Review of Brent J. Schmidt, Relational Faith: The Transformation and Restoration of Pistis as Knowledge, Trust, Confidence, and Covenantal Faithfulness. BYU Studies. 2022. 306 pp. + xiv, bibliography, index. $21.95.
In 2015, Brent J. Schmidt, a faculty member of Brigham Young University—Idaho who teaches religious education and humanities courses, published Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis. I reviewed Schmidt’s book on my blog at that time and was favorably impressed with it overall.
Schmidt has followed-up with his 2015 monograph with a new work, this one titled, appropriately enough, Relational Faith: The Transformation and Restoration of Pistis as Knowledge, Trust, Confidence, and Covenantal Faithfulness. These two terms, “grace” and “faith,” are packed with meaning in the Christian tradition, including the Latter-day Saint tradition, and are in some ways inseparable from one another, so it is only fitting that Schmidt should devote a sequel to his book on grace to the topic of faith.
At the outset, Schmidt identifies his intention with his book: he wants to understand what pistis (faith) means in New Testament writings, and especially in the Pauline corpus. “In fact, it is possible to assess what Paul meant by specific terminology by studying how other ancient writers conventionally used those terms. The frequent usage of faith (pistis) in a plethora of surviving classical and Hellenistic Greek texts illuminates how Paul’s Gentile and Hellenized Jewish audiences must have understood what the Apostle to the Gentiles meant by pistis” (2). Schmidt’s thesis is bold, but one that deserves a fair shake, given the recent burst of authors who are seriously questioning how well the understanding of pistis handed down to us from Augustine and the Reformation stands to scrutiny:
This study of pistis is a continuation of my previous work Relational Grace, which documents the similar linguistic and historical changes in meaning of charis, or grace. While researching the word charis for many years, I discovered that Christendom has unfortunately misunderstood grace because most theologians interpreted its meaning differently than it was understood in its original, first-century relational context. Since pistis is also a divine gift, like charis, I hypothesized that pistis—biblical faith—might also have the same active, relational, covenantal, and reciprocal obligations that all gifts had in the first-century Mediterranean world. I have since discovered that it does, and this work provides concise but representative evidence that ancient pistis was tweaked and even twisted into a faith that is a vague, emotional, and passive assent or a misinterpreted “born again” experience because of Neoplatonic philosophy. Fortunately for Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith accurately restored the active nuances of pistis through his prophetic teaching and the scriptures of the Restoration. For Joseph Smith, faith means acquiring knowledge and acting appropriately to repent, be baptized, and be sanctified by the Holy Ghost, thereby entering into and keeping covenants. (3)
In short, Schmidt believes that the primary meaning of pistis in the New Testament is not so much “faith” in the abstract sense of an intellectual or emotional ascent to a propositional truth claim, but rather “faithfulness” in the sense of covenant loyalty to a patron or benefactor (in the Christian context, Jesus). Other nuanced shades of meaning of pistis according to Schmidt in harmony with the sense of “faithfulness” includes persuasion, knowledge, trust, and understanding in a covenant context (4). As Schmidt argues, this understanding was gradually either lost or downplayed in the Christian tradition. “Fortunately,” he says, “the meanings and nuances of pistis have been restored so all may benefit from trusting Heavenly Father through knowing, following, becoming, and enduring to the end with confidence in His Son Jesus Christ” (7).
Schmidt’s book is laid out as follows:
- Chapter 1 (“The Etymologies of Pistis and Fides”) starts readers off with an etymological investigation into the origins of these two important Greek/Latin words. As Schmidt shows in this chapter, these words were historically in the Greco-Roman world almost universally conceptualized in terms of covenant faithfulness to or trust in a patron or benefactor.
- Chapter 2 (“Social Science Theories of Trust Inherent in Pistis”) explores the current social science on the matter of trust in human societies, especially trust in or involving relationships. How human societies gain, facilitate, regulate, respond to, and manifest trust among people is important to know to understand Schmidt’s argument that pistis and fides in their Greco-Roman context meant primarily faithfulness.
- Chapter 3 (“Old Testament Roots of Pistis and ’Āman”) makes the argument that the Hebrew nuances of ’āman in the Old Testament converge with the New Testament meaning of pistis. The review of biblical, Second Temple, and Rabbinic writings on “faith” offered by Schmidt in this chapter justifies his claim that Jewish teaching “associate[s] faith relationally with obedience within the covenant” (48). Not just the Greco-Roman context but the Hebrew context is important to grasp to make sense of what Paul, a Jew, meant by “faith” in the first century AD.
