Michael Whitenton has written a helpful essay on the usage of πίστις Χριστοῦ (“faith [in/of] Christ”) in the apostolic fathers. Anyone and everyone who has something at stake in the ongoing πίστις Χριστοῦ debate should take the time to read it.
It’s a no-brainer that later church fathers (c. 150-430 CE) cited Paul’s usage of πίστις Χριστοῦ in a clear objective genitive sense: “faith in Christ”. But the evidence of the apostolic fathers (c. 70-150 CE) is more murky. While they weren’t citing Paul, their usage of πίστις Χριστοῦ could nonetheless represent possible transmissions of Pauline traditions, and this is what Whitenton seems to believe.
He surveys all the uses of πίστις by the apostolic fathers, classifying them into one of three categories:
(1) πίστις is modified by a personal genitive substantive in a clearly subjective manner, though the referent of the genitive is neither God nor Christ — 13 cases (I Clement 1:2, 5:5-6, 58:2; Ignatius to the Ephesians 9:1; Polycarp to the Philippians 1:1-2; Didache 16:2, 16:5; Barnabas 1:5, 1:6, 2:2, 4:9; Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 4:2:4, Similitude 9:26:8)
(2) πίστις is modified by a personal genitive substantive in an ambiguous manner (i.e. either objectively or subjectively, or other), referring to God or a divine spirit — 4 cases (I Clement 3:4, 27:3; Ignatius to the Ephesians 16:2; Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11:9)
(3) πίστις is modified by a personal genitive substantive in an ambiguous manner (i.e. either objectively or subjectively, or other), referring to Christ — 11 cases (Ignatius to the Ephesians 20:1, to the Magnesians 1:1, to the Romans Inscription; Polycarp to the Philippians 4:3; Barnabas 4:8, 16:9; Shephered of Hermas, Vision 4:1:8, Mandate 11:4, Similitude 6:1:2, 6:3:6, 9:16:5)
The first category is listed without commentary, “simply for sake of completeness” (p 6), and frankly I don’t think they have any bearing, or shed much light, on cases involving the modifier of God or Christ. So it’s the second and third categories that concern us.
Of the four cases in category (2), Whitenton finds that the first favors an objective reading, “faith in God” (I Clem 3:4); the second favors either reading, but the scales tip in favor of a subjective one, “the faithfulness of God” (I Clem 27:3); the third refers to a “teaching from God”, meaning that a genitive of source is in view (Ign Eph 16:2); and the last denotes a pledge from a divine spirit, meaning that πίστις is better translated “proof” of God’s spirit, rather than “faith” or “trust” [in/of] God’s spirit (Herm Mand 11:9).
Of the eleven cases in category (3), Whitenton finds that the first favors a subjective reading, “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”, (Ign Eph 20:1); the second favors either a subjective reading, “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”, or a genitive-of-source reading, “the doctrine of Jesus Christ” (Ign Mag 1:1); the third favors either an objective reading, “by faith in and love for Jesus Christ”, or a subjective one, “by the faithfulness and love of Jesus Christ” (Ign Rom inscription); the fourth involves a usage of πίστις as “teaching”, with four possibilities — a genitive of source, “the teaching of the Lord”, a possessive genitive, “the teaching from the Lord”, a genitive of content, “the teaching about the Lord”, or an attributive genitive, “the teaching that is characterized by the Lord” (Polyc Philip 4:3); the fifth favors either an objective reading, “the hope which springs from faith in Jesus”, or a subjective one, “the hope anchored in Jesus’ faithfulness”, with the scales tipping in favor of the subjective reading (Barn 4:8); the sixth favors a subjective reading, “the word of Jesus’ faith” (Barn 16:9); the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth all emphasize fidelity to the Lord as a gift, and thus favor neither an objective nor subjective reading, but rather a genitive-of-source reading, “the faithfulness from the Lord” (Herm Vis 4:1:8, Mand 11:4, Sim 6:1:2, 6:3:6); and the last favors either an objective reading, “preaching to the dead about power and faith in the Son of God”, or subjective reading, preaching to the dead about the power and faithfulness of the Son of God”, with the balance tipping slightly in favor of the latter (Herm Sim 9:16:5).
I don’t necessarily agree with all of Whitenton’s judgments — in some of the more ambiguous cases, I think the scales tip in favor of the objective reading — but for the most part his assessments are sound and show how fluidly πίστις Χριστοῦ was used by the apostolic fathers. Again, this says little about Paul, because in none of the above cases is he being cited — with the possible exceptions of Ign Eph 20:1 and Mag 1:1 echoing Gal 2:20 (noted by Whitenton, pp 14,16).
If the ambiguity of the apostolic fathers’ usage points to anything about Paul, it’s the point emphasized by Stephen Finlan: that Paul’s participatory theology carried within it the seeds for a subjective genitive reading of πίστις Χριστοῦ, even if Paul never went that far. (There’s a good reason, after all, why he goes out of his way to avoid faith terminology in Rom 5-8.) The above evidence may well indicate how this potential was developed in some circles by the late first and early second centuries.
I want to thank Michael Whitenton for a helpful analysis which shows, to me, that the subjective genitive reading isn’t quite as faddish as I’ve been claiming. While it certainly remains the weaker reading in Paul’s letters, and plays unquestionably into a variety of modern agendas, that weakness can be laid at the door of theologians who pre-date Duke scholars by almost nineteen centuries.