Sundays with Silva: πίστις Χριστοῦ and the Witness of the Greek Fathers

I am overjoyed, my gentle snowflakes, to have found at long last an opportunity to offer another installment of “Sundays with Silva” for your edification. This is, in fact, the very installment that I intended to post when my computer suddenly gave up the ghost on account of my lamentable covenant-breaking. In the selection below, our Infallible Hero examines the burning question of what light, if any, the use of πίστις Χριστοῦ in Greek Christian literature might shed on the Pauline use of this same phrase, noting, in particular, a number of errors that can be (and usually are) made when weighing the evidence.

“As far as can be determined, Greek-speaking writers in the early church who commented on Galatians 2:16 (and parallel passages) understood the phrase as a reference to out faith in Christ. To be sure, they do not stop to address directly the question of whether it refers to our faith or Christ’s: they just repeat the phrase, apparently assuming that the meaning is obvious (though this factor itself may be a significant clue). Occasionally, however, they make their understanding explicit. Chrysostom, for example, paraphrases the thought of Galatians 2:15-16 by saying, ‘we have fled for refuge to the faith which is in Christ’ (κατεφὐγομεν εἰς πίστιν τὴν εἰς Χριστόν).  More important, both Chrysostom and other writers, in their exposition of the passage as a whole, make repeated references to the Christian’s act of believing in Christ, while never once unambiguously speaking of the πίστις that Christ himself has or exercises*.

[*Footnote, page 228: “Here again, the question is not at all whether the church fathers believed in the theological significance of Christ’s faithful obedience . . . , but whether they were likely to use the phrase πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ to express that truth” (emphasis mine).]

“The significance of this facts needs to be fully appreciated. It is not a matter of how much weight should be given to an ancient writer’s exegetical opinion. The point is rather that native Greek speakers seem to have perceived no difficulty whatever in understanding the expression as an ‘objective genitive.’ Even if some exceptions were to be found in the literature, the fact would remain that a reference to the believer’s faith did not at all offend the linguistic intuitions of those for whom Greek was their mother tongueindeed, they preferred such a reference and apparently (as far as we can tell) did not entertain the possibility that there was another option.

“What this means for the present debate is that one can hardly take seriously certain linguistic arguments that have been advanced against the traditional interpretation, such as the view that the ‘objective genitive’ is not natural, or that a majority of the extrabiblical instances of πίστις with a genitive are ‘subjective,” or that the objective genitive ‘demands a verbal ruling noun . . . whose cognate verb is transitive.’ These and other arguments fail to take into account the point I have emphasized above: genitival constructions merely indicate that a relationship exists between the two nouns in question, and the nature of the relationship can be established only by the reader’s knowledge of the linguistic and historical context.

“The matter can be easily illustrated with reference to Luke 6:12, which tells us that Jesus spent the night ἐν τῇ προσευχῇ τοῦ θεοῦ.  The phrase is, of course, universally understood as a so-called objective genitive and translated, ‘praying to God’ (NRSV, ‘in prayer to God’).  Now let us fancy someone arguing along the following lines:

The usual translation of this phrase does not seem very natural, and in fact the construction cannot be an objective genitive because the verb προσεύχομαι is used with the dative, rather than the direct object, of the person to whom one prays.  More important, every other NT use of προσευχή with a genitive is subjective (Acts 10:4, 31; Rom 1:10; Eph 1:16; 1 Thess 1:2; Phlm 4, 22; 1 Pet 3:4; Rev 3:8; 8:3-4).  As if that were not enough, there are almost sixty occurrences of the construction in the LXX, and all of them (except for the unusual phrase in Isa 56:7; 66:7) are also subjective.  The normal way to express an objective relationship would be with the dative, as in Psalm 42:8 (LXX 41:9), προσευχὴ τῷ θεῷ τῆς ζωῆς μου.

“Superficial statistics of this sort may appear impressive to some, but they totally miss the point and are thus altogether irrelevant.  The only thing that matters is that, as both Luke and his readers know, God is never represented as praying (or as possessing prayers or whatever), while people are routinely spoken of as praying to God.  Let us then return to πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ and ask, What information would have let the Greek fathers to understand this phrase as a reference to faith in Christ?”

Moisés Silva, “Faith Versus Works of Law in Galatians,” in D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (eds.), Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2: The Paradoxes of Paul (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck and Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), pages 228-230.

Five Views on Justification? (Or, A Bone to Pick)

A few months ago, Michael Bird announced his participation in a forthcoming volume from IVP tentatively entitled Justification: Five Views. The contributors and their respective views are as follows:

1. Traditional Reformed: Michael Horton
2. Progressive Reformed: Michael Bird
3. “New Perspective”: James Dunn
4. Theosis: Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen
5. Catholic: Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty

I will be the first to admit that I rather enjoy “counterpoint” books such as these, and a few of them were once very important to me personally in starting to think about a number of issues. However, I was taken aback to see theosis nonchalantly treated here as a “view of justification,” a classification that, in this case, would be appallingly reductionistic. In spite of this difficulty, I welcomed the announcement as an opportunity to see in print a treatment of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis accessible to those not generally acquainted with Orthodox publications.

