On Sunday mornings this spring, David Hebert has been leading the Adult Ed class through a study of the Gospel of Luke. On a recent Sunday, we worked through the passage in Luke 7 where Jesus heals a Roman Centurion’s servant. Luke writes,
But say the word, and my servant shall be healed … 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.”
Pistis is the Greek word which is translated as “faith” in this passage. The root of the word comes from Greek mythology. Pistis was the personification of good faith, trust and reliability. She is mentioned together with such other personifications as Elpis (Hope), Sophrosyne (Prudence), and the Charites, who were all associated with honesty and harmony among people. Greeks also developed a linkage between pistis and persuasion developed through the discussion of faith which was further morphed by an understanding of pistis as a rhetorical technique. In “Rhetoric” Aristotle argued that speech can produce persuasion in three ways: (i) through the character of the speaker; (ii) through the emotional state of the listener; or (iii) through the argument (logos) itself.
“Faith” is a two-sided concept in the 21’st century. At its worst, it can denote a naïve reliance on unreliable sources, or intellectual sloth. “Trust me,” the used car dealer urges, “this car was only driven on Sundays by a little old lady from Pasadena on her way to and from church.” “Show me the Car Fax” we want to ask the dealer. Or when dealing with truculent Russians, we might be inclined to “Trust, but verify.” Persuasive speech in Aristotle’s mode (i) or (ii) is speech against which we are guarded.
It is important that “faith” in the Christian usage transforms the Greek root of the word to give greater emphasis to Aristotle’s element (iii). The Gospel of John begins,
In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word (logos) was with God and the Word (logos) was God.
In this rhetorical model, Christ – the Word – becomes the basis for faith as the argument itself. It is in this sense that we have a confident faith in Christ. It comes not through the persuasion of a pastor (or a blog writer!), nor from an emotional state, but from Christ’s own revelation.
William Barclay writes of the Roman Centurion:
He was a man of faith. His faith is based on the soundest argument. He argued from the here and now to the there and then. He argued from his own experience to God. If his authority produced the results it did, how much more must that of Jesus? He came with that perfect confidence which looks up and says, “Lord, I know you can do this.” If only we had a faith like that, for us too the miracle would happen and life become new.
What can this faith – based on logos, based on Christ – do? Eugene Peterson translates Matthew 17:20 in this way:
“The simple truth is that if you had a mere kernel of faith, a poppy seed, say, you would tell this mountain, “Move!” and it would move. There is nothing you wouldn’t be able to tackle.”