The Conundrum of Christ's Faithfulness: A Brief Introduction of the "Πίστις Χριστοῦ" Debate and its Implications

In the often contentious world of Pauline studies, one of the major debates that has been raging concerns a specific grammatical phrase: Πίστις Χριστοῦ ("the faith of Christ" or "faith in Christ"). Πίστις is the normative Pauline word for 'faith' or 'trust.' Χριστοῦ is the genitive form of Christ, or "Messiah." So when you see either term used hereafter, that is what they mean.

There are generally two options for Pauline interpreters:

  • The objective genitive: "faith in Christ."
  • The subjective genitive: "the faith of Christ."

What is curious about this entire debate is that it transcends the so-called New Perspective/Old Perspective divide and also transcends the Reformed/Arminian debate as well. For example, James D.G. Dunn (objective) and N.T. Wright (subjective) disagree with one another on this, and both also differ on their traditions. Dunn is a Methodist and Wright is a Calvinist. So this debate is not about one's soteriology or traditions per se.

So this is a debate I recently came into contact with during a Directed Study with Tommy Givens. Both Banning and Chad also are swimming in it, and this is due to our reading John Barclay who briefly covers the debate.

Many Pauline texts are involved in this. Some of these texts are more debated than others, specifically the texts in Romans and Galatians. I suspect this is mostly due to Romans and Galatians being given undue priority in the study of Paul, but that's my own snarky hang up.

Here are the main representative texts:

  • Romans 3:22—" διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ"
  • Galatians 2:16—"διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ"
  • Galatians 3:22—"ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ"
  • Galatians 3:26—"διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ"
  • Philippians 3:9—"διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ"

In all of these examples, we have a specific preposition: διὰ ("through," or "by means of") and ἐκ ("from," or "by") that precedes the genitive nouns, clarifying the nouns. In two instances we have an additional preposition ἐν ("in," or "by" sometimes). In each instance, the debate comes down to intricate grammatical arguments that sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees. In any sense, as I look over these various papers and presentations, I am left with a thought:

Why is this significant? Why have entire books been written on this particular phrase?

Much of the debate boils down to the particular emphasis of the noun πίστεως. Whose faith is Paul usually concerned with? Sometimes it is Christ's faith (Rom. 3:22; Phil. 3:9) and other times Paul clarifies after with our faith (Gal. 2:20). He does this specifically in Colossians 1:4 ("ἀκούσαντες τὴν πίστιν ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ: having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus"). Christ is the lens or matrix by which faith is given, but the participatory nature of faith requires our partaking of Christ's faith.

So with many issues in Paul, it is not an 'either/or.' Christ's faith is sometimes emphasized but an emphasis on Christ's faith does not negate or obliterate the faith of believers. Neither does a person's faith in Christ render faith 'anthropocentric,' as Christ is the one in whom we believe.

What is at stake?

What is as stake is how Paul emphasizes one and the other, and how we too should emphasize either option, not to the exclusion of both but in balance. For my money, I lean toward the subjective genitive for most of these texts, but I also believe one must exercise the gift of faith, and any emphasis to the exclusion of either option simply leaves one divorced from the richness of Paul's language. The human person is freed to participate in Christ, and if Paul chooses to emphasize our participation, so be it.

For a helpful book that goes over this debate, see Bird and Sprinkle.

NQ