As I was unfamiliar with the author of the theosis chapter, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, I decided to do some investigating. I had originally assumed him to be a Finnish Orthodox scholar involved in the fascinating “New Finnish Interpretation of Luther” that arose in the context of the Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue in that country (cf. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998]). Instead I found that Dr Kärkkäinen is a Pentecostal scholar, both an ordained minister in his denomination and a professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Since the authors of the chapter on the Roman Catholic view are themselves Roman Catholics, this suggests to me that the chapter on theosis will not be, in fact, an account of the biblical and patristic doctrine of deification as believed in the Orthodox Church, but another Protestant view of justification perhaps influenced by the “New Finnish Interpretation” (a contribution which would be exceptionally interesting in its own right).  Well, at least I hope so: it is not the case, after all, that there are no English-speaking Orthodox scholars who are capable of writing a chapter-length treatment of the doctrine.

To those seeking an accessible  and pastorally sound Orthodox exposition of the biblical and patristic doctrine of theosis, I warmly recommend Archimandrite Christoforos Stavropoulos’ frequently reprinted little book Partakers of the Divine Nature (Minneapolis: Light and Life, 1976). Interested parties can be assured that, with this little gem in hand, they can hardly do any better.

On the Regrettable Generalities of the Psalms

In recent weeks I have finally been able to dig into James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), which I purchased earlier this year. In his chapter on “The Psalms of David,” Kugel discusses the general, “one-size-fits-all” composition of many of the Psalms, which according to the general consensus of form-critical research may be ascribed to its use as Israel’s cultic poetry, both communal and private. In this connection, Kugel comments on what is undoubtedly one of the more regrettable byproducts of these generalities in composition. He says:

“Such a hypothesis, scholars noticed, seemed to fit well with a rather striking feature of the Psalms, their lack of specificity. For example, a great many psalms . . . speak of ‘my enemies’ or ‘my foes,’ but they rarely say anything more specific. Personally, if I had my own thirty seconds to stand directly before God and discuss my enemies, I would not beat around the bush: ‘Punish N_______,’ I would say to Him, mentioning by name a certain prolific but misguided student of rabbinic Judaism; or “Squash W_______,’ I would urge, referring to someone who has had the temerity to disagree with some of my ideas about biblical poetry. On the contrary, they are full of metaphors that could apply too almost anyone‘roaring lions’ threaten the Psalmist or ‘bulls of Bashan’ surround him; he overcomes snakes and panthers, jumps over traps that have been dug for him, and escapes snares that have been spread out for him.  And it is not just a matter of enemies.  The psalmist begs to be saved from the underworld, Sheol, the gates of death, and so forthbut he almost never gets around to saying what’s wrong with him or even what makes him think such danger is imminent.  It seems to scholars, therefore, that the great variety of psalms in the Psalter on the one hand, and their somewhat vague language on the other, derive from the balancing of two contrary tendencies.  A psalm had to be somewhat individualized, reflecting the specific occasion that had brought a person to the temple; so there had to be a lot of them.  On the other hand, such psalms could not be overly specific, since they had to be used again and again for a multitude of different worshipers, each of whose circumstances would be somewhat different” (page 464).

Needless to say, half the fun in reading the above paragraph is filling in the blanks in Kugel’s text. The other half is coming up with one’s own blanks to replace Kugel’s cries for divine punishment and squashing and so remedy this lamentable deficiency in the Psalms. So, for instance, in my own thirty seconds before Divine Justice, I would say “Punish G______,” whose embarrassingly shoddy lexical “scholarship” and crypto-heretical triadology surely demand vengeance from heaven; or “Squash C_______,” who in his utterly narcissistic madness has raised up his heel against the Infallible One.

You know, come to think of it, it was probably better that it was up neither to Kugel nor to myself to write the Psalms.

Returning to the matter of the “lack of specificity” in the Psalms and how this feature enabled the Psalter to serve a wide range of purposes in Israel’s cultic life, Kugel’s paragraph quoted above reminded me of a very interesting document I found a few years ago. Recognizing the versatility of the Psalter, and much in the vein that Kugel describes above, a modern Greek elder, St Arsenios of Cappadocia (1840-1924), prepared a list of possible uses of the Psalms as blessings and prayers for various needs when the liturgical books fail to include an appropriate text for a specific occasion. The listing is available in English from the St Pachomius Library. I take the liberty to quote below the editor’s note, which helpfully puts St Arsenios’ list in context.

Saint Arsenios used to use the Psalms for blessings, especially when there was no prescribed blessing for a particular occasion.  . . .

Apart from all religious considerations, this “Book of Needs” is a fascinating portrait of village life in Anatolia at the beginning of the Twentieth Century: whether it reflects more the “longue duree” of Byzantine history or the particular difficulties of St. Arsenios’ time we do not feel well enough informed even to speculate. There is certainly no idealization of rural conditions here: particularly noteworthy is the extreme concern for alleviating psychological as well as physical pain, and the mention of what we would nowadays call “post-traumatic stress disorder”.

To us, at least, the exact reasoning behind the saint’s choice of a particular psalm for a given need is not always obvious; perhaps this is by design, to encourage close reflection on the words. Orthodoxy is not magic, and a document like this one is not an endorsement of “peasant superstition”; it is rather a channel through which the Love of God can enter into every aspect of human society.