“The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ”: Correcting a Deadly Mistranslation to Advance the Reformation . . . and a Preview of Brian McLaren’s New Book

As we get ready to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (October 31, 2017), it might be timely to significantly advance reform of Christ’s church, guided by correctly translating two crucial Reformation verses — Gal 2:16a and Rom 3:22a.

Galatians 2:16a

Greek: eidotes [de] hoti ou dikaioutai anthrōpos ex ergōn nomou ean mē dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou, kai hēmeis eis Christon Iēsoun episteusamen…

NRSV: yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus…

Suggested alternate translation: yet we know that a person is made just not by religious practices but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. And we have come to trust in Messiah Jesus…

Romans 3:22a

Greek: dikaiosunē de theou dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou eis pantas tous pisteuontas…

NRSV: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…

Suggested alternate translation: God’s saving justice through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah for all who trust…

Especially critical is the Greek phrase, “dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou.” Word-for-word in English from this Greek phrase yields: “through faith Jesus Christ.” What’s missing is not the word “in,” generally supplied in English translations. What’s missing is that the phrase in Greek is a genitive constructive, a phrase showing possession, most commonly rendered in English with an ’s — such as, “through Jesus Christ’s faith.” The problem in translating a Greek genitive construction is that there is no way to show conclusively whether it is ‘subjective’ or ‘objective.’

Here’s a brief Greek grammar lesson. In this particular case, the two options are:

Subjective: “through the faith of Jesus Christ,” or, “through Jesus Christ’s faith” — where Jesus Christ is the subject possessing faith(fulness);

Objective: “through [our] faith in Jesus Christ” — where Christ is the object of our faith, the faith believers possess.

The ultimate choice in translating this phrase comes from the theological context of what the translator thinks Paul is trying to say, and so the history of translation has varied with the theology of the translators. It is interesting that closer to the time of the Reformation, the early English translation in the King James Version chose the subjective option: “which is by faith of Jesus Christ.” But as the Reformation movement and Protestantism developed, we gradually moved to the situation today, in which all the major translations have chosen the objective option: “through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Contemporary biblical scholars are advocating that the pendulum swing back to the subjective option. I first encountered this critical option involving the translation of pisteōs Iēsou Christou in Charles B. Cousar’s A Theology of the Cross (Augsburg Fortress, 1990). Duke Divinity scholar Richard Hayes devoted a whole book to it with The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (Eerdmans, 2002). The majority of recent Pauline scholars — including N. T. Wright and Douglas Campbell — argue in favor of the subjective option. And they most often add the caveat of translating pistis toward the meaning of fidelity in a relationship — “trust,” “faithfulness” — and away from an emphasis on pistis, or “faith,” in the sense of mental states — “believe,” “beliefs.” Thus, a most clear rendering of the Greek into English is, “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

By now, it is hoped the reader can see the critical importance of this translation debate. The Reformation/Protestant version of salvation turns on it. Is humankind saved, made just, through our faith in Jesus Christ? Or through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ? (As Paul described it in Phil 2: “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”) In short, should the emphasis of our salvation be on our believing certain things about Jesus? Or on Jesus’ faithfulness in bringing the Reign of God into the world through his death and resurrection? The answer from recent New Testament scholars resoundingly favors the latter.

And the difference could be essential to getting the Reformation back on track from its descending into a new form of conditional grace (which isn’t grace at all!), a “works righteousness,” based on what believers need to believe about Jesus. It is also time to get back on track with Jesus’ core message about the coming Reign of God, which is about heaven coming to earth, not believers going to heaven — which the Reformation failed to recover by favoring their arguably incorrect version of Paul’s message — off-the-mark because it tends to be disconnected from Jesus’ kingdom message and even opposed to simple obedience to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which sounds like “works righteousness” to a typical Protestant way of reading (see Bonhoeffer‘s Discipleship!).

Which brings me to the latest book by Brian McLaren, whom acclaimed church historian Phyllis Tickle praised as the “Martin Luther of Emergence” (Emergence Christianity, p. 99). This new book is titled The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian  and is due in September from Convergent Books. I’ve thus far spoken in terms of renewing the Reformation, but the unfaithfulness of the church’s ministry to the Way of Jesus the Messiah might call for a movement described by a stronger word than “reform.” “Emergence” of something more decidedly new out of the old has been proposed. In McLaren’s new book, he regularly uses two other words: “conversion” and the title word “migration.”

