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.

16 responses to “Sundays with Silva: πίστις Χριστοῦ and the Witness of the Greek Fathers

  1. Not to be completely narcissistic, but I have two articles on this topic coming out (hopefully) soon, one of which is co-authored with Mike Bird, on the PX formulation in the early Church Fathers.

    The conversation has been a bit short sided on the part of OG proponents. I can point to a handful of places where I think the context makes clear that the reference is to Jesus’ faithfulness and the PX construction is used.

    I’ll post on my blog with those articles are released.


  2. Michael> No worries! Relevant “autokeraphonia” (Kevin Edgecomb’s fantastic term) is always welcome here. :-) I look forward to reading the articles.

    My concern is that, in most “faith(fulness) of Christ” treatments of PX that I have read, the testimony of Greek Christian writers (that is, both the Fathers and others) is simply used as a mine of proof texts. (You’d think biblical scholars would know better!) Of course, the issue is not whether PX appears anywhere as a subjective genitive (no one denies that this is indeed possible, unlike some on the other side who, as Silva notes, have the nerve to suggest that taking it as an objective genitive is “unnatural” or some such nonsense). Nor, as expressed in the footnote quoted above, does anyone wonder whether Greek Christian writers believe in “the theological significance of the Christ’s faithful obedience,” and (I add) that may have even used the construction in such a way. So, piling up instances of “subjective genitive” uses of XP as “proof” will not do. What needs to be shown is that, either commenting on St Paul’s uses of this construction or else discoursing in ways that parallel St Paul’s subject, they clearly and unambiguously use XP subjectively in a way analogous to St Paul’s alleged subjective use. With that in mind, I look forward to your contribution!


  3. Pingback: Moises Silva and the Πιστις Χριστου debate « Son of the Fathers

  4. Pingback: Dueling smart guys on Paul « John Meunier

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