The Majjhima Nikaya is generally thought to be a fairly early Buddhist text, certainly well pre-Christ. Here I review what it has to say about faith.
Sutta 22, the Alagadduupama Sutta is a very significant sutta containing the rebuke of Arritha, the famous similes of the snake and the raft, the refutation of non-Buddhist views, and the teaching of non-self. It concludes with the final verse: "The Dhamma well proclaimed by me is clear, open, evident, and not patched together. According to this Dhamma - clear, open, evident, and not patched together - those who have faith in me, those who love me, are all on the way to heaven." This seems pretty clear.
In Sutta 34, the Cuulagopaalaka, the Buddha likens his task in helping people to reach "the other shore" to that of a cowherd who must get his herd across a river. In verse 10 of this 12 verse sutta he says, "Just as that tender calf just born, being urged on by its mother's lowing, also breasted the stream of the Ganges and got safely across to the other further shore, so too, those bhikkhus who are Dharma-followers and Faith-followers - by breasting Mara's stream they too will get safely to the other shore." It is clear here that the Buddha saw disciples as becoming liberated in different ways. This range is further elaborated in Sutta 70, the sutta given at Kitagiri. Here the Buddha classifies the "seven kinds of Noble persons", indicating seven ways of liberation. Among these are those "liberated in both ways", those "liberated by wisdom", "liberated by faith" "Dharma followers" and "faith followers". Wisdom (prajna) is highest, but the others are more common. In any case, there seems to be no opposition between faith and prajna. The impression throughout the texts is that prajna is simply the highest development of a course that begins with and is rooted in faith, not one that rejects faith. Prajna is simply the highest most refined form of faith - faith in shunyata. Such faith is supported by logic and reasoning and by experience, but if it is only logic there is unlikely to be experience or wisdom. It all starts with faith.
Sutta 53 is the Sekha Sutta. Sekha means training. This is the sutta about how a person trains in Buddhism. From verse 11 onward the Buddha lists the good qualities that a disciple needs in order to do the training. The first is faith. The object of faith in these passages is generally the Buddha himself, his qualities and especially his enlightenment. The other necessary qualities are shame, fear of wrong-doing, ability to learn, energy, recollection and wisdom. These are given in this order and are probably intended to develop in this order. Faith is the foundation of other good qualities. This is pretty obvious, really. If one does not have any faith one will not even try something. If we have no faith we never step out of our existing boundary and so never grow or change.
Sutta 65 includes a passage about when a bhikkhu should be corrected and admonished. Verse 27 tells us that a bhikkhu should not be much admonished if this will lead him to lose faith. "Here some bhikkhu progresses by a measure of faith and love.... Let him not lose that measure of faith and love as he may if we take action against him by repeatedly admonishing him." To the Buddha there is a strong link between faith and striving (padhaana). The Buddha consistently praises "zeal and persistent striving". A
person will strive if that person has faith. In Sutta 85 he explains to Prince Bodhi that there are five factors of striving - faith, health, sincerity, being energetic and wise. We see over and over that these qualities all go together. A wise, energetic, sincere faith leads to zeal and spiritual striving. We should not, therefore, think that faith means not having to make any effort in our lives. A person who wants to not make effort is simply a person who does not really have that kind of faith.
I think that what we see from this is that in the Majjhima Nikaya faith is an essential quality upon which other important qualities depend. It is the beginning of the spiritual life and it is the most important quality for those who are on the bottom rungs of the spiritual ladder. Further up the ladder faith remains essential, but it becomes supplemented by experience. In one sense we can say that on the Buddhist path one commences with faith and progresses to knowledge. But one could also ask what knowledge is other than a greater certainty of faith borne of experience. I do not think the Buddha would quibble with this. He does not see wisdom (or knowledge) and faith as opposed principles. He sees them as congruent with one another. Without faith, however, one simply does not do anything. It is worth asking ourselves, however, what it is that we put our faith in. What are we really hoping for from the Dharma?