From the Gospel according John:
There was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, “Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.” The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he himself believed, along with his whole household.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 4:46b-53 (NRSV) – August 15, 2014)
John uses the word “believe” three times in this short passage: once quoting Jesus about witnesses to his acts of power and twice regarding the royal official’s state of mind. What, precisely, does John mean by doing so? That is one of the ponderable but unanswerable questions about scripture, the precise meaning of a biblical author.
John wrote in Greek and in each of the three cases here the Greek word used is some form of the verb pisteuo, which is also occasionally translated as “faith” and as “trust.” It does not usually carry a strong sense of intellectual assent to a doctrine or concept, although our English “believe” certainly does. Jesus, most likely, did not actually use a Greek word in his statement; more likely he spoke Aramaic in which (as in Hebrew) the word for “believe” is ‘aman and, like the Greek, it does not carry a strong association with intellectual concurrence to a proposition.
When we read or hear John’s testimony in English, therefore, we have to appreciate both the ambiguity of the original and the rather different thrust of our modern understanding of the word “believe”. What we especially must not do is hear John’s “believe” in the same way that we use the word in the creeds.
Of course, when I make such a statement I am immediately confronted by the realization that I have not the slightest idea what you mean by the word “believe” when you recite the Nicene Creed! Even more so, I am confronted by my own lack of clarity when I recite the creed.
Recently, my friend and colleague in ordained ministry, Presbyterian elder Mark Sandlin, published an essay on his blog The God Article entitled “Jesus Is Not My God” in which he confessed to being a heretic by beginning with the declaration, “I am a believer. Mostly. I believe that there is probably a god . . . .” Mark then followed up with, “I also believe there might not be a god. . . .” So how is Mark using “believe”? I think (notice I avoided using the word “believe”) that he is saying that he can intellectually assent to those propositions.
That’s not, however, how I understand the word when it pops up in the Nicene Creed which, as a liturgical Episcopalian, I recite publicly at least once each week, or the Apostle’s Creed which, as a practitioner of the Daily Office, I recite twice each day. I regularly say that I believe that there is a God, that that God created everything, that God had a Son and that Jesus the Anointed One is that Son, that Jesus was born of a virgin, that Jesus was killed on a cross, that he rose from the dead, that he went to heaven and that I expect him to return.
When I do so, however, I am not limiting myself to merely assent to the factual accuracy of those statements. In fact, I’m not even concerned with facticity when I make these statements of belief. In the discussion in the comments about Mark’s “heretical” essay, I said this:
I have no problem whatsoever saying the traditional creeds (Nicene, Apostle’s), every single word of them – virgin birth, death on cross, resurrection, expected return, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. (Did I spell “kaboodle” correctly?) That’s because I understand that “believe” doesn’t mean “assent to the scientific [or historical, I will now add] factual accuracy” of the statements set forth. “Believe” means I trust that these things mean something — usually something more than I currently understand and certainly something a lot more important than mere scientific [or historical] factual accuracy.
I don’t (I hasten to add) disbelieve the factuality of the statements in the creeds, don’t get me wrong, but if it turned out that Mary wasn’t, for example, a virgin, I would still recite the creedal words without a qualm. They are metaphoric; they are symbolic; it’s what they say about Jesus, not what they say about Mary, that is important. Or suppose someone actually were to find and verify a bunch of bones as being the remains of Yeshua of Nazareth; I would still assert my belief in his resurrection. Why? Because his truth, his gospel, the good news that God loves the human race was resurrected in, made alive by, and continues to sustain us in his church.
Whatever Jesus and John may have meant by the word “believe” in this story of the healing of the royal official’s son, that’s what I understand it to be in the creeds. I trust in the importance of what the creedal assertions point us toward. Far from being answers, the creedal statements are starting points for further spiritual exploration; they raise more questions than they answer. And I believe (I am using the word intentionally) that exploring those questions is a healthy and health-giving spiritual activity.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.