Faith of Jesus Christ (in Galatians)

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Over the last several decades, a lively debate has been taking place over the meaning of the phrase faith of Christ or faith of Jesus Christ in Paul’s writings. The recent debate was triggered by Richard Hays’s dissertation on Galatians 3. He took the position that the phrase refers to Christ’s own faith or faithfulness rather than to the believer’s faith in Christ, which has been common in English translations (Hays 2002). However, we should notice that in subsequent debate Hays has taken a moderate position, resisting the now fashionable trend to see this meaning in many other formulations of Pauline faith.

The faith of Christ is the literal translation of the Greek pistis tou christou. The expression appears in Galatians in 2:16 (twice); 2:20 (Son of God); and 3:22. It appears elsewhere in the undisputed letters of Paul in Romans 3:22, 26; and Philippians 3:9. The two principal ways this phrase is currently translated in the debate are Jesus Christ’s faith/faithfulness, or, faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, the person named can be either the doer (the subject) or the receiver (the object) of the action implied by the other noun—faith, in this case.

The expression baptism of the Spirit, for example, can mean either the baptism done by the Spirit or the baptism in which the Spirit is given. In Greek grammar these options are known respectively as the subjective genitive or the objective genitive. Consequently, if we take our phrase in the subjective sense, the meaning is the faith or faithfulness that Jesus Christ displays, while the objective sense is expressed as faith directed to Jesus Christ. The Greek phrase can be used either way. In fact, there are more than two ways to understand it. This kind of ambiguity is common in language, and we depend on something in the context or our experience to determine the correct meaning. For instance, when Paul says, “The love of Christ compels us” in 2 Corinthians 5:14 (NIV), does he mean our love for Christ (objective genitive), or Christ’s love for us (subjective genitive)? Either possibility exists in both the Greek and the English.

Martin Luther’s translation is the first known instance where our phrase was rendered in a German equivalent to faith in Jesus Christ. Before that, translations tended to preserve the ambiguity by translating word for word. The history of English translations is interesting in this regard. The King James Version translated our phrase in its usual literal way as faith of Jesus Christ. How the common reader understood this is unclear, but the overwhelming number of commentators before the late twentieth century interpreted it in the sense of the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ. Presumably that was the popular understanding as well. Later the translation faith in Jesus Christ became nearly universal. Only recently have translations begun to footnote the possible alternate reading of the faith of Jesus Christ. For this reason, modern English readers remain largely unaware of the ambiguity in Paul’s expression.

Adding to our difficulty is the fact that pistis, the biblical word for faith, has a range of meanings. It can mean “trust, faith or faithfulness, fidelity, or beliefs” in the sense of the thing believed. Particularly relevant to the present question is the choice between placing trust in something or someone and being faithful or trustworthy. Is Paul emphasizing the disposition with which one relates to God (i.e., faith as trust), or with a behavior that displays fidelity toward God (as with faithfulness), or a combination of the two? If Paul means Jesus Christ’s faith (subjective genitive), did Christ himself exercise trust in God (as do other believers), or did he demonstrate faithfulness to God in his life and work, or both?

One can also see why major questions of theology soon surface in this discussion. What is Paul trying to do? Is he emphasizing Jesus Christ’s work in redemption by grounding it in Christ’s own faith or faithfulness? Or is he accenting the fact that the believer is redeemed through the believer’s faith, based on Jesus Christ’s work? Moreover, is Paul focusing more directly on salvation (by faith) or on ethics (in faithfulness)? Or does Paul focus equally on both? If faith means the thing believed, is the question of who does the action beside the point, since the emphasis is on the character of the gospel rather than on someone’s action, whether Jesus Christ’s or the believer’s? Such fundamental theological issues make this debate lively and lasting!

Despite the preceding ambiguities, most interpreters agree that none of the options in this debate fundamentally changes Paul’s theology. Adequate evidence for his views exists in other parts of his writing. Nevertheless, accurate assessments of Paul’s meaning in each context can help us weigh nuances and accents in his theology.

Many students of Paul find, in the concept of Christ’s faith or faithfulness, a fresh way to understand Paul that opens new options for old problems in interpretation or that can reinforce established confessional views. For example, understanding faith as faithfulness can open up new ways to relate the saving benefit of Christ’s death and his life as a model or example for Christian living. Relating salvation and ethics more closely makes Paul more congenial to Christian traditions, such as the one represented in the present commentary series, for which discipleship and holiness of life are central (see Toews on the Romans texts). However, the traditions that emphasize the sovereignty of God stress faith over faithfulness in the translation and are attracted to the strong accent on the divine action in faith: in Christ himself, God supplies the faith that saves (see Martyn on the Galatians texts). This helps explain why the translation Christ’s faith or faithfulness has become popular across a wide theological spectrum.

