Compare these Pauline verses. First, Romans 3:21-22:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (RSV)
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (NIV)
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference. (KJV)
There’s one key difference between them. Do you see it? The difference sticks out even more clearly when one compares the three versions of Galatians 2:15-16:
We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. (RSV)
We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (NIV)
We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (KJV)
Both the popular NIV and the once standard RSV speak of being justified by “faith in Christ Jesus.” But the queen of all English translations, the King James Version, speaks instead of being justified by “faith of Jesus Christ.” The Greek phrase is pisteōs Iēsou Christou, which can be translated as either “faith in Jesus Christ” (objective genitive) or “faith(fulness) of Christ” (subjective genitive). Most English translators have gone with the first option, but an increasing number of exegetes now believe that the latter represents St Paul’s intended meaning. Isn’t it curious that the version of the Bible that has most profoundly informed English-speaking Protestant Christianity, the King James Version, also chose the latter; yet we English Bible readers long ago forgot it. I have not come across a discussion of why the KJV translators decided on the subjective genitive. Perhaps they were influenced by the Vulgate translation, which also renders the phrase as a subjective genitive. I don’t know. What I do know, or at least suspect, is that if pistis Christou is properly rendered as either “the faith of Christ” or “the faithfulness of Christ,” then our understanding of St Paul and his teaching on justification will be dramatically affected.
For the past two weeks I have been ruminating on Romans 3:21-26, with particular attention to the theme of justification or rectification. If we wish to fully grasp the significance of justification in this text, we probably should first take a look at the Apostle’s earliest discussion of justification in his Epistle to the Galatians:
We are by nature Jews, not “Gentile sinners.” Even we ourselves know, however, that a person is not rectified by observance of the Law, but rather by the faith of Christ Jesus. Thus, even we have placed our trust in Christ Jesus, in order that the source of our rectification might be the faith of Christ and not observance of the Law; for not a single person will be rectified by observance of the Law. If, however, seeking to be rectified in Christ, we ourselves have been perceived to be sinners, then is it true that Christ has become a servant of sin? Absolutely not! For, as the incident in Antioch reveals, the way in which I would show myself to be a transgressor would be to rebuild the walls of the Law that I have torn down. For, I have died to the Law, through the Law, in order that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but rather Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live in faith, that is to say in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up to death for me. I do not nullify God’s grace! For if it were true that rectification comes through the Law, then Christ would have died for no purpose at all. (Gal 2:15-21 [Martyn translation, The Anchor Bible: Galatians])
As we see, J. Louis Martyn has also adopted the subjective genitive rendering of the pistis Christou: a person is not rectified by observance of the commandments of Torah but by “the faith of Christ Jesus.” Christ himself, in his faithfulness to the Father and obedience unto death, is the source of our rectification. Paul places before us two alternatives—rectification through human activity and rectification through the act of God in his Son. Paul also speaks of the faith of the believer, but as Martyn notes, he places it in a “decidedly secondary place” (p. 252). Our faith rests upon the faith of Christ. Jew and Gentile alike stand before God with empty hands.
Paul is not doing abstract theology. He is addressing a controversy that is threatening to destroy his apostolic work in Galatia. The Teachers have seduced his churches with a false gospel that contradicts the heart of his own gospel message. If the Teachers are right, Paul tells his Galatian converts, then Christ died for nothing! The situation he confronts is even more serious than what he confronted in Antioch. Whereas in Antioch the question was “With whom may we eat?” here in Galatia the question is “Must we become Torah-observant Jews in order to be saved?”
In response to his opponents, Paul does not pose two different human possibilities—either obedience to Torah or faith in Christ; rather, he poses an antinomy between human act and divine act, between human doing and the atoning work of the Messiah. The latter has the power to rectify, to make things right; the former does not. Understanding this antinomy of the new creation “is crucial,” Martyn writes, “to an understanding not only of Galatians but also of the whole of Paul’s theology. God has set things right without laying down a prior condition of any sort. God’s rectifying act, that is to say, is no more God’s response to human faith in Christ than it is God’s response to human observance of the Law. God’s rectification is not God’s response at all. It is the first move; it is God’s initiative, carried out by him in Christ’s faithful death” (p. 271).
I know that the reflexive response to this exegetical analysis is to immediately raise the philosophical question of free will; but we need to temporarily bracket this concern and simply allow the Apostle to speak. If we do not, we will miss the apocalyptic power and significance of Paul’s good news.
(Appropriate period of times passes while the reader contemplates what “apocalyptic” could possibly mean in this context … Theme song from Jeopardy plays in the background.)
Okay, we are back. If you’re still uncertain about St Paul and “apocalyptic,” take a look at Lou Martyn’s essay “The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians.”
