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There is an ongoing debate among translators and commentators of Paul’s letters about how to understand the phrase Πίστις Χριστοῦ (pistis christou)1 -- “[the] faith[fulness] of Christ" vs. “faith in Christ”. For instance, Gal 2:16:

εἰδότες ὅτι οὐ δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ἔργων νόμου ἐὰν μὴ διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ

knowing that a man is not justified by works of [the] law but by pisteos iesou christou

The only published translation I’m aware of that chooses the “subjective” reading2 is the NET, which has notes that summarize the decision. Like most bibliographies I’ve found on the topic theirs starts in the late 20th C., with Richard B. Hays’s 1983 publication of The Faith of Jesus Christ (link is second edition) figuring prominently. See also this timeline.

I’m wondering if this interpretation had ever occurred to anyone before the 1970s. Starting from the Greek fathers, many scholars of prior generations likely had keen instincts about Greek, and I’m curious whether they “felt” the ambiguity reflected in our modern debate.

  • When was the subjective interpretation first suggested?
  • Did the Greek fathers write anything that would reveal their understanding of this phrase as either subjective or objective?

Notes:

1. The (comprehensive as far as I know) list of pertinent Pauline references, including those with Iesou and/or christou: Rom 3:22, 3:26; Gal 2:16 (x2), 2:20 ("son of God"), 3:22 , 3:26; Phil 3:9.

2. So-called because Christ is the subject who exhibits faith: “the faith[fulness] of Christ”. The alternative, traditional rendering (“objective genitive”) has Christ as the object of faith: “faith in Christ”. “Faith" vs. “faithfulness" is a question that arises secondarily if the subjective genitive is adopted and obviously has a major impact on interpretation as well. These issues have been discussed extensively.

  • I'm confused by this question - don't many earlier translations use the subjective translation - virtually all the ones around the time of, and including the KJV, Darby, Tyndale, Wycliffe, etc.? It appears more that the NET is just reverting to agree with most original English translations. I'm really most interested by the answer that addresses what the early church fathers seemed to believe. Note I think there are a few cases where even the NASB uses the subjective, though not many. – LightCC Dec 28 '15 at 20:24
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    The gist I've gotten from all of this.... From Nathaniel's answer, the Greek fathers understood it objectively but didn't address it directly. Subsequently through the Middle Ages the Western church depended on an ambiguous Vulgate, perhaps understanding it subjectively but without much discussion. David's answer cites a paper by G. Howard claiming that Luther then introduced (which might be corrected to re-introduced) the objective genitive in his German translation, although without commentary that we've found. Early English translations seem to adopt the subjective, perhaps consistent – Susan Dec 28 '15 at 20:51
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    with a prevailing understanding in the (pre-Luther) Latin church, but still .... nobody talked about it. More recent translations (possibly influenced by Luther, but accompanied now by much commentary) have taken the objective view. The NET (not reverting, I think, so much as making a carefully weighed decision in light of extensive recent academic work) is one of the few in the recent century to take it as subjective. In a way, Nathaniel's answer outlines the "prehistory" of the discussion (mostly not explicit) while David's outlines the modern "history" (direct academic discussion). @Light – Susan Dec 28 '15 at 20:52
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    (But as for your question about the Q -- I actually hadn't even realized the KJV (etc.) translation was as it is prior to reading these answers, which may explain why the formulation of the Q, in retrospect, seems a bit confused!) – Susan Dec 28 '15 at 20:59
  • Agreed on the NET comment - that it reverted was only the outcome, not the reason they did. Most interesting article I've found on the debate is here: patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2014/03/… in which the author indicates his belief (with support) that Paul may have intended for the phrase to have both meanings simultaneously (via the attributive interpretation?) - I had that idea rolling around in my head, so it's good to see some scholarly merit to it. :) – LightCC Dec 29 '15 at 0:08
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Having chased up the account provided in the answer that follows, I now find there is a full-blown and properly specialist study of precisely this question. Gratifyingly, the main contours are the same, and it looks like Benecke is indeed one of the "heroes" of the tale. Interested readers should therefore consult: Benjamin Schliesser, "‘Exegetical Amnesia’ and ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ: The ‘Faith of Christ’ in Nineteenth-Century Pauline Scholarship", Journal of Theological Studies 66.1 (2015): 61-89 for wider context, full details, further references (including patristic resources) and informed discussion.


So far as I'm aware, the first argument for the "subjective genitive" (something like "the fidelity of Christ") rather than the commmon understanding as the "objective genitive" (something like "faith in Christ") for Πίστις Χριστοῦ (pistis christou) appears in the Romans commentary of Wilhelm Benecke, Der Brief Pauli an die Römer (Heidelberg, 1831), pp. 69ff. = An exposition of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Longman et al, 1854), pp. 142ff. It is a clear, non-technical explanation of and plea for the "subjective genitive". Benecke was not a professional theologian: he is best known for a work on marine insurance! The preface to the English translation of his Romans commentary gives a full biography supplying the background for his foray into theological commentary.

