The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ, Pt. 2

As I wrote yesterday, I regard pistis Christou to be a deliberately ambiguous expression whereby Paul captures Jesus’ own saving faithfulness.  That is, God accomplishes the salvation of his people through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.  Further, the phrase points to the self-expending and self-giving of Jesus as paradigmatic for Christian faithfulness.  In this sense, pistis Christou is often adjectival, describing the form of Christian fidelity of which God approves.  It is both, in my view, subjective genitive and adjectival genitive.  As it happens, this faithfulness is participatory, a dynamic revealed by the intensity of participationist language in the close contexts in which the phrases appear.

It seems to me that Romans 3:21-23 is an instance of pistis Christou as a subjective genitive.  “The faithfulness of Jesus Christ” appears just before “for all who believe.”  It would be strikingly redundant for Paul to speak of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who have faith in Jesus Christ.”  Paul is, rather, stating that God’s saving action has been brought about through Jesus’ own faithfulness.  In this sense, I very much resonate with Michael Gorman’s articulation of the subjective genitive.  God’s aim is to restore humanity to its original role as the image of God on earth.  Jesus lived a life of faithfulness to God, summed up by Paul’s statement that Jesus “loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).  As Gorman notes, faithfulness and love, toward God and toward fellow humans, are the essence of covenant faithfulness—what it means to be in the image of God.  This is the very thing that God is looking for on the part of his renewed people.  Jesus, in his faithful life of servant-hood, performs that human response to God that God seeks.

In this sense, Jesus’ faithfulness to God is a forerunner of Irenaeus’s conception of “recapitulation,” by which he meant Jesus’ taking up the failed human project and redeeming human existence.  Those who are in Christ by the Spirit can now inhabit this redeemed humanity because of what God has done in Christ.

Other instances stress the appropriate human response for which pistis Christou is paradigmatic.  Galatians 2:16 and Philippians 3:3-11 are instances of this.

In Galatians 2:16, Paul seems to contrast two holistic patterns of conduct—“works of law,” on one hand, by which Paul means Jewish identity; and pistis Christou, by which Paul means Jesus-shaped faithfulness—obedience to God that, according to Galatians 5-6 looks like “pistis working through love and new creation without respect to ethnic identity.”

Paul, just like Peter, had formerly cultivated an identity by faithful behavior within the sphere of Law-shaped existence in an effort to establish a status before others that he hoped would hold sway before God (i.e., justification).  Now that he has come to see that such an identity is not effective for justification, but that inclusion within the sphere of Jesus’ own faithfulness is the way to justification, he has “come to believe in Christ Jesus.”  This has led, as he says in Gal. 2:20, to his being crucified to his former life and being raised up with Christ so that he is truly alive to God by inhabiting Christ.  And the mode of life that he finds himself caught up into now is the very life of God’s own Son.

Just as Jesus’ own life was a faithful and God-pleasing performance of covenant fidelity, Jesus is now living out that existence in Paul’s own life.  Paul’s life is now directed, empowered, and animated by the Son of God “who loved me and gave himself for me.”  Here we see pistis Christou as both God-approved human response and participation in the life of Jesus.

Similar dynamics are at work in Philippians 3:3-11.  Paul had formerly lived a life of credential-accumulation in an effort to establish a claim for justification before God.  Now that he has come to understand that the only way to share in Christ’s exaltation is to participate in Christ’s status-renunciation and to be conformed to the suffering and cross-shaped life of Christ, Paul’s new pursuit is to be found in Christ.

Forging an identity shaped by fidelity to social standards is no pathway at all to justification.  Having the approval of everyone around him does not determine God’s verdict.  The only mode of life that God will vindicate—of which God approves—is pistis Christou, which is why Paul’s new life pursuit is conformity to Christ.

Participationist notions are prominent here, too—“that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

I have found Michael Gorman’s work, especially Inhabiting the Cruciform God, to be the most textually satisfying and theologically compelling articulation of the relationship of pistis Christou to justification, sanctification, and lives of cruciformity.  At any rate, that’s how I currently understand the expression(s) in Paul and I do look forward to revisiting all of this over the next few months.

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8 responses to “The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ, Pt. 2

  • Michael Thomson

    I’m just wondering how established it is grammatically speaking for a phrase to be both a subjective genitive and an adjectival genitive? I realize that greek grammar does not completely trump context and you make a good case for your argument here. Still I wonder if Paul would have been thinking of making the point your making grammatically…that is, would his intent to get his point about the faithfulness of Jesus be eclipsed if the grammatical construction failed to bear the weight? This is not a counter-argument so much as a genuine query…I don’t know how often these constructions were made to carry such weight in the literature of the time. Personally, I have long favored the pistis Christou camp as it seems to solve more problems than the reformed interpretation I grew up with. Any thoughts?

    • timgombis

      I should probably clarify that–the phrase is used in these two ways in its several appearances, and Paul calls upon the concept of Jesus’ faithfulness to speak of it in its historical narrative concreteness and also to exhort the people of God to embody that narrative in their lives and communities. I think it’s used in both ways, but whenever it’s used, I’d say there’s more he’s alluding to than one singular usage. That is, when refer to the first usage, the second is kept in mind; and when he refers to the second, the first is in view, too.

      The interchange was interesting between Barclay and Hays last week, over just that point. Does one or the other favor a vision of salvation that preserves God’s priority and initiative in salvation. Barclay says the objective, Hays the subjective. It was lively!

  • S Wu

    Like you, I like Gorman’s book. I find the “participatory” language very helpful in articulating Paul’s theology.

  • Jeff Lash

    If I remember correctly, Preston Sprinkle has been proposing a “third view” on pistis Christou for a few years. Since it has been a few semesters since I read Bird and Sprinkle’s book on this issue, how does your view compare to his? I believe he says that the phrase provides the root of the gospel and the message of the gospel. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis for any kind of good news. And faith in Christ is the application of the good news to people (or something like that).

    • timgombis

      I’ll have to revisit that book, Jeff, but Preston and I kicked around some different proposals on this for a while and I know we were both happy with an adjectival genitive for a while.

  • Around the Blogosphere (07.20.2012) | Near Emmaus

    [...] Tim Gombis, Reconceiving Faith and Works in Paul ; The Faiithfulness of Jesus Christ, Pt. 1 ; The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ, Pt. 2 [...]

  • Ryan M. Mahoney

    Reblogged this on Christus Victor and commented:
    This is why when I read scripture I often read the words “faith in Jesus” as “Jesus’ covenantal faithfulness.”

  • July 2012 Biblical Studies Carnival « Reading Acts

    [...] Gombis has two posts on The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ (Part Two) reflecting on the “lively exchange” between John Barclay and Richard Hays over the [...]

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