Trust Without Action

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Kenny Pearce looks at the famous statement in James 2:20, usually translated as "faith without works is dead". He suggests a better translation, because 'faith' means a lot of different things, often something very different from what the biblical authors meant by 'pistis', and because 'works' isn't exactly ordinary English among those not raised with church language. (Neal Morse, formerly of Spock's Beard, expresses in one song that his response to this statement was that it was good, because he hadn't worked in a year.)

Kenny's translation: "Trust without action is dead." That does seem to me to be a lot better than the traditional translation.

Some might push replacing "is dead" with something more clear, and that might be fine according to a dynamic-enough translation principle, but I don't think this is a case where that's needed. The metaphor of something accomplishing nothing or being worthless because it's dead isn't exactly unclear in English, and I doubt it's less clear in English than it would have been to Greek-speaking people in the first century. This is one place where I'd argue for retaining the metaphor rather than translating it to what it's a metaphor for. It's things like that that lead me to avoid the more dynamic translations, even though I've got problems with the more formally-equivalent translations being too formally-equivalent. I'd rather not lose metaphors in general. But you can still translate clearly with contemporary English without translating away all the metaphors that do translate well into English metaphors, as Kenny shows. This is what I'd really like to see in a contemporary translation, and I don't think anyone has really done that at this point.


I've advised some of my classes to go back and insert "trust" where they see "faith" just to see how it may change our reading in some passages. That isn't to say that "faith" is a bad translation, but at times it is an incomplete one.

"Trust is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

And so on. It's a good exercise.

I like his adjustment of "works" to "action." "Works" is great Biblish (or Christianese, if you prefer), not so great contemporary English.

I don't see it as incomplete. It just carries with it a whole bunch of things not found in the original language, most of them from Kierkegaard, whose notion of faith was as far from the NT authors' as you can get while still being linguistically appropriate for the same word.

I'm not sure what to do about Hebrews 11:1. The main problem for that verse is whether faith/trust is an inner sense of certainty or whether it's the objective ground of our hope. I lean toward the latter, even though most translations opt for the former. If that's right, then faith is plausibly a kind of knowledge bestowed by God, which is the diametric opposite of how Kierkegaard took it.

When I say "incomplete", I think I mean the same thing you are saying, but maybe from a different angle. You emphasized that "It just carries with it a whole bunch of things not found in the original language", whereas I try to show my classes that "pistis" means more than what we normally mean when we say "faith." I completely agree with what you are saying (of course you may not agree with what I'm saying).

In my experience of teaching in the church, most people think faith=belief. I try to show that it includes that, but faith also includes trust. Hence, my advice given in my first comment.

I've read little Kierkegaard. I'll take your word for it.

What I have in mind with Kierkegaard is the idea of a leap of faith that's irrational and unsupportable with argument or evidence. I don't think the biblical authors were using the word to mean that, but I think a lot of people nowadays hear it as meaning that.

Yeah, I completely agree with that. In fact, I think 1 Corinthians 15 completely undermines such a notion of faith. After all, Paul is saying that if Christ didn't rise from the dead (a historical fact), then faith is useless. So, at the very least there's at least one piece of evidence that our faith stands on. Pull out that event, our faith- no matter how "strong" we feel it- means nothing.

I meant to post something about this on my blog some time ago, but haven't gotten around to doing it. I'm teaching through 1 Cor 15 in a couple days, maybe I'll do it then.

"... faith is plausibly a kind of knowledge bestowed by God." I tend to agree with that. But I always get into trouble trying to reconcile the idea that "faith is a gift from God" with free will, so what about people who aren't given that gift? I like the idea of trust without action, it really does give a better sense of the meaning.

Well, I think the traditional Calvinist/compatibilist approach is correct, so I have no problem with a gift from God also being free. It seems to me to be what Paul has in mind when he talks about it as a gift of God and what he must mean when he speaks of our doing works in the same breath as God working in us.

I realize that this comment might not be taken seriously because of the movement I will be referring to. In fact you might have a chuckle about it. But seriously, while the Word of Faith teaching has it's problems (i.e. extrme prosperity message), they do present something that I rarely hear in most churches and that is where the faith is anchored. They teach that it isn't anchored in what you feel or some other vague "trust God" theology. It is rooted in what was done on the cross. But they don't mean generally. They mean specifically. So, if you are trusting God for a certain thing, did Jesus die for that? Is there Scripture to support it? That is basically the foundation of the WOF teaching and it is what distinguises them from Charismatics (WOF'ers are Pentecostals), who IMO are weak on the cross.

D.A. Carson has a very nice discussion of whether there is healing in the atonement in his book derived from sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. He argues that there is healing in the atonement in the sense that all disease will be healed in the end, and that healing in this in-between time is looking forward to that, and thus in a sense such healings are also part of the atonement. But this is not that time yet, and it's a mistake to think the atonement guarantees healing now, especially given Paul's serious pleading on three occasions for the thorn in the flesh to be removed, only to be told that the thorn is serving God's purposes. I would extend the same approach to other aspects of the prosperity gospel.

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