December 14, 2004

Religious syntax

A Google search for {"faith is a verb"} returns 777 results, including a 1989 book by Arthur Stokes, a 1998 sermon by the Rev. Roberta Nelson, and another from 2001 by Pastor Bill Pevlor.

Situated among 14 "Insights from New Testament Greek", a page entitled "Bible Food for Hungry Christians" takes a contrary view:


Both sides of this argument are preposterous.

Let's look at a few examples (emphasis added):

But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. [Romans 4]
Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. [Romans 14]
To them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ [Peter 1]
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. [Corinthians 13]

Trust me, if you understand English, you're interpreting all these instances of faith as nouns. However, it's understandable that you might not realize this, if you learned about English grammar in the American educational system in recent decades, and were told that a verb is an "action word", while a noun is a name for a "person, place or thing". From this point of view, the question of whether faith is a noun or a verb becomes a theological one. Thus the Rev. Roberta Nelson sermonized that

Faith is not an estate to be attained or a stage to be realized. It is a way of being and moving, a way of being on a pilgrimage.

and therefore

It is something we do; it is an action word--a verb; it changes and expands; it involves action with others.

I won't comment on the theology of this position, but as linguistics, it's nonsense. Geoff Pullum discussed this same misunderstanding about what terms like noun and verb mean, when he tried to explain how Jon Stewart could possible assert that "terror [is] not even a noun". If you think that a noun is a word for a "person, place or thing", then you might come to the conclusion that terror is not a noun; if you think that a verb is an "action word", and your theology tells you that faith is an active process rather than a stable state, then you'll conclude that faith is a verb.

However, if faith were a verb, you should be able to faith God, or go out faithing, or step forward to get faithed. But no such phrases occur in English versions of the Bible, or in any other English text. Instead, we read about his faith, the faith, precious faith, and so on.The reason is simple: faith in English is always a noun, and never a verb. English readers may or may not grasp this consciously, but they know it in their linguistic hearts.

The author of Bible Food for Hungry Christians, Bob Jones III, is not as linguistically naive as the Rev. Nelson. He observes that

Many English words can be nouns or verbs, with the exact same English spelling. This can cause confusion, because the reader must decide from the context whether the writer is using the word as a noun or verb.

One of the many beauties of the Greek language of the New Testament is that the ENDING on the Greek word tells us the part of speech. Whether a word is a noun or verb is not up for grabs in the New Testament Greek, as it is in our English. You can look up any New Testament Greek word in The Analytical Greek Lexicon, by Zondervan, to see if it is a noun or verb.

and specifically points out that

Bark - The noise a dog makes, can be a NOUN OR a VERB! When we tell the dog to "bark", it is a verb which tells the dog to ACT, and when we describe the dog's "bark", it is a noun describing the "thing" that the dog did.

The example are correctly construed here. And what Rev. Jones says about the Greek word translated as English "faith" also seems sensible:

The common word for "faith" in the New Testament is the Greek word "pistis". This word is used 244 times in the New Testament, and it is a NOUN, not a verb!

But then he jumps to the conclusion that "the English reader tends to read [faith] as a verb", and concludes that this is because "the reader must decide from the context whether the writer is using the word as a noun or verb."

This is wrong. Context is not necessary in this case. There are not very many monosyllabic English nouns that have successfully resisted being verbed, but faith is one of them.

[Update: I have to confess a sin. I failed to consult the OED in writing this post; this is always a mistake, one for which I've criticized others. The OED does have an entry for faith as a verb, glossed as "a. intr. To place or rest one's faith on. b. trans. To provide with a creed or standard of faith. c. To utter upon one's word of honour. d. To give credit to, believe, trust."

In my own defense, I'll claim that the none of the citations will work in modern English (for example, 1430 LYDG. Chron. Troy I. vi, By whose example women may well lere How they shuld faith or trusten on any man, or 1553 N. GRIMALDE Cicero's Offices I. (1558) 10 It is called faithfulnes because it is fulfilled which was faithed [quia fiat quod dictum est]), and I'll note that the most recent citation is from Shakespeare's Lear in 1605: "Would the reposal of my thee Make thy words faith'd?"

In any case, I don't believe that any of the 100-odd instances of faith in the King James Version are plausibly construable as verbs. Nor do the word forms "faithed", "faithing" or "faiths" occur in that that document. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 14, 2004 09:50 AM