Faith and Belief

I’ve written several posts about faith and doubt, suggesting they are opposite poles of the same magnet. “Between them they create an invisible force field that affects people differently. Some are oblivious to the tension while others are drawn off balance one way or the other depending on which pole they are closer to.”

I have started a book about faith and hope wherein faith is the content (mind) and hope the emotion (heart) of a relationship with God. The two are intermingled like the light and heat from a flame. They can be distinguished but not separated. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).

And recently I’ve run cross another pairing—faith and belief. The words are usually used as synonyms but theologian Harvey Cox suggests the following distinction:

Faith is about deep-seated confidence. … Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion. … Beliefs can be held lightly or with emotional intensity, but they are more propositional than existential. We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.

Cox maintains that beliefs can be questioned or changed while faith holds steady; that content and commitment are symbiotic but not synonymous.

Creeds are clusters of beliefs. But the history of Christianity is not a history of creeds. It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs. It is also a history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds. As with church buildings, from clapboard chapels to Gothic cathedrals, creeds are symbols by which Christians at times sought to represent their faith. But both the doctrinal cannons and the architectural constructions are means to an end. Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.

Do you think this is a useful distinction? It’s one I want to explore.


6 thoughts on “Faith and Belief

  1. It’s interesting that belief (PISTIS) in the New Testament and in Greek writing (like Herodotus or Josephus) means allegiance and it’s opposite was not doubt but disobedience.

    To say “I believe in X” generally meant, “I’m off to fight for X”. It did not primarily mean “I am confident in X” and could not mean “so I’m gonna wait passively for X to act and save us”. It was a political commitment to work for an agenda.

    To believe in Jesus did and should mean a commitment to bring God’s reign of an inverted power structure to Earth whereby the least are the greatest and the powerful the servants of all. So, you could doubt God’s existence and yet, be working for His agenda in a slum or inner city shelter or in your neighbourhood and you’d be more faithful than any theological genius out there.

    Your depth of faith is thus demonstrated not by your fervent certainty or intensity but simply, as Jesus said, by your fruit – fruit being that which nourishes and enlivens others.

  2. As my friend Bobby used to say, “Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground..”
    Content (objective truth) would tend to encourage belief. And belief tends to encourage hope and faith. Seems to me that faith needs to be anchored in truth, or its only a placebo.

  3. I look at faith as a more long range perspective, and belief as more specific. A speaker once challenged me that to make profound life changes, I don’t need to change my beliefs, but must instead focus on increasing my conviction about my beliefs.

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