Faith: Substance and Evidence

The word ‘substance’ in the Middle Ages meant almost exactly the opposite of its meaning for us today. When we use the word ‘substance’ we mean something is physical. It is substantial. We can perceive it with our senses. In the Middle Ages, however, it was a philosophical term referring to the inner essence of a thing. That invisible quality, the ‘being-ness’ of anything was its substance. Now when I read the verse again and realized it was coming to us from Elizabethan English I got more interested. So faith, is the ‘substance of things hoped for.’ That is to say that faith gives us access to the inner reality of things and therefore of the inner reality of what we are hoping for.

Here’s a practical example: Let’s say I am hoping that I will be healed from cancer. What is the inner substance of my hope? That I will be healed–really and truly and completely healed. But the cancer is merely the ‘accident’ or the outer reality. What if my hope for healing means that through the suffering that comes with cancer I reach an inner peace, an inner reconciliation and an inner quality of wholeness that I could not have reached any other way? Then I have experienced the ‘substance’ of my hope, and it was my faith which got me there.

Holy Deacon Ballard–who is a much better Geek, whoops I mean Greek scholar, than I am points out: I think that the best translation of the Greek word ὑπόστασις is not “substance,” but “foundation.” He asks, “how might that make a difference?  One thing that comes to mind is that you build on a foundation.  You don’t see the house that is yet to be, but you can detect the outline – the promise, if you will – in the foundation, upon which the house is to be built, and you can “see” it proleptically. The foundation allows you to cooperate with the Master Builder in order to complete the house according to the plan. ”

I like it.

So far so good. The next phrase also got me thinking: Faith is the “evidence of things not seen.” In the combox over the last few weeks there have been a fair number of atheists insisting that the believers provide ‘evidence’ of the truth of Christianity or the miraculous or the existence of God. The problem is, they never really said what sort of evidence they were looking for. I think perhaps they hadn’t considered fully the different kinds of evidence and what sort of evidence might be admissible in such an argument. It was a tough question.

This verse in Hebrews, however, seems to point a way forward. If faith is the substance of things hoped for, then it is also the evidence of things not seen. But what kind of evidence is this? It is the sort of evidence which the believer is sure of, but which the non believer dislikes. It is the evidence of faith itself. Faith is the final leap which provides the evidence necessary for the articles of belief.

Here is an example: Let us say that a young man is in love with a young woman and wants to marry her. However he has doubts. He has commitment problems. He is nervous. He is cynical about love and worried about his own ability to marry and he worries that she does not love him. He is standing on the edge of the cliff. He does not have the courage and the commitment. Nevertheless, he thinks things through. He takes advice. He listens to the wise people in his life. He sees others who have taken the step. He then takes the step and risks a life in a moment of surrender. That is when it all clicks. Once he takes the step the Love is there. The step itself has provided the final evidence he needs. He is transformed by taking the step into that commitment and this step by its very nature provides the final proof of what he had doubted for so long.

So it is with the process of discovering faith. This post explores the different misconceptions about faith, and it touched on the process of faith, but what is that process? It is a process that is like falling in love and making a commitment to marriage, or it is like the process of scientific discovery or the discovery of any other form of knowledge.

We begin with observation of the world around us and we draw certain conclusions. We ask certain questions when there are things we do not understand. We seek more knowledge and more understanding through the process of education. We learn from those who know more about it than we do. We trust their learning, their knowledge and their experience. We accept certain truths that we are taught about the world, and then we build on that experience. Finally we come to test things for ourselves. We examine what we have been taught and we question and challenge the truths. At some point we then test them for ourselves through our own experience. At this point we do not have all the evidence. We do not have all the facts, but we have enough to take the step of courage, the step of faith, the step of existential surrender.

As in the marriage example, we have then entered into a new state of being. We are a different person and perceive the world in a different way. What he had hoped for becomes a living and dynamic reality, and this becomes the evidence of things not seen. This experience gives us a certainty. Not a certainty about all truth or a smug certainty that we know everything, but a certainty that there is an answer and that it can be discovered and that we can live in a particular manner which is a life of meaning and purpose–a life with a destiny and a destination, and this is what the New Testament calls, “Living by faith and not by sight.”


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