In recent years, New Testament theologians have discussed and debated the meaning of pistis christou. There is no doubt that the Bible calls us to put our faith in Christ’s faithfulness for our salvation. Still, when it comes to specific passages, the phrase pistis christou is ambiguous. Should this phrase be translated as “faith in Christ” or the “faithfulness of Christ”?
The discussion was reignited thirty years ago with Richard Hays proposing that the translation “faithfulness of Christ” best represents the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of “participation in Christ”. To believe in Christ is to share in his faithfulness. Those who disagree with Hays worry that pressing the “faithfulness of Christ” interpretation could downplay Paul’s emphasis on the necessity of human faith as the response to the gospel.
The debate transcends denominational categories and theological camps. New Perspective proponent N.T. Wright prefers “faithfulness of Christ” while Wright’s NP counterpart, James D.G. Dunn chooses “faith in Christ.” There is a spectrum of opinion on the subject from all different directions.
For several years now, I’ve been mulling over this discussion, seeking clarity as to what Paul intended to communicate. Though I was never 100% sure of either option, I was initially attracted to the “faithfulness of Christ” translation for several reasons that I found compelling:
1. Translating pistis christou as “faithfulness of Christ” avoids repetition in key passages.
- Romans 3:21-22 sounds odd if translated as “- that is, God’s righteousness through trust in Jesus Christ, to all who trust.” Could it be that Paul’s intention was “God’s righteousness through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, to all who believe”?
- Here’s a similar occurrence in Galatians 2:16: “And we have trusted in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by trust in Christ and not by works of the law.” The repetition is avoided if understood as “And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by works of the law.”
2. Translating pistis christou as “faithfulness of Christ” is theologically attractive.
- The theme of “union with Christ” is a powerful one in Pauline theology, and it makes good sense of a number of passages. For example, the KJV translates Galatians 2:20 with the subjective genitive: “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
- When incorporated into Reformation categories of theology, “faithfulness of Christ” bolsters support for the doctrine of imputation. “We are justified by the faithfulness of Christ (his perfect obedience to the Father’s will, his faithfulness unto death on behalf of his covenant people).”
- Philippians 3:9 seems to put more emphasis on Christ’s faithfulness, rather than our faith, as the means of supplying our needed righteousness. “Not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through the faithfulness of Christ – the righteousness from God based on faith.” Anything that appears to give more glory to Christ is attractive to me.
3. The juxtaposition of Israel’s unfaithfulness (works of the law) and Christ’s faithfulness (through his death) provides a compelling interpretation of the key passages in Galatians.
- Ardel Caneday writes: “In Galatians, Paul’s argument features Christ Jesus over against Torah, with Torah in a servant role to Christ, as preparatory for Christ who has now come. Paul’s antithetical placement of pistis christou with “works of the law” / “law” placards the faithfulness of Christ Jesus who accomplishes what the Law could not.”
For a while, I leaned toward the “faithfulness of Christ” view, primarily because the reasons listed above. Still, despite the attraction of that translation, I have recently shifted in the other direction. Today, I am convinced that the New Testament authors intended pistis christou to refer to “faith in Christ” rather than the faithfulness of Christ. Here are the reasons that swayed me the other way:
1. None of the early church fathers or early Greek readers give a subjective genitive reading of pistis christou. In fact, the discussion doesn’t even come up.
- This reason is the most compelling to me. As a fluent Romanian speaker, I’ve observed quirky grammatical constructions that could possibly mean two or more things within the flow of the language. If Romanians, however, hear those grammatical constructions in only one way, then I know that I’m correct in translating the ambiguous phrase according to its unambiguous meaning in its original language and the receptor language. The same principle applies to native Greek speakers.
- Barry Matlock writes: “It is not that the subjective genitive reading is explicitly rejected among early Greek readers… but rather that no awareness is shown of this option nor indeed of any problem, and so the objective is read without polemic or apology. Silence can be very eloquent, and here it fairly sings.”
2. The “repetition” problem isn’t as big a problem as it first appears.
- In Rom. 3:21-22, Paul probably intends to place the emphasis on the “all”: -that is, God’s righteousness through trust in Jesus Christ, to all who trust.
- It is also likely that Paul uses repetition intentionally. In an oral culture, this is a common technique at getting across one’s point.
3. Grammatically, there are other places where the genitive refers to Christ as the object.
- In Philippians 3:8, Jesus Christ is described as the object of knowledge. In 1 Thessalonians, he is described as the object of hope. In both these cases, it is clear from the context that Paul is not talking about Christ’s knowledge or Christ’s hope. There is no grammatical reason why the same can’t be true of pistis christou.
4. We should not do exegesis with a bias toward “what is theologically attractive.”
- Though I love the emphasis the “faithfulness of Christ” view places on Christ’s obedience, I can’t let my exegesis be driven by what appears to support my theological position. The key issue is “what did the author intend to communicate?”, not “how does this boost what I already believe?”
- Regarding my thoughts above on Christ’s faithfulness to the covenant, I should reiterate that Paul’s emphasis on “faith in Christ” does not undermine the truth that God is the One doing the saving.
- Michael Bird writes: “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.”
The more I study, the more I am convinced that pistis christou should be translated “faith in Christ.” What about you? Have you considered this debate? Which way do you lean?
(For more information on this debate, I recommend reading The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies. Also of interest, a post from Collin Hansen that summarizes the views of several New Testament scholars.)