Biblical scholars, like those of every discipline, look at the broad ideas of their material, the Bible, reading and analyzing its narratives, its proclamation, its theology, and its faith and ethical concerns. They also look at details, recognizing that both meaning and wisdom become understood more clearly by drawing out ideas from close and critical examination of the particulars of language. One of the things they have been looking at—and debating—for some time is what they call the “pistis Christou” wording found in the Greek New Testament at Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:22. In the English translations of the Bible we typically use in church, such as the New Revised Standard Version, these texts read:
…we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ… (Galatians).
…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe (Romans).
Justification by faith. In Christ. We get it, don’t we? The problem is that pistis Christou, read in a direct grammatical way, does not mean faith in Christ, it meansfaith of Christ. The grammatical question is, should these words be readobjectively, where Jesus Christ is the object of faith, the one receiving the faith, orsubjectively, where Jesus Christ is the subject of faith, the one performing the faith? It is easy to see that the way these passages are understood makes a dramatic difference. What brings about justification (itself a biblical and theological term that deserves analysis)? Is it our faith in (trust in) Christ? Or is it the faith of(the faithful work of) Christ himself who lived, who died “for our sins,” and was raised from death?
It is possible, technically, to read these texts either way. For example, we can understand the phrase “the love of God” (see 1 John 2:5) to mean our love for God or God’s love for us. How can we tell the difference? The context of the wording must be examined, certainly, and major clues are found there. Both passages, Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:22, are set in contexts that point out that humans cannot justify themselves. They cannot declare themselves to be righteous persons because they are sinners, guilty of doing wrong things, unable to change or reverse what they have done in the past. Even one’s own faith (and faithfulness) does not remove guilt. How much faith would you need? How much would be enough? The biblical answer to this human problem is that Christ has been faithful. Jesus Christ provides “redemption… by his blood” (Rom 3:24-25). Righteousness is a gift given by God’s mercy to humans who cannot acquire it on their own. There is no place for boasting, as Romans goes on to indicate (3:27), because it is all a gift.
This suggests, then, that the subjective reading is correct. The actual Greek grammar that reads through the faith of Christ is to be taken seriously. Even our own faith does not itself make us humans into justified, righteous, guiltless persons. Believers, or many of them, have long recognized this. Interestingly, the beautiful language of the King James Version Bible has read the faith of Christ in Galatians and Romans for nearly 400 years.
It turns out that this level of grammatical detail has pastoral, preaching, and practical value. We may take comfort in knowing that we rest as justified and transformed people, not on our own merits, but because Christ has been faithful on our behalf. This is a wonderful comfort at those moments when we recognize weaknesses in our trust. This is a gospel to proclaim. It leads to peace of heart, to trust in God’s mercy.
Roy Jeal is chair of the Religion Department at Booth University College and attends St. Margaret’s, Winnipeg