Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches

Written by Teresa Morgan Reviewed By Joshua W. Jipp

Morgan’s study attempts to answer a simple question: “why is faith so important to Christians?” (p. 1). The remarkable prevalence of faith language occurring frequently throughout a number of NT writings indicates that faith was central from the very beginnings of the early Christian movement—so much so, in fact, that Morgan suggests the likelihood that it may be rooted in memories of Jesus’s proclamation and call to individuals. Rather than starting from the premise that early Christian faith is uniquely set apart from other understandings of faith, Morgan argues that one should first seek to understand how Christian faith is similar to and different from the workings of faith in the early Roman empire. Only after the interpreter has done this will s/he be able to see fully how the early Christians have creatively developed new meanings and understandings of faith. While her study is a treasure trove of rich information and significant insights related to faith in the Roman period, her primary contention is that faith is “first and foremost, neither a body of beliefs nor a function of the heart or mind, but a relationship which creates community” (p. 14, italics mine). Many of the questions that guide her study focus on the way in which faith forms relationships and communities, the threats to faith, and the foundation of faith (see pp. 34–35).

Morgan first works to situate faith language within its socio-cultural context by examining its use in Greco-Roman domestic (ch. 2), state (ch. 3), and religious discourses (ch. 4), as well as in the Septuagint (ch. 5). Morgan notes how faith-language is used to discuss a variety of relationships and is especially prominent and valued in the domestic sphere between patrons-clients, masters-slaves, and lovers. Faith is also enacted between soldiers and their army commanders, is a necessary virtue of the emperors, takes place between the Roman senate and Rome’s citizens, and is frequently invoked in Roman juridical contexts. Morgan demonstrates that many of the authors used faith language alongside of cognitive/thinking language, and this shows how faith language often contains notions of trust, trustworthiness, and (propositional) belief. People often enact faith because they suppose (i.e., “think”) the object of their faith is trustworthy. And often faith is invoked in moments when there is a crisis or some kind of danger that threatens relationships. If faith is in doubt, then oaths, appeals to cults of Fides, and legal trusts may be used to strengthen trust between two parties and thereby insuring good faith. The frequent use of faith language in interpersonal contexts means that one cannot so easily disentangle faith, then, as propositional content (belief) from the risk of trusting others. Morgan emphasizes that the incredible range of activities within which faith is invoked indicate its importance “for the creation, articulation, and functioning of any group or institution” (p. 117). The importance of faith for society and community explains why such virtues as faith and righteousness are emphasized in Roman literary depictions of a so-called golden age. The gods are also repeatedly spoken of as showing faith toward their human worshippers. Jupiter and cults of Fides are looked to as the guardians of oaths and treaties. The trustworthiness of the gods is also often held up as creating the virtue of faith in those who worship the gods. Divine faith and human faith are foundational for society and for the establishment of relationships, for “to deny the gods is to dismantle our understanding not only of the divine but of human nature and society” (p. 173). Within the Septuagint faith language is used to describe the creation and development of relationships, and this is seen paradigmatically in the story of Abraham where Abraham’s faith “does not evolve without the negotiation of doubt” (p. 181). Faith language is also used, however, to refer to God’s continued commitment to humanity as seen, for example, in his promise to show faith to the promises made to David (Ps 89; Isa 55).

