The Meaning of Pistis Christou

N.T. Wrong has begun enumerating 100 reasons for the objective genitive translation of pistis Christou (“faith in Christ”) over the subjective genitive (“faith of Christ”). I agree that the latter is faddish, but can understand to an extent why it’s been embraced by even those who might normally be resistant to trends. For Paul there was a behavioral component to faith (though I wouldn’t say an “ethical” one, at least not after I Corinthians), particularly in the way believers were to mystically imitate the savior. Believers die with Christ, to sin and the old epoch just as he did (Rom 6), following his example (as Jeffrey Gibson and David Seeley have argued, drawing on parallels of the noble death theme in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman literature), and when one is focusing on this aspect of Paul’s thought, the subjective genitive — the “faith of Christ” (or “faithfulness of Christ”, or “fidelity of Christ”), whereby Christ can be seen as a model to be followed — admittedly becomes alluring. But that some of Paul’s thought is compatible with a subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou doesn’t make the reading itself correct.

If the subjective genitive were really or primarily what Paul had in mind, we would expect him to have used (at least once, surely) Christ as the subject of the verb “believe”/”have faith”, but as Thomas Tobin points out, that never happens in the 42 places the verb is found in his letters. But he did use Christ as the object of the verb in clear cases (Rom 9:33, 10:11). (Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts, p 132). And if exegetes then desperately insist that the verb should be translated one way (“believe”/”trust”), the noun another (“faithfulness”), then they will have to contend with Francis Watson’s demolition of that distinction, based on the evidence of Paul’s scriptural interpretations in Rom 4:1-12 and 9:30-10:21 — where noun and verb are seen to be interchangeable; “believing” and the response of “faith” one and the same (Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, pp 241-244).

In one of the most careful considerations of Rom 3:21-26 I’ve come across, Stephen Finlan rightly notes how the subjective genitive makes for a clumsy reading of the passage (The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors, pp 147-148). I think he’s a bit too gracious in conceding Rom 4:16 to the opposition, where Paul speaks of Christians who “share the faith of Abraham”. The faith of Abraham, for Paul, is faith in God/Christ; I don’t see Rom 4:16 as lending itself so strongly to the subjective genitive as it’s made out to. In any case, Finlan follows Dunn’s lesson that

“The subjective reading tends to make all instances of ‘faith’ refer to Jesus’ own faith, leaving us without a noun phrase to refer to the faith of believers, which is the main theme of [Galatians/Romans]… If the ‘faithfulness of Jesus’ is present at all, it is secondary to, and directed toward, believers’ own faith-practice. After all, salvation depends on ‘believing in your heart’ (Rom 10:9), on ‘hearing with faith’ (Gal 3:5)…The ‘faithfulness of Jesus’ argument may be theologically interesting but cannot bear the exegetical weight it is being asked to carry.” (p 148)

I’m wondering if the subjective genitive reading serves more oblique agendas. Richard Hays was, of course, the first to defend it so influentially (in his 1983 publication The Faithfulness of Christ), primarily on the basis of implied narratives in Paul’s thought, which frankly I think he’s way over-reading into the text. Hays later suggested (in a 1997 article, “Pistis and Pauline Theology: What is at Stake?”) that objections to his proposal might be grounded in an implicit docetic Christology. But Philip Esler has countered that if anything, the problem is the other way around — that the subjective genitive lends to proto-Arian views (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 158). Scholars like Hays and Johnson have ironically embraced a reading that carries within it the seeds for a very un-Pauline reduction of Christ. If Jesus is more a model of faith than the object of it, then it’s a short step to start making him a “buddy”/”brother” instead of the “Father” as Paul would have it.

In fact, I think any fear that the objective genitive implies docetism is as much a phantom menace as Tom Wright’s phobia that literal eschatology is anti-creationist or “gnostically” dualistic. Or at least, these would have been phantom fears by ancient standards. Paul’s belief that people had to put their faith in Christ didn’t diminish his view of Christ’s humanity — any more than the biblical belief that the cosmos would be destroyed meant the material world was inherently bad (as Wright claims it would have). Perhaps faddish trends like the subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou, and non-literal eschatology, owe their ultimate origins to neo-orthodox apologetics: underscoring how “this-worldly” Christianity really is, in the face of modern charges to the contrary.

UPDATE: N.T. Wrong’s 47th Reason needs underscoring: none of the Greek-speaking church fathers read the phrase as a subjective genitive. Mike Aubrey makes the same point.

UPDATE (II): N.T. Wrong’s 94th reason is interesting. He says that proponents of the subjective genitive may be trading in a Lutheran Paul for a Calvinist Paul, if the “faith of Christ” isn’t so much about changing one’s belief as it is responding to a call already made by God. In other words, a hyper-Protestant fear that human belief is actually a form of works-righteousness could be operative here.


7 thoughts on “The Meaning of Pistis Christou

  1. Excellent post, Loren! In another decade or so this fad will fade. I like Philip Esler’s remark found on the page before the one you cite:“The argument for the subjective reading is so weak as to qualify as one of the ’emperor has no clothes’ variety”.That’s about right.

  2. Thanks for this!“how the subjective genitive makes for a clumsy reading of the passage”Is that what (the perhaps pseudo) Peter meant when writing this?ὡς καὶ ἐν πάσαις ἐπιστολαῖς [Παῦλου] λαλῶν ἐν αὐταῖς περὶ τούτων ἐν αἷς ἐστιν δυσνόητά τινα ἃ οἱ ἀμαθεῖς καὶ ἀστήρικτοι στρεβλοῦσιν ὡς καὶ τὰς λοιπὰς γραφὰς πρὸς τὴν ἰδίαν αὐτῶν ἀπώλειαν — 2 Peter 3:16

  3. Exellent post, Loren.And talking about a non-literal reading of NT eschatology and neo-orthodox apologetics you remind me of a book I am reading at the moment. It is Andrew Perriman´s “The coming of the Son of Man”. He argues (like N T Wright) that the parousia talk in the gospels and Paul is really about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He even claims that Matthew 25 (Last Judgment)is about 70 AD. So far I think his book stinks, though I haven´t finished reading it yet. If something is to be said on the positive side it is that Perriman, in contrast to NT Wright, at least argues at length for his case. I hope to make a review of his book later on. I don´t know if you are much into classical music, but I just can´t resist giving you a tip. I´ve had Jean Philippe Rameau´s music from the balletopera “Les indes galantes” buzzing around constantly in my head the last days. Specially the final Chaconne. It´s one of the great glories of baroque music. And the “dance of the savages” is just irresistable. Take a look at the links from Youtube.


  4. Yes Antonio — I can’t imagine life without either rock or classical music; and baroque is delightful. (The second clip didn’t work for me though.) Thanks for passing it along. I sigh thinking of Perriman…

  5. Sorry that the second clip from the opera didn´t work. So try this instead. Go to Youtube. Write “les indes galantes” in the search function. Click on the video clip “les indes galantes.Les Sauvages”. Enjoy!

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