Monday, January 27, 2014

"Faith in" vs. "Faithfulness of"

I've recently been reading an excellent book by N.T. Wright on Paul. It's basically an in-depth look at Paul's religious, social, historical, and political contexts, and the various strains of thought that his presentation of the gospel brilliantly ties together.
Some of the more thought-provoking points Wright makes:
  • He emphasizes the role of narrative and story: how the Jews saw themselves as caught up in one story, and how Paul presents the gospel as the happy ending of this story.
The main point of narratives in the second-Temple Jewish world, and in that of Paul, is not simply that people likes telling stories as illustrations of, or scriptural proofs for, this or that experience or doctrine, but that second-Temple Jews believed themselves to be actors within a real-life narrative. To put it another way, they were not merely storytellers who used their folklore (in their case, mostly the Bible) to illustrate the otherwise unrelated joys and sorrows, trials and triumphs, of everyday life. Their narratives could and did function typologically, that is, by providing a pattern which could be laid as a template across incidents and stories from another period without any historical continuity to link the two together. (11)
  • He views Paul's writings on the gospel through two main lenses: creation and covenant, which he sees (and argues Paul saw) as deeply interwoven. God makes a covenant with Abraham to restore the fallen creation, the people of the covenant turn out to be part of the problem (sinful), so God comes in human form to fulfill the covenant where sinful man could not and ultimately renew all creation in Himself.
  • He proposes that δικαιοσυνη θεου ("the righteousness of God") refers not to righteousness that God imputes to us, but "the faithful covenant justice of God", which is revealed through the person of Christ and by which God is to be "faithful to the covenant and just in his dealings with the whole creation". This strikes me as a more plausible reading free of the focus we often place on individual salvation.
  • The whole chapter on Gospel and Empire, which made me realize just how political Paul's writing was. At almost every turn, he sets Jesus up over and against the emperor. People accepted the emperor as their "lord and savior", who ruled them and granted them "freedom, justice, peace, and salvation"—salvation from civil strife and external enemies. The announcement of these themes was known as the ευαγγελιον—"good news". The παρουσια, parousia, was the arrival, appearance, and royal presence of the emperor. So Paul declares the ευαγγελιον of Jesus Christ, not the emperor, the true Lord and Savior of the world. It's amazing to see how much of Paul's language was to show off Christ as a direct answer to the claims of the empire.
And most of all, he points out how he translates πιστις χριστου (e.g. in Galatians 2:16) as "the faithfulness of Christ" instead of "faith in Christ". I might have previously just remarked at this as an eye-opening linguistic trick to help us see another side of salvation by faith, but I have been renewing my studies of Greek lately, and my jaw dropped as I realized that not only was this a possible translation, it was the natural translation.

What follows is a brief excursion into Biblical Greek explaining how this translation works. If you already believe me, feel free to skip to the next heading.

Greek has four main noun cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. Nominative is used for nouns that serve as the subject of a sentence or phrase; genitive roughly corresponds to the possessive case in English (τον πλοιον Πετρου means "Peter's boat", or "the boat of Peter", with Peter in the genitive case); dative is used for indirect objects or spatial relations like "in", "with", or "by"; the accusative is used for direct objects.

Here is Galatians 2:16: "Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified."

What is happening here is that in the phrases translated "faith in Jesus Christ" and "faith in Christ", "Jesus Christ/Christ" is in the genitive, not the dative case. If Paul really wanted to say "faith in Christ", he would put "Christ" in the dative case and use εν, the Greek preposition for "in" , as he does in Colossians 1:4:
την πιστιν υμων εν Χριστω Ιησου = "your faith in Christ Jesus".
This construction is also used in Acts 27:25, Ephesians 1:15, 2 Thessalonians 1:4, and 1 Timothy 3:15.

Or he might say "Christ" in the accusative case and the preposition εις, "into" as in Acts 24:24:
της εις Χριστον Ιησουν πιστεως = "faith in Christ Jesus".
This construction is also used in Acts 20:21, Acts 26:18, Colossians 2:5, and 1 Thessalonians 1:8.

But Paul doesn't do that in Galatians 2:16. In both cases, "Jesus Christ/Christ" is in the genitive case. There is one possible translation of the genitive that can give us something like "faith in Christ" (actually "the faith received by Christ"), but if this is what Paul is getting at it seems much more likely that he would use one of the two unambiguous ways of saying "faith in Christ" he already knew. Again, translating πιστις Χριστου as "faith in Christ" gives a meaning much closer to that of the dative or accusative cases. The natural inclination when you see the genitive case is to assume it refers to possession or description (using the key word "of") unless this does't make sense. But here the natural translation does make sense, if we recall that πιστις, besides meaning "faith" or "trust", can also mean "faithfulness".

