Grammar Matters

Within grammar there is a construction referred to as a “genitive.” In biblical Greek there is an important genitive construction for understanding Paul’s message: pistou Christou. What’s crucial in translating a genitive construction is deciding how the second word (in this case, Christou Christ) relates to the word which comes before it (in this case, pistou faith, trust, fidelity). Greek scholars ask whether pistou Christou is an objective or a subjective genitive. Our answer to this question determines the entire way we understand Paul’s gospel. In other words, this is not a trivial matter. 

Over the last couple of decades, a revolution has occurred in Pauline studies. I have always maintained that Paul has been misunderstood by most people in the church and by a lot of biblical scholars. Today’s New Testament experts who specialize in the study of Paul’s letters present a very different Paul from those of the past. Like many disciplines, biblical scholarship displays a contrast between older and younger scholars. The Paul who is emerging today is far more radical, inclusive, loving, and hopeful than the Paul of the past. One of the most exciting of these newer scholars is Douglas Campbell who teaches New Testament at Duke University. Campbell has spent over thirty years intensely studying Paul and his letters. Some of his conclusions are rejected by other Pauline experts. However, more biblical scholars are being persuaded by Cambell’s analysis of Paul’s theology. 

This article is based on the arguments of two scholars: New Testament scholar Douglas Campbell and theologian Michael Hardin. 

We should first note that the Greek word pistis means faith as in trust and fidelity. It’s not just referring to some intellectual “believing.”

The objective genitive translation of pistou Christou would read “faith in Christ” with the meaning that we are saved by having faith/trust in Jesus. This has been the way the phrase has been understood by many Christians, especially those within the Lutheran tradition. Our faith in Jesus is what saves us. 

The subjective genitive translation would read “faith of Jesus”—in other words, the faith, trust, and fidelity of Jesus himself. As Hardin put it in one of his podcasts, this translation points to more about Jesus and less about us. It is Jesus’ faith, trust, and fidelity to God which saves the cosmos. A subjective genitive translation points to what God brings to the table, not what we bring. 

Romans 3:21-22 in the NRSV reads: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” In this translation, the phrase pistou Christou is understood as an objective genitive construction referring to our faith in Jesus. However, if what we have is a subjective genitive construction, it should read: “the righteousness of God through the faith/trust/fidelity of Jesus…” (“Righteousness” in Hebrew is a synonym for “justice.” Righteousness refers to God making right all the wrongs of this world. It’s about a deliverance from all the sin, oppression, and evil of the cosmos. Israel in its witness to God failed to manifest this righteousness. Jesus, through his trust in God and fidelity to God, was victorious in manifesting God’s righteousness.)

One might wonder if all this analysis is no more than a pedantic waste of time. Actually, it gets to the heart of Paul’s understanding of the gospel. Usually in churches, we assume that we must have faith in Jesus “to be saved.” We claim we are saved by God’s grace but it’s always “through our faith.”  What Paul claims is that Jesus through his faith/trust/fidelity has manifested the righteousness and grace of God. From God’s side, we are assured of God’s unconditional love. That love for each and all never ends. Our salvation is already assured. Jesus reveals the heart and will of God. It’s already done. This gift of faith, trust, and fidelity from Jesus is irrevocable. Nothing we do or fail to do can separate us from God’s unconditional love. Instead of having to summon up some Herculean effort on our part to win God’s love, it is a given. As we enter a relationship with God which She has already established, we learn and practice faithfulness in that relationship. We are drawn into this kind of Christ-like faith and love. 

In other words, God is not a contractable God. God is a covenantal God whose love is unconditional. Once we hear this good news, we no longer fear the fires of hell or the horrors of a “last judgment” which consigns anyone to everlasting punishment with no hope of pardon. Paul’s letter to the Romans reaches its climax with these extraordinary words: “God has consigned all to disobedience that God might have mercy on all.” (It’s amazing to what lengths some scholars go to say that “all” here does not mean “everyone.” I suggest that such a reluctance reveals a stubborn refusal to believe how all-encompassing God’s love and the world’s salvation are.) 

These new Pauline scholars are not saying that to experience the depths of love and salvation God can offer, we have to do nothing. They are saying that from God’s side, forgiveness and salvation have already been offered and are irrevocable. Faith on our part is recognizing and accepting this new reality of God’s unfathomable love for us. Once we accept that gift and enter into a relationship with the God revealed through Jesus Christ, we will be drawn into the Christ-like trust which makes that salvation concrete and transforming in our lives. 

There can never be any “if or but” after the claim that God loves you. We must be done with any belief in a schizoid God who will burn you in everlasting hell if you don’t love him back.

If these new scholars (whose conclusions I firmly and joyfully embrace) are correct, a lot of sermons and theological assumptions must be jettisoned. There can never be any “if or but” after the claim that God loves you. We must be done with any belief in a schizoid God who will burn you in everlasting hell if you don’t love him back. (Such a schizoid God is always a “he.”) There is no good news with that kind of God. (At no point in Paul’s letters does he refer to everlasting torture in hell. That threat was for later generations of misguided theologians to conjure.) But once we accept that from God’s side there is only unconditional love, we can discover and experience the true freedom which comes from that assurance. And we can see everyone through God’s eyes of unending grace which provides certain hope for all. The Abba of Jesus will not be content until every place at Her table is filled with Her beloved children. God loves us, each of us and all of us. That love will never end. And that love will win. 

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