The Scriptural vocabulary of faith

The Year of faith provides an opportunity for us as individuals and as parishes to reflect on and deepen our faith personally and as communities. Our personal faith is part of the faith of the Church and of course is linked with the revelation of the Scriptures. The English vocabulary linked with ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are expressed above all by two words in the Old Testament. The Biblical Hebrew root ‘aman (from which Amen derives) means above all ‘to be firm’, ‘to be solid’ and thus ‘to be true’ The root batach similarly means ‘to be secure’ and ‘to be confident’. Their usage in the Old Testament helps us understand that faith is above all trust in the presence of God, who is the ultimate firmness and truth, who will carry out his promises. Abram, our Father in faith, ‘believed in God’ (he’emin from the root ‘aman) in response to God’s promise, his unilateral Covenant to secure his descendents despite the lack of an heir (Genesis 15:6). The words of Habakkuk sum up this faith: ‘The just person will live by faith (amunah)’ (Hab 2:4). This is the first and basic element of faith – the traditional fides qua that we ask to be deepened by the Holy Spirit – our trust in God’s revelation, in his words and actions. In the New Testament, the use of the words pistuein and pistis (which are used in the Septuagint translation of the root ‘aman) and elpis and elpizo (which are used to translate the root batach) displays similar root meanings of trust but also begins to be linked to the content of belief, above all in the truth of Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah. This significance is there in the way St. Paul quotes the text of Habakkuk at Romans 1:17. It is this faith in Jesus Christ and in the Gospel that is then later spelt out in the baptismal formulae and in the great Creeds and is unfolded in the Magisterial and Conciliar teaching of the Church. This is fides quae – the objective dimension of faith or the content of faith, the intellectual response that is that of the believer to objective truths.

The Scriptures clearly spell out the response that the people of God are asked to give – their obligation to the Covenant. It is to live the life of faith by following the commandments – which in the Old Testament, as in the New, are summarized by love of God (Deuteronomy 6:4-6) and neighbour (Leviticus 19:18) [Mark 12:28-31 and parallels]. This response is called to be of the whole community. While the response of the individual is clearly crucial, the Scriptures – both Old Testament and New – time and time again are addressed to and demand the response of the whole community. It is a reminder that it is within the faith of the whole community that the faith of the individual can grow. It is to the people gathered at Sinai that the promise is made: ‘If you obey my voice and hold fast to my covenant, you of all the nations shall be my very own people’ (Exodus 19:5). The promise is repeated to the community of the baptised: ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his own wonderful light.’ (1 Peter 2:9)

The privileged place for our faith to grow as individuals is precisely within the community of faith, especially when gathered for Sunday Mass. The fundamental texts to help us to deepen our faith – both fides qua and fides quae – are the Scriptures and in particular the Sunday Scriptures, proclaimed to and in the community of faith. We might reflect on the power of the Sunday Scriptures each weekend to influence our faith in the week ahead.

The Scriptures and Gaudium et Spes

Four of the documents of Vatican II are classed as Constitutions. Three of these – Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium and Sacrosanctum Concilium – all build organically upon previous Conciliar and Magisterial teaching and the Scriptures upon which they are based. They teach the Catholic faith almost independently of the world in which we live. The fourth is entitled The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World – Gaudium et Spes. The title itself begins to demonstrate its distinctiveness. It is ‘pastoral’ and situates the Church in the world. Gaudium et Spes emerged as Vatican II progressed, following John XXIII’s lead at the beginning that that the Council be above all ‘pastoral’ in its nature. In this it starts more from the basis of the phenomenological situation of the human person and society with all its constituent parts. It then draws out the relationship of the world to the Church and the methodological principles of how the Church is called to interact. While it does build upon previous teaching of the Popes – in particular the great Social Encyclicals, it does not have the organic pre-history of previous Church Councils that is found in the other three Constitutions.

To a certain degree the distinctiveness of Gaudium et Spes to the other Constitutions can be paralleled by the distinctiveness of the Wisdom Literature and Wisdom threads of the Scriptures. Much of the material of the Old Testament – and this is continued in the New Testament – begins from the perspective of God’s revelation – Creation, the Exodus from Egypt and God’s word spoken by the prophets, including of course Jesus, the ultimate Prophet. The Wisdom strain begins not so much from the perspective of God’s revelation but more from a phenomenological angle – where people are at in life with their joys and their sorrows, their hopes and their dreams. This is the starting point for the great Wisdom books of the Old Testament – Song of Songs, Proverbs, Job, Qoheleth, Sirac, Wisdom and many of the Psalms. It is found thread through the New Testament, above all in the parables and sayings of Jesus and in some parts of the Letters of the New Testament, above all the Letter of St. James. It then weds this reflection on human existence to the nature of God and the way of life that is incumbent upon those who follow him.

The Scriptures as a whole demonstrate that faith is holistic and all pervasive. It is not confined to one aspect of life or to a private, personal domain. Gaudium et Spes, with its reflection on the interaction of the Church with the world, similarly reminds us that the faith of the Christian is summoned to permeate everything at all levels – marriage and family life, culture, economic and social life, politics – local, national and international and the building up of the community of justice and peace.

Canon Mervyn Tower