One of the bedrock phrases of Christian evangelism is “faith in Christ.” Simply have faith in Christ, and you will be saved.
Those phrases are so heavily used, they have been divorced from their definitions, taking on the character whatever our own experiences argue they should. From what are we saved? Hell? Punishment? Enslavement? All of the above? How does one have faith in Christ? Do we need to simply believe that he existed? That he rose from the dead? That he rose from the dead to achieve a certain purpose? That he’s actively at work today? All of the above?
In the year or so that I’ve been turning my faith upside-down, I’ve become acutely aware of how much the “plain meaning” of scripture isn’t so plain. It’s plain to me based on the preconceptions I bring to reading the text. And since everyone I’ve ever known who is a Christian has brought those same general preconceptions, there’s never been any question about certain doctrines, certain methods of reading the Bible or what the various phrases it contains mean. Further, our ideas of what those phrases even are depends heavily on the interpretation of the scholars writing our translations. Which means that if we’re talking about how obvious it is that the Bible says something, we’re filtering that through two sets of preconceptions: the translator’s and our own.
One such example is the phrase “faith in Christ.” Paul uses this phrase in several different contexts as he writes his letters, and in the Greek that phrase is rendered pistis Christou. The only problem is that pistis Christou can also be translated “faith of Christ.” Which changes things a bit.
For example, Galatians 2:15-16, translated in the NIV:
We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law … .
And Galatians 2:16 as translated by the Common English Bible:
However, we know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the Law … .
So how are we justified? By faith in Christ or through Christ’s own faithfulness? That seems like an important distinction. One focuses on our own faith, the other on Christ’s actions.
Similarly, in Romans 3:22, we have (NIV), “This righteousness [of God] is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,” or (CEB), “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.”
Our textbook, Writings of the New Testament by Luke Timothy Johnson, offers a convincing argument for the subjective construction, “faith(fulness) of Christ.” (Subjective because Christ is the actor in this phrase, as opposed to the object of faith.) He also approaches it from a fairly conservative perspective, in which this change is not so radical as illuminating as he harmonizes traditional beliefs about Paul’s theology with the shift in interpretation from in to of:
The response of Jesus … is part of the salvific act. What Paul means by it is the faithful obedience that Jesus showed to the Father in his life and death. The “faith of Jesus” is Jesus’ human response to God, which enables others to “have faith” and to “be made righteous by faith.” In other words, God established the fundamental gift of righteousness through Jesus’ obedience on the cross; humans appropriate that gift by trusting an obeying it the same way Jesus did.
Nevertheless, this has not exactly been a quiet debate. Feel free to peruse this helpful summary of the grammatical and theological debates written in 2010 by Matthew C. Easter (free PDF link on the right-hand side of that site). Easter concludes – surprise! – that the grammatical debates are inconclusive, and that each scholar is essentially arguing from his or her preferred theological construct.
Appeals to grammatical or immediate contextual arguments have been largely refuted on both sides … and so interpreters have either intentionally or unintentionally relied on their larger understanding of Paul’s theology to support one position or the other.
I don’t think I have to tell you that no one has yet found a way for us all to agree on Paul’s theology either.
Andrew Wilson, who takes the side that the traditional interpretations have it right by translating it “faith in Christ,” quickly summarizes why this debate can be a big deal, Johnson’s earlier-cited attempts at harmonization aside:
There are other scholars, such as Wright, Hays and many ‘New Perspective’ advocates, who would argue that it does make a difference – the faith/law antithesis should be understood in a different way, because ‘faith’ is about Jesus’ fidelity not our belief, and ‘law’ is about specifically Jewish boundary markers rather than legalism – but that justification is still on the basis of faith. But there are also scholars, like Douglas Campbell and several who have followed him, who argue that for Paul, faith is not a condition of salvation at all. As it was memorably expressed at a conference I attended recently, in which Doug was making his case, ‘everyone is in Christ: wake up and smell the coffee.’ (The meaning of pistis Christou is just one of many factors contributing to this interpretation, by the way – but if the genitive is subjective, it is certainly harder to undermine his argument). So for some interpreters, the reading of the genitive makes little theological difference; but for others, it opens exegetical doors that would otherwise be bolted shut.
In the end, Easter argues:
Moving forward, interpreters must come to grips with the much larger hermeneutical and theological assumptions at play for both sides and engage them in that arena.
Not just scholars have to do this, however. So do you and I. We all bring to the table a preconceived hermeneutic and a predefined theology, and those affect how we read the scripture in ways wholly unique to ourselves. The sooner we can recognize that, the better our debates on these – and many other – issues will be.