Among so many excellent, groundbreaking books by McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration may be his best and most important book yet. It is both more direct and honest about the magnitude of change needed for the church to move forward but also his most inspiringly hopeful writing in divining the signs of change already underway. Yes, the challenges before Christians are daunting — in line with the precarious situation of humanity as a whole. He holds nothing back on the gravity of this moment in human history, once again using the metaphor of the “suicide machine” for the unsustainability of our culture (as he did in Everything Must Change). Yet McLaren inspires the reader to see the goodness in the world and the signs of resurrection around us to cherish and build upon, that disciples of Jesus might answer the urgent call to participate in the ongoing life-project of the Spirit.

McLaren identifies three major pathways of migration, which we can use to round-off our discussion of the importance of correctly translating pisteōs Iēsou Christou as the “faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah” (using the three descriptions from the back book cover):

  • Spiritually, growing numbers of Christians are moving away from defining themselves by lists of beliefs and toward a way of life defined by love. The translation of pistis as faithfulness rather than belief is huge in this regard. We need to see ourselves less in terms of assenting to certain beliefs — its own form of “works righteousness” — and more in terms of being led by the Spirit to follow in Jesus’ faithful practices of love.
  • Theologically, believers are increasingly rejecting the image of God as a violent Supreme Being and embracing the image of God as the renewing Spirit at work in our world for the common good. When the emphasis is more on our faith as belief, aren’t we more inclined to make God over into our image, i.e., violent? Our increasingly violent history, even since the Reformation, would seem to bear that out — hence, the phrase “deadly mistranslation” in my title. When the emphasis is on Jesus’ faithful way of living God’s love in the world, on the other hand, don’t we have a better chance of finally being converted to St. John’s proclamation of God as love (1 John 4)? Of God as light, in whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1)? And then to look for that Spirit of love bringing God’s power of life to places of suffering in this world and desiring to join in?
  • Missionally, the faithful are identifying less with organized religion and more with organizing religion — spiritual activists dedicated to healing the planet, building peace, overcoming poverty and injustice, and collaborating with other faiths to ensure a better future for all of us. When what saves us is simply our beliefs about Jesus, it is easier to make salvation primarily about what happens to us after we die. Our correct beliefs grant us a ticket to heaven. When what saves us is Jesus’ fully human faithfulness to God’s way of love as the means of redeeming the powers of sin and evil in the world, it is more obvious that the matter of salvation isn’t primarily about going to heaven, but about heaven migrating to earth and empowering human beings to migrate into a new place of peace, shalom.

In short, McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration is timely for our observance and celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation — that we might get unstuck from our misplaced focus on belief and finally migrate to a way of life in following the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

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7 Responses to “The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ”: Correcting a Deadly Mistranslation to Advance the Reformation . . . and a Preview of Brian McLaren’s New Book

  1. Kerri says:

    Thank you for this excellent review.

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  2. glenage says:

    Maclaren needs to engage with Thomas Schreiner’s book on justification by faith alone. Maclaren is taking a very narrow approach which I’m afraid to say is a sloppy treatment of the Greek. I don’t think he really understands how genetives work. Even if you make the assumptions that Maclaren makes based on texts like Romans 3, there are many texts that will show how making faith the subject of faith actually does not change the fact of the necessity of having Christ as the object of our faith. Again, I say, pick up “Justification by Faith Alone” by Tom Schreiner – a real biblical scholar.

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    • paulnue56 says:

      The author of this post was me. McLaren’s view is only shared at the end, and the only quotes from him are the three sentences in italics in the “bullet” points. I need to own the main argument around “faith.” But as I shared in the blog, this is the view of the major Pauline, “real” scholars today: N.T. Wright, James Dunn, Douglas Campbell, Richard Hayes, and many more. And I think they understand how the Greek works. The translation of the genitive in the subjective mode is much, much more common. Hence, the KJV reads it that way. The genitive in the objective mode is more rare and needs to be translated as such with good reasons. I believe that the reasons behind the last couple hundred years of translating in the objective has to do with Protestant ‘politics’ of favoring their own version of “justification by faith alone.” I am rejecting these politics in favor of what I see as a more biblical theology that embraces Jesus’ kingdom message and reads Paul more in that light.

