I start this post while watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and seeing a masked group of enthusiasts at Time’s Square await the New Year. The classic rock group Journey comes on and plays their 80’s hit, “Don’t Stop Believin‘.” Yes, that’s the right message as we embark on 2022.
Amidst uncertainties related to the resurging virus, inflation, political divisions, smash and grab bandits, and my almost getting hit by a reckless driver while walking earlier today, I’m looking forward to something better in 2022!
Whatever our resolutions for the New Year might be, more love and respect for others should definitely be one of them. Another should be that we exercise more faith. That is, trusting in the Lord for our lives, health, jobs, family, and that God is still in control even if things do not always seem to be that way.
So what better way to usher in the New Year than to discuss faith?
Most of us reading this blog probably know that faith in Christ is essential for salvation, and that without faith (πίστις) it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). But independent of the Christ followers, what would faith look like for the typical non-Christian Roman in the first century hearing the Apostle Paul preach about faith?
Faith as Roman Fides
The word “faith” for Romans finds its prominence in the cult of Fides (faith in Latin), a goddess and personification of fidelity. Numa, the second king of Rome, established religious institutes in the state and built a temple to the goddess. Every year priests (Flamens) performed sacrifices to her with their hands and fingers covered to signify her holiness.
Fides’s temple sat near the Capitol where the main Roman god, Jupiter, resided. Given her public visibility, the Romans were always prompted to reflect on fidelity, trust, and faithfulness. The ancient historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes regarding Fides, “there is nothing greater nor more sacred among men” (Roman Antiquities 2.75.2).
The Romans also tied Fides to oaths. They settled disputes between parties on the greatest oath one could take—“by their faith” (Roman Antiquities 2.75.3). In western culture today, it would be like swearing on your mother’s grave. Classicist J. Rufus Fears understands fides as “a quality of trustworthiness and responsible behavior which manifests itself in the creation of secure and reliable bonds with another party and which serves as the foundation of trust for that party.”
The Roman military leader, Regulus, exemplifies such fides in the First Punic War after being taken captive by Hannibal and the Carthaginians. They permitted him to return to Rome on his word of faith that he would return to them after negotiating prisoner exchanges with his superiors. When he returned to Rome, he showed fides by advising his superiors against the exchange. And due to his fides of keeping his word with his enemies, he returned to them with no prisoners to exchange. As a result, the Carthaginians tortured him to death (cf. Cicero On Duties 1.13.39).
Such fierce loyalty and allegiance to one’s people, country, and one’s own word, is what faith is all about to the Roman people. This perspective of fides makes understandable the stringent oaths Romans would make to Caesar during the imperial age. This type of loyalty sets the interests of the emperor above all else, even one’s own life and family. Caesar is Lord.
What Christians Can Learn from Roman Faith
Many of Paul’s gentile audiences were influenced by Roman ideology. The Romans, Philippians, Thessalonians, and Corinthians would very likely recognize “faith” (πίστις) in terms of fides. This means that “faith” for these people is not only about “belief” but trust, fidelity, loyalty, and allegiance. Romans, similar to ancient Israelites, exemplified fierce loyalty to their nation and religious institutes.
When Paul speaks about Israel’s zeal (Romans 10:2–4), the Romans probably thought about stories related to their own national zeal in the name of Fides. It’s not zeal as such that Paul discourages, but a zeal wrong-headed—“not according to knowledge” (10:2). Paul explains that zeal to one’s nation, ethnicity, and even religious institutes (the Torah, no less!) does not gain God’s righteousness. Faith does, and that faith must be in Jesus Christ, not Caesar, as Lord (Rom 10:5–13; cf. 9:30–33).
For Paul, Roman fides and fervency fall short of God’s righteousness, but not when Christ is the object of one’s faith. What Christians today can learn from Roman fides is that “faith” is not “easy believe-ism.” It requires trust, loyalty, faithfulness, and the type of commitment one makes when taking an oath.
May we exercise such faith in Christ and in what the Lord has for us in 2022.
 In Roman tradition, see Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1.21.4; Plutarch, Numa 16.1.
 J. F. Fears, “The Cult of Virtues and Roman Imperial Ideology,” In Band 17/2. Teilband Religion (Heidentum: Römische Götterkulte, Orientalische Kulte in der römischen Welt), edited by Wolfgang Haase (1981): 827-949 (863).
For a good selection of commentaries on Romans see my post on the Top 12.
Image: New Year’s Day space stars 2022 Galaxy cosmos via pixabay.com