OK, so whenever I bring up the T word, I realise most people head for the hills. Theology is about as popular for most folks – and most Christians – as an ice bath in Alaska. So those actually hanging around to read this piece will be close to none.
But for the handful of folks who are still with me, I want to look at one passage – several in fact. I write this mainly with a friend in mind who does love theology, and who is a real stickler for one particular interpretation of one particular Greek New Testament phrase.
It is found in various places, including four times in Galatians (2:16 [twice]; 2:20; 3:22). The phrase is pistis Christou, being in the genitive (possessive) case. There are various ways this can be interpreted, with two main constructions possible. One sees it as objective (“faith in Christ”) while the other views it as subjective (“the faith of Christ”).
For a number of reasons a majority of scholars prefer the objective as do most Bible translations. When my friend – who is an avid supporter of the subjective genitive – pressed me on this, I went through my twenty plus commentaries on Galatians, discovering that most indeed prefer the objective.
Luther of course favoured the subjective, as do Lutheran professors such as J. Louis Martyn, but the rest either go for the objective, or simply say that one could go either way here. The few others offering a defence of the subjective include Witherington in his 1998 commentary, and Longenecker in his 1990 WBC commentary. The few Bible translations opting for the subjective are the NET and CEB.
However the subjective understanding is gaining increased acceptance amongst many Pauline interpreters. Thus the debate is very much alive and well in New Testament, theological, and Pauline studies circles. And it looks like it will continue for quite some time.
Entire volumes have been penned on this one short phrase. Consider but two of them. We have the 2010 volume, The Faith Of Jesus Christ: The Pistis Christou Debate edited by Michael Bird and Preston Sprinkle (Baker/Paternoster Press). In this volume a number of different experts argue for one or the other, or even opt for a third position.
An earlier volume by Richard Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (Eerdmans, 1983, 2002) is also important. Hays argues that we should go with the subjective genitive, and believes that speaking of “the faith of Christ” or “the faithfulness of Christ” is the correct way to understand Paul here.
The arguments for and against are many and detailed, and cannot all be properly rehearsed here. Suffice it to say that there are theological, linguistic, contextual and grammatical considerations that must be weighed up and assessed. And this is no mere trivial pursuit, since theological understandings of Paul can differ rather substantially depending on how we translate this phrase.
Let me finish with just a few authors and their take on this. The most recent evangelical commentary to appear on Galatians is that of Douglas Moo in the BECNT series which just came out late last year. While he acknowledges the growing move for the subjective, he still prefers the objective.
After a lengthy discussion he writes, “We conclude, then, that the traditional interpretation of the phrase pistis Christou as a reference to human believing ‘in’ Christ is well grounded. This understanding of the genitive is strongly suggested by parallel constructions and fits the context of Galatians better than the alternative.”
Another recent commentary, by Thomas Schreiner (ZECNT, 2010), spends a few pages on this, listing seven arguments for each position. He then writes, “Despite the arguments supporting a subjective genitive, there are still good reasons to prefer an objective genitive.”
Gordon Fee’s 2007 commentary offers seven arguments against the subjective rendering, and he then states that the “traditional meaning is almost certainly the correct one.” Those wishing to follow the debate in much further detail are urged to get the volume edited by Bird and Sprinkle mentioned above.
Let me conclude with one who strongly champions the subjective understanding, and one whom my friend is a strong proponent of. I refer to noted Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance (1913-2007). In his 1983 (revised, 1992) volume, The Mediation of Christ, we see a strong appeal for the subjective.
At the end of his chapter on our human response to the mediation of Christ he writes: “In conclusion, let me direct you to those striking words of St Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians, 2:20, which give succinct expression to the evangelical truth which we have been trying to clarify.
“‘I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith, the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.’ This is surely the insight that we must allow to inform all our human responses to God, whether they be in faith, conversion and personal decision, worship and prayer, the holy sacraments, or the proclamation of the Gospel: ‘I yet not I but Christ’. This applies even to faith.
“I am convinced that the peculiar expression which St Paul used to express the faith-relationship with Christ should be translated as I have rendered it, but even if it is translated as ‘by faith in the Son of God’, the self-correction made by St Paul applies, ‘not I but Christ’. That is to say, when I say ‘I believe’ or ‘I have faith’, I must correct myself and add ‘not I but Christ in me’. That is the message of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ on which the Gospel tells me I may rely: that Jesus Christ in me believes in my place and at the same time takes up my poor faltering and stumbling faith into his – ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief’ – enabling, upholding and undergirding it through his invariant faithfulness. That is the kind of faith which will never fail.
“But this applies to the whole of my life in Christ and to all my human responses to God, for in Jesus Christ they are laid hold of, sanctified and informed by his vicarious life of obedience and response to the Father. They are in fact so indissolubly united to the life of Jesus Christ which he lived out among us and which he has offered to the Father, as arising out of our human being and nature, that they are our responses toward the love of the Father poured out upon us through the mediation of the Son and in the unity of his Holy Spirit.”