Does the expression pistis Christou mean ‘faith in Christ’, or ‘the faith [or faithfulness] of Christ’?
This post is not an attempt to settle the question once and for all, but rather to respond to an argument mounted recently by Steve Chalke.
In chapter 10 of The Lost Message of Paul (2019) Chalke says that:
‘Martin Luther, John Calvin and countless others following them have chosen to translate pistis Christou as ‘faith in Christ’, and then to hang their whole doctrinal approach on it. We are saved, it is taught, by putting our ‘faith in Christ’. But I put it to you that this translation was a giant mistake; that it is at the very heart of the muddle we have been in for the last five hundred years, and that it is time to sort it out!’ (My emphasis)
Obviously, this is a serious and far-reaching claim.
Chalke gives the distinct impression that the translation of pistis Christou as ‘the faith (or faithfulness) of Christ’ was the consensus reading until Calvin and Luther came along. According to him, ‘the ‘novel’ understanding of pistis Christou (as ‘faith in Christ’) is the one that was introduced by the sixteenth-century European reformers.’
But Chalke’s confidence is misplaced. Roy Harrisville III has carried out a complete search of references to pistis Christou and related phrases in the early Church Fathers. After careful analysis of these references, he concludes that there is no clear instance of pistis Christou ever being used by the early Fathers in the subjective sense (i.e. ‘the faith/faithfulness of Christ’). Where they wished to refer to subjective faith, they consistently used the expression pistis autou. If the Fathers are to be appealed to in the debate on the meaning of this phrase, then, says Harrisville, ‘it must be used on the objective side’. ‘Pistis Christou: Witness of the Fathers’ in Novum Testamentum, XXXVI, 3 (1994), p233-241. (Online)
With regard to the situation at the time of the Reformation, Chalke writes:
‘It might surprise you to know that until the time of the Protestant Reformation, virtually all translations of the New Testament chose to translate [pistis christou] as ‘the faith of Christ’, in the sense of the faithfulness exercised by Christ, rather than ‘faith in Christ’, in the sense of our personal belief levels in Christ.
As a matter of fact, very few translations of the New Testament existed in English prior to the Reformation (the beginning of which is usually dated to 1517). Wycliffe’s Bible (1380) has ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’. Other translations of the New Testament into English post-date the beginning of the Reformation: Tyndale’s, for example, dates from 1526, and Coverdale’s from 1535. The latter renders the relevant phrase in Romans 3:22 as ‘the faith on Jesus Christ’. Chalke has given us a misleading impression of virtual unanimity.
Chalke places particular stress on William Tyndale’s translation of Romans 3:22 –
‘The rightewesnes no dout which is good before God cometh by ye fayth of Iesus Christ vnto all and vpon all that beleve.’ (My emphasis)
According to Chalke, Tyndale, as an honest translator, ‘just could not bring himself to translate pistis Christou as “faith in Christ”.’ Unfortunately (says Chalke), the Reformation movement swept away this understanding of salvation as due to the faith/faithfulness of Christ and replaced it with the novel notion of faith in Christ.
I think that Chalke is entirely mistaken in this matter. He seems not to have considered the rather obvious possibility that Tyndale’s expression ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ represents an archaic use of the English language, and that, for him, the phrase meant exactly what it meant what Chalke does not want it to mean: ‘faith which has Jesus Christ as its object’.
Consider Tyndale’s translation of James 2:1 –
‘Brethren have not the fayth of oure lorde Iesus Christ the lorde of glory in respecte of persons.’ (My emphasis)
It is generally recognised that James is referring ‘faith in‘ Christ here. Indeed, one of the most scholarly of modern commentaries translates this verse…
‘My brothers, you should not try to combine the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with [the practice of] favoritism.’ (Ralph Martin, WBC)
…before adding this explanatory gloss: ‘the faith of [i.e., “in”] our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’.
Joseph Fitzmyer (a Roman Catholic scholar, be it noted) argues that the phrase in Rom 3:22 should be rendered ‘faith in Christ’. Indeed, whereas Paul certainly speaks of the obedience of Christ (e.g. in Phil 2:8), Fitzmyer doubts that the verb pisteuein ever has Christ as the subject in the New Testament. (This understanding of Romans 3:22 is also held by James Dunn (one of the proponents of the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’).
Back to Tyndale. In his Prologue Upon The Epistle of Saint Paul To The Romans, Tyndale sets out his understanding of faith as taught in that Epistle:
‘As the Spirit comes by faith alone, even so faith comes by hearing the word or glad tidings of God when Christ is preached: that he is God’s Son, and man also, dead and risen again for our sakes, as Paul says in the third, fourth, and tenth chapters. All our righteousness then comes by faith, and faith and the Spirit come of God, and not of us.’
‘…Faith is then a living and steadfast trust in the favour of God, whereby we commit ourselves altogether to God.’
So far from ‘faith in Christ’ being a ‘novel’ notion, Tyndale places it front of stage and centre.
A note on linguistic technicalities
I am not personally competent to adjudicate on the technicalities of New Testament Greek. Fortunately, from the perspective of my critique of Chalke’s argument, that does not matter, for, as he says, the matter cannot be resolved simply by staring at ‘pistis Christou‘ with a view to deciding whether it is a subjective genitive (‘the faith/faithfulness of Christ’) or an objective genitive (‘faith in Christ’). The matter must be decided with reference to usage, context and overall flow of argument.
And that is precisely what modern commentators do. So, when Chalke writes…
If you are prepared to put the time in, you can read those on both ends of the argument, as well as others with various in-between stances. And you will discover that all argue their position is the right one on the basis that their opponents have made the rookie error of mistaking a subjective genitive for an objective genitive, or vice versa! (My emphasis)
…I think that he is guilty of careless misrepresentation. From my own reading, I have found no-one who argues that way. The standard scholarly way of proceeding is to say that, grammatically, both interpretations are possible, and that the matter must be resolved by contextual study.