Patronage and Faith in God’s Faithfulness

Patronage and Faith in God’s Faithfulness November 28, 2018

At the Patronage Symposium in October, some of the participants discussed the meaning of pistis (i.e., faith) and its relationship to patronage, reciprocity, etc. This subject has several layers to it. In the process, I had what felt like an epiphany, a possible breakthrough about a highly debated issue. I would like to get your thoughts. But first, let me give you the background.

How is “righteousness” made manifest through “faith”?

A long on-going debate among biblical scholars is the meaning of phrases like “πίστεως Ἰησοῦ.” Does it refer to “trust/faith in Christ” or “Christ’s faithfulness.” The grammar allows both translations; the decision must be made based on context. I certainly can’t rehearse all the relevant fine points of the conversation. So, I’ll give just a few highlights.

Credit: Public Domain

Typically, the debate centers on texts such as Romans 3–4 and Galatians 2. For example, a traditional translation of Romans 3:22 says, “the righteousness of God [has been manifested] through faith in Jesus Christfor all who believe.” However, an alternative possibility is: “the righteousness of God [has been manifested] through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

A related debate concerns the meaning of God’s righteousness in Romans. Does it refer to his punitive judgment against sin or might is signify God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises? Do you see a hint where we are going with this?

How might patronage help?

It dawned on me that understanding ancient patron-client relationships might shed light on the above debate. (For those wondering, within honor-shame contexts, the importance of reciprocity and patronage seems far more apparent than in other settings.)

In Romans 3-4, Paul intensifies his focus on the idea of “faith.” He uses the pist– root 13 times in Romans 3; 17 times in Romans 4. Paul’s opening paragraph in Romans3 frames the discussion that follows. After commenting that the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God, he says

“What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar” (3:3–4a).

The faithfulness of God is restated in terms of God’s righteousness in vv. 4–5. (I’ll analyzed Romans 3:4 previously in an article, “Why Is God Justified in Romans? Vindicating Paul’s Use of Psalm 51 in Romans 3:4,” which I summarize here.) The question remains, “Does Paul then refer people’s faith, and/or Christ’s faithfulness?”

Several scholars highlight the importance of patronage in the ancient world and its influence on the Bible, including Romans. Within patron-client relationships, a basic obligation of patrons was to show themselves faithful or reliable such that clients could trust them. In response to a patron’s faithfulness, a client was expected to show loyalty.

David deSilva’s superb summary captures the meaning of faith within a context of patronage.[1]

It is worth noting at this point that “faith” (Latin, fides; Greek, pistis) is a term also very much at home in patron-client and friendship relations, and had, like “grace,” a variety of meanings as the context shifted from the patron’s “faith” to the client’s “faith.”

In one sense, “faith” meant “dependability.” The patron needed to prove himself or herself reliable in providing the assistance he or she promised to grant; the client needed to “keep faith” as well, in the sense of showing loyalty and commitment to the patron and to his or her obligations of gratitude.

A second meaning is the more familiar sense of “trust”: the client had to “trust” the good will and ability of the patron to whom he entrusted his need, that the latter would indeed perform what he promised, while the benefactor would also have to trust the recipients to act nobly and make a grateful response. In Seneca’s words, once a gift was given there was “no law [that can] restore you to your original estate—look only to the good faith (fidem) of the recipient” (Ben. 3.14.2).

The meaning might depend on….

In the context of Romans 3-4, Paul likely depicts God as a patron with Abraham and his offspring as clients. Christ appears to be a “broker” (or mediator), standing between patron and client.[2] In different respects, a broker must display both trust and faithfulness in his mediating role.

What is the best translation of pistis depends on the person and situation being discussed? Perhaps we need not choose between “trust” or “faithfulness” when translating πίστις in this context. One’s role in a patron-client relationship may inform our decision.

Accordingly, it would be reasonable to conclude that Paul underscores the faithfulnessof God our Patron (as in Romans 3:3). At the same time, he speaks of our faith/trustas clients (at least in the last part of 3:22).[3]

What do we conclude? We are to show faith in the faithfulness of God.

One scholar says it like this: “Faith directs our attention to trust in and reliance on the other person to be faithful to his or her promises.”[4] Furthermore,

“The basic picture of Judeo-Christian faith/faithfulness that emerges, then, is a response characterized by a persevering commitment to remaining engaged in a sustained trusting relationship with God. Faith/faithfulness is the response that God desires to God’s own faithfulness and freely given trust and fidelity are central ways of participating in an ongoing covenantal relationship with God. Faith/faithfulness is the response embodied in the figure of Abraham, that exemplar of faith who persists in reliance on and fidelity to God, despite appearances of God’s unfaithfulness.”[5]

From this perspective, forcing pistis to have either one or another definition is misguided. The word’s connotation varies with the subject. Does the context suggest this is Paul’s meaning? Look in Romans 4, where Paul spotlights the faith of Abraham as a model. In Romans 4:20-21, Paul writes,

No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

In short, Romans 3–4, from beginning to end, seem to lend itself to this particular understanding of pistis. As to whether Paul refers to Christ’s faithfulness (3:22a, 26), that’s a question for another day.


[1] Compare David deSilva. Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, 95–156.

[2] See Andrew Kim Seng Tan. “The Rhetoric of Abraham’s Faith in Romans 4.” PhD dissertation. University of Cape Town, 2016.

[3] Linguistically, this reminds me of the Chinese word 借, which mean both “borrow” and “lend” depending on the precise construction and who is doing what.

[4] Daniel McKaughan, “On the Value of Faith and Faithfulness.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 81 (2017): 8.

[5] McKaughan, “On the Value of Faith and Faithfulness,” 8.

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