Monday, January 25, 2021

Hebrews 11:1

Hebrews 11:1:

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (ESV)

"Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." (NIV)

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see." (NET)

"Now faith is the certainty of things hoped for, a proof of things not seen." (NASB)

"Now faith is the realization of what is hoped for, the proof of things not seen." (LEB)

"Now faith is the substance of what is hoped for, the evidence of what is not seen." (KJV)

"Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen." (CSB)

"Now faith is the ὑπόστασις/hypostasis of what is hoped for, the ἔλεγχος/elenchos of what is not seen." (Greek/Greek transliteration)

1. I'm no biblical scholar let alone a Hebrews scholar. I'm just a simple layperson sharing what (little) I've learned about Heb 11:1 in a brief personal and devotional "study" I did earlier this morning. So please feel free to correct me.

2. The words I've bolded in Heb 11:1 seem to have been translated in either a subjective or an objective fashion.

a. The subjective seems to emphasize the person who has faith's state of mind. Their psychological state. Their "assurance", "confidence", or "conviction" in what is hoped for and what is unseen.

b. By contrast, the objective seems to emphasize the objective reality of what is hoped for and what is unseen. In this respect, "faith" seizes upon a solid object that can't be seen at the present time but will be seen in the future.

By the way, in context, what is hoped for and what is unseen seem to be about time rather than space, though perhaps it's both. That is, what is hoped for and what is unseen seem to point to the future, to eschatological fulfillment, not to the spiritual realm, per se. Although of course we Christians believe there is an unseen spiritual realm (e.g. 2 Kgs 6:17).

3. Looking at the two Greek words:

a. ὑπόστασις/hypostasis. Cf. Heb 1:3 about Christ's "nature": "He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature [hypostaseos]" (ESV). I presume there are good arguments for the subjective emphasis in translation, but I don't know what they would be. My reason for thinking the objective emphasis is the better translation is the example of "the people of old" "commended" for their faith in Heb 11. They seem to be illustrative examples of faith, of Heb 11:1. It seems to me they thought of faith in an objective reality (at least that's where the emphasis would seem best tilted), not faith in a subjective state of mind which would seem to come close to saying faith in faith. But perhaps a combination of the subjective and objective with a stronger degree of emphasis on the objective would be a reasonable translation? Say something like this: "Now faith is being sure of the reality of what is hoped for...".

b. ἔλεγχος/elenchos. As I understand it, elenchos has reference to demonstrating something is true or someone passes muster after detailed cross-examination. Interestingly, the Socratic method or Socratic debate is also known as "elenctic" debate. The idea seems to be scrutiny or cross-examination of someone or something to see if they or it is true or false, proven or disproven, accurate or inaccurate. So "elenchos" in Heb 11:1 seems to be saying that "what is not seen" has been proven to be true after examination or scrutiny. What may have once been debatable or disputable has emerged demonstrably proven.

c. Perhaps a reasonable translation of Heb 11:1 could be: "Now faith is being sure of the reality of what is hoped for, proof after examination of what is not seen."

4. It's interesting that Heb 11:1 defines faith as the direct opposite of what militant atheists typically think faith is. Militant atheists say faith is blind faith. A leap of faith. A leap into the dark or unknown. Faith without reason or evidence. Faith based primarily or solely on emotions or feelings.

However, Heb 11:1 contradicts these notions of faith. Heb 11:1 teaches that faith is trust in an objective reality. An objective reality that we can't see at present, but nevertheless it is an objective reality based on demonstrably proving its truth in light of intense examination. A subjective feeling or emotion like assurance or conviction comes after the fact and in light of having demonstrated the reality of faith's object.

This is another piece of evidence that Christianity has always been an apologetic faith: we defend our faith, we examine our faith, we prove our faith, etc.


  1. It's example like these that are prodding me to start taking NT Greek. That, and the Bible I bought that I can't read. That's interesting, because so many of the example of faith do look like that. The Israelites had never walked through a sea, but they are already looking at it parted. They've never had Passover to avoid a plague, but they've seen nine before. Abraham hadn't seen his descendants become a nation, but he'd already been through enough that he thought God would raise his son.

    As far as militant atheists, I have a hilarious (short) story. I was arguing with an atheist about this in the comments somewhere a while ago. He said all Christians believe faith is blind (because one of the definitions in the dictionary said so). He was talking to a Christian. Who say saying he didn't think that.

  2. Your point about the future is important. Hebrews 11:3 mentions the past (creation), but the chapter is mostly about the future. By its nature, we can't see the future (or some aspects of the past, like creation).

