The Faith of Christ

There has been quite a storm of blogging about the phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ pistis Christou, literally “(the) faith of Christ”, which is found in a number of Bible passages, including Romans 3:22. Traditionally this has been translated “faith in Christ”. But in recent years many scholars (especially as part of the “New Perspective on Paul” movement), and at least one translation, the NET Bible, have preferred to understand the phrase as “the faithfulness of Christ”. The noun πίστις pistis can indeed mean “faithfulness” as well as “faith”. Also many people consider that the simple Greek genitive construction is more naturally understood as “subjective”, i.e. with Christ as the subject of faith or faithfulness, rather than as “objective”, i.e. with Christ as the object of faith.

But not everyone is happy with this new interpretation, not least the pseudonymous blogger NT Wrong. Now I generally avoid reading pseudonymous blogs, unless there is a good reason for not giving a real name as in the case of Roger Mugs. So I have not read Wrong’s own arguments. But I have read various reactions to them, most notably those of Doug Chaplin, who grants Wrong no mercy, here, here and here. The matter has also been discussed at Better Bibles Blog, in a post which also links to a number of others.

I will not attempt here to settle the question of what the Greek phrase can or cannot mean. If the many scholars who have looked at the issue cannot settle it, then what chance have I? But I will express some more theological thoughts about this matter.

Several blog commenters have questioned whether there are only two alternative understandings, “faith in Christ” and “the faithfulness of Christ”. Indeed there are not. There is a third alternative which I would like to suggest: “the faith of Christ”. And while that English expression could be understood in a rather general way, something like “Christian faith”, the meaning I have in mind is “the faith which Christ had”. That is, I am suggesting that human salvation depends in some sense not only on our faith but on Jesus’ faith.

I thought I had blogged before about Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that Jesus did not have faith, but all I can find is a passing mention in this BBB post. The great mediaeval theologian’s argument was that Jesus as Son of God was omniscient and so had no need for faith. But I see two inadequacies in this argument: firstly, Jesus as a man on earth chose to limit his omniscience and so did know everything about the future; and secondly, the implied definition of faith as intellectual assent to propositions not known to be true is highly inadequate.

Against Aquinas there is a biblical argument, and not only from the phrase I am discussing here. True, I don’t think that anywhere does the Bible speak explicitly of Jesus believing or having faith. Probably the only example of Jesus being the subject of the verb pisteuo “believe” is John 2:24, where in context it means “entrust”.

But it is in Hebrews 12:2, which should be understood as the finale of the great Hebrews 11 chapter on heroes of faith, that we see that Jesus had faith, and how it relates to our own faith. Here we read that Jesus was “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (TNIV). The word translated “pioneer” means something like “the one who opens up a new path”. And so this expression suggests that Jesus was the first to tread the new and better path of faith  (compare 11:40) and to open up the way for others to follow. As the rest of the verse explains, he did this by enduring the cross, “for the joy that was set before him” which he could see only by faith.

On this understanding or model of Jesus’ life and death, as a model or guide for our faith as well as the opening up of a path, it should be clear how πίστις Χριστοῦ pistis Christou can be understood, according to its literal rendering, as “the faith of Christ”. Of course on this model there is no clear distinction between “faith” and “faithfulness”: Jesus’ life of faith meant faithfulness to his calling, and the same should be true of our life of faith. Romans 3:21-22 can then be understood as the righteousness or justice of God being revealed to us through the way in which Jesus lived his life of faith which led him to the cross. This life of faith then becomes an example to us but also more than an example, indeed an atoning sacrifice.

0 thoughts on “The Faith of Christ

  1. We were discussing this during our evening meditations last night regarding Phil. 2. Could the kenosis mean that Jesus was emptied of his divinity and then was filled again at his baptism with an element of walking by faith or belief in his Father?

  2. David, that is more or less how I understand things. Well, before he was baptised he walked by faith in the same way as any Israelite could, but perfectly and exceptionally, as we see in Luke 2:46-47 (but note that he was asking questions, not a sign of omniscience!). At his baptism he was filled with the Holy Spirit and started to live the life of faith which is open to every Christian. His death was of course unique but it was by faith that he accepted it. I wrote more about this here.

  3. This life of faith then becomes an example to us but also more than an example, indeed an atoning sacrifice.

    Peter, great conclusion to a difficult issue.

  4. Great post at Christmastime, celebrating God incarnate!

    Jesus had a solid body and solid faith too.

    So that’s why he had to switch it around when the Devil, tempting him in the desert, kept calling him “Son of God” (υιος του θεου). Didn’t this man say, in reply to that bloodless being full of gas: “No, son of people (ανθρωπος) with bodies and faith that require bread but God’s word”?

  5. Peter, is what some grammarians call the plenary genitive, capturing both the subjective and objective, a possible with the Greek construction?

  6. Peter
    this post begins to clear some mist. On my shelf is R T Kendall’s book of some years ago “Once Saved, Always Saved – Biblical Assurance for the True Believer”. He made quite a lot about the faith of Christ. The whole book is deep and that aspect left me a bit puzzled. I will have to read it again in the light of this post and discussion. Something for 2009.

  7. You mention that the faithfulness of Christ interpretation of pistis Christou is popular among NPP advocates. It ought to be noted however that the ‘inventor’ of NPP, James Dunn, prefers faith in Christ.

  8. I am a newcomer to this form of discussion and appreciate the chance to chime in with other people who like to think about these nuances of scripture.
    I first discovered the “faith of Christ” angle when reading Dallas Willard’s first edition of In Search of Guidance, which was later republished as Hearing God. In the former (1993), he presents the concept with explicit reliance on the verses in Galations (p.165-168). In the latter (1999), he presents the same concept in more general terms, without using the verses from Galations (p. 156), but still speculates that modern translations could be influenced by the “weakened practices” of modern Christians. I wondered why he took this less decisive approach, whether there was too much controversy about how to interpret the Greek. Now that I’ve discovered this blog channel, it’s good to know that the topic is still getting serious attention.

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