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No. 18: The Unseen Things

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 18
October, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).

The famous definition of faith with which the eleventh chapter of Hebrews opens has received a number of different interpretations. The crux of the problem is the interpretation of the words translated in the KJV as "substance" (hupostasis) and "evidence" (elegchos). The focus of this brief study is on the former, though the interpretation I offer embraces the latter as well.

Several opinions have been offered in the interpretation of hupostasis (these are admirably summarized by the late Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans, 1977], pp. 439-40). The word had, by the first century, become a technical term in Neo-Platonic philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism, referring to the "real reality" behind empirical appearances. Thus, on this interpretation, the writer to the Hebrews was saying that faith embraces and grasps the substantial reality beyond the appearance. An already-not yet element can then be introduced to suggest that by faith we possess by anticipation what has been promised. It is difficult, however, to see how this sense of substance could serve to define faith; the text says that "faith is the substance," not "faith lays hold of the substance." The strength of this interpretation is that hupostasis was often used in this sense.

Some, including Calvin, interpret the word etymologically as "stand under." Thus, faith is described here as the foundation upon which we stand as we strive for the realization of what has been promised. Etymological interpretations, however, are usually quite suspect.

Most modern commentators and translators opt for the interpretation "conviction" or "assurance." This understanding of hupostasis was first introduced by Luther, and is surely consistent with the Reformation understanding of faith. But the word rarely if ever has this sense elsewhere in Greek literature (though arguably it has this connotation in Heb. 3:14). Finally, hupostasis was used with reference to titles of ownership. Hence, faith would be described here as the title deed that guarantees our possession of what we hope for.

All of these interpretations are possible, and all say something true about faith. But after some wrestling with the verse, I have concluded that these attempts to pin down the language with a systematic-theological precision are misguided, and really obscure the force of the verse. The phrase, rather than being a precise theological definition of faith, is an intentionally paradoxical description of faith. The basic thrust of the verse is that faith is directed beyond visible reality, to an invisible and future reality that is certainly true. But the phrasing of the verse pulls the reader in oppositive directions: toward substantive certainty on the one hand, and toward blind groping on the other.

Both phrases of the verse bear marks of a deliberately constructed paradox. Substance, whatever its precise nuance, refers to something that is . . . well . . . substantial. Yet the writer to the Hebrews says that faith is the substance of something that is not yet. Faith is, to adopt the etymological interpretation of hupostasis, a foundation that is still to be built. The introduction of the already side of the already-not yet schema, though appropriate from a systematic perspective, improperly relieves the tension of the verse. In the context, the hoped-for things are things yet to be obtained; the emphasis is entirely on the not yet. Still, the not yet is that of which faith is the substance.

The second phrase in the verse heightens the paradox. Though often translated as "conviction" in modern translations, the KJV translation ("evidence") is more correct. But, in normal language, evidence should be apparent to the senses, if it is to be evidence of anything. To speak of evidence of unseen things is to speak paradoxically.

Calvin sensed the paradoxical character of the definition, and explained it as follows: "A demonstration makes things appear, and commonly refers to what is subject to our senses. These two things apparently contradict each other, but they agree perfectly when we are concerned with faith. The Spirit of God shows us hidden things, the knowledge of which cannot reach our senses. Eternal life is promised to us, but it is promised to the dead; we are told of the resurrection of the blessed, but meantime we are involved in corruption; we are declared to be just, and sin dwells in us; we hear that we are blessed, but meantime we are overwhelmed by untold miseries; we are promised an abundance of all good things, but we are often hungry and thirsty; God proclaims that He will come to us immediately, but seems to be deaf to our cries. What would happen to us if we did not rely on our hope, and if our minds did not emerge above the world out of the midst of darkness through the shining Word of God and by His Spirit?"

To interpret Hebrews 11:1 as a deliberately paradoxical description of faith fits well in the context. Chapter 10 ends with a discussion of perseverance under persecution. To all appearances, the life of faith was one of death and defeat; but faith looks beyond the appearances to the sure promise of God, to the invisible things that are "seen" by faith.

Another way to approach the problems raised by this verse is to ask what is hoped for, and what is unseen? What we hope for is our adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:24); to be raised incorruptible and enter into the eternal kingdom of glory. The unseen things are the heavenly things that the writer to the Hebrews has stressed throughout his epistle: the reality of Christ’s heavenly enthronement (Heb. 2:5-9; note use of "see" in v. 9), and the heavenly tabernacle and priestly ministry of the Greater Melchizedek (Heb. 7-10). What we hope for is conformity to Christ in His glorious body; what is unseen is the Christ for Whom we hope. Christ is the hoped-for One, and the unseen One.

Once we have made this connection, we can perhaps take one last step. If Christ is the hoped-for and unseen One, then faith is the substance and evidence of Christ. Christ is not only the object of faith, a term that separates the believer from the external object of his belief. More than that, Christ is the very content of faith. By faith, we are united to Christ, so that we become bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. It is by such faith that the saints of old endured persecution and overcame the world.