Different translations of a biblical text often show a switch in the understanding of a theological concept. Not only do we find such a switch in Sunday's second reading (II Tim 1:6-8, 13-14), but the change revolves around one of biblical literature's most important concepts: faith.

The 1970 New American translation of the last verse of the passage reads, "Guard the rich deposit of faith with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us," while the 1986 Revised New American translation (officially to be used in the liturgy later this year) renders the line, "Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy spirit that dwells within us."

This small change of words demonstrates a huge shift in the translator's understanding of the biblical faith.

Teaching

Because of the structure of our childhood religious education, many of us regard "the faith" as a collection of doctrines and dogmas to which we give intellectual assent. We learned that those who agree with this collection are "faithful;" those who deny or fudge on any of these statements are "unfaithful." The catechism-based religious system which created this definition might help us in some areas, but it certainly leads us to misinterpret the biblical idea of faith.

Almost never do our Sacred Authors mean a "deposit" or "collection" of truths when they speak of faith. Biblical faith revolves around a person, not a dogma. Scriptural faith is a total commitment to God, not just an intellectual assent to an idea.

As the late John L. McKenzie mentions in his dictionary of the Bible, "Biblical faith has some intellectual content, but, viewed as a whole, it is a comprehensive psychic act." It's an act which springs from a person's relationship with God.

We hear Habakkuk clearly state the necessity for such a relationship in the first reading (Hab. 1:2-3, 2:2-4). Though scholars aren't certain about the period in which Habakkuk prophesies, he constantly calls for deep faith in Yahweh's actions, especially when those acting so against the Chosen People. "Why do you let me see ruin?" the prophet asks. "Why must I look at misery?"

Yahweh's response is that salvation eventually will come. "If it delays, wait for it,...It will not be late....the just person will live because of faith."

Remembering that, in the Hebrew Scriptures, a just person is someone who has a proper relationship with Yahweh, Habakkuk is reminding his audience that no one can attempt to be faithful if his or her life doesn't turn on God being present and working in that life.

Faith

It's the frame of mind which comes from such a God-relationship that the author of II Timothy encourages his protege to guard so zealously. It's this frame of mind, this "trust," which defines a person as faithful. Just as Habakkuk knew that only someone who had deep ties with God could endure the difficulties God seems to send, so our late first-century Christian writer knows that only those followers of Jesus who have become totally one with Jesus can, "in faith and love," endure the sufferings Jesus endured.

Luke carries this belief to its logical conclusion (Lk 17:5-10). If our relationship with Jesus makes us one with Jesus, then such a faith enables us to do what Jesus did. "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed," Jesus tells His apostles, "you could say to this sycamore, `Be uprooted and transplanted into the sea,' and it would obey you."

But then, on a more normal everyday scale, Jesus reminds us that true faith is simply doing what the person with whom we relate wishes us to do. "When you have done all you have been commanded to do," He states, "say, `We are useless servants. We have done no more than our duty.'"

An Orthodox rabbi friend recently spoke to our parish about his Jewish faith. At one point, he disturbed some of my parishioners when he mentioned he believed everyone, even bad people, eventually get into heaven. "Why then," someone asked, "do you keep all those 613 Torah laws if people who don't keep them will get the same reward as those who do?"

"I keep them," he replied, "because God has asked me to do so."

Now that's biblical faith!

(10-01-98)