    But a point needs to be made here that's also relevant to two other passages often abused in a similar way, John 20:29 and 2 Corinthians 5:7. Seeing something isn't equivalent to having evidence. None of these three passages (John 20:29, 2 Corinthians 5:7, Hebrews 11:1) are addressing whether people have evidence. Hebrews 11:1 is addressing one aspect of faith, trusting God for parts of life we can't see, primarily the future. The passage isn't addressing faith as a whole. And even that one aspect of faith involves evidence, though we can't see the future and some other parts of life (e.g., God's creation of the universe referred to in verse 3). Again, lack of sight isn't equivalent to lack of evidence, and anybody who wants to equate the two should be asked to demonstrate that the two are equivalent.

    The author of Hebrews had made references to evidence for faith earlier (e.g., 2:3-4, prophecy fulfillment), so he wouldn't be claiming in chapter 11 that faith doesn't involve or concern itself with evidence. The witnesses referred to in 2:3 had seen Jesus, but it doesn't follow that they didn't have faith in him. Faith sometimes involves sight and sometimes doesn't. Even when faith doesn't involve sight, such as in the contexts addressed in Hebrews 11, evidence is still involved. Similarly, in John 20, the fact that Thomas didn't need the additional evidence he demanded doesn't prove that he shouldn't have wanted any evidence or that providing evidence is never appropriate or needed. The gospel of John provides a lot of evidence (John's eyewitness testimony, the testimony of resurrection witnesses, the evidence of prophecy, the evidence of apostolic miracles, etc.). Similarly, 2 Corinthians and the other Pauline documents provide a lot of evidence (Paul's eyewitness testimony, the testimony of other eyewitnesses, Paul's miracles and those of the other eyewitnesses, fulfilled prophecy, etc.). To interpret any of these three passages as fideistic Christians and critics of Christianity do, you have to take them out of context.

    1. Commenting on Thomas:

      ~ I think the tension with faith, for believer as well as (some) unbelievers, is not so much an absence of evidence, but an absence of desired evidence.

      We would like God to do sky writing, but He does not do that. It is God's prerogative to give evidence as and when, as and how, He pleases.

      It is flawed exegesis to look at Thomas and say "Aah! You see. It is wrong to ask for evidence. Evidence is never needed if you have faith." (I met a couple of Xtns like this during my college years. One of them apostatized.)

      I think the problem with Thomas was not that he was to run on faith only, but rather that he was seemingly not willing to mix it with what he already had.* Thomas had plenty of evidence already.

      *"For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it." - Hebrews 4:2

      ~ I take it that this means that faith has to be mixed or united with something other than itself. It is not some standalone phenomena. Hence David does not simply have raw faith. He had already fought the lion, the bear, etc.

  3. Thanks, TFC and Jason! Good points from both of you including helpful correctives to what I've said. :)

  4. In short, yes. This passage closes in on biblical faith, which differs significantly from the false ideas of faith that atheist apologists like to construe.

    We have accounts of Jesus commending people for believing in him because they could see him, but elevating that commendation to people who would believe having never seen him. Truly speaking, we don't believe because we have evidence, but our faith is reinforced with the abundant evidence we have been given. It's one thing to say that we can trust the Scriptures because of the evidence that we have that they are true. It's another thing to say that we can apprehend the validity of the evidence because we are willing to believe if the evidence holds true. Atheists have all the same evidence and deny it because they have no faith.

    1. That's a good way to put it! Thanks, Jim. :)

  5. The following is from Peter O'Brien's The Letter to the Hebrews (2010), pp 397-400, which is in the Pillar NT Commentary series (D.A. Carson, ed.). Interestingly, I only read O'Brien after I had already put down my own thoughts, but it seems we came to (mostly) the same or similar enough conclusions - which, it must be pointed out, says nothing about me and says everything about the consistency and clarity of God's word. But, of course, O'Brien is far more knowledgeable, scholarly, nuanced, and so on than I am. So it'd be best to defer to O'Brien over anything I've written where there are differences.

    1. 1 Our author begins with a ringing affirmation about faith. [17] Although the structure of his sentence conforms closely to contemporary definitions, [18] modern exegetes have been hesitant to regard the verse as defining faith. The passage is not an exhaustive treatment of what faith is in Hebrews, 'but a characterization of some key aspects of the faith of the OT witnesses'. [19] As such important features or even distinguishing outcomes of faith are brought out: 'the author presents faith in action, as comes out so clearly by his repeated use of..."by faith"' (pistei), which appears eighteen times in the forty verses of the chapter. [20] This portrayal of faith is linked with being attested by God (v. 2). Together the two are programmatic for the rest of the chapter, although in the list of examples that follows the subject is not faith as such but men and women living and acting on the basis of faith. [21] It is described as 'the hypostasis of things hoped for, the elenchos of things not seen'. There is significant diversity of opinion as to how these two expressions should be understood:

      (1) 'The hypostasis of things hoped for'

