For Paul, salvation is by…?
(a) “faith in Christ” (objective genitive)
(b) “the faithfulness of Christ” (subjective genitive)
Technically speaking, either (a) or (b) could be the accurate translation of pistis Christou in Rom 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16, 20; Gal 3:22; Philip 3:9. So which is it? Years ago I explained why the objective genitive (“faith in Christ”) is the better translation, but the subjective genitive demon won’t be exorcised so easily. Here’s an update of that post reviewing five key points.
(1) The crucial text of Rom 3:21-26 sits between two sections that contrast human activity. The former (1:18-3:20) is about human sin, human works. The latter (3:27-31) contrasts human faith over against all of this boasting and works. The middle section of 3:21-26 thus tells people what to believe in order to achieve this faith. Likewise, a believer’s faith (not Christ’s) is the focus of Romans 4. Abraham’s trust is emphasized, and believers are to follow the example of his faith (Rom 4:12), not Christ’s. Abraham believed the initial promise, and believers may now believe in the content of that promise (Christ). The stress of Rom 4 is on believing the promise. To share the faith of Abraham (Rom 4:16) is to believe in Christ (the promise).
* Stephen Carlson (in comments below) suggests that the subjective genitive reading avoids redundancy in Rom 3:21-22. But the repetition isn’t a problem. The emphasis of the repetitive part is on the “all”, not the “faith”. Paul is simply saying that “God’s righteousness through faith in Christ is available to all who have such faith.” After all, the theme of this section is Gentile rights: ethnic works are excluded from salvation, since “God is One” (Rom 3:29-30) — the Lord of pagans as much as Jews — and thus all peoples must be saved on the same basis. In oral cultures repetition is a common technique for getting a point across, and audiences hearing Rom 3:21-22 read out loud would hear the appropriate stress.
(2) Advocates of the subjective genitive need to rely heavily on the transformation doctrine of Rom 5-8, where Paul speaks of imitating the savior’s activity — dying with Christ at baptism, being crucified with him, etc. But it is precisely in this section where Paul does not mention “faith” (aside briefly in 5:1), let alone pistis Christou. He never contrasts Christ’s faith with any disbelief of Adam’s (“something that would be crying out to be said, if the ‘faith of Christ’ were the focus of salvation”, notes Stephen Finlan), only Christ’s obedience vs. Adam’s disobedience. It is Rom 3:21-4:25 and Rom 9:30-10:21 which focus on faith: what people must do in order to be saved. Rom 5-8 is about mystical union with the savior: what people do as a natural consequence of being called. (In Galatians the categories mesh briefly (2:19-21).)
* Douglas Campbell argues that the faith claims of Rom 3-4 (& Rom 9-10) should be read through the participationist language of Rom 5-8, which is the heart of Paul’s gospel. I agree that Rom 5-8 is the theological center of gravity, but it doesn’t follow that its content can be imposed on the other sections and change their meaning. Rom 5-8 is Christocentric, Rom 3-4 is anthropocentric. Pistis Christou is found in the latter and is thus an anthropocentric term. It’s about the human decision for Christ. It’s not about Christ providing a new template for humanity (the subject of Rom 5-8). Advocates of the subjective genitive reading, to be sure, are bringing out a potential of Paul’s thought, but which Paul never developed. Put another way: that Paul’s participationist language is compatible with a subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou doesn’t make that reading of pistis Christou correct.
(3) For that reading is plainly wrong. If the subjective genitive were really what Paul had in mind when speaking directly about faith, we would expect him to have used Christ as the subject of the verb “believe”/”have faith”, but as Thomas Tobin points out (Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts, p 132), that never happens in the 42 places the verb is found in his letters. On the other hand, Paul used Christ as the object of the verb in clear cases (Rom 9:33, 10:11). 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 (Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, pp 241-244), 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. This point alone shows how flimsy the subjective genitive reading is.
(4) There is the glaring and embarrassing fact that later church fathers never read Paul in terms of the subjective genitive. Michael Whitenton thinks he has demonstrated otherwise, and we’ll have to await his article to see what he makes of this business. But for now, this fact stands as a serious strike against the subjective genitive reading. [Edit: See comments below. I misunderstood Michael’s thesis. He’s talking about the earlier apostolic fathers (and not how they read Paul per se) rather than later church fathers (who did in fact read Paul with the objective genitive). So this point will remain standing in any case.]
(5) Finally, a more oblique point. When confronted with faddish readings of the bible, we must always ask what agendas are being served. Here are a few (with thanks to Stephen Carlson for the third). (a) Hyper-Protestant phobias: if faith is the natural outworking of an elective call made by God, then the subjective genitive reading allows one to put to bed the fear that faith itself is a work. Faith becomes less a human summoning of courage to choose Christ (“faith in”), and more an inevitable result of being unified with Christ in baptism and crucifixion (“faithfulness of”). In other words, it allows one to smuggle Calvinism in through the back door fearing that Luther didn’t go far enough. (b) Proto-Arianism: if Christ is more a role-model (whose faithfulness is to be followed) than a deity (to have faith in), then the subjective genitive reading allows one to think of Jesus as a buddy/brother more than a proto-trinitarian Father. In other words, for completely different reasons, it could be attractive to liberal theologians as much as conservative Protestants. (c) New frontiers, new paradigms: it could just be that some (especially Duke scholars, in this case) are in love with new paradigms which allow them to read Paul completely on their own terms outside the confines of Lutheran categories; but like it or not — and the same can be said against the New Perspective — Luther was not wholly in error. Largely in error, yes, but not entirely.