A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese
THE MEANING OF pistis christou
IN PHILIPPIANS 3:9
In verse 9 of Philippians 3, Paul tells his readers that it is his desire to be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is dia pisteos christou, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” There are six other passages in Paul’s writings where the construction pistis christou occurs (Romans 1:17; 3:22, 26; Galatians 2:16 [twice], 20; 3:22). Much of the current debate concerning the meaning of this phrase has centered on its use in the Galatians and Roman passages. Just recently have scholars begun to focus also on Philippians 3:9.
In order to better understand the critical theological issue being examined, we must first understand the background out of which this issue arises. For years now, there have been two running debates: (1) One concerns the nature of faith,1 and whether or not it is a meritorious work. (2) Another concerns whether or not the Greek pistis christou which has “Christ” in the genitive case should be translated as “faith in Christ” (objective genitive) or “faith of Christ” (subjective genitive).2
Regarding the nature of faith debate, when man’s faith is the subject, various theological questions are asked:
- Is faith a gift from God, or is faith a response that a hearer of the gospel can exercise?
- Is faith mental assent, or is faith a change of life? (For example, Luther held that faith, which brings union with Christ, imparts to man divine attributes.3)
- Is faith something that must be given form, whether by our love for God (Luther) or by our love for fellow man, such as might be evidenced by deeds of charity (the Roman Catholic view)? This particular question reflects a running debate concerning the meaning of “faith working through love” in Galatians 5:6.
Defenders of each of these views have seen their position being threatened by arguments for the objective or subjective genitive view of pistis christou.
In regard to the nature of faith debate, when man’s faith is the subject, if we allow such verses as Romans 3:12; Galatians 5:6,7; and Hebrews 10:36-38 to guide us, we will define “faith” as habitually doing what God says (i.e., faithfulness).4 With such a Biblical definition for faith, we find that we are not threatened by a decision concerning whether pistis christou is an objective or a subjective genitive. Additionally, Romans 10:17 tells us that in this Christian age faith comes by hearing the word of Christ.
Regarding the debate over the meaning of pistis christou, the objective genitive interpretation (i.e., faith in Christ) has been the traditional view. However, for about 200 years now, there has been an increasing call for interpreters to treat at least some of the occurrences of pistis christou as being a subjective genitive, thus emphasizing that Christ Himself was faithful to God when He was here on earth.
With the exception of the Syriac version, which treated the expression as a subjective genitive, the early church writers treated pistis christou as an objective genitive.5 From about 1795 to 1891 there were a few writers who tried to make a case for the subjective genitive reading,6 but not many followed their lead until a new phase of the debate sprang up in the 1950s and 1960s.7 When the debate called “the New Perspective on Paul” began in the late 1970's, proponents of the New Perspective were accused of not believing that faith is a gift from God. This issue was then argued anew, and so were the objective vs. subjective genitive interpretations. Reading pistis christou as “the faith of Christ” (subjective) allowed opponents of the New Perspective to argue that verses which were being given an objective reading, and which were then interpreted to mean that faith is something a man must exercise, were wrong because pistis christou had been misread as an objective genitive. Increasing support for the subjective genitive interpretation followed the publication of Richard B. Hays’ book, The Faith of Jesus Christ.8 However, Morna Hooker9 and James D.G. Dunn10 have defended the objective genitive interpretation. Stanley Porter concluded his paper with these words, “when Paul used the phrase pistis christou he was indicating that Christ was the proper object of faith.”11 The linguistic analyses of Hooker, Dunn, and Porter must be refuted if one wishes to argue for the subjective genitive in every verse where it occurs.
It is very likely that some are proponents of the subjective genitive because it bolsters what otherwise might be a weak interpretive case in regard to other related theological issues.
- In the Jesus of History v. the Christ of Faith debate, the subjective genitive helps the argument that Paul is treating the Jesus event as history rather than interpreting an event.
- Some writers adopt the subjective genitive reading in order to bolster their argument that Scripture does not present men’s faith as being a meritorious work.
- The debate between objective and subjective genitive is significant soteriologically, for it deals with how a man is saved. Does God do it all, or is there man’s part to salvation?
Certainly, the idea of Jesus’ own faithfulness to God is clearly taught in the New Testament. In Hebrew 2:17, Jesus is presented as a “faithful high priest in the things pertaining to God.” In Hebrews 3:2 we are told Jesus “was faithful to Him Who appointed Him.” In Revelation 3:14 Jesus is called a “faithful and true Witness.” So to read pistis christou in the subjective sense, as “the faith of Christ,” in some of the New Testament passages would not be introducing a new idea. That is, the subjective genitive is in fact a possible reading. However, at each occurrence, we must still decide whether or not it is the correct reading.
The conclusion is this: Perhaps in a few verses (and Philippians 3:9 may be one of them12) pistis christou should be taken as a subjective genitive, as speaking of Christ’s own faithfulness. But to treat the genitive phrase in every case as being Christ’s own faith would result in a near total elimination from Paul’s letters of Who the Christian is to believe in. Romans 10:14, Philippians 1:29, and 1 Timothy 1:16 – all of which read “believe in Him” – would be all we have left in Paul’s writings.