The Pistis Christou Debate

The Pistis Christou debate has been a problematic phrase uttered in Pauline literature among scholars and continues to be the subject of immersing new interpretations. The two main exegetical arguments center on the genitive use of the phrase found in the third chapter of Romans and other epistles (Gal.2:16.20,3:22; Eph.3:12; Phil.3:9). The objective (anthropological) or faith in Christ’s argument and the subjective (Christological) or the faithfulness of Christ. The objective view has been dominated in traditional circles, regarding the form of the phrase, dealing with the grammatical use of the term. The subjective genitive refers to the faithfulness/faith of Christ’s death that revealed the righteousness of God. The King James is the only version that renders the phrase in this manner as other authorized translations have taken an objective approach. Does the apostle to the gentiles mean for his readers to articulate the passage as possessing faith in Christ regarding human belief or the faithfulness of Christ resulting in our justification through the finished work of Messiah Jesus? This blog post will present the argument for a subjective rendering of the text that not only will view the nature of the evidence but also explain if it’s possible for human faith to disclose the righteousness of God. This exegetical and contextual argument has been challenged on both sides of the hermeneutical spectrum. The theme of God’s justice has been presented and a closer examination will demonstrate that the faith of Christ makes for a clearer interpretation.

The question we must begin to wrestle with theologically is how does God’s righteousness come to us? Paul’s expresses it in the phrase πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (faith of/in Jesus Christ) and the word pistis occurs approximately 142 times in the New Testament which contains multiple meanings of faith or faithfulness. Throughout the letter to the Romans, the apostle has been advocating that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile towards the judgment of God in his thesis (1:16-17) as expanded in these verses. The nature of this faith is represented in the person of Christ and our need for justification. We will begin our argument for the faithfulness of Christ with the objective argument, laying out the main criticisms and properly responding and recontextualizing with more favorable interpretations.

The Presentation of Arguments 

            The objective genitive approach to Paul’s discussion in this text has been at the core of Christian fundamental teaching since the time of the reformation. The Father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (1483-1546), understood the phrase to mean such that justification is through faith alone (sola fide) as the heart of the gospel. Luther would later find the answer in Romans 1:16-17 summing up the hallmark of protestant teaching in the doctrine of justification. Luther would affirm, “Therefore it is clear, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone, and not by works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith.”[1] One of the arguments for an objective view stats that none of the early church fathers, Greek readers or reformers give a subjective reading of pistis christou. This argument seems to fall short regardless of Luther’s and early church fathers’ understanding of the text for several reasons. First, it is not clear that Greek readers rejected the subjective genitive reading and there’s a lack of support to facilitate this objection. Secondly, it would be argued that due to no awareness of this linguistic matter that it wasn’t foreseen as a problem. During the time of the reformers, the King James Bible, Latin Vulgate, Syriac Peshitta, Sahidic Coptic, and other translations preferred the subjective understanding to be “the faith of Christ.”[2] Although some would contend that certain parts of the KJV translate the phrase differently in other portions of scripture. 

            Another common argument for an anthropological reading deals with the grammatical use of the definite article. Contenders will state that since there’s an absence of a definite article that the phrase must be in the objective. The following observations would suggest otherwise when considering the function of a definite article. According to Greek scholar William Mounce, he explains that it is not to make something definite that would otherwise be considered indefinite that has been a common error in proper biblical exegesis.[3] The presence or absence of a definite article doesn’t determine the genitival construction or does the nouns connection to the verb make (3:22) nor carry the same significance. Morna Hooker makes the statement that this debate “cannot be settled based on appeals to grammatical construction alone,” and that it “can be settled only by exegesis.” The lack of a definite article is also explained that Χριστοῦ in Greek-speaking Christianity frequently functioned as a proper name.[4] Other verses can be located in Romans whereby there’s a clear example of the definite article present with a subjective genitive (Rom.3:3). The argument for a lack of a definite article to indicate the phrase for a pistis that is exercised by believers doesn’t factor into genitival connection.