      Liked by 1 person

      • glenage says:

        Hi. Apologies. I thought based on the title that you were in some way representing Maclaren. I apologise for the harshness in which I responded – I guess I get annoyed at the perspectives of Maclaren in general – and it was his scholarship in particular that I had in mind. Though I still think it is important for you to engage with Tom Schreiner’s work on these translation issues. I use him particularly because he pulls a wide variety of scholars into the debate (including Wright and Dunn) and shows that even if you adopt the concept that these texts imply Jesus’ faith, there are others which will hold up the view of the reformers concerning justification by faith alone (Romans 4:3 speaks of Abraham’s faith with no mention of Christ – one example). Though i do think you can make a case for “faithfulness” in Christ, “faith in Christ” is to be preferred due to the context. And though there is a growing number of those scholars who advocate your view, I believe that the majority of reformed evangelical scholars hold to the alternative. Anyway – pick up that book by Schreiner. Perhaps in future balance your writing a bit. A bit too much of one view was presented – that’s what I was referring to when criticising the Greek. If you are going to come out guns blazing against the reformers – at least do some work on presenting their interpretation of the Greek. The way genetives work in the texts you are referencing does not actually give you a strong enough case to shoot the reformers down. Grammatically I’d say you have a 50/50 chance of being right – you’ve misrepresented that. You can contrast them – yes, but that’s it. And to be a fair scholar you need to acknowledge that.

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  3. paulnue56 says:

    I checked Schreiner’s book briefly. It is supported by people like John Piper and Albert Mohler, who I agree to disagree with. I’ve made the decision to move away from the “reformed evangelical” position, without regret. I’d rather spend my time moving forward, without having to continue to contend with what I’ve chosen to leave behind.

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  4. robin riley says:

    There is no definite article before either of the … “pisteOs” …(of a trust; #4102; N-GSF)
    and, the verb …”episteusamen” …(“we had trusted;” #4100; V-AAI-1P) concerns the plural

    That is, “we had trusted” most certainly concerns our plural “trust,” especially when this is followed with the conjunction … “so-that” …(episteusamen hina”) … we might passively be made-righteous …
    “dikaiOthOmen” …{“we should be made-rightous; #1344; V-APS-1P)

    That is, I fully understand (and agree with ) the objection to “works righteousness,” but let’s not let our doctrineal ideas swing our readings either one way or the other; that is this verse is talking about “our” trust, not ..,THE… trust of Christ.

    Most assuraedly, it was and is His trust that is critical, that prime trust, which God acknowledges, but this verse is talking about our trust …Does our trust “save” us … No!
    But it is our grace-gifted trust that deems us “made-righteous” in God’s eyes.
    That is, God does it all … of course … but in doing so, He perceives us as being righteous,
    and this, only, after God has grace-gifted us with a trust, a trust in the fact that Christ died for us.
    We have nothing, at all, to do with any of this, it’s all God’s doing, but let’s not mis-read what the verse actually says, just to misappropriately support our understanding of this fact …

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    • paulnue56 says:

      I’m not an expert in NT Greek, but many who are say that the genitive construction with dia does not require the definite article to translate the phrase in the subjective. A counter example would be 2 Tim 3:15, where it definitely should be translated as “through faith in Christ Jesus,” but the Greek clearly calls for it: dia pisteōs tēs en Christō Iēsou. Here the objective genitive is made clear by using en with the dative — and notice the use of the definite article in the Greek even though it isn’t called for in the English. I don’t think your point about the absence of the definite article speaks against the translation in the subjective as “through Jesus Christ’s faithfulness.”

      And I also disagree with Paul making our salvation about our faith. Is our faith a component? Yes. But Paul’s clear emphasis is on the faithfulness of Christ. And that is a doctrinal position by me, yes, as well as many other contemporary scholars. But I don’t think there’s a doctrine-neutral way for us to decide the case, as you seem to think.

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