Friday, December 2, 2011

The Fathers and Pistis Iēsou Christou

It is probably of no interest to most to know how much ink has been spilled over the Greek phrase pistis Iēsou Christou (πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ). So I'll just say it's been a lot. But it is probably of interest to many what that phrase means, since it comes in crucial texts, such as Gal. 2:16, that expound how we are justified.

Until the 1970s, the universal view took it as an objective genitive: "faith in Jesus Christ." But since then many have taken it as a subjective genitive: "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ." Since Greek genitival constructions are inherently ambiguous, how can one know which is in view? (Before pressing on, let it be said that, theologically speaking, both are true. We are saved by faith in Christ and by the faithfulness of Christ.)  Well, the way to get at the meaning in a given context is to heed the flow of thought and compare the same or similar constructions in the near and more distant contexts. 

However, there is another consideration as well, like asking how native Greek speakers took the phrase. Fortunately, in this instance, we know the answer. As  MoiséSilva points out in Interpreting Galatians, the Greek fathers of the early church oftentimes, like exegetes of today, had differing opinions about the rendering of a word or construction. In discussing this, he uses Chrysostom as an example (p. 30):
When Chrysostom is aware of a problem—that is, a difference of opinion about the meaning of a word or a construction—we should take his opinion as only that, an opinion to be weighed and evaluated. However, in cases where we are aware of an ambiguity, while Chrysostom simply assumes that one of the possible meanings is the right one, that fact can become highly significant. In other words, his use of Greek at that point is very strong evidence for the way a native speaker would naturally understand the language.
He then discusses the bearing of this phenomenon on how we take pistis Iēsou Christou:
A recognition of this phenomenon can have substantive implications. Chrysostom and the other Greek fathers, for instance, evidently assume that πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ is an objective genitive ("faith in Jesus Christ," rather than "faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ"), but the commentaries fail to point out the significance of that fact. Surely, very weighty arguments are needed to counter this evidence. In spite of it, however, some scholars argue that a subjective genitive is the more "natural" interpretation.
So maybe one of the lessons we might learn from Silva is not to be too impressed by scholarly statements like "the natural reading is thus and such." We probably also ought to be slow to move away from the way the Church has traditionally interpreted a text because of some recent scholarly innovation unless we really do have sufficient reason for doing so.  

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