      (a) A common interpretation takes hypostasis in the subjective, psychological sense of 'assurance' or 'confidence' (NRSV; ESV; being sure, TNIV). This subjective meaning is believed to make sense of the term in Hebrews 3:14 [22] and is consistent with Paul's usage in 2 Corinthians 9:4; 11:17. But, apart from whether hypostasis had this meaning in contemporary sources, [23] the exemplars of faith in Hebrews 11 had an objective hope to which they were looking forward, not simply a subjective assurance. [24]

      (b) A second view, based on the etymology of the word hypostasis, namely, 'standing (stasis) under (hypo)', argues that the English word 'assurance' or 'confidence' is derived from the literal meaning of 'foundation'. Lindars states that 'in the present context faith is the foundation of the positive attitude towards the future, which cannot yet be experienced but has to remain a matter of hope'. [25] The rendering 'foundation' seeks to interpret the term in an objective sense, but the difficulty is whether it has this meaning elsewhere. Also, to render the whole expression as 'faith is the foundation of things hoped for' does not bring out the eschatological sense which is stressed in Hebrews 11. [26]

      (c) The third interpretation, which we prefer, is to take hypostasis as signifying 'reality' or 'substance' (AV, REB), a meaning that is found in the LXX as well as in other Greek and Jewish literature. [27] This objective understanding of hypostasis is consistent with the forward-looking aspect of faith that is repeatedly demonstrated in Hebrews 11. Viewed from this perspective, 'faith' is something objective that in the here and now gives to the things hoped for 'a substantial reality, which will unfold in God's appointed time'. [28] Faith 'lays hold of what is promised and therefore hoped for, as something real and solid, though as yet unseen'. [29] The notion of hope in future salvation has run like a scarlet thread throughout Hebrews (3:6; 6:11, 18; T19; 10:23); it is intimately related to the divine promises (4:1; 6:12, 1T 7:6; 8:6; 9:15; 10:36) and the inheritance (1:14; 6:12, 17; 9:15) that are yet to be attained. They are 'the things hoped for' and include the world to come (2:5), the sabbath rest (4:1-11), an eternal inheritance (9:15), the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22-24), and an unshakable kingdom (12:28).

    2. (2) 'The elenchos of things not seen'

      Similar differences of interpretation appear in relation to this expression, which stands in apposition to the first. The term elenchos occurs only here in the New Testament. As with hypostasis, it has been taken in a subjective and an objective sense. Bruce opts for the former, rendering it 'conviction' (NRSV, NIV, ESV) and making it parallel with 'assurance' in the preceding phrase. [30] But there is doubt as to whether this meaning falls within the semantic range of the term. The word was used for the 'proof' or 'demonstration' of something in dispute, while the cognate verb is found in relation to convicting someone of wrongdoing (John 8:46; Jas. 2:9). [31] Further, since the whole phrase further describes the preceding expression which we have interpreted objectively, it seems best to take elenchos in a similar way, as denoting 'proof, demonstration' or 'evidence'. Accordingly, 'faith demonstrates the existence of reality that cannot be perceived through objective sense perception'. [32] This demonstrating function has to do with 'things not seen', and these refer not to the visible, phenomenal world of sense percepction over against the invisible, heavenly world of reality above, as in Platonism, but between events witnessed as part of the past and those yet unseen because they belong to the eschatological future. [33] This understanding of 'the things not seen' is confirmed by v. 7, where 'the events not yet seen' are realities which have not been viewed now but will be seen in the future (so 3:5, of Moses 'bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future').

    3. This might be a little off-topic, but in retrospect, bible studies in small groups/community groups have really been quite deficient. It's involved reading a few verses and people who don't put much effort (including me at the time) into studying the Bible would throw out suggestions. The blind leading the blind. The church I started going to is reading through Samuel, so I've bought a commentary. I'll see if I can improve things in my own little way. This post has certainly felt like a much better study than I'm used to.

    4. Thanks, TFC! I've also had similar experiences as you have with some or maybe the majority of my past small groups or Bible study groups. I think I learned a lot as a new Christian, but after a certain point I guess what we studied seemed quite superficial. At least in my experience, these groups are often a mishmash of Christians with different social and cultural backgrounds (e.g. different ethnicities), including different educational levels (e.g. working class, white collar, PhDs), different intellectual aptitudes, different levels of spiritual maturity as it were, etc. So (I guess like public education) the small group or Bible study leader often just targets the entire Bible study at the lowest common denominator. Maybe a possible solution would be to find like-minded Christian friends and study God's word with them? A kind of Inklings (a la C.S. Lewis), not for literature, but for Bible study. That's what I'd like to participate in too, though I haven't been able to find or even start such a group myself! So I guess it remains theoretical for me too.

  6. Christianity is a very evidence based and objective faith, and this is not an internally contradictory statement.

    1. Thanks, CD. Very true. Perhaps the fault lies with me in that my reasoning is clunky or sloppy. But I agree with you here of course.