A Little Theological Exercise

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.”

[1129 words]

24 Replies to “A Little Theological Exercise”

  1. Absolutely fascinating. I’ve been studying “faith” over the last few months. Much to chew over.

  2. Jaroslav Pelikan, in his book, “Bach Among the Theologians” highlights the influence of the Pietistic movement that altered the emphasis from ‘Christ for us’ to ‘Christ in us’. Fascinating how one word can make such a difference.

  3. One of my pastors is a well-read former Salvo. He often refers to being “in Christ” as a status, a concept I really appreciate. I’m sure he would support your premise.

  4. Bill, I hope that your CultureWatch readers will stop and read your latest post, and not “head for the hills” when they see the word theology!

    Otherwise they’ll be missing out on something that could immeasurably strengthen their faith.

    The faith of the Son of God is far more powerful than my feeble and wavering faith in Him.

    People should read and take to heart that superb passage you quoted from Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance’s commentary on St Paul’s epistle to the Galatians 2:20.

    It’s both revolutionary in its implications and firmly grounded in Scripture.

    It’s certainly given me something to think about.

    John Ballantyne, Melbourne.

  5. Hi Bill, thanks for this article. I tend to come down from the hills for an interesting theological discussion.
    It is many years ago, reading an article by Karl Barth ( I can’t remember what it was) where I noted his strong insistence that this expression in Galatians and others of Paul must be taken as what Barth termed quite literally the faith of Jesus Christ. In view of my later readings of KB and especially my recent studies of KB’s theology of “Participation in Christ” as expounded by Adam Neder, this subjective understanding of the phrase is completely at one with KB’s theology and at one with your quotations of Thomas Torrance.
    Personally I too go along with that view especially in view with Paul’s constant hammering that what we are and have as Christians, it is all “in Christ”, cf Ephesians ch.1 ff.

  6. Thanks Cameron. Yes the book is on my “to get” list. Of course it major theme is a defence of limited atonement, but there are some overlapping areas here.

  7. This is actually probably my most favorite article you’ve written for 2014 brother Bill. A well polished gem!!

  8. Yeah I know it’s on Definite Atonement but as you seem to be in a theological mood I thought I’d shamelessly plug it as it is one of my favourite books now sitting on my shelves.

  9. Thanks for pointing this out Bill.  These verses in Galatians may well be referring to the faithfulness of Christ.  The book of Hebrews has quite a bit to say about this.  Here are a few verses:

    ‘He (Jesus) was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house.’ (Hebrews 3:2 NASB)

    ‘but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.’ (Hebrews 3:6 NASB)


    ‘fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith …’ (Hebrews 12:2 NASB)

    In regard to us, we are warned about unbelief, disobedience and having a hard heart (see Hebrews 3 & 4).

  10. The funny thing is I think I have both and that’s a nice feeling Thank you for that. … but then prepositions never were my strong point.

    Next: “Is “Christou” Jesus the man or the anointing (Christou) of the Holy Spirit or does it not matter because they both are one?”

    Sorry but it is in my nature to tease. I think what you are highlighting is the journey we all take from the natural, the “in” to the supernatural, the “of”.

  11. On second thought we should just get rid of the annoying and confusing English prepositions altogether, I never liked them anyway and it should just be “faith anointing” ….. or should that be “anointing faith”?

  12. Ok so this is way above me but I’ll still try to chisel a track in my brain to get this.
    Clever folk argue whether Jesus is in us or were in him?
    I’m still missing something aren’t I.
    I like to think Christ is living in me therefore I’m a new creation, but I’m not doing anything of the sort am I, Christ is doing it.

  13. Thanks for this Bill. I don’t actually find Torrance convincing in the quotation you gave. Just for interest I picked up Wallace’s “Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics” and was a little surprised that he on balance prefers the subjective view. I regard him as a pretty good grammarian, but he says that the issue will not be decided on grammar. I’ll have to keep thinking, but so far the objective view seems more likely to me.

  14. OK Paul probably would have chastised me too as “jesting is inconvenient”. I do humbly apologise.
    The confusion arises because, unlike other Greek nouns such as kudos or cosmos, christos never made it across into the vernacular of the Germanic tribes, probably because “Christ” was used as a blasphemous expletive, much to our shame. If it had I think the dichotomy would have disappeared. The translators did not want to use the English word “anointing” because Christ is the title of Jesus and to do so could be considered disrespectful but in using a term without general acceptance of its meaning we lost the intended interchangeability of the Christ Jesus and the Christ Holy Spirit. These two terms were always meant to be considered interchangeable to some extent. I think some of the problem goes away if you read the passage replacing “Christ” with “The Anointing”. The “pistis Christou” should be read essentially as is, that is the “faith anointing” (or perhaps the” Faith Anointing” as the capitalisation is added by us as a mark of respect.)
    I would also suggest people should not read chapter two without reading chapter three.

