Apr 17, 2008

In Hebrews 11.1, what is "faith"?

Leonard Peikoff notes that Aquinas is "the greatest of all religious thinkers," one who openly champions reason--with faith as a supplement.[1] In this post, my purpose--as a layman, not as a specialist--is to suggest an interpretation of a Biblical passage that underlies Aquinas's view of faith.[2]

The passage is Chapter 11, Verse 1 of The Letter to the Hebrews, in the Christian New Testament. The anonymous author of the Letter probably lived c. 100 CE.[3]

Verse 1 is the theme statement for Hebrews Ch. 11. It says, "... faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Subsequent verses chronologically present examples of Old Testament men and women who had faith.

Now take a closer look at the two main parts of the Letter writer's definition.

1. The things hoped for are values. Judging from the context, the values are not merely any values, but a Christian's highest values, such as everlasting life in heaven. (Verse 16 says that for those who have faith, "God ... has prepared for them a city," presumably the City of God, as Augustine will later call it.)[4] Thus, half of faith is having confidence in receiving something of value--in the next world. In part, this is a matter of ethics, one branch of the Christian worldview.

2. In the second half of the writer's definition, the conviction of things not seen is belief in ideas which have no basis in sense-perception of this world. Earlier in the New Testament, in The Second Letter to the Corinthians, 5.7, the writer, the apostle Paul (Saul of Tarsus), encourages Christians to walk in this world by faith, not by sight. That is appropriate advice if this "world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear" (Hebrews 11.3). Such advice is a matter of epistemology and metaphysics (ontology), two more branches in the Christian worldview.

Conclusion: The anonymous writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is presumably competing with Judaism, Roman paganism, and other religions in his time. To a steadily growing, potentially Christian audience, he offers the essentials of an integrated worldview. The metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics of early Christianity are interlocked: An invisible God created this world from nothing; and He tells us, without offering evidence, to spend our miserable, sinful lives seeking values available only after we die and, even then, in another world.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] Leonard Peikoff, "Religion versus America," The Objectivist Forum, June, 1986 (Vol. 7), New York, TOF Publications, 1993, pp. 3 and 7-8. The same essay appears in The Voice of Reason. [2] Mark D. Jordan, translator and editor of On Faith: Summa theologiae, Part 2-2, Questions 1-16 of St. Thomas Aquinas, Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1990, p. 14, lists Hebrews 11 and First Corinthians 13.2 as two passages underlying Thomas's view of faith. [3] For discussion of the identity of the author of The Letter to the Hebrews: Pheme Perkins, Reading the New Testament: An Introduction, second ("revised") edition, New York, Paulist Press, 1988, Ch. 17 ("Hebrews"), pp. 270, 272 and 273. [4] The Biblical quotations come from The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Meridian Books, 1962.

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