In light of the recent trend just identified, it seems appropriate to test the strength of the translation as Christ’s own faith or faithfulness. Despite the potential of this translation to stimulate new insights in Paul’s thought, there is no claim that it introduces a totally new dimension. It supports the highlighting of other topics in Paul that have not always been given their due. Principal here is the concept of Christ’s obedience, which closely parallels the idea of faithfulness. And identification with Christ makes the life example of Jesus Christ essential. Thus a theology of Christ’s own faith is compatible with Paul’s thought. It also indicates that how we understand our expression does not determine how we understand Paul’s theology overall.

Whatever the strengths of understanding pistis tou christou as referring to Christ’s own faith or faithfulness, there are weaknesses in attributing this meaning to Paul.

First, Paul nowhere gives an extended exposition of such an understanding, using this specific vocabulary. If it actually had the importance that proponents find in the phrase, it would be surprising that this phrase appears only this way in Paul’s writing. Paul never uses either the noun faith, or the verb believe, or the adjective faithful for Christ apart from this expression. Paul never engages in an expanded discussion of such a concept. The fact that Paul never uses faith language unambiguously as an act of Jesus Christ himself, while he consistently uses the language of obedience in this sense (see Phil 2:1-11; Rom 5:19), makes it unlikely that our phrase refers to Jesus Christ’s own faith.

Second, in both the Galatians and Romans contexts where our phrase appears, Paul uses Abraham as an example of faith in support of his argument. In Galatians 3, Paul shows that Abraham’s faith exemplifies human response to the promise of God, or to the divine initiative of God. Note the large number of references in the chapter to promise, which has faith as its corollary. Attempts to make faithful Abraham a type of the faithful Christ (cf. Hays 2002; Gorman 2009) in support of the concept of Christ’s faith or faithfulness in Galatians do not do justice to this context. Although Paul cites Christ as the seed of Abraham and thus shows that Christ stands in the tradition of the promises to Abraham (3:16), Paul’s point is that God’s promise is what endures to the present time and what characterizes the gospel of Christ—not the Law! Christ is not an exact parallel to Abraham; Christ is not said to have faith in divine promise in the way that Abraham did. To the contrary, in Galatians 3 Christ is presented as the fulfillment of promise, not as one who submits to promise. Furthermore, Paul’s appeal to Abraham focuses on faith as trust and openness to God’s promise, not on faithfulness or obedience. The same is true in Romans 4. This applies also to the allegory in Galatians 4. Not that one should contrast or even separate these two meanings in Paul’s thought! But close attention to Paul’s arguments in this context suggests that Paul is emphasizing faith more than faithfulness. Faith in Galatians refers predominantly to human receptivity to God’s gift of redemption and to God’s gift of the Spirit.

Third, Paul’s view of faith was a matter of dispute in the earliest church. The letter of James reflects this debate. Interestingly, the debate in James centers on faith in relation to works—both of which are actions of the believer. Clearly the debate is not about faith as faithfulness; otherwise James would have had no reason to emphasize works. The idea of faithfulness does appear in Hebrews and Revelation, which refer to Christ as faithful. This fits the themes of those books, which call for the perseverance of believers under testing. But Galatians deals with a different issue.

Fourth, the earliest commentators of Paul, whose native Greek language was the same as Paul’s, show no evidence of understanding the phrase as referring to Christ’s own faith (Harrisville). This is a significant observation! Most of the occurrences of the expression in the Greek writers carry the same ambiguity as they do in Paul. But scholars generally agree that, in some instances, faith clearly refers to the response of the believer. No instance refers unambiguously to Christ’s own faith or faithfulness.

Fifth, no interpretation of our phrase as Christ’s own faith has been identified before the eighteenth century (Bird and Sprinkle: 15). It is rare until the twentieth century. Translations of the phrase into other languages from the early centuries to the King James Version use equivalents of faith of Jesus Christ without indicating how it was interpreted. Translators in premodern times translated as literally as possible out of reverence for the sacred text. How the expression was understood must be shown by commentaries, sermons, and explicit discussions of the interpretation. But so far, no case is known where the reference is to Christ’s faith.

So although understanding pistis tou christou as a reference to Christ’s own faith or faithfulness is grammatically and theologically possible and even attractive, no certain case exists of this sense, either in Paul, in his early interpreters who shared a common language, or in any interpreter before modern times.

Readers of the Toews volume on Romans in this same series will note that he understands the phrase to refer to Christ’s faith. He gives four reasons for his view. The first two reasons are based on language usage. He states that the usage in Greek outside and inside the New Testament is overwhelmingly in support of his position. However, later study has not sustained this claim, and today the more typical view is that appeals to language usage cannot answer our question. Both subjective and objective meanings are possible in the Greek (for details, see Bird and Sprinkle: 16–26). Toews’s third reason takes the earlier translations of our phrase as faith of Jesus Christ as evidence for his position. But this does not constitute solid evidence, as noted in point 5 above. The full evidence points in the opposite direction. His last reason is that taking the phrase in an objective sense would introduce a redundancy in many of the relevant Pauline texts, with the human act of believing being stated twice in immediate succession. Not everyone sees the redundancy, but the position defended below makes the question mute.