So what about free will? How do we understand what Paul means when he speaks of trusting in the faith of Christ? We are anticipating discussion of Romans 5-8, where Paul makes clear that he understands humanity as having been enslaved to the powers of sin and death, a slavery from which we have been liberated through the death and resurrection of the Jesus Christ. Perhaps we should think of this bondage as existential rather than metaphysical. Did Paul understand humanity is no longer bearing the image of God, as no longer possessing the faculty of free will? I don’t think so. But humanity was enslaved nonetheless—hence its impotence to make things right through any kind of Torah observance and moral and ascetical action. In Christ God invades the world to rescue a subjugated mankind. This is why at the conclusion of his letter Paul can proclaim: “As for me, God forbid that I should boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the cosmos has been crucified to me and I to the cosmos. For neither is circumcision anything nor is uncircumcision anything. What is something is the new creation” (Gal 5:14-15).
Martyn offers three further reflections on the mystery of divine and human agency in Galatians:
First, trust in the faithfulness of Christ is a human deed. Christian believers are summoned to put their trust in Christ and his saving work within the community of faith:
One trusts Christ Jesus as the Son whom God sent into the world to give his life in behalf of us, and as the one whom God then raised from the dead, causing him to become the fully trustworthy Lord of the cosmos. This trust, being directed toward the risen Lord who is influentially present in the worshiping community, has about it the character of a confessional prayer, spoken not in the Lord’s absence, but rather in his presence. There, in his presence, the worshiper knows this cosmic Lord to be the one who fully determines his own life, not least his future, as he lives in the community of faith (1 Thess 4:14; 1 Cor 15:22; Rom 10:9). Belief involves, then, face-to-face obedience, together with the certainty of a hope that is faithfully sustained through thick and thin (cf. Gal 5:5; Rom 8:31-39). (pp. 275-276)
Second, trust in the faithfulness of Christ is more than a human deed. God’s saving work in the death and resurrection of Jesus precedes the human act of faith, and it is the actual event of gospel proclamation that makes possible and generates the response of faith. “Did you receive the Spirit because you observed the Law,” the Apostle asks the Galatians, “or as a result of the proclamation that has the power to elicit faith?” (Gal 3:2). The preaching of the apocalyptic event of Jesus Christ is itself an apocalyptic event. As Paul declares in his Epistle to the Romans, the gospel “is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16).
“Those who believe in Christ are not puppets,” Martyn elaborates, “moved about and made to speak by others. But, just as these persons are not puppet believers, so they are not believers as a result of an act of their own autonomous wills, as though the gospel were an event in which two alternatives were placed before an autonomous decider, and faith were one of two decisions the human being could make autonomously. … Thus when Paul speaks about placing one’s trust in Christ, he is pointing to a deed that reflects not the freedom of the will, but rather God’s freeing of the will. In Christ, the Son of God whose faith is engagingly enacted in his death, God invaded the human orb and commenced a battle for the liberation of the human will itself. And in the case of believers, that apocalyptic invasion is the mysterious genesis of faith in Christ” (p. 276), as Paul himself personally experienced in his encounter with the risen Lord.
Third, trust in the faithfulness of Christ is trust in the God who is active in the gospel:
What Paul says about God’s deed in Christ he also says about the proclamation of this deed, reflecting his convictions that God is the immediate and irreplaceable author of the gospel, and that the gospel is itself an invasive event, not merely the offering of a new option. It is in the gospel-event that Christ’s faith elicits our faith. Thus, Paul can even include faith in the list of the fruit that is borne by the Spirit of Christ (5:22), suggesting that the act of trust does not have its origin in the human being. On the contrary, as we have noted, that act springs from the proclamation of the risen Lord. It is incited by the preached message (Gal 3:2; Rom 10:17). It is empowered by the Spirit. (pp. 276-277)
Just as salvation is not an existential possibility for us—we do not save ourselves; we do not heal ourselves; we do not liberate ourselves from Satan and the powers of the world; we do not raise ourselves from death—so faith itself is existentially impossible for a humanity enslaved by the powers of sin and death. Trust, too, is a grace of the apocalyptic invasion. If we think that we have believed in Christ by our own power and autonomous decision, then perhaps we have attended one too many revivalist tent meetings. We are not righteoused by our faith in Christ; we are righteoused by the faith of Christ.
Martyn’s exegesis of Galatians opens up fresh possibilities for theological reflection on the Incarnation. I am reminded of St Gregory of Nazianzen’s famous saying “For that which he has not assumed he has not healed.” Surely this assumption must include the diseased human will, which is healed, purified, liberated, and sanctified through our Lord’s obedience unto death. In the Incarnation, the eternal Son not only comes to us as God in love and grace; but he also representatively offers to the Father, as our great high priest, in our human nature, the perfect life of obedience and faith that we were unable to offer. As St Athanasius wrote, Christ became our Mediator that “he might minister the things of God to us and ours to God.” The Son and Messiah thus fulfills in himself the covenantal vocation of Israel and of all created being, and by the Spirit we are granted participation in his freedom and faithfulness.