  15. I do think the objective genitive has more going for it. It fits in with the rest of the New Testament better. The fact that Torrance went with the subjective genitive is probably a good reason to lean to the objective! Being ‘in Christ’ still fits in with the objective genitive. The focus in all the passages is on the human response (no, faith does not come from us but we exercise it) and the contrast with works. This too points more towards the objective genitive.

  16. I got quite excited reading this at work during my lunch break, Bill, because while on my morning walk today, I was meditating on Philippians chapter 3, where we find the similar phrase ‘pistis Christos’. I was entertaining thoughts similar to the ideas that come from adopting the subjective point of view, as related in your article.
    Phil 3:9 ‘…‘not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.’
    Paul is saying here that the righteousness he wants is that which comes from God. My thoughts were taking me in the following direction – If this righteousness comes from God, by implication it must BE God’s. I found myself then thinking similarly about the final part of the verse – ‘…and is by faith’…wondering to myself whose faith? Christ’s, ours or a divine combination of the two working together? It was enough to fire my thoughts off onto other similar verses that speak of faith, such as Rom 1:17 – ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ (Whose? Our faith? or God’s faithfulness?) Wonderful stuff to contemplate.

  17. “Faith in Christ” is, in the sense of Ephesians 2:8, “the gift of God”. Therefore, may there not be a case for understanding the Greek phrase discussed above to mean both “faith in Christ” and the “faith of Christ” at the one and the same time?

    True faithfulness to God surely can only spring from true faith in God and his Christ – a faith which is intimately associated with the work of the Spirit of Christ in a believer’s life.

    In this exegetical issue, and in some others in Scripture, we may have to reckon with language which is intentionally capable of supporting two veins of meaning simultaneously!

  18. Quite correct. We do a similar thing in English too. We call wise people “the wise” or holy people “the holy” the word is both a noun and an adjective depending on how it is used. If you miss the Greek language’s ability to move from noun to adjective on a contextual basis you miss one of the profound subtleties of the Bible. When the Hebrew term the Messiah (anointed) is translated into the Greek “Christos”, it not only means “of the anointing” or having the quality of being anointed but it also literally means the “anointing”. This is a subtle but important distinction. When Jesus was anointed to fulfil all righteousness the word, as I recall, is “Chrio” or the verb form but the title of Jesus is “Christos” I.E. having the quality of anointing (not the past tense of the verb to anoint as in the Hebrew translation.) If he was titled ”Jesus the Wise” the term would have been “Iesous Sofos “ but a ”sofos” is a wise person as well as describing someone who is wise or has the quality of wisdom.

    So what we have is the Old Testament, Hebrew Messiah, where Jesus has the anointing, to the Gospels, in Greek, where Jesus is the Christ – not only “the anointed” but also having the quality of the anointing and these then point to the Epistles where, not only is Jesus the anointing but He is also our anointing. You could compromise and translate the “Faith in Christ” term simply as “Christ faith” but that still does not give the full message of “faith anointing” because people do not routinely associate the term Christ with anointing. If we all thought in Greek it would be different.

    This is also part of the body of evidence that points to the Hebrew and Greek language as being specifically created for writing the Old and New Testaments because the languages reflect what actually happens.

    Ponder that one.

    Blessings to all.

  19. I am not sure if I am able to follow those clever grammatical and linguistic conversations. I just know that I live by “the faith of the son of God” and it has never failed me because He never fails. If I depended on my own faithfulness, I would certainly be up the creek without a paddle.
    I noticed though that Heb 3:6 and Heb 12:2 which were quoted above had an injunction, a command for us to follow. “fix your eyes on” and keep them there, I would imagine. Heb 3:6 had an “if”, which suggests we need to do something and keep doing it. Like in the giving of a gift, the one who gives the gift is the initiator of the giving and receiving process and provides the greater part of the transaction, but without the receiver doing the receiving, the transaction is not complete. So, both parts are important to make the whole. God’s 99% and our 1%.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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