Faith as Trust
Faith as Trust, 2nd July 2023
A sermon preached by Kenneth Padley
(Isaiah 35; Hebrews 10.35-11.1)
I wonder how much this is worth? For those at the far end of the quire or watching in black and white, it is a purple bank note. It has JMW Turner on the back and the number 20 in the top corner.
What is that worth? Doubtless some wags will tell me that its worth rather less than it was twelve months ago. Then again, it might be worth nothing at all. It might lack the nobbly bobbly bits, or the holograms, or there may be a spelling mistake in the printing.
Fortunately, the Canon Treasurer is an honest chap, so this is a genuine £20 note. All the security features are in place, and it has come from a legitimate issuing authority. But why does that make a difference? Why does this give my bank note value? At the end of the day, it is just a piece of plasticky paper. It’s not a lump of gold or silver. It has no intrinsic worth.
Indeed, the note admits as much. Written in small print to the left of the late Queen’s head is a statement from Sarah John, Chief Cashier of the Bank of England. It reads, ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of twenty pounds’. The note is admitting that it has no intrinsic value. But we use it as currency because we trust that Chief Cashier Sarah John will pay us, should we demand it of her, the value of £20. The banknote has no intrinsic value. It has what economists call fiduciary value. It has value because we place our trust – Latin fiducia – in it.
Tonight’s reading from Hebrews chapters 10 and 11 is all about fiduciary value, rock solid trust. The passage begins by asking us to have confidence (verse 35) and then says that the righteous will live by faith (verse 38). The section culminates in a powerful definition of faith as ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11.1).
This is strong stuff. Twenty-first century people tend to dismiss faith as flakey and uncertain. However, our pre-modern forebears regarded faith as a matter of rock-solid confidence. This shines through Hebrews chapter 11 verse 1. It is a profound sentence, one worth comparing in different translations to get the fullest sense of the meaning. For example, the famous King James Version, now over 400 years old, is at least as accurate in its rendering that ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’. The verse is saying that faith is reliable. It’s about trust, it’s about fiducia – a bit like my banknote.
The trustworthiness of faith is a key message of Hebrews. This document (it might be an epistle, it might be something else) was written against a backdrop of doubt. It was written to a Christian congregation made up of many who had once been Jews. But the challenges of everyday Christian life was leading some of them to lose confidence. They were wobbling as to whether Jesus brought them any closer to God. And so they thought about going back to former beliefs and practices. Might it not be sensible to sacrifice a few animals to expiate their sins, just to be on the safe side? Against this temptation, the central argument of Hebrews is that Jesus made a one-off sacrifice on the cross that superseded the old ways of doing things. As a result, Hebrews urges us not to neglect to meet together for prayer but rather to encourage one another to good deeds. That’s 10.24-25, just before the rallying cry of tonight’s passage to have confidence and faith.
Faith is a big concept, so our Christian forebears stripped it down to component parts, so that they might understand it better.
- They considered it first as mere historical faith, an acceptance of a datum as true, apart from any spiritual effect it might have. I’m sure you know those who admit that Jesus existed, while not perceiving him to have any relevance for their lives.
- Next the tradition might talk about temporary faith, a faith which apprehends the truth of God as more than a historical datum, but which soon dissipates into unbelief. This is like the unfruitful seed in Jesus’ parable of the sower, seed which fails to germinate or flourish.
- And there are several further categories of faith, before the tradition arrives at the category it really wants to talk about – saving faith – fides salvifica. This is a faith which accepts the promises and truths of God to the redemption of the believer.
Within the category of saving faith, our forebears identified a further three sub-categories, two movements of the intellect, and one – crucial – movement of the will.
- They talked about notitia, knowledge of the promises of God as recorded in the Bible. We won’t know about the promise of salvation if we don’t read our Bibles and listen attentively to Scripture in worship.
- Next come assensus, assent, intellectual acknowledgement. Having heard the promises of God in Scripture we are invited to concur with them.
- And when we concur with the message of Scripture, assent leads – vitally – to trust, fiducia, an act of the will by which we hold the truth of the gospel for ourselves. It is fiducia which makes faith a matter of rock-solid confidence.
If all this seems a little clinical, I’d like to suggest that theological dissection in this way can help us appreciate how concepts play out in real life – not least in the story of St Thomas, whose feast day falls tomorrow. Thomas is famously remembered for doubt, his questioning as to whether Jesus had returned from the dead. The reason for his lack of faith was that he had not met the risen Jesus – he lacked a crucial piece of information that had been granted to the other ten remaining disciples. Thomas needed notitia, knowledge, before assensus, assent, before fiducia, trust. Without such faith he was doubtful. With faith, he was certain. With faith he boldly affirmed that Jesus was his Lord and his God.
In considering faith as trust which flows from knowledge and assent, we are skirting around an important question about whether faith is reasonable. Critics of Christianity often doubt because they say that the things of faith cannot be proved. Well, this is correct. The existence of God and other subjects of faith cannot be proved in the same way as the existence of this cathedral can. The cathedral is inside time and space and so can be tested by our senses. God is outside time and space, so cannot. But to accept that Christianity cannot be wholly deduced by reason is not the same as saying that faith is contrary to reason. That would be to claim that faith is unreasonable – and the things of faith are not unreasonable because they cannot be empirically disproved any more than they can be proved.
Friends, St Thomas was not stupid. He placed his confident trust in Jesus based on the information before him. At very least we can say that his faith was not unreasonable. His story reminds us that doubt is understandable, but that doubt seeks answers.
Thomas doubted, and so he sought answers. He found knowledge, gave assent, and placed trust in a true deep-down certain faith which would shape the rest of his life. And he did this because, as the author of Hebrews knows, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’.
 Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 115.