            When viewing this particular passage of scripture, we must take into account that the overall theme of God’s impartiality doesn’t stop here but is repeated throughout the letter. Paul has been contending in his exposition to the church of Rome that the saving work of Christ is made available to all, both Jew and Gentile. This argument has taken a slightly different approach beginning in verse 21 from the era of the old covenant to the new which is revealed in Christ. The objective supporters would say that Paul’s recurrent use of this phrase is not an issue and that the apostle intentionally did this as was the common technique in an oral culture during those epochs. The apostolic message of God’s justice for all crossed many political, cultural, and geographical borders that brought such a wealth of diversity. Due to this, the early Christian movement is difficult, especially in the first century, to document conversions as they spread. Stories of the miraculous works of Christ were not only orally passed down but written on papyrus and found in the apocryphal text. When pistis Christou is translated as “faithfulness of Christ,” as Witherington suggests, “It relieves us of the redundancy of Paul’s referring to Christian faith twice in this sentence. Both objective and subjective means refer to the righteousness of God revealed through the faithfulness of Christ, to all who believe.”[5] Objective opponents like James D.G. Dunn argue the matter was resolved by suggesting that “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” uses the word “all” as a thematic in the letter and is a means of emphasis.[6] Of course, the word “all” (πάντες) is repeated throughout the epistle that signifies the universal outreach of God’s saving purpose to those who would believe in the gospel. Lest we forget, Paul is writing to Gentile-Christians who have been challenged in their status and credentials with the Jewish inhabitants that claimed special privilege over them. They insisted that the Gentiles must obey “all” of the mosaic laws and Jewish rituals if they desired to have equal status within the community. The truth about God’s justice is revealed to those who possess faith and there’s no difference when the power of sin has crippled humanity since Adam. 

            When reading Romans 3:21-26 there are mentions of fundamental Jewish thought that mentions sin, atonement, and the need for redemption. These views have been distorted in the interpretation of Romans, disregarding the deeper theological implications that Paul is attempting to convey. Stowers explains further, 

Paul came to believe it unjust for God to allow gentiles to persist in this unequal relation resulting from their original rejection of God. Therefore, in his righteousness, being faithful to his ancient promise to Abraham, God had provided the faithfulness of Jesus as a means by which the long accumulation of gentile sins could be forgiven.[7]

Paul is writing to Gentiles in their particular context, reminding them that all have fallen short of the glory of God (3:23), and believers are therefore justified according to the standards of God’s justice. The objective side hinges on a dichotomy that the faith in Christ that the “righteousness of God” refers to, is the atoning work of Christ and is also in the presentation of the faith for the believer. If Paul is to mean that God’s righteousness references believers’ faith, then why does the whole passage emphasize God’s action in presenting Messiah Jesus as the one who was faithful to the end when Israel failed to do so? Humanity needed a champion that would expose the curse of the law as it interrelates with the freedom that Christ accomplished by dying a death for all.

            The apostles make mention of Abraham as a model of faith in the next proceeding chapter that has caused some debate surrounding pistis Christou. Paul quotes from Gen.15:6 “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” The objective side would affirm that Paul is using the patriarch as a model of this type of faith, not pointing to Jesus, as he has done so in the book of Hebrews. The anthropological proponents consent that Abraham is being remembered for believing in God rather than being faithful.[8] The argument tends to mistreat the text and Paul’s argumentative purpose as he is appealing to the figure of Abraham. This is not seen as a way to explain the doctrine of justification in any way but rather he appeals to the person of Abraham in support of the claim that the gospel doesn’t abolish the law (Rom. 3:31). Richard B. Hays not only points to Gal.3:9, referring to Abraham in the adjective form relating to the word “faithful” but explains, “The structure of the argument positively requires him to produce evidence from scripture that will demonstrate the continuity between Torah and gospel.”[9] In essence, Paul’s mention of Abraham doesn’t necessarily prove the meaning behind πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ nor does it present a strong argument for the Christological approach. The issue remains on how God’s righteousness operates on humanity’s behalf. This claim, however, remains ambiguous when Christ is considered the animating force in the lives of believers that conforms and transforms us. The obedience of faith that Christ displayed achieved the means of salvation (Rom. 5:19) and is not contingent on what we do but who we know. Paul’s use of the word “justify” (dikaioō) speaks in a declarative tone that centers on the justice of God, and reading the theology of Paul focuses on God’s work, not the human response. Barth makes the point, “The faithfulness of God is the divine patience according to which He provides; the faithfulness of God and Jesus the Christ confirm one another, and this faithfulness of God is established when we meet the Christ in Jesus.”[10]

