Pistis Christou – A Working Hypothesis

This week I posted on Facebook that I have taken a view, finally (!), on the meaning of Pistis Christou. That’s what happens when you write a commentary on Galatians. Arm chair opinions aren’t adequate.

Most of you will know its the much talked about Pauline phrase especially found in Galatians (2:16 [2x], 2:20, and 3:22; also its in Rom. 3:22, 26 and Phil. 3:9 and possibly Eph. 3:12). My blog mate and Preston Sprinkle have edited a good book not too long ago that focused on the issues Faith of Jesus Christ, The: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies. If your interested in learning more about the debate, it is one of the places to start.

Here’s what I said in the post:

I’ve taken a view on pistis christou = “messianic faith”. I find the attributive genitive view preferable. “Messiah” specifies the faith and so doesn’t denote a believer’s faith, most importantly (not objective). It’s intentionally ambiguous though and can connote a range of things depending on context and perhaps more than one thing at a time: origin, sphere, and subjective and even material nuances seem possible.

I received an email from a friend asking for clarification so here’s how I responded.

I think that the genitive is intentionally ambiguous. I’ve opted for the attributive category because of both its flexibility, but also its specificity; by flexibility I mean that it cannot be reduced to the subj/obj debate; by specificity I mean it isn’t objective because it’s not about a believer’s faith, its about Jesus Messiah.

I do lean toward the subjective view but I think that this nuance can be contained within the attributive sense. Dan Wallace notes interestingly that the subjective/objective categories were traditionally dealt with in grammars under the attributive rubric. I think the genitive in this construction connotes more than just Messiah’s faithfulness, although it does that. The subjective interpretation is too narrow a category. And it overdetermines the noun’s verbal quality and I think Paul intends to play with the noun-verb ambiguity in this construction. Again to call it subjective, or objective for that matter, is to stress its verbal sense to the expense of its nominal sense. The attributive allows both to be in play. Does that make anymore sense? Let’s think about this in the concrete with Gal 2:16:

We know that a human out of the works of the law is not justified except through Jesus-Messianic faith, and we have put our trust in Jesus Messiah in order that we might be justified out of Messianic faith and not out of the works of the law, because no one out of the works of the law is justified.

You will note, if you are reading closely, that I depart from the conventional tradition of reading this long sentence (e.g. preposition “out of works of the law” with the noun “human” instead of with the verb and the conjunction “except” as it is in every other Pauline usage instead of “but”). I have Ardel Caneday to thank for these insights in his essay in the Bird/Sprinkle book.

With both uses of the phrase, I think the subjective nuance is present: Paul is saying that it is through the faithful obedience of the Messiah that one is justified and not by ethnic cultural practices determined by the Torah. Faith which is Jesus Messianic is particularized by Jesus the Messiah, his life, death and victory. But also other nuances are present. Faith, which is Messianic, is eschatological, so connotes the sphere for human faith; it creates the condition for justifying faith as well. So Messianic faith births and authors faith that justifies. It also may even have a material aspect: Messiah faith is faith consisting of Jesus Messiah.

I think the problem we have is that we want have been trying to force it into one category: in the contemporary debate it has been an either/or discussion primarily. Given the ambiguity of the phrase and the other more specific ways Paul can speak with prepositions (3:26), the ambiguity is intentional and allows for several different connotations to be present.

I could be wrong of course! And it is a complicated debate. But this is my working hypothesis at the moment. What do you think about this proposal?

Book Notice: Language for God in Patristic Tradition
Bradley Green on Justification by Faith and Judgment according to Works
Book Notice: Becoming the Gospel
Why I owe Stephen Chester a Pint of Guinness
  • Rafael Rodríguez

    Nicely done, Joel. I have two comments/questions: First, how would you respond to the caution that the “ambiguity” with which Paul is playing (as you rightly note) belongs to the genitive case and not to the categories grammarians have devised to explain the genitive? That is, these are our categories, not Paul’s. Paul did not choose between subjective, objective, plenary, or attributive genitives; he only chose the genitive case. Second, how much would of this interpretive freight would you attribute to the [attributive] genitive (with contextual features guiding and supporting your interpretation of the genitive phrase) and how much would you attribute to the interplay between the genitive phrase itself with its larger contexts? That is, as you (again, rightly) explain the larger point Paul makes in your paragraph that begins, “With both uses of this phrase, I think the subjective nuance is present . . .,” I can’t help but suspect that much of your insight comes not from the genitival phrase itself but from what Paul is saying around the phrase. Personally, I’m still happy describing this as a subjective (or even plenary) genitive, but I appreciate your caution against exaggerating the verbal connotations of what is, at the end of the day, a noun.

  • Jeff Martin

    Pistis can also mean “assurance” so it could be be translated as “the assurance that Christ ( the King) gives”. Again yet another interpretation:)

  • Jeff Martin

    As far as your interpretation I think it is legitimate enough but it seems to emphasize the eschatological motif best

  • David Westfall

    Interesting reading; I too am intrigued by the possibility of an attributive meaning. The big question is—is there any evidence at all that a proper name and/or title (such as “Jesus the Messiah” or simply “Messiah”) can function attributively in a genitive construction? Your view would be more convincing if there were instances in koinê Greek of people’s names giving qualitative nuance to the head noun. (I don’t know whether there are any or not.)
    -David Westfall

    • jwillitts

      “Faith of Abraham”, pisteōs Abraam, Rom 4:16

      • David Westfall

        Well, yes actually I’m aware of that key parallel, but that phrase faces the same question because it shares similar ambiguity. Normally I hear that one put forward as evidence for the subjective genitive view, rather than an attributive view. I was wondering about other, non-NT sources, because if you were to find such constructions clearly attested in Greco-Roman or Jewish lit more broadly, it would bolster your argument a lot more. The trouble with Rom 4:16 is that it directly parallels 3:26 and so is caught up in the same ambiguity. (Though it clearly isn’t objective genitive, which at least gives us something.)

        • jwillitts

          Your suggestion is a good one. Indeed Romans references exclude objective view.

  • http://asthescripturesays.blogspot.com.au/ Josh

    I don’t know Greek but I’ve been wondering if the objective/subjective interpretation should be determined by the twin meaning of pistis being both faith and faithfulness. Perhaps first century listeners / readers (especially Jews) do not so readily pull these two apart? E.g. consider how many commentaries handle Rom 2.13. Doesn’t ‘hearing’ imply ‘doing’ and vice versa? Likewise for faith and faithfulness? Doesnt ‘faith’ imply ‘faithfulness’ and vice versa? Are we not driving a wedge between the two because of the Reformed believing vs. doing bifurcation? Perhaps our take on the debate should have been holding to interpretations that can maintain both from the outset… Isn’t that a historical contextual hermeneutic?


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