X. FAITH AN ASSURANCE AND A PROOF
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the proving of things not seen. For therein the elders had witness borne to them. By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things which do appear.” — Heb. xi. 1–3 (R.V.).
It is often said that one of the greatest difficulties in the Epistle to the Hebrews is to discover any real connection of ideas between the author’s general purpose in the previous discussion and the splendid record of faith in the eleventh chapter. The rhetorical connection is easy to trace. His utterances throughout have been incentives to confidence. “Let us hold fast our confession.” “Let us draw near with boldness to the throne of grace.” “Show diligence to the full assurance of hope.” “Cast not away your boldness.” Any of these exhortations would sufficiently describe the Apostle’s practical aim from the beginning of the Epistle. But he has just cited the words of Habakkuk, and the prophet speaks of faith. How, then, does the prophet’s declaration that the righteous man of God will escape death by his faith bear on the Apostle’s arguments or help his strong appeals? The first verse of the eleventh chapter is the reply. Faith is assurance, with emphasis on the verb.
But this is only a rhetorical connection, or at best a justification of the use the author has made of the prophet’s words. Indeed, he has already in several places identified confidence with faith, and the opposite of confidence with unbelief. “Listen and pay attention lest there be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief; ... for we are become partakers of Christ if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm to the end.” “They could not enter in because of unbelief; ... let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience.” “Be not sluggish, but imitators of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” “Having therefore boldness to enter into the holy place, ... let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith.”
Why, therefore, does the author formally state that faith is confidence? The difficulty is a real one. We must suppose that, when this Epistle was written, the word “faith” was already a well-known and almost technical term among Christians. We infer as much as this also from St. James’s careful and stringent correction of abuses in the application of the word. It is unnecessary to say who was the first to perceive the vital importance of faith in the life and theology of Christianity. But in the preaching of St. Paul faith is trust in a personal Saviour, and trust is the condition and instrument of salvation. Faith, thus represented, is the opposite of works. Such a doctrine was liable to abuse, and has been abused to the utter subversion of morality on the one hand and to the extinction of all unselfish greatness of soul on the other. Not, most certainly, that St. Paul himself was one-sided in teaching or in character. To him Christ is a heavenly ideal: “The Lord is the Spirit;” and to him the believer is the spiritual man, who has the moral intellect of Christ. But it must be confessed — and the history of the Church abundantly proves the truth of the statement — that the good news of eternal salvation on the sole condition of trust in Christ is one of the easiest of all true doctrines to be fatally abused. The Epistle of St. James and the Epistle to the Hebrews seem to have been written to meet this danger. The former represents faith as the inner life of the spirit, the fountain of all active goodness. “Faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself. Yea, a man will say, You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” St. James contends against the earliest phases of Antinomianism. He reconciles faith and morality, and maintains that the highest morality springs out of faith. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews contends against legalism, — the proud, self-satisfied, indifferent, hard, slothful, contemptuous, cynical spirit, which is quite as truly and as often an abuse of the doctrine of salvation through faith. It is the terrible plague of those Churches which have never risen above individualism. When people are told that the whole of religion consists in securing the soul’s eternal safety, and that this salvation is made sure once for all by a moment’s trust in Christ, their after-life will harden into a worldliness, not gross and sensual, but pitiless and deadening. They will put on the garb of religious decorum; but the inner life will be eaten by the canker of covetousness and self-righteous pride. These are the people described in the sixth chapter of our Epistle, who have, after a fashion, repented and believed, but whose religion has no recuperative power, let alone the growth and richness of deep vitality.
Our author addresses people whose spiritual life was thus imperilled. Their condition is not that of the heathen world in its agony of despair. He does not call his readers, in the words of St. Paul to the jailer at Philippi, to trust themselves into the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ, that they may be saved. Yet he too insists on faith. He is anxious to show them that he is not preaching another gospel, but unfolding the meaning of the same conception of faith, which is the central principle of the Gospel revealed at the first by Christ to their fathers, and applied to the wants of the heathen by the Apostle of the Gentiles.
If so, it goes without saying that the writer does not intend to give a scholastic definition of faith. The New Testament is not the book in which to seek formal definitions. For his present purpose we require only to know that, whatever else faith includes, confidence in reference to the objects of our hope must find a place in it. Faith bridges over the chasm between hope and the things hoped for. It saves us from building castles in the air or living in a fool’s paradise. The phantoms of worldliness and the phantoms of religion (for they too exist) will not deceive us. In the course of his discussion in the Epistle the author has used three different words to set plainly various sides of the same feeling of confidence. One refers to the freedom and boldness with which the confidence felt manifests its presence in words and action. Another signifies the fulness of conviction with which the mind when confident is saturated. The third word, which we have in the present passage, describes confidence as a reality, resting on an unshaken foundation, and contrasted with illusions. He has urged Christians to boldness of action and fulness of conviction. Now he adds that faith is that boldness and that wealth of certitude in so far as they rest upon reality and truth.
We can now in some measure estimate the value of the Apostle’s description of faith as an assurance concerning things hoped for, and apply it to give force to the exhortations of the Epistle. The evil heart of unbelief is the moral corruption of the man whose soul is steeped in sensual imaginations and never realises the things of the Spirit. They who came out of Egypt by Moses could not enter into rest because they did not descry, beyond the earthly Canaan, the rest of the spirit in God. Others inherit the promises, because on earth they lifted their hearts to the heavenly country. In short, the Apostle now tells his readers that the true source of Christian constancy and boldness is the realisation of the unseen world.
