Ruminating Romans: Is faith a condition of salvation?

Let us assume for the moment that the Pauline phrase pistis Christou is rightly translated “faith in Christ.” What then does it mean? What is its function within the theology of St Paul?

In classical Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox exegesis, “faith” is posited as a condition of salvation, as the one condition that we must fulfill in order to be accepted by God and judged as righteous at the Great Assize. The big question then becomes: What is faith? Is it trust? belief? obedience? love? All of the above? Various texts and arguments can be invoked to support each of these options.

I want to provisionally propose that “justification by faith” is best understood as a polemical device invented by Paul, employed against those who claimed that Gentiles must become Torah-observant Jews in order to be judged righteous. It must be interpreted, therefore, over against the contrasting reality “justification by works of the Law.”

In his Commentary on Galatians, J. Louis Martyn asserts that the Greek phrase erga nomou should be translated “works of the Law.” By this phrase Paul intends to refer to life as lived under Torah. “It refers simply,” Martyn writes, “to observance of God’s law” (p. 261). In Exodus 18:20 Jethro instructs Moses that he must teach the people “God’s commandments and his Law” and make them to “know the way in which they must walk and the works they must do” (Exod 18:20; LXX). The three italicized expressions are equivalent. They signify the path of Torah observance, “the grand and complex activity of the Jew, who faithfully walks with God along the path God has opened up for him in the Law” (p. 261). Justification by works of Torah has nothing to do with Pelagian self-help or earning merit before God. It simply designates Jewish identity and practice.

Against life as lived under the domain of Torah, Paul posits life lived under the domain of Christ. He calls this domain “faith,” as a kind of shorthand or slogan. He is not proposing faith as an anthropological condition that we must fulfill in order to be saved. That is not his concern in either Galatians or Romans. If it were, we would find ourselves cast into either the pride of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable or the angst of Martin Luther. Against the Teachers (Judaizers) Paul is concerned simply to assert the sufficiency of Christ and life in the Church. Gentiles do not need to become Torah-observant Jews. Conversion to Jesus and baptism into the eucharistic community is sufficient.

“Faith” therefore comprehends everything that we think of as constituting life in Christ: belief, trust, baptism, Eucharist, prayer, worship, ascetical discipline, works of charity, care for the poor. We are saved by being “in Christ”; we are saved by being “in the Spirit”; we are saved by our participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity (theosis). That we sinners now find ourselves dwelling in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is sheer and utter grace.

That is my story, and I’m sticking with it until the Apostle Paul proves me wrong.

(cont)

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7 Responses to Ruminating Romans: Is faith a condition of salvation?

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    If the “works of the law [Torah]” are just referencing Jewish identity and practice, then why is Paul so concerned (in Rom 7) about coveting? And this applies even if Paul is thinking of his pre-conversion days. The problem with the law is that it cannot reign-in the deep, abiding sin within — and nothing is more deep and abiding than coveting. The inability of the law — to deal with sin — is of course previously dealt with by Paul in Gal 2-3, especially 3.21-22 where the problem with the law is not covenant boundary markers excluding Gentiles nor the “apocalyptic” in-breaking of Christ (though both are true) but, rather, the law’s inability to make anyone righteous (in the moral sense, contra Wright): “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.”

    Paul is concerned about ‘imparting life” — making someone righteous (morally) in a way that the law could not do because of sin. Yes, he is also concerned about boundary markers (the NPP) and the radical apocalypse of Christ’s advent (Martyn), but these are all not mutually exclusive. Of course, I don’t know why I bother to address NPP advocates, because we just end-up throwing Scripture back and forth at each other — but I thought I’d share my two cents. I think Simon Gathercole addresses all of this sufficiently, but it all hinges upon how we define “righteousness” — and I am most definitely not persuaded by Wright or anyone else’s attempt to limit it to God’s covenant faithfulness to his plan to redeem through Israel-as-represented-in-Christ. That’s a gutting of the term, just as “works of the law” has been gutted by Wright et al. of the deep significance pertaining to morality, as Paul addresses in Gal 3 and Rom 7 (to repeat myself!).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Kevin, I’m afraid you have misunderstood my article, perhaps because of my lack of clarity. You have read me as interpreting erga nomou as principally referring to cultural or national boundary markers, such as circumcision and dietary regulations. This is not my position nor the position of Louis Martyn. I understand the phrase as referring to the totality of life under Torah.

      I’m going to refrain from discussing Romans 7 until my ruminations actually get there; but let me just say that I do not disagree with you when you say that “Paul is concerned about ‘imparting life.'” I would affirm that wholeheartedly. As will become clear when we finally reach chaps. 5-8, I personally believe that Paul is best understood through a participationist or new creation model of salvation. That puts me in a different place than James Dunn or even N. T. Wright, both of whom I respect a great deal. But perhaps my research will persuade me otherwise. We shall see. In any case, it would be a mistake to categorize me as NPP.

      Hopefully, other readers will be able to discuss with you the points you raise. I know we have some strong Wright supporters here. Perhaps they might be willing to enter the lists.

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      • Kevin Davis says:

        Thanks, Fr. Kimel. I didn’t think that Martyn would put it that way, but my knowledge of his work is secondary. Anyway, I’m sure that I was over-reading a bit. I try to follow the disparate happenings in Pauline scholarship. But, it can be quite a mess trying to keep figures like Wright and Martyn and Campbell straight, with their significant divergences yet significant overlap. As you can guess, I’m an “extrinsic righteousness” guy all the way, because I think it supports union/participation/pneumatology/etc better than any other model on the table — as Barth understood (and Paul!). Counter-intuitive, I know. I may get to this stuff on my blog…we’ll see.

        So, I am rather sensitive to any talk of “Jewish identity and practice” as it is commonly employed by old perspective detractors, who often enough have no clue what either Luther or Calvin taught, much less what the Protestant scholastics taught…and normally collapse everything into the most debased form of dispensationalist fundamentalism (okay, I’m definitely thinking of Wright especially and also Campbell).

        I am sure that we could agree on a participationist model, since that is fully Protestant! I’ll look forward to your future ruminations.

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  2. Rhonda says:

    Please pardon my ignorance, but what is NPP shorthand for?

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  3. Rhonda says:

    Ok, never mind…a little searching the ‘net…New Perspective on Paul…got it.

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This article popped up in my blog reader today: “Faith as Theosis.” Take a look, everyone.

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