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I Believe … September 22, 2017

I Believe …

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Christians around the world often talk about what we believe. Some churches say a creed regularly in worship, which usually begins “I believe …” Believing is an important part of our faith.

But what does that mean, to believe? The most common understanding today is that it means to give mental assent to a certain set of beliefs, or a series of propositions. A large segment of the church in North America understands believing in this way. To believe means to agree with the truth of a set of doctrines.

In the early 20th century, a set of “Five Fundamentals” was published to try and define what it meant to be a Christian. You have to believe 1) that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God; 2) in the Virgin Birth; 3) that Jesus died because of us; 4) that Jesus rose bodily after his death to heaven; and 5) that Jesus is God.

In this understanding, belief becomes a litmus test. If you believe these things, you’re a true  Christian. If you don’t, then (as one website puts it) “those who disagree with any of the above doctrines are not Christians at all. Rather, they are true heretics.” By that test, I am condemned.

However, this isn’t the Bible’s understanding of what it means to believe, or to have faith. Belief as mental assent is actually quite a new meaning in human history. Faith is not a head trip. It is about so much more than giving mental assent to a set of statements.

In her book “The Case for God”, Karen Armstrong offers a helpful overview of the word “believe”.

The New Testament, written in Greek, uses the noun “pistis” or the verb “pisteuo”, which means “trust, loyalty, commitment, engagement”. Jesus wasn’t asking anyone to “believe” in anything. He was asking for commitment. He invited people to walk in the way he was walking. Jesus wanted disciples who got involved, who would be engaged in his mission—to feed the hungry, set the oppressed free, clothe the naked, care for the “least of these my brothers”. He invited people to trust God deeply and radically. He called people to follow, to spread the good news of God’s love to everyone, even the prostitutes and tax collectors and losers. He called people to live with compassion and radical freedom.

About the year 400, St. Jerome translated the New Testament into Latin. Pistis became “fides” which means “loyalty”. For the verb form, Jerome used “credo”, which means “I give my heart”.

1000 years later, when the Bible was translated into English, they used the word “belief”. In King James English, however, belief meant “trust in God” or “to be loyal”. It had to do with walking in the way of Jesus. It meant “I give my heart to…”; “I commit myself loyally to …”; “I give my allegiance to …” In old English, the word “believe” is closely tied to the word “belove”. To believe is to give your heart to one whom you love.

Then about 300 years ago, when the scientific method became the dominant way of viewing the world, scientists and philosophers began to use the word believe in a different way. It was no longer a matter of commitment and following. To believe now meant to give “intellectual assent”.

300 years ago may seem like a long time ago, but in the grand sweep of history it really isn’t. For 1700 years, “to believe” meant to make a commitment to living with God’s compassion. All of a sudden, in a brief moment, our understanding of scripture was changed … because the meaning of an English word was changed.

Christian faith is not about giving mental assent. The heart of faith is to give our heart to God. It has to do with making a commitment to walking in the way of Jesus. It’s a daily renewal of our loyalty so that we live compassionately and justly. We renew our love affair with God, and with God’s world and all its creatures.

To believe involves taking a journey to the heart of our faith, which is a journey towards our deepest and best selves.

I believe. I give my heart. I renew my loyalty. That’s the work, and the gift, of faith.

Not a head trip. A renewal of the heart. A transformation of our lives.