            One last lesser argument that we could consider makes mention that translating pistis Christou as “faithfulness of Christ” should not be exegeted with a bias towards being theologically attractive. The theme of our union with Christ is a constant reoccurrence in Pauline theology that uses the subjective phrase often but is this what the author intended to communicate? Historical-critical exegesis allows for the reader to reconstruct the event or situation that Paul is referring too but there’s also a need to reconstruct the question that Paul is attempting to frame regarding the problem at hand. Richard B. Hays clarifies that attempting to discover the “core” of Paul’s gospel has taken many directions from expressing his personal subjective religious experience to interpreting within existentialist categories.[11] The pivotal point in this discussion is not whether the phrase sounds appealing or if it supports a certain doctrinal framework nor does it undermine what the reformation has embarked on concerning justification. The crux of Paul’s theological implications since the beginning of Romans (1:16-17) is eliminating the need of boasting for an unashamed gospel of God.  

The Supremacy of the Subjective Argument

            The subjective argument for the “faithfulness of Christ” can best be described as a story about the faith of Jesus Christ that eradicated the death of sin, working in justice, redeeming humanity from the imperial rule of nations, and appeasing the wrath that was meant to be. In this section, we will not be presenting more specific arguments, instead, we will begin to thread a more persuasive course in how the Christological argument fits gracefully with the redemption story of the cosmos. 

            Paul intended to write the book of Romans from a Gentile-Christian perspective as his concern was for their place within the church and the plan of God. The integration of the gentiles into the messianic community is what being “declared righteous” entails as humanity suppressed the truth (Rom.1:18) and dishonored God’s name (Rom.1:21). The gospel of Jesus now introduces a righteousness “apart from the law” (3:21) that welcomes all and regulates the requirements imposed. In the Greek world, evangelion (gospel) was a technical term that meant a certain announcement made for a victory won or regarding the accession of an emperor. Is this what Paul meant when he mentions gospel? The message about God’s son as the one true God was not based on a system of how individuals get saved but were the result of humanity being saved.[12] It is this expression of God’s divine grace that is considered a “gift” and not something which can be purchased through human workmanship. Christ is viewed as the prototype of redeemed humanity, who was crucified, liberating both Jew and Gentile from the enslaving power of sin and death. The faithfulness of Christ refers to this as the self-sacrificial death on the cross and becomes the main point of our story of justification. Jesus humbled Himself to the point of death (Phil. 2:8) in this covenant-fulling act of selfless love, execution justice on sin itself, and revealing the mysteries of the kingdom. This act of love cancels the rebellious act of Adam as Paul would later write in Romans, “For just as by the one’s man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). If the apostle meant for the “faith in Christ” this would distort the fact that Christ now embodies the new creation through the proclamation of his resurrection power. Markus Barth is worth quoting:

            The justification of man cannot take place upon the ground of an immediate relationship between the believer and God…The means of justification is Jesus Christ himself in his relationship to God and man. He alone brings us in the right with God…; by his faithfulness, he is the true representative of all men…When (Paul) elaborates on justification, the faith of Christ is the means and the faith of men in Christ is the purpose and response.[13] This was the boasting dilemma that the Jewish community was attempting to persuade their Gentile counterparts. Empty accolades and a self-promoting heart is the root of pride that kills not only the expression of God’s love demonstrated on the cross but seeks to arrogantly justify itself. 

            It is the Gospel of Christ that Paul is announcing that draws humanity into the covenant of the cross. Objective advocates would say that Christ is the object of faith, merely an example that is meant for us to follow. Though this has weight within the argument, the theological issue that Paul has been contending with is the area of our justification being found in Messiah Jesus. What once was the law that kept the nation of Israel in covenant relationship with God, Paul is by no means abrogating or on behalf of antinominalism. His appeal is rather that the fulfillment of this law can be discovered in the person of Jesus Christ and all may share at the same table. It is God’s love for the world (John 3:16) that the universality of justification was revealed in the cross and the central truth of the good news is accessible for everyone. Paul’s letter to the Galatians reads, “but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even as we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ” (Gal. 2:16, KJV). The cause of our salvation lies in the finished work of Christ and not based on our faith which must be ratified by the faith of Christ (Rom. 1:17). The righteousness of God is from “faith to faith” as John Calvin will explain, “First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.”[14] This is the meaning behind what Paul is trying to convey that from “faith to faith” and our necessity to believe in Christ and to be saved by the faith of Christ.

