The Etymology of “Belief”

In reading through a new book, The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family by Andrew Himes, grandson of John R. Rice, I came across a fascinating quote about the etymology of the English word “belief”. The quote comes from Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), pg. 86.

When the New Testament was translated from Greek into Latin by Saint Jerome (c. 342-420) pistis became fides (“loyalty”). Fides had no verbal form, so for pisteuo Jerome used the Latin verb credo, a word that derived from cor do, “I give my heart.” He did not think of using opinor (“I hold an opinion.”) When the Bible was translated into English, credo and pisteuo became “I believe” in the King James version (1611). But the word “belief” has since changed its meaning. In Middle English, bileven meant “to praise; to value; to hold dear.” It was related to the German belieben (“to love), liebe (“beloved”), and the Latin libido. So “belief” originally meant “loyalty to a person to whom one is bound in promise or duty.” …During the late seventeenth century, however, as our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, the word “belief” started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical–and often dubious–proposition. Scientists and philosophers were the first to use it in this sense, but in religious contexts the Latin credere and the English “belief” both retained their original connotations well into the 19th century.

This rings true to me. I looked to a quick online etymological tool, and found this entry for “belief” which seems to confirm this sense that the English word “belief” has shifted in meaning.

belief

late 12c., replaced O.E. geleafa “belief, faith,” from W.Gmc. *ga-laubon (cf. O.S. gilobo, M.Du. gelove, O.H.G. giloubo, Ger. glaube), from *galaub- “dear, esteemed.” The prefix was altered on analogy of the verb believe. The distinction of the final consonant from that of believe developed 15c. Belief used to mean “trust in God,” while faith meant “loyalty to a person based on promise or duty” (a sense preserved in keep one’s faith, in good (or bad) faith and in common usage of faithful, faithless, which contain no notion of divinity). But faith, as cognate of L. fides, took on the religious sense beginning in 14c. translations, and belief had by 16c. become limited to “mental acceptance of something as true,” from the religious use in the sense of “things held to be true as a matter of religious doctrine” (early 13c.).

This illustrates the difficulties of translation, and the reason why studying the original languages is so important. Any translation will of necessity be inferior to the original, and the receptor words will not always match up one-for-one with the original Greek or Hebrew. It also points out the problem of words changing meaning over time. In our scientific age, “belief” has many connotations that weren’t necessarily there when the King James Version was translated in 1611.

From a theological standpoint, I think the idea that belief is loyalty, covenant faithfulness stands up to Scriptural teaching. Being a believer is not merely assenting to a set of facts, it is committing to follow Christ your entire life long.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on all this. It is especially appropriate given Easter weekend here, that we think a little more closely about what it means to believe. So feel free to discuss the theological takeaway, or the translational takeaway from this.

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8 thoughts on “The Etymology of “Belief”

  1. WoundedEgo April 23, 2011 / 3:44 pm

    Words don’t so much have “meanings” as they have “usages.” It is clear that Paul used PISTEUW in reference to an assertion:

    Rom 10:8 But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach;
    Rom 10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart **that** God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
    Rom 10:10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

    So men are justified by believing with one’s heart [sic] a particular assertion.

    So, yes, the scientific use of “belief” would be different, just as they have their own usages for “theory” and “fact” that are used differently in popular speech.

    The word means different things to different people in different situations. “Believe” has, what they call a “wide semantic domain.”

    • Bob Hayton April 24, 2011 / 8:04 pm

      Yes context is king, and in some contexts belief is in a fact, but being a “believer” to me seems to be more than just an intellectual thing. I think that the etymology of the English does help see that the Greek is a bit different in its general bent than the modern English idea. Thanks for commenting.

    • WoundedEgo April 24, 2011 / 8:41 pm

      I agree that the overall thrust is not “assenting.” James, in particular, addresses that specifically.

  2. Jim April 24, 2011 / 8:47 am

    Is that Karen Armstrong? I’ve enjoyed her work for years. Nice post.

    Thanks,

    Jim

    • Bob Hayton April 24, 2011 / 8:03 pm

      Yes it is. I will have to check out some of her stuff.

    • Harrison April 25, 2011 / 9:35 pm

      Yes, they must have made a typo. I forwarded Bob’s blog to a friend and noticed it. Karen is a brilliant mind. I don’t always agree with her, but I ALWAYS admire her. After NT Wright, she’s one of the people I most like to read. Make sure you sign the Charter for Compassion!

    • Bob Hayton April 25, 2011 / 9:55 pm

      Harrison,

      You are right. In one place in the book I got this quote from it says Armstrong, in another place it says Anderson. I’ll fix it in my post.

      Thanks,

      Bob

  3. John Hexem June 13, 2011 / 4:59 am

    I find Karen Armstrong’s discussion of “belief” to describe an approach to life to which I have been exposed in Vajrayana Buddhim which is called “devotion”. I can even read the words of Romans 10:8 in that sense.

    If I say the ‘creed’ as “I am devoted to God …” meaning I am engaged, committed, loyal and trusting in God, then for me saying a creed becomes a memorial rather than an intellectual process.

    Thanks

    John

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