There’s a new book, Brent Schmidt’s Relational Faith, that may be one of the best resources around to help Latter-day Saints and perhaps many other Christians understand and explain what the Bible means when it talks about faith in Christ. Not only does this book help us cut through the clouds of confusion around issues like salvation by faith in Christ vs. “works,” it also helps us better appreciate and better be able to teach the ancient, biblical nature of the covenant path that is emphasized in the Church. In fact, the remarkable scholarship in this resource provides thorough and intricate support for the fundamental reality of a divine Restoration of the ancient basic principles of the Gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Relational Faith: The Transformation and Restoration of Pistis as Knowledge, Trust, Confidence, and Covenantal Faithfulness by Dr. Brent J. Schmidt (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2022) is an essential resource that Latter-day Saints should at least know about if not have on their shelves. Schmidt has a Ph.D. in classics and is on the BYU New Testament Commentary Series board, where he is a co-author with John W. Welch for several volumes on the New Testament, some still forthcoming. In Relational Faith, he applies his expertise in classical Greek and Latin literature and his thorough knowledge of early Christianity to trace the surprising evolution in meaning of the word “faith” (Greek pistis in the New Testament) over the centuries. This evolution occurred quickly after New Testament times, with the meaning of “faith” having become radically different by the time of Augustine and other theologians who shaped the assumptions of modern Christianity. Most modern commentary on the Bible and preaching based on the Bible is done by those who are not familiar with what “faith” meant in the days of the New Testament, instead relying on the scholarship of others who have passed on the later altered meanings of the word.
As Schmidt puts it in his Introduction to Relational Faith,
Almost all modern Bible translations diverge significantly from what pistis meant in about AD 50, when Paul was writing. Because of later theological changes and biases, pistis has not been translated according to its original meaning; the idea of faith in modern times has been contaminated by later thinking primarily to mean conformity of belief or emotional, mystical inner feelings equated with instant salvation. Many of Paul’s writings have been distorted in translation and have become difficult to understand because the original context has been lost….
For the Gentile and Hellenized Jewish audiences that Paul and others addressed, pistis implied action, including knowledge, understanding, faithfulness, and trust within covenantal relationships. (p. 2)
Because modern scholars and preachers no longer understand the meaning of “faith” in Paul’s day, Paul is quoted out of context, leading to severe errors in doctrine. Over time in Christian history, “faith” gradually began to mean agreeing with the Catholic church, a concept that was known as “the Rule of Faith.” Today it often means intellectual acknowledgement of God or Christ and conformity to the beliefs or creeds of mainstream Christian religions. But this is a far cry from what the relevant words meant in Paul’s day:
However, in the first century, pistis implied active loyalty, trust, hope, knowledge, and persuasion in the patron-client relationship or within the new covenant brought about through Christ’s Atonement. Atonement or “at-one-ment” implies the restoration to a preexisting, covenantal relationship. Even in instances where the pist- words [variants of pistis related to “faith”] cannot be directly translated as “loyalty,” they frequently reflect active forms of conduct that are consistent with such meanings. (pp. 11-12)
In extensive detail and with impressive support from numerous primary sources, Schmidt illustrates how concepts of faith in Greek culture, Roman culture, and Jewish culture were based in relationships and rooted in loyalty, trust, and reciprocity. Faith, whether referred to with the Greek pistis, the Latin fides, or the Hebrew ’emunah, was not about intellectual belief in the correct creeds or a mysterious gift that ensured salvation, but about relationships, and often expressed in language consistent with loyalty in a covenant relationship.
Understanding the full meaning of words related to faith in ancient society requires more than just learning ancient languages, but requires investigation of the cultural context and social framework in which words like pistis and fides were used. The patron-client system of the first-century Mediterranean world influenced Gentiles and Hellenized Jews alike, a point Schmidt also makes in his earlier and equally vital work on the ancient meanings of the word “grace” in his Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2015). Patron-client relationships between nations and between citizens within those nations spread across much of the ancient world and persisted for many centuries. As he explains in Relational Faith:
These peoples used their languages to describe faithful relationships and general ideas about trust between individuals, groups, and societies. Thus, their conversations influenced the words that each civilization used. For example, the Latin noun fides is derived from the proto-Indo-European *bheidh, meaning “to bind” or “to hold something together.” The Greek pithos [related to pistis], as well as the Latin fidelia and fiscus, are also derived from the Indo-European *bheidh and connote the binding influences of knowledge, persuasion, faithfulness, and trust as central aspects of patron-client relationships. Thus, the Latin term fides has deep connections to words that are directly related to a patron-client relationship, consisting of the active faithfulness that the client has in the patron and vice versa.