Benecke was followed by J.P. Lange, Der Brief Pauli an die Römer (2nd edition; Velhagen und Klasing, 1868; first published 1865), p. 84 = Lange and F.R. Fay, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Scribners, 1869), p. 129. Lange chides contemporary interpreters for failing to reckon with Benecke's arguments.

Another 19th C. proponent is Johannes Haussleiter, Der Glaube Jesu Christi und der christliche Glaube: Ein Beitrag zur Erklärung des Römerbriefes (= The Faith of Jesus Christ and the Christian Faith: A Contribution to the Exposition of Romans), published in 1891 by Georg Böhme (Verlag). He is credited with challenging "the hitherto almost universally accepted view" by Sanday & Headlam, in their older ICC commentary on Romans, pp. 83-84, who summarize and reject his view.1

George Howard wrote a useful article addressing OP's interests (drawing attention to Lange & Fay along the way). He supports the "subjective genitive" interpretation in his article "On the 'Faith of Christ'", Harvard Theological Review 60/4 (1967): 459-465. In it he argues that the Syriac Peshitta unambiguously uses the subjective genitive, and that the Gal. 2:16 occurrence in particular almost demands it.

Howard claims in turn (p. 461) that the "objective genitive" -- almost ubiquitous in more recent writing -- has its origins with Luther. I have checked Luther's Romans and Galatians commentaries, and can't see any special interest in the phrase there (although his remarks on Gal. 3:26 come close, still without explicitly rejecting a "subjective" construal). Howard appears to be basing his comment on Luther's translation practice, though, and Luther's Works are voluminous enough that it might be in there somewhere.

At any rate, this is enough to make clear that the "subjective genitive" understanding goes back at least into the 19th C -- 1831 the first clear expresssion (so far found!) -- and possibly earlier if Howard is correct.


  1. Having posted this answer, I see that the Hays volume referenced by OP also has a discussion of this issue, noting contributions by both Haussleiter and Howard -- although different than the ones cited here! Here Hays is in need of supplementing, and this may be another one of those places where somehow academic tradition enshrines a faulty memory: clearly Haussleiter was not the first to argue for the subjective genitive, even in the 19th C.

HT: @Nathaniel for help tracking down Lange's German commentary.

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As a supplement to David's answer, and in response to your second bullet in particular, let me offer the following.

In "ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ: Witness of the Fathers" (1994), Roy A. Harrisville reports on an examination of all the occurrences of this and similar phrases in the Greek Fathers. He lists a number of ambiguous cases, several examples of subjective genitive, and several examples of the objective genitive. The examples of subjective genitive that he finds are:

  • Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 68, 1, 1.
    • "'a certain bishop of Thebes, ... For he did not ever exchange his faith at any time away from that of the catholic church.'"
  • Origen of Alexandria, Commentarrii iin Epistulam ad Romanos, chapter 22
    • "a quotation concerning Abraham's faith in Rom 4:5"
  • Basil of Caesarea, De Spitiru Sancto, chapter 11
    • "'I testify ... to every man that calls upon God but rejects the Son, that his faith is vain'"
  • John Chrysostom, In Epistulam ad Romanos, Homily 8
    • "a quotation of Rom 4:5 referring to Abraham's faith"
  • John Chrysostom, De Decem Millium Talentorum Debitore
    • "another quotation of Rom 4:5"
  • John Chrysostom, In Acta Apostolorum, Homily 20
    • Paul "'was not filled, however, with the Spirit which works signs: that in this way also his faith might be shown; for he wrought no miracles.'"
  • John Chrysostom (spurious), In illud: fui Dei
    • "The indictment of [a hypothetical man's] sins will be silent, because his faith expunged it."

He concludes the section:

In every instance cited above, the subjective faith referred to 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.

Two of his examples of objective renderings he admits may be contested:

  • John Chrysostom, In Epistulam ad Galatas, on a quote of Galatians 2:16 (text on CCEL)
    • "It is certainly possible that Chrysostom understands the phrase in the objective sense because he brackets it with two sentences containing an objective understanding of faith in Christ. At the same time, however, it must be said that there is no direct and unambiguous rendering of the particular formulation under current scrutiny."
  • Origen, In Joannem, on John 1:4 and 14:6
    • "I understand his rendering here of Πίστις Χριστοῦ to be objective because the context directly concerns human faith and there is an antithetical parallelism between the phrases 'faith of Christ' and 'those who do not live to God.'"

Finally, he quotes Augustine (admittedly a Latin writer) who opposes the subjective rendering:

Accordingly he advances a step further, and adds, "But righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ," [Romans 3:22] that is by the faith wherewith one believes in Christ for just as there is not meant the faith with which Christ Himself believes, so also there is not meant the righteousness whereby God is Himself righteous. (On the Spirit and the Letter, Chapter 15)

Harrisville concludes:

Why do the Fathers offer some very clear and obvious renderings of the subjective genitive, for example when Abraham's faith is mentioned [...], 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.


Note: Harrisville's article is available on Jstor to be read for free by registering and adding it to "your shelf" (at least in my part of the world). Details on his methodology and more are available there.

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