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‘Faith in Christ’ or ‘Faithfulness of Christ’? What’s the Difference?

Photo by Madison Nickel on Unsplash

Scripture tells us Jesus Christ was faithful to fulfill his mission to seek and save the lost. The Bible then calls on us to put our faith in Jesus, so that we might be saved by grace through his atoning death and triumphant resurrection. We can have faith in Jesus because he was faithful.

When we come to specific passages, though, there is some ambiguity about whether the biblical author intends to emphasize Jesus’  faithfulness or call on readers to exercise faith. One such passage is Galatians 2:16. The difference is significant enough to attract the serious attention of biblical scholars in recent years. So I asked the Perspectives in Translation panel at Bible Gateway: How should we translate the phrase pistis Christou (πίστις Χριστοῦ)?

The ensuing conversation among scholars touched on some complicated matters of Greek grammar. But academic trends that would overturn the former preference to translate “faith in Christ” bear major implications for our belief and practice.

  • Craig Blomberg pointed out that it’s not to easy to determine this matter in a short post. Scholars have written many journal articles that choose one side over the other. He notes that the first part of the verse presents a contrast. That suggests that Paul wants to encourage his Galatian readers to do something—namely, to put their faith in Christ. Paul’s writing might be repetitive and awkward, but he’s making a point with emphasis.
  • Thomas R. Schreiner presents eight reasons Paul refers to “faith in Christ.” He cites grammar, the experience of hearing the letter read aloud, Paul’s other letters, the New Testament canon, and the interpretation of the early church fathers.
  • Michael Bird finds the NET translation of Galatians 2:16 theologically attractive: “we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”  This rendering “accentuates the Christological mechanism for justification by faith, and it underscores the salvific and representative nature of Jesus’ obedience.” Galatians 2:19b-20 and 3:25 seem to support this view. Nevertheless, Greek grammar and syntax lead him to prefer “faith in Christ.” Bird cautions, however, “Let us also remember that ‘faith in Christ’ is not simply assent to a doctrine about Christ. Faith in Christ means entrusting ourselves to the event of the gospel, which includes the theocentric act of deliverance wrought by God in Jesus which includes his coming, faithfulness, death,  and resurrection. Thus, I would say that Jesus’ faithfulness is implied not in the noun pistis but in christos.”
  • Darrell L. Bock likewise spurns the NET decision and argues that context indicates Paul calls for a response. “What Christ’s faithfulness has done clears the way for salvation, but justification does not actually kick in until we respond.”
  • T. David Gordon plans to deal with these matters more extensively in an upcoming book. But he offers a preview of his work by describing the methodology that helps us understand the relation between verbal nouns and other nouns.

Next week’s discussion at Perspectives in Translation will jump into controversial gender matters. Denny Burk takes exception with the updated NIV’s translation of 1 Timothy 2:12. Douglas J. Moo responds with insight into the NIV’s translation process about the difference between Paul’s prohibition on women “exercising” or “assuming” authority.

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