In chs. 6–10 Morgan turns to the NT compositions and shows how the early Christians draw upon established meanings of faith language and creatively develop it into a new concept and practice. She notes that the frequency of faith language in the early Pauline texts is unmatched by the Greco-Roman sources: “The central importance of pistis to Christians will mean that they develop understandings of its nature and operation, especially between the divine and humanity, which are far more complex than those of surrounding cultures” (p. 223). Morgan argues that Paul develops a divine-human economy of faith such that God is faithful to his people and, through the trustworthiness of his apostles, works to create faith in God’s people (e.g., 1 Thess 1:4, 7–8; 2:4). This economy of divine-human faith is developed further in Romans and Galatians where Christ takes on a more central role. Morgan argues that the pistis Christou passages have a “Janus-faced quality,” as they express both Christ’s character of faith toward God and humans and set him forth as the one who creates faith in his people. “It is precisely the fact that Christ is both faithful to God and worthy of God’s trust, trustworthy by human beings and trusted by them, that enables him to take those who pisteuein into righteousness” (p. 274). Thus, Paul uses faith language to articulate “the tripartite relationship between God, Christ, and humanity, putting Christ in the centre of a nexus of faithfulness, trustworthiness, and trust which runs in all direction between God and Christ, Christ and humanity, and humanity and God” (p. 281). The intensity with which Paul uses faith language to describe this three-way relationship is unparalleled. Both Romans and Galatians are also distinctive for their emphasis on faith as establishing a new relationship between humans and God/Christ. Morgan further notes the innovation of actually describing the early Christians with such language as “those who belong to the household of trust” (Gal 6:10) or “the faithful.” Also surprising is the fact that the early Christians all but eliminate the more prosaic uses of faith to describe intra-human relations; rather, faith is almost entirely reworked as something that only characterizes the divine-human relationship.

Morgan’s examination of the Synoptic Gospels further confirms her argument that faith-language is primarily as “a relationship and a praxis, rather than primarily as a state of the heart and mind with an object” (p. 348). Faith language is used within Mark’s Gospel to “express the complexity of Jesus’s identity and status, and the complexity of the divine-human relationship when Jesus is involved” (p. 349). For example, when Mark notes that Jesus could do no miracles in Nazareth because of the lack of faith (6:5–6), this draws attention to the absence of a relationship between Jesus and the people which prevents the mediation of God’s power between Jesus and the people. Christ’s unique identity as associated with God and yet human means that faith language often captures the “complexity and . . . the mystery of his identity” (p. 393). Within the Acts of the Apostles it is remarkable that the author never uses faith language to describe the relationship between members among the community; rather, Acts is all about how the word of God, the message of the resurrected Christ, creates faith in the Lord Jesus. John’s Gospel is similar in that its use of faith language (always the verb) is used exclusively to refer to the human response of trust in Christ as the Son of God. Once again, relational trust is interconnected with propositional beliefs about Jesus’s identity.

Given the frequency with which theologians have emphasized the uniqueness of faith as consisting in its interiority, Morgan examines the extent to which faith is understood as an emotion. She shows that faith is often spoken of as intertwined with other emotions, but that later Christian theologians have emphasized its interiority in a way that does not match its use in the first-century. The major contribution of the early Christians to our understanding of faith, rather, lies in the overwhelming use of faith to structure the divine-human relationship and the structure of Christian communities. Morgan’s study demonstrates persuasively that the NT’s use of faith “proved to be so rich, and so adaptable to developing understandings of the relationship between God, Christ, and humanity, together with understandings of human life and activity within that relationship, that pistis is everywhere involved with the early evolution of those understandings” (p. 503).

I suspect that this book will become a classic within NT studies as it is the only full-length treatment of the early Christian use of faith as seen within its first-century domestic, political, and religious context (at least so far as I know). The majority of recent studies on faith have been dominated by the question of how to translate and understand Paul’s contentious pistis Christou phrases, but Morgan’s study will cause biblical interpreters to reexamine their assumptions about the meaning of faith-language. Morgan’s study contains an incredible wealth of primary source documentation of the uses of faith language and simultaneously presents a strong thesis regarding the use of faith language to structure relationships (especially the divine-human relationship for the NT texts). This lengthy review has not been able to do justice to the potential insights the biblical exegete may derive by situating the NT use of faith language within its first-century context. Given that Morgan turns her eye to all of the NT compositions, the reader may find herself longing for fuller examination of the particular passages and how faith language may relate, for example, to justice/righteousness language, but Morgan has provided a great service by infusing NT studies with a robust and creative treatment of one of its most central themes.

Joshua W. Jipp

Joshua W. Jipp
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA

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