Comprehending the meanings these words held in the first-century Mediterranean world is crucial for the modern believer in Jesus Christ who desires to gain salvation and exaltation. Certainly, the original implications that accompanied the term faith encompass much more than simple conformity, belief, or feeling. The ancient terms were tied to persuasion and trust—both abstract relational terms—and the clearly relational ideas of binding and holding things together.
While classical Greek had no specific word that corresponded to the term religion—literally meaning “tie back” in Latin—the Greeks used pistis to express this active, binding, relational principle. Pistis connected societies by myth, hope, and ritual. These understandings and covenantal practices implied active commitment rather than an absolute conviction. (pp. 13–14)
Such meanings are made clear by reviewing Greek texts from ancient Jews as well as Gentiles. But examination of religious tests, decrees, and creeds over the following centuries reveals a troubling abandonment of pistis, an important aspect of what Latter-day Saints may call the Great Apostasy:
Scholars have noted that later developments in Christian history resulted in a disturbing semantic shift of pistis from the idea of loyal faithfulness through a covenant relationship to an amorphous idea that was intricate, confusing, complex, and ultimately passive on the part of the would-be believer. The Latin-speaking church chose credo, meaning “I believe” as defined by one’s heart and emotions, from the Latin cor (heart), as its term for self-commitment and the oath of loyalty; it began to use creeds as a testimony at baptismal services. In time, the Latin-speaking church opted for credo to signify in its Latin translations of the Bible the standard interpretation of pisteuō, “the having of faith.” Although pistis had direct cultural ties to fides, there was no linguistic connection between pistis and credo. By subordinating fides to credo, later Christians lost their connections to the obligations, rites, and covenants with God that first-century Christians associated with the doctrine and with the word pistis. In the Latin-speaking Western church, “faith” gradually became devoid of knowledge, emphasis on proper Christian action, and the ordinances earlier associated with faith. (p. 17)
Schmidt’s careful tracking of the changes in the use of “faith” by leading theologians and scholars over the centuries paints a clear trajectory that shows dramatic loss, confusion, and the great need for the Restoration. The most basic, plain and precious part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, faith in Jesus Christ, has been clouded by this trajectory of distortion, leaving us in a state where the world has lost the basic understanding of our relationship to God and Christ and has forgotten the essential role of covenants and obedience to God’s commandments in developing and expressing our faith in Christ, as well as the intended eternal role of relationships strengthened by such covenants and covenant keeping. In my view, it is tragic and ironic that many today, if they believe in Christ at all, think they need not repent of their sins and seriously cease sinful behavior because they are saved by “faith alone” as they think the Bible teaches, when the closest thing the KJV Bible has to the term “faith alone” are these two verses:
Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (James 2:17)
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. (James 2:24)
When the ancient meaning of faith as loyalty in a covenant relationship is understood, it is clear that faith is about action based on loyalty and obedience, not mere intellectual acknowledgement. Faith as understood by early Christians involves repentance of sin, entering into covenants such as baptism, and enduring in loyalty to God. All these arguments have been made by citing New Testament verses, but they are easily deflected by those who have an entirely different paradigm of what faith means. We may be better teachers and more helpful to others if we can help others understand what faith meant in the days of the Bible and how it has been warped into something dramatically different over the centuries. Knowing that Relational Faith provides detailed, thoroughly documented scholarship on this evolution can help us point others with sincere questions to a fascinating tool for better understanding the Bible and impressive evidence for the reality of the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a restoration that addresses one of the most basic losses over the centuries, a knowledge of what faith in Jesus Christ means.
Relational Faith will help Latter-day Saints better understand why much of the Christian world has such a different perspective from Latter-day Saints on the issues such as faith and works, or why verses in the Bible that we think are so clear about the importance of keeping commandments are viewed through a radically different lens.
On the other hand, this book can also be helpful to many Christians who are not Latter-day Sainits, not because it will convert them to our faith (though in the end, it makes a strong case that the doctrines of the Book of Mormon and other Restoration scriptures represent a brilliant restoration of the ancient understanding of faith), but because it can help them better appreciate the consistency and integrity of the Bible and better discern the gaps in some popular but misguided preaching of our day.
