“Substance and Evidence”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. (Hebrews 10.35-11.2, KJV)
These words introduce one of the most justly beloved passages in the Bible, often called something like, “Faith’s Hall of Fame,” consisting of the remainder of Hebrews 11. But the description of faith as “the substance of things hoped for,” and “the evidence of things not seen,” is somewhat befuddling. In particular, to call faith “evidence” seems irrational and even irresponsible—faith is synonymous with belief, but what is evidence, if not reason to believe? If our reason for believing something is that we believe it…well, that’s just circular reasoning. Someone could proclaim to have faith that the earth is flat, and when challenged, justify that belief on the evidence of his own belief, regardless of observation or reason. Is faith in Christ adequate reason to have faith in Christ? Of course not. The trouble certainly isn’t that the Scripture is wrong; perhaps the translators are at fault? A comparison with other translations, most of which render the text a bit differently, seems to validate that theory, but it’s not fair. The translators who produced the King James Bible—in 1611— didn’t get it wrong, but they translated in a way that is easy to misunderstand, especially for us, four centuries later. Let’s take the offending verse (He 11.1) one clause at a time.
The first reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for.” The Greek word behind “substance” is ὑπόστασις-hupostasis, a compound of ὑπό-hupo-“under” and στάσις-stasis-“standing/position.” These building blocks translate directly into an equivalent Latin compound, substantia, in which our English word, “substance,” is readily visible. But while today we generally use this word to mean physical matter, it didn’t always mean this. In fact, where this Greek word appears elsewhere in the New Testament, the King James translators chose to render it using the English word, “confidence,” in three out of four instances (2Co 9.4 & 11.17; He 3.14). That leaves one other, Hebrews 1.3, where the author definitely does not mean confidence, but in 3.14 he obviously does, and considering the context, it’s clear that’s what he means here in chapter 11 as well. It’s not such a drastic difference as we might think—the idea is that, although the object of hope remains unseen (hence “hope,” cf. Ro 8.24), the person with faith behaves as if he sees or holds in his hands the very essence of the things he can’t actually see or hold.
That brings us to the second clause, “the evidence of things not seen,” where our discussion began. To recap, we think of evidence as a reason to believe—but since “faith” is synonymous with “belief,” we’re running in a circle, saying that belief is a reason to believe. But that’s not what the author meant, and it’s probably not what the King James translators meant, either. We could paraphrase their intent something like this: “faith is…treating as evident something that isn’t actually visible.” This Greek word, ἔλεγχος-elengchos (and its verbal forms) is used more frequently in the New Testament than hupostasis (Mt 18.15; Lk 3.19; Jn 3.20, 8.46, 16.8; 1Co 14.24; Ep 5.11 & 13; 1Ti 5.20; 2Ti 4.2; Ti 1.9 & 13, 2.15; He 12.5; Ja 2.9; Jd 15; Re 3.19). Like the first example, rendering it “evidence” in this case makes it an outlier. Everywhere else, the KJV reads “reproof,” “rebuke,” “convict,” or other such things. Clearly faith is not exactly a rebuke, but how about a conviction? That makes more sense—being convinced of something you can’t fully know through observation. Most of the more modern translations not only account for changes in our language, but strive for greater clarity—even as far back as the ASV in 1901, Hebrews 11.1 was translated, “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” From the standpoint of accurate and understandable translation, it’s tough to improve upon that!
Why does all of this matter? Well, that much-beloved list of the faithful and their deeds, which fills the rest of the chapter, relies on this definition. The author of Hebrews is about to use the word, “faith,” two dozen times more in this chapter, and it’s important to understand his working definition of the term, if we want to understand the rest of what he says about it. There’s plenty for us to learn from each faithful individual; they’re being held up as exemplary for a reason! But that’s not the point he’s making. That point is cumulative: these great examples of faith accomplished all these amazing things, or were used or blessed by God in amazing ways, and why? Because they treated their hope as fact, and lived as if certain things were obvious to them, even though they couldn’t see or touch them. That’s the pitch the author is making to his audience—and by extension, to us. It’s hard to feel confident as years go by and we still haven’t seen any sign of Christ’s return; but look what these heroes accomplished, and how long they had to wait, how they persevered, and how highly we regard them for keeping the faith.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith... (Hebrews 12.1-2)