At the conference on Galatians and Christian Theology last week in St. Andrews, John Barclay and Richard Hays had a lively exchange over the pistis Christou formulations in Paul. Such discussions always begin with the promise that one more time round will settle it for good, and always end with all sides re-affirming their original positions.
I hope I’m still open to refinement and correction on the issue, but here’s my current understanding.
The phrase, in its several different forms, refers to the God-approved and God-endorsed human response to the gospel—that word from God that upends and subverts human assumptions about what the God of Israel must be like and how the God of Israel must act. Pistis Christou as response is made possible by pistis Christou understood as Jesus’ own faithfulness. Further, it is a participation in the very life of Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit.
My view is, then, a sort of hybrid between a subjective genitive and adjectival genitive. The phrase is intentionally ambiguous and comprehends within its scope both Jesus’ saving faithfulness and the participatory and imitative human response determined and constrained by Jesus’ faithfulness. It includes both Jesus’ action in creating a new resurrection-oriented reality within an enslaved cosmos, and it determines the contours and trajectory of the faithfulness for which the subversive and life-giving gospel calls. As such it stands in contrast to other forms of pistis—previous patterns of behavior called “faithfulness” before the epochal shift effected by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
I’ll begin with Habakkuk 2:4.
This text is foundational for Paul’s thought, emphasizing God’s approved response to his word. No matter how surprising nor how contrary to expectations, God’s approved person will respond to a word from God with faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty.
In Habakkuk 1, the prophet cries out to God because of the wickedness of Judah. God answers Habakkuk by revealing his plans to judge Judah by calling upon a people more wicked than Judah—the Babylonians. Habakkuk complains about this to God, asking how this can be. “You are too pure to approve of evil! This isn’t like you at all!”
As Habakkuk 2 opens, the prophet readies himself to receive the prophetic word. God is indeed going to judge the Babylonians for their excesses and their wickedness, but the intentions of God to use them to judge Judah are set. And in contrast to the proud one, God’s approved person will live by fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty to God no matter how upsetting the word of the Lord is (v. 4).
Habakkuk 2:4, then, emphasizes God’s approved response to his word that flies in the face of expectations and established assumptions of how the God of Israel must act. The righteous one (God’s approved person) will respond to God’s word—however surprising—with faithfulness, with loyalty.
Habakkuk 2:4 highlights the required posture of nimble readiness on the part of the people of God to do whatever it is God asks of them. A willingness to adjust previously well-established patterns of behavior and thought in the light of a new word from God.
God’s ways, while surprising, are always completely consistent with God’s previous self-revelation. It’s just that it’s so easy to assume that God shares our prejudices and assumptions—those conceptions, often hidden from our consciousness, that grow unnoticed and subtly shape our imagination of what God must be like.
In my opinion, Paul envisions his ministry and the problems in Rome and Galatia through the lens of this text and its call to be ready to respond to the life-giving but surprising word of the Lord.
Paul cites this text in Galatians and Romans, two churches struggling with the form of Christian faithfulness. What shape does it take? What does a community created and sustained by the God of Israel look like? The church in Rome is struggling to embody and embrace genuinely Christian faithfulness whereby Jews and gentiles participate in community together. The churches in Galatia are wrestling with the notion of converting to Judaism in order to render to God genuine faithfulness.
Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in these letters in order to emphasize that something radically new is going on in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Spirit. God is forming multi-ethnic communities of Jesus-followers in which Jew and gentile embrace as siblings in God’s new family. While faithfulness to the God of Israel was formerly rendered within Judaism, God is now saving people without regard to their ethnicity. Just as in Habakkuk’s day, this appears as something radically new—even though it is in complete continuity with God’s acting all along.
And just as with Habakkuk, this move of God calls for that nimble readiness to make adjustments out of loyalty and fidelity to the God of Israel. This is why Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in these letters and, I believe, why they contain the most occurrences of pistis Christou and related phrases. God’s ways in Jesus challenge the assumptions and developed prejudices of how God must act. Paul is calling for a Jesus-oriented faithfulness in which fidelity to the God of Israel outstrips all other loyalties and commitments.
With regard to the broader interpretive context for pistis Christou, then, this is provided, in my view, by the surprising and subversive word of God, which challenges human assumptions and calls humanity to walk in ways that draw upon the life of God.