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.
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…
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.