Much of what Schmidt uncovers in his work is aligned with observations of some significant scholars of other faiths, many of whom are cited heavily in this work. I began reading Relational Grace shortly after finishing History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press, 2019) by a highly respected Protestant scholar, N.T. Wright, a Pauline theologian and Anglican bishop, currently Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Wright’s project in his exploration of “natural theology” is ultimately related to Schmidt’s. Wright seeks to “relocate Jesus and the New Testament within the real first-century world” (History and Eschatology, Kindle edition, p. 18) rather than rely on modern paradigms and traditions that may have completely distorted the original message of the New Testament. Wright seeks to dismantle many modern misunderstandings of the message of the Messiah as he argues “for a fresh placing of him within the Jewish symbolic as well as historical world of his day” (History and Eschatology, p. 14). A key plank in Wright’s theology is that we must restore the understanding of what biblical concepts mean in the first century, and that cannot be done without grasping the centrality of the Temple and the Sabbath in the in the Bible and especially in the days of Jesus and Paul (e.g., see chapter 5, “the Stone the Builders Rejected” in History and Eschatology). Though Wright does not emphasize relationship and covenant as much as I would like in the volume, both the Temple and the Sabbath are firmly related to covenants between man and God, and understanding their importance brings us naturally to the ancient relational aspects of faith that Schmidt explores so thoroughly. Both of Schmidt’s recent books, Relational Grace and Relational Faith, could be valuable addition’s to the libraries of many Christians, in my opinion, and fans of N.T. Wright, for example, might naturally be sympathetic to some aspects of Schmidt’s project.
Schmidt cites Wright many times. For example, in discussing modern advances in understanding Paul, Schmidt writes:
Leading English New Testament scholar N. T. Wright (born 1948) has generally agreed with E. P. Sanders’s thesis that “the Jew keeps the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace.” Therefore, when Paul contrasted grace with the law, he was referring to gratitude and the faith one should have in the new covenant. Wright wrote,
I cannot stress too strongly, in view of persistent misunderstandings in some quarters, that, within this confluence of themes, “covenant” and “salvation” belong tightly together, the latter as the goal of the former, the former as the means of the latter. To play them off against one another is to indicate that one has not paid attention to the entire train of thought we have been exploring. And—a related but different point—there is no longer any reason for New Testament scholars to resist, as they often have done over the last century, reading Paul in the light of second-Temple covenant theology. There is no need to flatten out covenantal language into something else, or to take obvious covenantal references as an indication that Paul is here quoting and perhaps neutralizing a formula from an earlier “Jewish Christianity” which (of course!) he opposes [N.T Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 795]….
Wright has insightfully recognized that over the millennia, pistis had been flattened out and obscured by ignoring the term’s literary context. One of the main problems Wright has with sola fide [salvation by faith alone] is that it neglects final judgment according to works, which is an essential doctrine clearly stated throughout the New Testament. Wright astutely observed, though, that “just because some Western theologians cannot see how certain categories fit coherently together, that doesn’t mean that those categories didn’t fit in the first century” [N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God – Getting Beyond the Bible Wars (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 52–53]. Wright bolstered this excellent point when he wrote, “Anyone who tries to echo pistis by speaking of ‘justification by belief’ had better have a good lawyer” [N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2009), 89]…. Faith and the righteousness of God exist within a covenant that establishes mutual relationship and obligation as “covenant faithfulness” [N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Saul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 101, 103, 107]. When taken to their logical conclusions, Wright’s arguments generally bolster the thesis of this book: A universal doctrinal apostasy regarding faith occurred, necessitating a restoration of relational, covenantal faith. (pp. 231–3)
After reading the valuable first couple of chapters, I began reflecting on some of my experiences in discussing the topic of faith and works with other Christians, especially ministers. Many Christians I know seem to naturally understand the need to keep the commandments of God if they wish to be a real Christian and return to God in heaven. But sometimes that logical understanding clashes with the theology of their pastors that is used to condemn Latter-day Saints as non-Christian. Once a local evangelical minster met with me and a couple of members of his congregation in a meeting that those members requested (they were strangers to me, but I knew a relative of theirs in the Church who recommended chatting with me). They were familiar with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and I think they wondered why he was so harsh against the Church, and perhaps hoped that they could have his acknowledgement that their relatives in the Church were still fellow Christians. The minister began by saying that we were not Christian because we believe in a different Jesus, not the Jesus of the Bible, and because we don’t believe that salvation comes by faith alone in Christ.
I assured the minister that I believe in the Christ of the Bible, and that there was not a verse about Christ and His teachings that I rejected. I assured him that faith in Christ is a foundational principle for us, and that I had faith in Christ as my Savior and Redeemer, and that all the works in the world could not rise me from the dead or wipe away my sins – these things only happen through His infinite grace. But that grace is conditional: if we don’t strive to follow Him, if we reject His teachings and commandments, how can that be real faith? And I quoted the words of Christ: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15) and “If thou wilt enter into life, keep my commandments” (Matthew 19:17). But it was of no avail. Because my theology was wrong, because I did not accept the declarations of the creeds on the nature of the Trinity, I was believing in a different Jesus Christ, and was placing faith in something other than God. Thus, because my theology was wrong, no matter how much I believed the Bible and believed in Christ and strove to follow and worship Him, it was all in vain: I was following a different Jesus and would be damned.