But faith is this assurance concerning things hoped for because it is a proof of their existence, and of the existence of the unseen generally. The latter part of the verse is the broad foundation on which faith rests in all the rich variety of its meanings and practical applications. Here St. Paul, St. James, and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews meet in the unity of their conception. Whether people trust to salvation, or develop their inner spiritual life, or enter into communion with God and lift the weapon of unflinching boldness in the Christian warfare, trust, character, confidence, all three derive their being and vitality from faith, as it demonstrates the existence of the unseen.
The Apostle’s language is a seeming contradiction. Proof is usually supposed to dispense with faith and compel us to accept the inference drawn. He intentionally describes faith as occupying in reference to spiritual realities the place of demonstration. Faith in the unseen is itself a proof that the unseen world exists. It is so in two ways.
First, we trust our own moral instincts. Malebranche observes that our passions justify themselves. How much more is this true of intellect and conscience! In like manner, some people have firm confidence in a world of spiritual realities, which eye has not seen. This confidence is itself a proof to them. How do I know that I know? It is a philosopher’s enigma. For us it may be sufficient to say that to know and to know that we know are one and the same act. How do we justify our faith in the unseen? The answer is similar. It is the same thing to trust and to trust our trust. Scepticism wins a cheap victory when it arraigns faith as a culprit caught in the very act of stealing the forbidden fruit of paradise. But when, like a guilty thing, faith blushes for its want of logic, its only refuge is to look in the face of the unseen Father. He who has most faith in his own spiritual instincts will have the strongest faith in God. To trust God is to trust ourselves. To doubt ourselves is to doubt God. We must add that there is a sense in which trust in God means distrust of self.
Second, faith fastens directly on God Himself. We believe in God because we impose implicit confidence in our own moral nature. With equal truth we may also say that we believe all else because we believe in God. Faith in God Himself immediately and personally is the proof that the promises are true, that our life on earth is linked to a life above, that patient well-doing will have its reward, that no good deed can be in vain, and ten thousand other thoughts and hopes that sustain the drooping spirit in hours of conflict. It may well happen that some of these truths are legitimate inferences from premises, or it may be that a calculation of probabilities is in favour of their truth. But faith trusts itself upon them because they are worthy of God. Sometimes the silence of God is enough, if an aspiration of the soul is felt to be such that it became Him to implant it and will be glorious in Him to reward the heaven-sent desire.
An instance of faith as a proof of the unseen is given by our author in the third verse. We may paraphrase it thus: “By faith we know that the ages have been constructed by the word of God, and that even to this point of assurance: that the visible universe as a whole came not into being out of things that do appear.”
The author began in the previous verse to unroll his magnificent record of the elders. But from the beginning people found themselves in the presence of a mystery of the past before they received any promise as to the future. It is the mystery of creation. It has pressed heavily on people in all ages. The Apostle himself has felt its power, and speaks of it as a question which his readers and himself have faced. How do we know that the development of the ages had a beginning? If it had a beginning, how did it begin? The Apostle replies that we know it by faith. The revelation which we have received from God addresses itself to our moral perception and our confidence in God’s moral nature. We have been taught that “in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” and that “God said, Let there be light.” Faith demands this revelation. Is faith trust? That trust in God is our proof that the framework of the world was put together by His creative wisdom and power. Is faith the inner life of righteousness? Morality requires that our own consciousness of personality and freedom should be derived from a Divine personality as the Originator of all things. Is faith communion with God? Those who pray know that prayer is an absolute necessity of their spiritual nature, and prayer lifts its voice to a living Father. Faith demonstrates to him who has it, though not to others, that the universe has come to its present form, not by an eternal evolution of matter, but by the action of God’s creative energy.
The somewhat peculiar form of the clause seems certainly to suggest that the Apostle ascribes the origin of the universe, not only to a personal Creator, but to that personal Creator acting through the ideas of His own mind. “The visible came into being, not out of things that appear.” We catch ourselves waiting till he finishes the sentence with the words, “but out of things that do not appear.” Most expositors fight shy of the inference and explain it away by alleging that the negative has been misplaced. But is it not true that the universe is the manifestation of thought in the unity of the Divine purpose? This is the very notion required to complete the Apostle’s statement concerning faith as a proof. If faith demonstrates, it acts on principles. If God is personal, those principles are ideas, thoughts, purposes, of the Divine mind.
So long, therefore, as our spiritual nature can trust, can unfold a morality, can pray, the simple soul need not much bewail its want of logic and its loss of arguments. If the famous ontological argument for the being of God has been refuted, we shall not, on that account, tremble for the ark. We shall not lament though the argument from the watch has proved treacherous. Our God is not a mere infinite mechanician. Indeed, such a phrase is a contradiction in terms. A mechanician must be finite. He contrives, and as the result produces, not what is absolutely best, but what is the best possible under the circumstances and with the materials at his disposal. But if we have lost the mechanician, we have not lost the God that thinks. We have gained the perfectly righteous and perfectly good. His thoughts have manifested themselves in nature, in human freedom, in the incarnation of His Son, in the redemption of sinners. But the intellect that knows these things is the good heart of faith.
 Chap. iii. 12.
 Chaps. iii. 19; iv. 11.
 Chap. vi. 12.
 Chap. x. 19.
 2 Cor. iii. 17; 1 Cor. ii. 16.
 James ii. 17, 18.
 Gen. i. 1, 3.
 As if μὴ ἐκ φαινομένων were for ἐκ μὴ φαινομένων.
From the Epistle to the Hebrews by Thomas Charles Edwards, D.D., Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Printed by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury in MCMIV. Digitally produced by Marcia Brooks, Colin Bell, Nigel Blower and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2013.
Reach for the Calling Creator
To the Hebrews - T.C. Edwards
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your calling be the best.