‘Pistis Christou’ and Implications for the Doctrine of Justification

Pistis Christou and the Implications for the Doctrine of Justification

In my last article, I explained how an Orthodox Christian might appropriate modern Biblical scholarship faithfully, and in submission to the Church.

In this post, I would like to give more detail on how this works in practice, particularly with respect to the writings of the Apostle Paul and his teaching on justification. One of the loudest debates in modern study of St. Paul is the question of the translation of pistis Christou.

In short, Christou is the genitive form of the word “Messiah,” and genitives can be either subjective or objective. An objective translation would see the Messiah as the object of faith (i.e. faith in Messiah) while a subjective translation would see the Messiah as the one possessing faith (i.e. the faithfulness of the Messiah).

In most cases, the meaning of the genitive can easily be determined by context. In this case, the translation is highly ambiguous and requires careful study of the broad shape of Paul’s theology within which the concept of pistis Christou situates itself.1

In order to focus in on this debate, we will look briefly at Romans 3:22 and then pan out to the shape of the Apostle’s theology in order to answer the question of how to translate pistis Christou.

Translating pistis Christou in the subjective would mean that God’s “righteousness” (more on this in another article) is embodied in Christ’s own faithfulness, which then serves as the model for all Christian faith. Our faith avails before God because it is a participation in the Messiah’s faithfulness. The most obvious reason for preferring a subjective genitive translation would be the apparent redundancy created in rendering Christou in the objective: “faith in Jesus Christ for all who have faith.” The same concept would be repeated twice for no apparent reason.

Proponents of the standard translation2 generally argue that the redundancy exists because of Paul’s emphasis on the universal nature of the gospel: we receive and/or embody God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ—for all who have faith, regardless of ethnic identity.

In order to discover the answer this question, one must look at the whole theological matrix that smaller Pauline themes like the pistis Christou serve. The theme of the faithfulness of the Messiah and our embodiment of that faith is not based on a single text. If I can show that the theme permeates Paul’s theology, then a preference should be given in Romans 3:22 for the subjective genitive, even if this cannot be proven on the basis of that passage alone.

The Pauline exegesis of Hab. 2:4

The prophet Habbakuk says “the righteous one shall live by his faithfulness,” and Paul quotes this in Romans 1:17. But Paul goes on to disclose the wrath of God from heaven, so that all sinners “deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32). The thrust of Habbakuk is that terrible judgment and wrath will fall on Israel, but that through this wrath, the new exodus will occur and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God. In the midst of this, the “righteous one will live by his faithfulness.” In light of the revelation of the wrath of God—that sinners “deserve to die”—one should understand “live” in the sense of “finding life.”

Furthermore, Richard Hays alerts us to the messianic interpretation of Habbakuk 2:4 attested at Qumran, providing a background for Paul’s use of the text. For the Apostle, the “righteous one” is the Messiah, and the Messiah “lives” through “faithfulness.” That Jesus is understood to be the “righteous one” of Habbakuk 2:4 is confirmed by the use of the phrase “Jesus Christ the Righteous One” in 1 John 2:1, and the references to Jesus as “the Righteous One” in early Apostolic preaching (e.g. Acts 7:52; 22:14).

If we delve further into Paul’s thought, we can understand the broad theological fabric within which this reading of Habbakuk is located.

For the Apostle Paul, the supreme manifestation of God’s wrath towards faithless Israel is exile. Just as Adam was exiled from the tree of life, so Israel recapitulates faithless Adam (Hos. 6:7) and is exiled from the Promised Land. But Moses promises that one day, Israel will be faithful, God will circumcise her heart, and she will find “life” (Deut. 30:1-6). According to the Apostle Paul, the Messiah is the embodiment of Israel. This is rooted firmly in Isaiah 49:3-5, where the Servant of the Lord is named Israel but called to bring the remnant back from exile. That this drives Paul’s thought is evident in the way he freely applies the prayers of national Israel to the Messiah (Rom. 15:9-11). Hence, Israel-embodied, Messiah Jesus, endured the curse of exile (Gal. 3:10), receiving the flood of judgments of which Habbakuk spoke. In the midst of all this, the Messiah was faithful; thus, he found “life.”

What mitigates in favor of this reading is the massive sense it makes within the framework of Paul’s thought. One does not have to quibble over one or two words in the letter to the Romans. Rather, one pans out and tries to see how Paul understands the entire story of Israel in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then, one focuses back into a particular text and examines whether this reading fits snugly into the sweep of Paul’s narrative. If it does, this points strongly to its correctness. Because Israel was called to be what Adam was supposed to be—because Israel recapitulated the sin of Adam precisely in “faithlessness” (Hos. 6:7), and because the Messiah, Israel-in-person, is faithful—we understand the Messiah to be the “second Adam.” Hence, all who are “in the Messiah” also find life through the circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:25–29; 8:13; Gal. 6:16–17).

