Gospel Guidebook: Getting and Keeping It Right  

"Faith of Jesus Christ" or "Faith in Jesus Christ"?

Over the past couple decades, there has been much debate regarding the translation of πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (pisteos Iesou Christou) in Romans 3:22, and other similar passages, including Romans 3:26, Galatians 2:16, 2:20, 3:22, and Philippians 3:9. Should it be translated "faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ," as a subjective genitive, or "faith in Jesus Christ," as an objective genitive?

For many years, I had always preferred the subjective genitive rendering "faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ." This is how the King James Bible and most other early English Bible translators seemingly interpreted the Greek (from the perspective of modern English eyes). The Vulgate also renders it fidem Iesu Christi, which also supports the subjective genitive. I have found the subjective genitive edifying because, after all, Christ was the one who was faithful toward God. He believed in God when faced with the death of the cross. He trusted in God to raise Him from the dead. He is also faithful to keep his promises toward us. His faith(fulness) was and is the basis of our salvation. However, the subjective genitive rendering is also sufficiently ambiguous to allow for some esoteric interpretations. For example, the "faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ" holds a key place among certain theologians of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) school who reject substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness. In particular, I know a couple Bible teachers who believe that the "faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ" is the life force within a person that enables him to become righteous through Christ-produced works that result in transformation of character. These teachers believe that when the Apostle Paul said, "his faith is counted for righteousness" in Romans 4:5, he wasn't actually referring to the believer's faith, but to Christ's faith working within the believer.

In recent months, I was challenged to re-evalute my understanding of πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (pisteos Iesou Christou) in Romans 3:22. Was the Apostle Paul really talking about the "faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ," or was he talking about "faith in Jesus Christ" where faith in Christ is the instrument God uses to enable people to appropriate to themselves Christ's redemptive work of the cross? Grammatically speaking, either rendering is possible. The rule to interpreting this type of Greek construction is to rely on the immediate context. However, in this case, the problem is that there is currently no consensus in regard to how to interpret these passages. There are vehement defenders of both views.

Recently, I have been increasingly interested in understanding how the ancient Greeks actually understood their language. For instance, I wrote the article Greek Verb Tense: Time, Kind of Action, and Bad Scholarship in which I showed that the ancient Greeks actually understood the role of verb tenses differently than many modern New Testament scholars do. In this respect, I started to wonder how the early church interpreted πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (pisteos Iesou Christou) in Romans 3:22. Was there a consensus among them? Or were they also debating this issue?

In the course of my research, I ran across the paper ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ: Witness of the Fathers by Roy A. Harrisville, III (available for free with a JSTOR account). In that paper, he describes how he used a computer program to search through the early patristic writings for use of the subjective genitive and objective genitive in the Apostle Paul's writings. He established three categories: (1) Ambiguous cases, (2) Subjective genitive, and (3) Objective genitive. He made the following observations:

Harrisville concluded his section on the subjective genitive by saying, "In every instance cited above, the subjective faith referred to (πίστις αὐτοῦ) was some form of human faith, either that of Abraham, St. Paul, or an anonymous Christian. Nowhere do we find the Πίστις Χριστοῦ formulation understood subjectively by the early Fathers."

In his section on the objective genitive, he provides examples from Acta Petri, Origen of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Saint Augustine of Hippo that support the "faith in Jesus Christ" interpretation. In particular, he cites Augustine as follows:

"not that whereby he Himself is righteous, but that with which he endows man when he justifies the ungodly... 'But righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ,' that is by the faith wherewith one believes in Christ [per fidem qua creditur in Christum]; for just as there is not meant the faith with which Christ Himself believes [dicta est non qua credit Christus], so also there is not meant the righteousness whereby God is Himself righteous."

This explanation by Augustine is particularly important because it clarifies that readers of the Vulgate could interpret "faith of Jesus Christ" as meaning "faith wherewith one believes in Christ." In other words, although "faith of Jesus Christ" appears to be a subjective genitive to modern day English readers, this expression was capable of being interpreted as an objective genitive by Latin readers. For Augustine, it was emphatically an objective genitive.

Harrisville concluded his paper as follows:

It would seem that when the Fathers talk unequivocally of a subjective faith, they do so in using the phrase πίστις αὐτοῦ. However, when employing the πίστις Χριστοῦ formulation, there is no clear and unambiguous indication of any subjective understanding. The contexts in which the phrase is found admit of no such interpretation. On the other hand, there is clear evidence in both Greek and Latin authors of an understanding of the phrase in an objective sense. Why do the Fathers offer some very clear and obvious renderings of the subjective genitive, for example when Abraham’s faith is mentioned or when πίστις αὐτοῦ is used, while in other instances of similar phrases where the genitive of Christ is used, Christ is plainly understood as a genitive object of faith? Why do the Fathers deem it appropriate to render two similar grammatical phrases now in one way and then in another? It seems significant that we never encounter any context in which it is clear that Christ’s faith(fulness) is meant.

In conclusion, if one is to use the witness of the Fathers on one or the other side of this debate, it must be used on the objective side. More than that, scholars must wrestle with the reason for such a witness and why that witness has been consistently ignored or forgotten in the current debate.

One other observation that can be drawn from Harrisville's work is that the meaning of πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (pisteos Iesou Christou) in Romans 3:22 does not appear to have been debated by the patristic writers. There seems to have been a general consensus among them that it should be interpreted as an objective genitive.

It certainly seems like the objective genitive was the preferred interpretation in the early Greek and Latin patristic writings. But what about the early English Bibles? It is interesting that the Coverdale Bible of 1535 translates πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (pisteos Iesou Christou) in Romans 3:22 as the objective genitive "faith on Iesus Christ." This is significant because it means that the early English Bible translators were aware of the objective genitive translation of the Greek. However, all other early English Bibles translate it as "faith of Jesus Christ." This may seem to suggest that these translators preferred a subjective genitive interpretation of the Greek, but this would be a hasty conclusion to draw. We already saw with the Latin that the phrase "faith of Jesus Christ" can be interpreted as an objective genitive. This means that "faith of Jesus Christ" could possibly be an English archaism for "faith in Jesus Christ." In fact, the paper The Objective Genitive and "Run-Awayes Eyes" shows that the objective genitive was in common use in Elizabethan English.

Although I previously preferred the subjective genitive rendering "faith of Jesus Christ," I am now persuaded that the objective genitive rendering "faith in Jesus Christ" is correct. It is very well possible that the King James translator's themselves interpreted "faith of Jesus Christ" in Romans 3:22 as "faith in Jesus Christ." The internal evidence for this is found in Romans 3:26 where they translate the similar Greek expression πίστεως Ἰησοῦ (pisteos Iesou) as "believeth in Jesus."