I have this friend who always is asking for definitions. Anytime we talk about anything important, he says, "Now what do you mean by the word ____." He likes to lock in definitions because he's big on understanding the person he's talking to. Honestly, it's an excellent way to be. In fact, It's a good reminder for me that the meanings of words matter.
So, you ought to be doing like my friend and asking me, “Now, what do you mean by the word believe?” To answer that, we’ve got to know a little bit about the way believe was used in the world in which the Bible was written. For that, we’ll have to talk a bit about Greek.
There is this scholarly Bible journal that I like. It started publishing in 1844. I recently bought copies of the entire collection from 1844 to 2014. I know, I know, I'm a total nerd, but I find it interesting to see how ideas have developed over the last couple centuries. Anyway, I was looking through it a while back, and I found an interesting quote from an article published in 1941. In his article about faith and belief, William Walden Howard opens by saying:
Faith is one of many English words which appears profusely in secular literature without any soteriological implications. Even its Greek parallels, πίστις [usually translated as faith] and πιστεύω [usually translated as believe] were in common secular usage.1
Basically what he’s saying is: In the same way that we find the word faith used in a secular way, the words faith and believe in Greek were used in secular ways in the ancient world. Faith and belief were not primarily religious words. They were not words that only had to do with salvation, or God, or saintly stuff. They were familiar words used in everyday language.
I was sitting with a friend the other day. We had just played about an hour of our favorite video game and were letting our eyes take a break. As we sat at my kitchen table having a drink, I asked him, “What do you think the word believe means?" He set his cup down and stared off into the ether for a long moment. He's a believer who was raised in the church. He's not a novice in terms of biblical ideas, but this fundamental question gave him pause.
He eventually responded by saying, "I struggle with that." Since then I've asked other friends as well. Most at least hesitate before answering, and many don't have a clear answer. We have confusion on these necessary words. This is why understanding how they were used in the old world might help. Let’s take a look at how believe2 and faith3were used in the Greek classical and Hellenistic eras. A form of these words appears in various writer’s work.
In all the above cases and many more, these words did not become religious terms in the classical Greek and Hellenistic era.4 They were used often, but they didn't mean anything exclusively religious. They basically meant that you could trust that someone was telling the truth or that they were trustworthy in general. These show that the Greek words for believe and faith broadly mean to be convinced, or persuaded that a statement is true, or a person is truthful and trustworthy.
After giving a lengthy description of the historical use of these words, Artur Weiser explains that there is nothing very distinct in the usage of these words in the New Testament as compared to their Greek classical and Hellenistic usages.5 Notice what he’s saying here. He’s saying that the Bible doesn’t use these words any differently than the secular writers did. The secular writers used them to describe being convinced or persuaded. He finalizes that idea by explaining that these words mean to believe a word spoken or the speaker himself.6
The New Testament writers did not invent the word believe. Likewise, the apostles did not redefine it. They simply borrowed it leaving its definition intact. It is later generations of authors and thinkers with various theological agendas who tinkered with the meanings of words like this. Attempts to make faith and believe mean something more than what they mean in their secular usage is misguided.
Let me make this a little more accessible, though. If I asked you, “Do you believe the sky is blue?” you could answer easily. If I asked you, “Do you believe that the American civil war happened?” you could say whether you believe that or not. You probably wouldn’t have any trouble saying yes to either of those belief questions.
The point is, you know what it means to believe in natural terms. It means to be convinced or persuaded. Some things you are convinced of because you’ve seen them for yourself, like the color of the sky. Other things you’re convinced of because other people have told you and you trust them, like the civil war. To believe it means to know it’s true. That’s how the word believe was used in Bible times. As you’ve probably noticed the word has taken on all kinds of extra meaning, but we have to be careful to let the word mean what the writers originally meant.
The leading modern Greek dictionary has this definition for believe: To consider something to be true, to be convinced of something.7 It is to the credit of modern Bible translators that this is what the word believe means in English. Another leading lexicon says believe means to feel confident that a thing is, will be, or has been.8 Another says that believe means to think something to be true.9 Another expands on this by pointing out that in Greek believe is a conviction that a given testimony is true.10 Thus, believe means to be persuaded, or convinced.
When we understand that this is what the Greek writers of the times meant, the Bible then begins to make much more sense.
1 William Walden Howard, “Is Faith Enough to Save?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 98 (1941): 489.
4 Ibid., 179
5 Weiser, Artur. “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.” VI, (1978): p. 203
7 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 816.
8 Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 1408.
9 James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
10 Aaron C. Fenlason, “Belief,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).