The Faithfulness of Christ

So πιστις Χριστου, while possibly translating to "faith in Christ", much more defensibly translates to "faithfulness of Christ". Of course, after realizing this, I searched for other times when this phrase may have been...shall we say, strangely translated. They are as follows (again, try mentally substituting "the faithfulness of" for "faith in"):
  • Mark 11:22: And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. (This one arguably makes more sense translated as it is)
  • Acts 3:16: And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.
  • Romans 3:22: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:
  • Galatians 2:20: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (This one is difficult for me to translate. The relevant part literally means something like "And that which I now live in the flesh in [faith/faithfulness] I live [it? in it?] of the son of God". So the Greek for "I live it" could just be inserted into the phrase "the faithfulness of the Son of God", or it could be something I don't understand.)
  • Galatians 3:22: But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
  • Ephesians 3:12: in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him (Interestingly, the Greek here has nothing like ημων, "our"—it is added in the translation.)
  • Philippians 3:9: and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—
  • Colossians 2:12: having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
  • James 2:1: My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. (Also makes more sense translated as it is)
These last two examples are grammatically ambiguous, as the conjugation of "Jesus" in the constructions "of Jesus" and "in Jesus" are impossible to distinguish.
  • Romans 3:26: It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (This is even more confusing. The straight literal translation is something like "in order to be just and justifying the one [from/out of] [faith in/faithfulness of] Jesus". The best translation of this is beyond me.)
  • Revelation 14:12: Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (This one makes more sense translated as it is)

Sola sola sola sola sola sola sola fidei fidei fidei fidei fidei fidei fidei

If this is making you uncomfortable, know that I'm definitely not trying to mount some kind of hermeneutical assault on salvation by faith per se. There are still plenty of verses that unambiguously support it. What I am getting at is the reason this realization practically took my breath away as I searched through the New Testament looking at it. Namely, the strong emphasis in Protestant (particularly Reformed/Evangelical) circles that is placed on salvation by faith, which to me is almost suffocating at times—strong enough to lead to such a counterintuitive translation of relatively straightforward Greek. It's almost like an arms race, or a game of one-upsmanship, to see who can focus more on just how totally salvation is by faith alone.

This emphasis on faith leads to an emphasis (possibly even stronger) on what is perceived from Paul's writings as its opposite—that dirty five-letter word, works. So Paul is read, perhaps anachronistically, as almost constantly proclaiming the freeness of salvation, depending only on faith, never from works. Sometimes it's seemed to me like the gospel is presented more as the opposite of salvation by works, or that Evangelical boogeyman known as legalism. For someone like me who doesn't closely identify with Paul's former legalism (my delusion tends to be that I can redefine what it means to be "justified" to a definition more suitable to me, not that by working hard enough I can satisfy what I perceive to be God's definition), this negatively defined gospel is meaningless.

It also leads to something of a contradiction of methods. We constantly, adamantly insist that salvation is a gift of God, that we can never possibly earn it in or do anything to deserve it in any way—yet equally prominent in Evangelical rhetoric is the be-all and end-all condition for salvation, namely our faith. Salvation absolutely doesn't depend on anything we do, but it absolutely is conditional on the faith we have. How is this contradiction resolved? Simple—by presenting faith itself as a gift that God gives us or creates in us, not something we choose or decide for ourselves. Nevermind the obvious question of why then God doesn't just give everyone faith, and all its implications—placing all this emphasis and importance on something in ourselves (whether we do it or God does) when the point of faith is its reliance on something outside ourselves is merely a less obvious contradiction, one that could be alleviated if we realized that πιστις, the Greek word for faith, equivalently translates to "trust".

This is why my realization from N.T. Wright was such a breath of fresh air. Shifting our focus from salvation by faith in Christ to salvation by the faithfulness of Christ, ironically, helps to create faith in Christ by concisely showing how the primary actor of redemption is not ourselves having faith, but God, in the person of Jesus, acting with perfect faithfulness to the covenant He made with Abraham, by which He has always intended to make all things new. I felt a bit like the first Christians felt, rereading their whole Bibles through the lens of their new knowledge of Christ. I will probably say much more on this subject as I continue to think about what the Gospel really means, but for now I prefer to (re)read.

No comments:

Post a Comment