Latin. Both have multiple meanings, including “belief” but centering on “trust,” “faithfulness,” “trustworthiness,” and “entrustedness.” This turns out to be quite significant.
Belief Was Not Enough
Belief is always part of faith. In 1 Corinthians 15.3–11, Paul says, “I handed on to you … what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised … so we preach and so you believed (pisteuein).” This passage also captures the bases of the Corinthians’ beliefs. They accepted Jesus’ disciples’ recognition of him as Messiah and Son of God; they trusted the resurrection experiences; and they found both of these coherent with the experience and testimony of Israel expressed in the scriptures. But belief for early Christians was not enough for conversion. That took a further step, for which they also used pistis/pisteuein: putting one’s trust in God.
A Faith Evolution
The reason for this is not far to seek. Ancient polytheists believed that hundreds of divinities existed and had various qualities, but nobody worshipped them all. Jews could believe that Enoch had been taken up to heaven, and Elijah would return to herald the Messiah, without worshipping them. For both groups there was a clear difference between believing and worshipping or confessing. When people heard the apostles preach, therefore, they might believe what they heard. When they committed their lives to God and Christ, they put their trust in God.
Through time, the meaning of faith grew and evolved (to encompass, for instance, doctrine, worship, the “leap of faith,” and the “eye of faith”). In the second century, a number of Platonist philosophers, notably Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, converted to Christianity. All Greek philosophers were interested in the divine, but where most talked about what we can “know” or “think” about it, Platonists, unusually, talked about what we can rationally “believe,” using pistis language. When Justin and Clement defended Christianity, they sometimes spoke in Platonist terms about what it was rational to believe about the gospel. Their usage nudged the concept of faith away from trust-pistis towards belief-pistis.
This shift was a long process, and Christians still talk about trusting in God, especially in informal contexts. But in formal statements of faith, liturgy, and academic theology, we have come to focus much more on belief than trust. The change is already visible in late antiquity. The first time that believing that certain things about God are true was used as the official test of a Christian was at the Council of Nicaea in 325. At the end of the fourth century, Augustine could take for granted that fides meant believing that orthodox doctrine was true.
This process took another big step in the 19th century, with the rise of modern science. Christians were challenged to defend the believability of Christianity against propositions about the world which claimed to correspond demonstrably with reality. (Not all scientific propositions are demonstrable in practice, but that’s another issue!) Debates with science have enriched Christian thinking on everything from human psychology to disability to the environment. But they have also encouraged thinking about God as an object of inquiry rather than being in relationship, and the view that if Christians cannot demonstrate the truth of their faith, then it is irrational.
A 21st Century Turn
In the 21st century, can the roots of our tradition, with their focus on trusting God, inform our understanding of faith afresh?
In New Testament writings, trust takes two forms. We can trust someone relationally, or we can “trust that” something is the case propositionally. “Trusting that” involves holding an attitude which is less than knowledge or even belief, but which we are ready to act on, entrusting ourselves and our future to it. “Trusting that” is different from “believing that” in implying we are willing to act on our trust and commit—which, as we saw above, belief need not imply.
We trust propositionally all the time: for instance, when we trust that a stranger will give us helpful directions in the street, or that somebody loves us (although, notoriously, we cannot prove even the existence of love). We also trust propositionally as Christians. When Paul tells the Romans (6.8) “If, then, we have died with Christ, we pisteuein that we shall also live with him,” pisteuein is probably better translated “trust” than “believe.” Paul knows he cannot know what will happen at the end time, but he does more than simply believe that all Christians will live with Christ. He entrusts his whole life and hope to that conviction. When we trust that God exists and loves us, and that those who trust in God will be saved, we know we cannot prove it, and sometimes we may struggle to believe it, but we entrust our lives and hopes to it, and live within that trust.
Christians also trust relationally, and New Testament writings paint a vivid picture of relational trust. Trust between God and humanity is a two-way relationship, in which both sides take a risk. God risks that human beings will respond to Jesus, his atypical Messiah. Human beings take the risk of responding to Jesus. It is not unlike when we meet someone for the first time and find them engaging, and start to make friends, or talk about collaborating in some enterprise. We don’t know much about each other, but we risk beginning a relationship. When people encounter God in Christ, they don’t know much about him, but they sense there is something unique about him, and they dare to trust him. As the relationship develops, so does people’s understanding of Christ and hope for their future together.
No one, in the New Testament, who trusts in God through Christ understands the whole of who and what Jesus is. But whoever it is they encounter—the teacher, healer, prophet, role model, savior, director of mission, Lord, or judge—if they trust him, it is enough for salvation. What is more, everyone who trusts in God through Christ also doubts, fears, wobbles, or fails at some point. Even Jesus himself, in Gethsemane, may have doubted—if not God, perhaps his own strength to drink his cup of suffering. But as long as a person wants to trust, before the end time, failures of trust are never a deal-breaker. Imperfect human trust is enough for God to work with.
We Are Entrusted
New Testament writers also testify that Christians not only trust, but are “entrusted” (pisteuesthai) by God with work to do for the world: teaching, caring, healing, prophesying, working for justice and peace. The sense of being entrusted strengthens the truster’s relationship with God. It may take them to places, and relationships, they never dreamed of.
In the 21st century, we know that we cannot demonstrate the existence of God, and no argument for belief is conclusive. But we have a powerful and persistent intuition that whatever mystery lies behind creation is, by grace, accessible to our humanity. We experience divine revelation and encounter, and the testimony and example of people we trust. None of it can be measured scientifically, but all of it has abundant parallels with the way we think and act when we make friends, love, or commit ourselves to a future of which we cannot be certain. Just as in human relationships, we trust that all these experiences are trustworthy when we put our trust in God.
The question the apostles put to the first hearers of the gospel was not only, what do you believe, but, who and what will you trust? Who and what is worth entrusting your life and your hope to? In a world which sometimes seems to have forgotten who, or even how to trust, the same question stands at the heart of Christian witness today.
Teresa Morgan is the McDonald Agape Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at YDS. She studied classics at Cambridge University, theology at Oxford, and violin and viola in London and Cologne. She joined YDS in 2022, having taught Greek and Roman history at Oxford since 1998. Her research lies in the history of ideas and mentality, and she has written extensively on ancient education, ethics, and in the New Testament and early churches. Her books on the history and theology of Christian faith include Roman Faith and Christian Faith (Oxford University Press, 2015) and The New Testament and the Theology of Trust: “This Rich Trust” (Oxford University Press, 2022).