Pistis Christou: A Pauline Bungle? image

Pistis Christou: A Pauline Bungle?

For a generation, the discussion has been raging in academic circles over whether the Greek phrase pistis Christou should be understood as meaning ‘faith in Christ’ or ‘faithfulness of Christ’. For almost all interpreters until the last few decades, the question hasn’t really been a question: it means ‘faith in Christ’ (the ‘objective genitive’ reading, since Christ is the object of the faith). But writers like Richard Hays and Tom Wright, along with an increasingly large contingent within New Testament scholarship, have argued strongly that it should instead be translated ‘faithfulness of Christ’ (the ‘subjective genitive’, since Christ is the subject of the faith/faithfulness.) And unlike a lot of debates in Pauline scholarship, this one could actually make a substantial difference.

Take Romans 3:22, for example. Christians for centuries have read it as if it means, ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.’ But what if, instead, it means, ‘the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe’? What if Romans 1:17 is talking about the righteous one – that is, Jesus – living faithfully, rather than (as Luther argued) about those who have faith being justified? What if Galatians 2:16 is not setting up an antithesis between ‘faith’ and ‘works’ at all, since pistis Christou should be translated ‘the fidelity of Christ’ rather than ‘faith in Christ’? How might this change our reading of Romans and Galatians, or even Protestant theology?
Some have argued that it wouldn’t. There are a number of scholars who have been persuaded that pistis Christou means ‘faithfulness of Christ’, but that this does not alter the fact that Paul taught that justification was by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law. There are other scholars, such as Wright, Hays and many ‘New Perspective’ advocates, who would argue that it does make a difference – the faith/law antithesis should be understood in a different way, because ‘faith’ is about Jesus’ fidelity not our belief, and ‘law’ is about specifically Jewish boundary markers rather than legalism – but that justification is still on the basis of faith. But there are also scholars, like Douglas Campbell and several who have followed him, who argue that for Paul, faith is not a condition of salvation at all. As it was memorably expressed at a conference I attended recently, in which Doug was making his case, ‘everyone is in Christ: wake up and smell the coffee.’ (The meaning of pistis Christou is just one of many factors contributing to this interpretation, by the way – but if the genitive is subjective, it is certainly harder to undermine his argument). So for some interpreters, the reading of the genitive makes little theological difference; but for others, it opens exegetical doors that would otherwise be bolted shut.
All of which might help explain why the following quotation from Moises Silva, in his review of Doug’s book The Deliverance of God for Themelios, is worth considering. It won’t settle the debate, of course – polemic paragraphs like this rarely do – but it’s an unusually accessible expression of an important idea:

With regard to the debate as a whole, I happen to believe, naively perhaps, that the evidence is not all that ambiguous—or to put it more accurately, that the ambiguities in the data are plainly resolved by Paul’s many unambiguous statements. If by pistis Christou (which in isolation can indeed signify any number of things) the apostle had meant either “Christ’s faith” or “Christ’s faithfulness,” it would have been ridiculously easy for him to make that point clear beyond dispute. Among various possibilities, he could have, for example, indicated—in the same contexts—one or two ways in which Jesus believed and how those acts of faith were relevant to the matter at hand. Or he could have told us—again, in the same contexts—that his message of dikaiosynē (“righteousness, justification”) is true because Christos pistos estin (“Christ is faithful”). What could have been simpler? And considering the theological importance of this issue, one would think that he might have made a special effort to clarify matters.

Instead, if some scholars are to be believed, Paul did not have enough sense to realize that the phrase pistis Christou is ambiguous. And to make matters worse, he unwittingly misled his readers by using the verb pisteuō with Christos as direct object again and again in the very same passages that have the ambiguous phrase! His bungling proved spectacularly successful, for in the course of nearly two millennia, virtually every reader—including ancient scholars for whom Greek was their native language—understood the phrase to mean “faith in Christ” and gave no hint that it might mean something else.

That’s well put, I think.

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