- Chapter 4 (“Faithful Relationships between Patrons and Clients in Greco-Roman Times”) builds on Schmidt’s previous work about the nature of charis (grace) in the context of a patron/client relationship. As Schmidt shows in this chapter, understanding faith(fulness) in a patron/client hierarchy is fundamental to understanding Paul’s use of pistis throughout his letters. “Pistis anciently meant knowing and understanding one’s patron and developing a relationship based on fidelity that ideally resulted in a lifetime friendship. . . . In the gospel of Jesus Christ as described by New Testament writers, pistis described the patron-client relationship: the disciple client understands that God is the patron, shows faithfulness toward him and develops a relationship with him” (49).
- Chapter 5 (“Nuances of Pistis in Oaths, Signs, Proofs, and Pledges, and the Resulting Strength and Miracles”) describes the variety of ways pisits was used to evoke the meaning of oaths, signs, and proofs within this patron/client relationship.
- Chapter 6 (“The Goddesses Pistis and Fides and the Ritual Right Handclasp”) will perhaps be the most interesting chapter for Latter-day Saints, as Schmidt shows how one of the signs of pistis in a ritual context was to extend and clasp right hands (between, for example, family members or a deity and worshipper). This ritual gestures appears abundantly in Greco-Roman iconography, such as on grave stelae and coins. “In the larger Greco-Roman world that Paul and other Gospel writers addressed, pistis was synonymous with faithfulness, prosperity, harmony, marriage fidelity, and unity, depicted through the use of right hands. As embodied by the goddess Pistis, faith was widely understood in the Gentile Roman world to be symbolized by right hands and handclasps, which in turn symbolized the making and keeping of oaths that formed and maintained relationships with the gods (117).
- Chapters 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13 (“Pistis and Fides Become the “Rule of Faith”; The Relational Faith of Early Christians”; “Augustine Undercuts the Relational Faith of the Pelagians”; “The History of Faith in Medieval Catholic Thought”; “The Reformers Interpret Salvation by Faith Alone”; “Faith in Protestant and Catholic Thought of the Sixteenth through Early Nineteenth Centuries”; “Recent Catholic and Protestant Conclusions about Faith”) are Schmidt’s overview of how the concept of pistis as involving faithfulness in a covenant relationship was gradually lost and replaced with the sense of pistis an abstract intellectual affirmation of something. The end result of this long slide, Schmidt argues, is that “without a correct idea of God’s nature, faith had long since become an abstraction, mystically granted only by a sovereign, absolute, incomprehensible, and mysterious God. . . . Faith’s (pistis’s) transformation and corruption provides ample evidence that a great apostasy occurred, and a restoration of its original meanings was necessary.” (236).
- Chapters 14 and 15 (“Faith in Restoration Scripture”; “Faith as Described in the Teachings of Latter-day Saint Prophets, Apostles, and Scholars”) contain Schmidt’s argument that the Restoration offers a corrective to the misunderstand of pistis that has become dominant in western Christianity. Schmidt reviews how “faith” is defined and portrayed in the Book of Mormon and in the sermons and writings of Latter-day Saint prophets, apostles, and scholars and argues that “the writings of Latter-day Saint thinkers generally are in harmony with ancient nuances of pistis, even though they seem unfamiliar with the lengthy linguistic and historical record concerning the original concepts of pistis. God has restored our knowledge of pistis through modern revelation about the nature of faith, as found in the standard works and the writings of prophets and apostles and as is reflected in the helpful writings of faithful members” (287). Given how often Latter-day Saints are berated by sectarian critics (usually but not exclusively hardline Calvinists of the reformed Protestant tradition) for supposedly being heretical in their views of grace and faith, Schmidt’s chapters showing the loss and recovery of the proper covenantal context of pistis are most gratifying to read. “Using revelation, new scripture, and his own example, Joseph Smith restored faith’s active, original nuances, including persuasion, knowledge, patron-client relationships, covenants, and developing faithfulness within the Abrahamic covenant” (290). Latter-day Saints may rest assured that despite their boisterous insistence to be in the right, sectarian critics of the Church of Jesus Christ are simply wrong (or, more charitably, misguided) to claim the Saints are somehow heretical because they reject of the understanding of pistis or fides that arose centuries after the close of the apostolic era with Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.
Besides being readable and well-argued, Schmidt’s book is benefited by other strengths. His command of the Greek and Latin is impressive, as is his knowledge of a diversity of Classical and Christian thinkers and sources. Schmidt provides his own translations of the original languages throughout and displays a thoughtful engagement with secondary literature, and his strict philological discipline throughout the book commands respect. Increasingly (and lamentably) in biblical studies faddish “theory” is replacing good old-fashioned exegesis grounded in text and context, much to the detriment of modern readers. Schmidt’s refusal to allow the trendy ideological dogmas of the academy overshadow the data is commendable.
Relational Faith is thus a splendid companion to Schmidt’s earlier volume Relational Grace. The two books go together well to persuasively show how the Prophet Joseph Smith restored a correct understanding of these two important theological concepts.