After trying several different angles to help him see that our differences in some doctrines or interpretations of scriptures did not mean that one of us was believing in a different Jesus and thus could not be saved, but still made no progress. My testimony of Christ as my Savior was met with a shaking of the head and a refusal to accept that I had any faith in Christ. At the time, I wondered how he could be so uneducated about the Bible and our religion, but after reading Relational Faith, I realize I was completely wrong. The problem was not his lack of education, but an abundance of it – extensive theological education based on centuries of confusion from Augustine and many others that dramatically changed the entire paradigm of what faith is and what it calls for us to do.
If years of education have trained you to see faith as an intellectual acknowledgement of God and the “correct” doctrines of the creeds, then yes, if someone like myself claims to have faith in Christ but gets some of the “official” theology wrong, then whatever I have in my head is not faith, almost by definition. If I think Christ is one with the Father in a different way than official creeds declare (“same substance,” etc.), my intellectual belief in Jesus is rooted in error and cannot be real faith, and I will be damned for eternity on the day of judgement when the Great and Final Theology Quiz is administered and I fail question #32. How much I prefer the infinite grace and love of our Savior who reaches to all mankind, across continents, across centuries, across the veil of death, bringing hope to even to those who died and never heard of Him, to give all a fair chance to hear and accept the Good News of His triumph and to learn of our ability through Him to repent, to enter into covenants with Him, to be baptized, and to have all the blessing that the Gospel offers. God the Father and Jesus Christ, two Beings but One God, give all of us the opportunity, if we choose, to enter into a true relationship with them, a relationship based on loyalty, trustworthiness, love, reciprocity, and striving to follow our true and eternal Patron as lowly clients being offered all that our Patron and Father has to offer.
Relational Faith has done much to increase my appreciation of just how profound and remarkable the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been.
The book is lengthy and some chapters will be challenging as Schmidt delves into details that some will find more thorough than they need. There’s no need for most to read every chapter carefully, but it’s valuable to know that the depth of scholarship is there when it’s needed. At least scanning all of them will be helpful. There is a logical and steady progression. Many readers will feel that they have already gotten their money’s worth after the first four chapters, which treat: (1) the etymologies of the Greek and Latin words for faith; (2) the social issues involved in the ancient nature of pistis; (3) related Old Testament concepts in both the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint, and (4) the significance of faith in light of ancient patron-client relationships. But it would be a mistake to stop there, for there are exciting discoveries yet to be made in this fascinating book.
Chapter 5 explores pistis in terms of its relationship to oaths, signs, and pledges, showing some aspects of its covenant-related overtones. Temple themes emerge also in chapter 6, dealing with sacred roles of handclasps, especially clasping of right hands, as expressions of faithfulness and loyalty in religious rites of the ancient world.
Insights into the evolution of the meaning of faith come in chapter 7 on the rise of the “Rule of Faith,” in which the active, covenantal and loyalty-based aspects of faith began to be superseded by intellectual acknowledgement. Chapter 8 then reviews the use of “faith” among early Christian writers in the first four centuries, and then we encounter the significant struggle between Augustine and the Pelagians (a group that believed that humans had free will to choose to obey God, and that faith required obedience). Through questionable means, Augustine prevailed in the controversy and helped institutionalize his more passive, mysterious, intellectual concept of faith rather than the relational, action-based faith of earlier centuries.
Further chapters trace the development of doctrines on faith in Catholicism and Protestantism, and then explore how ancient concepts of relational faith were thoroughly restored in the scriptures brought forth by Joseph Smith, especially the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants (chapter 14, “Faith in Restoration Scripture”). Modern teachings of Church leaders on the topic are treated in chapter 15. Then comes an excellent Conclusion summarizing the contrasts. Schmidt’s closing words are a valuable reminder:
Pistis is by its nature reciprocal, and it becomes a powerful vehicle in developing a bond of covenantal trust between God the Father and humankind through Christ…. This relational faith allows for the progressing faithfulness of human beings as they strive to become like faithful Jesus and his trustworthy, perfect Father through making and keeping covenants with them. In fulfilling covenant obligations, all individuals can also prove themselves trustworthy.
In summary, traditional Protestant readings of pistis Christou are theologically biased by doctrinal innovations of sola fide (“faith alone”) within the larger tradition of the Rule of Faith. In contrast, first-century pistis Christou emphasized Christ’s faithfulness, while simultaneously motivating all to become correspondingly faithful through making and keeping covenants. (pp. 305-6)
Faith in Christ is not just believing that He is or that He loves us, but trusting Him and acting when He calls us to repent of our sins, keep his commandments, be baptized, enter into a loyal, faithful relationship with Him. Faith in Christ means that we respond with trust, loyalty, and action when He says, “Come follow me.”
Many thanks to Brent J. Schmidt for one of my favorite Church-related books. I highly recommend this both for reading thoroughly and for having as a reference or resource. The lessons form this book need to be understood and widely shared.