Now let us consider the traditional meaning of faith as that which the believer directs to Christ and the divine promises centered in him (the objective genitive)—faith in Christ. This reading assumes a more consistent meaning in the literary settings where the phrase appears. All agree that faith as an act of response to the gospel by the believer is prominent in these contexts. Without clear evidence to the contrary, it is better to assume that Paul is not mixing the meaning. As noted above, the trusting response of the believer fits best both the theme of Galatians and the example of Abraham that Paul invokes.

Two objections to this traditional understanding appear to carry serious weight. First, in Galatians and in Romans, the phrase faith of Jesus Christ is immediately followed by a statement that clearly refers to a human act of receiving (believing) the truth just affirmed in the phrase faith of Jesus Christ. This creates the appearance of redundancy when the latter phrase is translated faith in Jesus Christ. The objection has some justification, especially if our phrase is taken to emphasize the act of faith, or believing, as the English translation suggests. However, if the phrase stresses faith as the thing believed rather than the believing act itself, the redundancy disappears. This is the viewpoint that is defended below.

Second, some offer a theological argument against the traditional meaning. This has a negative and positive side. Negatively, some claim that it places too much emphasis on the human contribution to redemption. In Paul’s discussion, it may seem more worthy to contrast the works of the Law, which imply human action and which Paul critiques, with the faith of Jesus Christ as a divine action. Some have even suggested that the objective meaning in effect makes faith a human work—the very thing Paul is combating. But this last point is irrelevant. In Paul’s understanding, faith is not a work, as Romans 4:5 expressly states. Positively, the theological argument finds the idea of Christ’s own faith (subjective genitive) useful and fruitful in rounding out Paul’s view of the saving work of Christ (see the discussion above). We will address this objection in what follows.

One approach avoids focus on the word faith as a noun expressing action. Faith can refer to the thing believed. This is common today when we speak of the “Christian faith.” This meaning is already present in Galatians. In 1:23 Paul is said to be proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy, and in 6:10 the church is called the household of faith (KJV). Clearly these refer to the gospel message in its entirety, with one part of the message standing for the whole (called “metonymy”). In Galatians 3:23 and 25, Paul uses faith to refer to the historical event of Jesus’ life: faith came. This means that a third option exists for understanding the expression faith of Jesus Christ. Here Jesus Christ refers neither to the one having faith nor the one receiving faith. Rather, the name specifies or defines which faith is meant. Faith is not just any faith; it is qualified or characterized in some way by the person of Jesus Christ. This is commonly called the qualifying genitive, though genitives of authorship, source, or possession all fit within this third option. In this case one may still ask who the “doer” of the faith is. However, such a question is not central to the phrase itself and is not the point Paul is making. The substance of faith is in view, not who exercises the faith.

It seems best to take our phrase primarily in this sense, recognizing that different contexts may support differing nuances. Although this is not a new proposal, it has not figured prominently in the discussion until recently. Such English translations as Christ-faith or Christic faith have been suggested, but they are awkward. Retaining the literal faith of Jesus Christ seems preferable. Since we have found reason to reject a Pauline idea of Christ’s own faith or faithfulness, we can assume that faith in our phrase originates in the idea of the faith of the believer, with that idea lying in the background. However, in the present phrase, faith names that message whose character is defined essentially by the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore the phrase reflects both Paul’s Christ-centered theology and his conviction that faith is the single means for appropriating God’s provision in Christ.

The expression faith of Jesus Christ is thus Paul’s shorthand way of defining the gospel he preaches in a form that evokes the fundamental concerns in his debates with believers who continue to observe the Law on circumcision and expect Gentile believers to do the same. This is exactly the way Paul uses our phrase in 2:16, where he contrasts it to the phrase works of the Law, a shorthand expression for the position he rejects. Both phrases express a larger theological perspective rather than a particular action.

This proposal has the strength not only of tersely capturing Paul’s conviction that Christ is central to the gospel. It also has the advantage of overcoming the main objections to the traditional meaning as faith in Christ. It removes the appearance of redundancy in the Pauline contexts. Paul is not repeating a reference to the human response of believing. Rather, Paul is expressing the essence of the gospel. In what immediately follows, he refers to the act of the person who accepts that offer by believing. Another advantage of this proposal is that it reshapes the debate about whether the traditional translation places too much weight on the human side of salvation. In our solution, Paul defines the substance of the gospel exclusively in terms of the person of Jesus Christ. The expression does not draw attention to the human aspect of salvation, but rather to the divine provision that has come in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In conclusion, this essay does not discount the legitimacy of Christ’s personal faithfulness or its relevance for discipleship in Paul’s theology. On the contrary, this emphasis is present in and crucial to Paul, but he makes this point with other language and concepts. That emphasis exists particularly in the theme of identification with Christ (2:20; 3:26-28; 4:19). Paul’s language of faith makes a different point. (For further reading on the range of viewpoints in the debate see Hays 2002; Toews: 108–10; Bird and Sprinkle.)

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George R. Brunk III