            The importance of our Justification by faith is concerned with the justice of God and is the heart of Pauline teaching. N.T Wrights define this type of justification as:

Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future, and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in,’ or indeed about ‘staying in,’ as about ‘how you could tell who was in.’ In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.[15]

Wright makes a point that justification has an eschatological definition attached to it and that it contains an ecclesiological purpose that declares that we have become part of the redemptive story. It was this royal announcement first mentioned in the proposito of the letter (Rom. 1:16-17) that righteousness and faithfulness make good on God’s promises to the world. The first mention of justification by works in the book of Romans is Paul stating that it’s not the hearers of the law who are made righteous but the doers of the law who are the ones justified (2:13). This eschatological hope for Israel vindicates and frees humankind from the labor of the law for those who are willing to surrender their hearts and lives to a faith that is found in Christ alone.

Final Thoughts

            The pistis Christou debate is far from being over as new ways of reading the text have appeared over the years. The evidence for the subjective interpretation has been frown upon because it is suggested that it undermines what the protestant reformation has accomplished concerning the faith of believers. What is at stake when we read in between the marginal lines of the text are theological issues that are hermeneutical in contrast but also fundamental in how we are to approach the pistis of Christ. Aside from reading other passages that support or argue against a faithfulness of Christ rendering, there are still fragments of evidence that demand refinement and clarification. Richard B. Hays has acknowledged this in a broader framework that attempts to satisfy what Paul meant by πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. 

            The anthropological position is not a denial that one must place their trust in Christ but dealing with this specific passage asserts that the righteousness of God comes through the faithfulness of Christ. Human faith in Christ is not the issue and God’s justification will remain, the trepidation is over the participation factor and how much does Christ play into the equation. Lexical, grammatical or syntactical arguments have not been able to provide a concrete answer to this debate and sensitive exegesis has given room to more assumptions. It was Kittel who noted when referring to πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ in Romans 3:3-4:16, sandwiched between “subjective genitives,” that there is no indication in the surrounding context that Jesus Christ is to be considered the object of faith.[16] We are depraved human beings who go from faith to faith, incapable of attaining such a faith as Christ brought forth to us all. A reading of the faithfulness of Christ highlights the salvific efficacy of Christ and viewing it otherwise emphasizes an object of faith. Maybe this was adopted as a sort of post-reformation observation from sterling away to liberalism but either way, the hermeneutical key to this plausible reading of Romans is presupposed on the textual data of the letter. Asking the right thought-provoking questions will help in our analysis of the text instead of hypothetical presuppositions in favor of one side. It is God’s faithfulness that is constant (Rom.3-4), revealed to the faithful (Heb.10:23), fulfilled in the promise (Ps. 145:13), part of God’s nature, name, and character (2 Tim.2:13, Rom.4:21). The unfailing compassion bestowed to us through Christ is new every morning and the faithfulness of God is greater than what any of us could ever offer in return.


[1] Payton, James R. Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings. IVP Academic, 2010, 119.

[2] Paul Pollard, “The ‘Faith of Christ’ in Current Discussion,” Concordia Journal 23, no. 3 (July 1997): 213–28.

[3] Mounce, William D. Greek for the Rest of Us: Mastering Bible Study without Mastering Biblical Languages. Zondervan, 2003, 182.

[4] Hays, Richard B. The Faith of Jesus Christ: an Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11. Scholars Press, 1983, 252. 

[5] Witherington, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Eerdmans, 2006, 101.

[6] Hays, Richard B. The Faith of Jesus Christ: an Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11. Scholars Press, 1983, 264.

[7] Stowers, Stanley Kent. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: a New Reading. Yale University Press, 1994, 205.

[8] Easter, Matthew C. “The Pistis Christou Debate: Main Arguments and Responses in Summary.” Currents in Biblical Research, vol. 9, no. 1, 2010, pp. 33–47., doi:10.1177/1476993×09360725.

[9] Hays, Richard B. The Faith of Jesus Christ: an Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11. Scholars Press, 1983, 285.

[10] Barth, Karl, and Edwyn Clement Hoskyns. The Epistle to the Romans. Oxford University Press, 1968, 96.

[11] Hays, Richard B. The Faith of Jesus Christ: an Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11. Scholars Press, 1983, 3.

[12] Wright, Nicholas Thomas. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997, 45.

[13] Hays, Richard B. The Faith of Jesus Christ: an Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11. Scholars Press, 1983, 151.

[14] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 537.

[15] Wright, Nicholas Thomas. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997, 119.

[16] Hays, Richard B. The Faith of Jesus Christ: an Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11. Scholars Press, 1983, 157.

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