In Christ We Trust: Roman Fides and Christian Faith

In Christ We Trust: Roman Fides and Christian Faith January 11, 2022

Christians are not the only ones who value faith. The Romans considered faith—fides in Latin—to be one of their cardinal virtues along with piety, gravity, and constancy. Faith impacted the way they received the gospel, as we discovered in my previous post (“Don’t Stop Believing”). We continue finding more insights when comparing Roman fides with and Christian faith.

Roman Faith and Four Types of Commitment

Cicero, the famous Roman statesman, rhetorician, and philosopher, considers faith to be the basis of justice (On Duties 1.7.23). In this sense it refers to “the constancy and veracity of a word once given and the agreed content.[1] Moreover, fides means a type of solemn commitment including the following:

  1. “Being true to one’s word”
  2. “Paying one’s debts”
  3. “Keeping sworn oaths”
  4. “Performing of obligations assumed by agreement with both gods and men.”[2]

When discussing honorable character and expediency, Cicero connects faith to religious oaths. Such oaths bind a person in obligation to justice and faith before the supreme deity, Jupiter (On Duties 3.28.102–04).

Teresa Morgan states how essential Fides, the goddess and personification of faith, is to Roman life and society. Deities such as Jupiter and Fides sanction faith in making contracts, treaties, and war. Faith as trust, loyalty, and trustworthiness operates between:

  • “People and their magistrates
  • armies and commanders
  • patrons and clients
  • husbands and wives
  • between friends
  • in politics
  • law
  • commerce
  • social life”[3]

Romans thus interpreted faith as vitally relational and the “supreme guarantee of human happiness.”[4] And since Romans connected fides with law and religion, they understood it as “the foundation of religious, public, and private life.”[5]

Its violations they interpreted as offenses to their community and to the gods. As such, classicists inform us that “A patron who broke faith with his client by abuse of his power was placed under a curse.” Likewise, “A magistrate who broke faith by acts of injustice and oppression against the people gave the latter the right to rebel.”[6]

For the Romans, then, “Faith rooted in the social conscience was stronger than written law or statue as a force for holding all parts of the society together in a common bond of relationship. Failure to uphold religious obligations would incur divine wrath.”

Christian Faith

We see that fides essentially regulates Roman life. For Christians, faith (pisteuô/pistis) essentially means “to believe,” “to trust,” and “to rely on,” among other things. Jesus encourages bold trust when teaching that faith the size of a mustard seed can remove mountains (Matthew 17:20).

Faith also assumes faithfulness based on Old Testament Scripture. This is exemplified by the “Hall of faith” discussed in the Hebrews 11. There we find faithful saints in Israel’s traditions were, by faith, committed to trust God and even suffer for God’s sake.

The Apostle Paul considered faith to be essential for salvation. People are justified by faith in Christ (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:20–28). A common misconception is that Paul contrasts faith and works (good deeds). On the contrary, he contrasts faith and “works of the Law.” These are external observances of Moses’s Law, especially in relation to practices such as circumcision. The practice of “works of the law” often separated Jews from gentiles, instigating social and ethnic divisions in the churches. Paul teaches that faith in Christ rather than observations from the law is what makes a person righteous before God.

“Good works,” on the other hand, are something Paul commends. He affirms that faith works itself out in love (Galatians 5:6). Paul also speaks about the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3), and the “obedience of faith (Romans 1:5). Personally, I doubt that he would have any problems with James’s affirmation that faith without works is dead being alone (James 2:14–17). Both Paul and James speak of faith being exemplified through love.

Conclusion

What Christians can learn from Roman fides is the importance of regulating one’s life around faith. It involves trust, loyalty, and commitment. New Testament Scripture also exemplifies such things, but with at least two major distinctions: First, the object of one’s faith is to be in Jesus Christ. Second, the outworking of faith should be characterized by love.

Feel free to send me a note on Twitter, and let me know what you think about these things.


Notes

[1]  Gottfried Schiemann, “Fides – Law,” Brill New Pauly 5.414–16 (416).

[2] Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo, A History of the Roman People (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003), 57.

[3] Teresa Morgan, Roman Faith and Christian Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 127–28 (one sentence with commas in the original).

[4] Ward, et al, Roman People, 57.

[5] Ward, 57.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 57–58.

Image 1: Religion faith cross light hand trust God pray via pixabay.com; image 2: Roman arena antique colosseum gladiator gladiators via pixabay.com

About B. J. Oropeza
B. J. Oropeza is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University and Seminary. Many of his many publications focus on Paul's letters, biblical theology, and intertextuality. You can read more about the author here.

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