Translating Hebrews 11:1–Substance, Basis, Assurance, or Confidence?

QUESTION

Hebrews 11:1 says “Now, faith is the ________ of things hoped for….”  Which of the following words should best fill in the blank?:

  • Substance
  • Basis
  • Assurance
  • Confidence

ANSWER

Thanks for writing.  I do not remember having looked into this question before, so I just looked up the Greek as a first step, and I find that the word in question is ὑπόστασις (hupostasis).  In literal usage, it refers to the foundation upon which something is built—such as the foundation under a house.  Literally, hupo means “under” and stasis means “to stand”.  It was used, therefore, in the sense of that which stands under something else.

So I think the most responsible interpretation from your list below is probably “basis”.  Sadly, it seems that most translations do not like it rendered this way, and they prefer to use one of these other terms.  I believe, however, that this significantly changes the meaning of the sentence, and causes them to misunderstand Paul.

Here’s what I think he’s staying.  (This is my paraphrase as I understand it.)

“Now faith is the foundation under those things that we are expecting…”

When read this way, it implies that if that faith (foundation) is missing, the expectations will fail.  This idea is consistent with a few passages that come quickly to mind regarding the necessity of faith. Ask me if you’re interested and I’ll list them for you.

Anyway, we can test my interpretation by looking at the very context of the chapter from which we are reading:

11:2 For by it the people of old received their commendation. Note that this seems to suggest that those of old would not have received their commendation (that commendation for which they are expectantly waiting/hoping) unless they had this faith (this “foundation”) underlying that expectation.

 11:4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. 
The writer seems to suggest that had Abel’s faith not been in play, he would not have offered a better sacrifice, nor would he have been commended.

There are several other such arguments made in this chapter, all similar to this—that the good things expected came about as promised because of the faith held by those who believed, and that they would not have happened had those people not continued to rely on the promises.

But this interpretation is quite far from the “substance” notion carried by so many of the translations.  They suggest that faith itself is indeed the very “substance” of what is hoped for—as if the actual/literal promises having been made by God were not of primary importance, but that the fulfillment of the whole plan was simply that people should believe that they would receive them.  There are lots of problems with this, logically, linguistically, philosophically.  For starters, it sets aside the whole theme of the reliability of God’s promises, and rather, makes Christianity into some manner of “positive thinking” religion, rather than a reality-based expectation of the straight-forward fulfillment of what all was promised.

The text of Hebrews 11 seems rather clear to me when it says:

11:13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

It plainly states that these people did indeed have the faith when they died.  So if faith is itself the very substance of the expectation/hope, then they would
have to have received what God intended for them to have.  But we see that it was yet future as of the time of this writing, and had not yet been fulfilled.  Indeed, the writer does not say:

“These all died in have, having not received the things promised, but having received something better—the faith itself.”

No, that would be some sort of bait-and-switch religion.  So I don’t like the “substance” idea.

Nor do I like the “assurance” idea.  A common definition of assurance is as follows:

a positive declaration intended to give confidence; a promise.

If one’s faith is indeed defined as this manner of positive declaration, it’s really more of a self-help type of thing—a focus of talking oneself into something, rather than of being convinced and motivated by the promise of God himself.  But faith is not mere mental assent.  No, the word in the Greek (pistis) signifies a deliberate reliance, and not the mere holding of this or that notion.  No, the faith written of in the Bible was not like some “have faith” today.  Rather, it was highly rational.  That is, “God promised X, so I’m going to rely on that to be true, and to act as if it is true.”

So with that in mind, I bolster my interpretation of vs. 1 thus:

“Now, relying on God is the foundation underneath receiving what we are expecting because of the promises he has made….”

Thus, if that reliance goes away, so should the expectation.  And does not James agree with this in the spirit of this statement?:

James 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Note that without the faith/reliance, the expectation has no appropriate basis in James’ mind.

Regarding the final choice you offered, “confidence”, I see no linguistic basis for that choice, either.  It’s somewhat synonymous with “assurance”, and has the same problems, as well.

I hope this is helpful.  Please let me know what you think.

Jack

 

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