Pistis Christou and Paul’s controlling narratives

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been made known, attested by the Law and the prophets,

22 but a righteousness of God through the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ for all those believing.

Some prominent scholars (so far Thomas Schreiner and Craig Blomberg) have been posting their views regarding the much debated translation of pistis Christou in Galatians 2:16 on the new BibleGateway translation forum. I think the debate is important, but not as important as the underlying theological structures that the exegetical decision may—or may not—engage. Not being a prominent scholar, but not wanting to be left out, I will have to set out my stall here on the periphery. Besides, my interest is primarily in Romans, and I will focus on the translational decision as it arises in the context of Romans 3:21-26: should the phrase dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou in verse 22 be translated “through faith in Jesus Christ” (an objective genitive) or “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (a subjective genitive)?

The approach I have taken in my reading of Romans is to foreground an extended narrative of historical transition, whereby the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection anticipates the concrete suffering of the churches under conditions which Paul designates, in keeping with Old Testament usage, as the ‘wrath of God’. I do not think we rely solely on hindsight if we identify these eschatological conditions historically as the Roman war against the Jews, the sporadic but terrifying persecution of the churches, and the eventual defeat of the old pagan order.

1. The apocalyptic framework makes the quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17 peculiarly relevant: if the righteous are to “live” under these conditions, it will be through a steadfast, unwavering trust in YHWH, not simply through belief as an act of rational cognition. Even if, in the end, we accept that Paul does not mean to say here that Jesus first epitomized this pragmatic “faithfulness” with decisive benefit for the community of his followers, “faith in Jesus Christ” is still oriented towards a story of suffering and vindication and must still be exercised over time and in the face of intense opposition.

In fact, I have to say that for this reason I do not have an absolute preference for the subjective genitive. Either way, the core issue is not with regard to how individuals are saved in generic terms, but has to do with how the community of redeemed Israel will survive the coming wrath of God—not through dutiful performance of “works of the Law” but through persistent trust in—indeed, through re-enactment of—the prior story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

2. It seems to me that there is a real problem of redundancy in the translation “through faith (dia pisteōs) in Jesus Christ for all who believe (pisteuontas)”. Galatians 2:16 is similarly repetitive. The eschatological argument is largely absent, and the issue is not the justification of God but the justification of the believer; but in both passages “righteousness” is said to be through or by pistis as a noun for the sake of pisteuō as a verb: through pistis Christou for the benefit of those believing (in Christ Jesus). This seems to require some sort of differentiation; I don’t find Schreiner’s contention that the repetition is merely for emphasis convincing.

3. In Romans 3:25 God is said to have demonstrated his righteousness by putting Jesus forward as an expiation/propitiation dia pisteōs. The close link with the theme of martyrdom and the effective requirement that the righteousness of God be concretely and practically demonstrated make a reference to Jesus’ faithfulness here highly likely.

4. Paul goes on to say that in this way God is found to be both just in himself and the one who justifies ton ek pisteōs Iēsou (Rom. 3:26). The ESV follows custom and translates this phrase as “the one who has faith in Jesus”. But the very similar expression tō ek pisteōs Abraam in Romans 4:16 clearly does not mean “the one who has faith in Abraham” but “the one who shares the pistis of Abraham”. Admittedly pistis now means “faith” or “belief” rather than faithfulness, but that is grammatically beside the point: we have simply shifted from the Habakkuk paradigm of faithfulness under conditions of wrath to the Abraham paradigm of belief in the God who promises.

There is a parallel extension of benefit (justification in 3:26, the promise in 4:16) to the person who is ek pisteōs of the first exemplar or source of that benefit:

Rom. 3:26: in order that [God] may be… the one justifying the one who is ek pisteōs Iēsou

Rom. 4:16: in order that the promise may be guaranteed… to the one who is ek pisteōs Abraam

The argument has shifted: we do not have to speak either of the “belief” of Jesus or of the “faithfulness” of Abraham (though Campbell makes a good case for the latter: The Deliverance of God, 392-95). But there would appear to be good syntactic and substantive grounds for thinking that pisteōs Iēsou in Romans 3:26 is a subjective genitive.

These considerations are more or less persuasive for me, but I recognize that they probably still fall short of a fully water-tight case. I would argue, however, that it is not the interpretation of the genitive phrase that matters here so much as the underlying controlling narratives: on the one hand, a story drawn from Habakkuk of the radical faithfulness of a righteous community, a story prefigured or pre-empted in the obedience of Jesus who suffered death on a cross out of loyalty to his Father; and on the other, a story drawn from Genesis about belief—even then, an enduring belief against the odds—in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17), that is, who secures the future of the family of Abraham.