"Fidelity"

by W. Eugene March, Louisville Seminary

September 17, 1997

Paper Prepared for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians


The term "fidelity" has come to be a symbol for a church-wide, indeed culture-wide, debate concerning the place of homosexuals within our church and our society. It is difficult to talk about "fidelity" among Presbyterians without being assumed to be addressing one side or the other of our current division-threatening controversy. But some discussion of "fidelity" needs to take place because the term is not widely used in our society nor is it found frequently in biblical translations. Thus, some reflection upon what the term means and what language in the Bible might reflect similar meaning is warranted.

In English the dictionary meaning of fidelity includes two basic ideas. First, and the less technical of the meanings of fidelity, refers to the careful observance of a duty or of the fulfilling of obligations. Loyalty, fulfilling contracts, copying something faithfully or exactly are all nuances of the term "fidelity." A second more technical meaning of the term stems from one of the above nuances of "fidelity" and means the exact replication of sound or image, e.g. a high-fidelity sound system "Fidelity" as truth-telling, honesty, reliability, etc., is not as frequent in common usage as "fidelity" in terms of constancy, loyalty, allegiance, devotion. But the fact is that in the language of most average Americans "fidelity~ is not a frequently used term at all.

In the King James translation and the Revised Standard Translation of the Bible the term "fidelity" only occurs once to mere knowledge and that is in Titus 2:10. In that context it serves as a translation for the Greek term pistis - which is generally translated as "faith." In Titus "faithfulness" is the idea. Certainly the ideas of constancy, loyalty and reliability are present in the Bible. So what is the terminology that represents this basic complex of meaning?

In Hebrew there are two terms (ne'eman and 'emunah), both from the same root ('mn) which best convey the ideas of faithfulness and loyalty. Ne'eman is used only rarely of God (Deuteronomy 7:9; Isaiah 49:7; Jeremiah 42:5), but it does underscore the faithfulness of God to be who God is. With respect to humans ne'eman is used a few times with respect to individuals (for instance Abraham in Nehemiah 9:8 and Moses in Numbers 12:7). More frequently Israel as a people is described as in Psalm 78:8, 37 as failing to be ne'eman in contrast to God. The term is also used with respect to God's assurance of constancy to the dynasty of David (II Samuel 7:16, Psalm 89:38).

The second term 'emunah when used with reference to God refers to the way God acts as a consequence of God's inner being or character. In Psalm 89 in verses 2,3,6,9,25,34 and 50, 'emunah refers to God's faithfulness and reliability in terms of the divine capacity to endure. In Psalm 33:4 and 96:13 the use of this term is used to emphasizes God's ongoing faithfulness in all the divine acts. In nearly one-third of all the Old Testament uses of 'emunah it is found in parallel with chesedh,* a term which also emphasizes the ongoing loyalty and devotion of God to Israel (c.g. Psalm 98:3). The use of this term with respect to human beings is far more limited but stresses the attitude of a human being that is prerequisite for a full and genuine life (e.g. Psalm 37:3; Proverbs 12:22).

On the basis of the two particular Hebrew terms in this brief survey that reflect the general understanding of the English term "fidelity," several conclusions are perhaps warranted. First, the major emphasis of the term is on constancy, loyalty, allegiance. devotion. The emphasis is not on "correctness" but on faithfulness in relationship to another. Second, this particular vocabulary is primarily defined in usage by the way God's actions are descnbed. It is God who sets the standard. Third. the terminology when used In reference to human beings is limited and most often negative. Not many human beings are able to function with the level of "fidelity," displayed by God. To ask them to do so is important as a heuristic device, but destined to failure if applied legalistically. Finally, though not a part of the above study, from Christian theology we have long since learned that it is in Jesus Christ that our "human fidelity" is lodged, and it is in Jesus' fidelity that our trust is based.

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*Moderator's Note: chesedh is a more accurate transliteration from Hebrew of Hesed (which I judged to be an easier spelling for English speakers).


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