Certain passages use similar formulas to Rom. 3:22 without using the word “all”

This creates an inexplicable redundancy if the objective genitive was the right translation. On this point, Philippians 3 in particular comes into focus:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through the faithfulness of Christ: the righteousness from God3 that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. —Phil. 3:8–11

Here, we have a use of pistis Christou without the use of “all” to explain the redundancy. Furthermore, we have the rest of the theological fabric explicitly present—the faithfulness of the Messiah means His faithfulness in going unto death and there finding life, so that all those who embody His sufferings also receive His resurrection. The context is Paul’s previous confidence “in the flesh,” that is, in his identity grounded in marks of Jewish distinction—circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, as to the Torah, blameless, etc. But since his conversion, his identity with respect to God is grounded in the experience of the Messiah. The theological framework for this should be obvious by now—since the Messiah is the one-man-Israel, the experience of the Messiah defines the experience of the people of God. Thus, He embodies the sufferings of the Messiah so that, in the Messiah, he might find “life.”

A similar case appears in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

In passages like this, the subjective genitive very clearly makes more sense in the flow of Paul’s narrative. The Messiah “loved me and gave himself for me.” The flow of Paul’s thought is concentrated on what the Messiah has done. Paul then appropriates the experience of the Messiah by embodying it, as he says: “I have been crucified with the Messiah.” Because the Messiah defines what it means to “do the Torah” (Rom. 2:13–14)—that is, the “Torah of faithfulness” (Rom. 3:27), the Messiah who “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20)—the whole Torah is summed up in one commandment: “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Gal. 5:14). We are to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Torah of Messiah” (Gal. 6:2). “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).

As one can see, translating pistis Christou with the subjective genitive provides a window through which one can acquire a deeper understanding of Paul’s whole theology. This is a powerful sign of correct interpretation.4 And, as with Philippians 3, the word “all” does not appear.

2 Cor. 4 contains an undeniable reference to the faithfulness of the Messiah, with the same themes discussed in Phil. 3 and Gal. 2

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. —2 Cor. 4:8–14

For Paul, the Psalter is not merely a collection of touching prayers inspired by God. It is the prayerbook of the people of Israel, so that it is the personal prayerbook of the one in whom Israel’s election is focused: the Messiah. This is evident in Rom. 15:9–11, where Paul puts the words of several different Psalms on the lips of Jesus.5 This enables one to understand where Paul is coming from in 2 Cor. 4. The full Psalm provides context:

I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!”
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.
The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest;
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
I believed, even when I spoke, “I am greatly afflicted”;
I said in my alarm, “All mankind are liars.”
What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.
You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord! —Ps. 116:1–19

Note how the phrase “loosed my bonds” (Ps. 116:16) is echoed by St. Peter in his sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:24), indicating that the theme of the “faithfulness of the Messiah” leading to the resurrection dates from the earliest moments of the Church. Given all the above, that the subjective genitive absolutely dominates 2 Cor. 4 is quite clear. The Apostle says that we have the “same spirit of faith” as him who spoke in the Psalm; that is, Jesus the Messiah. This “spirit of faith” is marked out by faithfulness unto death, leading to redemption from Sheol. Then, when we embody the faithfulness of the Messiah, His life is manifested in us—leading ultimately to resurrection on the Last Day. This is why glorification is contingent on “suffering with” [Christ] (Rom. 8:17).


If my conclusions in this study are correct, a massive reevaluation of the Protestant doctrine of “justification by faith” is necessary.

Abraham’s faith should not be seen as an ‘empty-handed’ willingness to receive an alien righteousness, but rather as a prototypical embodiment of the faithfulness of the Messiah, given his “belief against hope” that God would bring forth offspring, even though his body was ‘as good as dead’ (Rom. 4:19).

Consequently, the doctrine of justification should be reworked in terms of a participation in the risen life of Christ through embodiment of His crucified life. In a question deserving another article, one must see the problem of the letter to the Romans as the fact that all sinners “deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32), suffering from the “lack of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), but in the Messiah, receiving the “hope of glory” (Rom. 5:5) so that on the Last Day they might find life, being “glorified with Him” (Rom. 8:17).

Show 5 footnotes

  1. For a positive evaluation of the subjective genitive in the literature, see Hays, Richard B.. The faith of Jesus Christ: an investigation of the narrative substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983. Print. Alternatively, for a negative perspective, see Carson, D. A., Peter Thomas Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid. Justification and variegated nomism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004. Print.
  2. For a good example of this argument, see this clip of a lecture by D.A. Carson.
  3. Note that dikaosunen theou (righteousness from God) is not the same as dikaosune theou (righteousness of God).
  4. It is a sad tendency of some modern scholarship to assume that the thought of the New Testament author is incoherent rather than to assume that the problem is with the interpreter.
  5. For more on this, see Hays, Richard B.. “Christ Prays the Psalms: Israel’s Psalter as Matrix of Early Christology.” The conversion of the imagination: Paul as interpreter of Israel’s Scripture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2005. 101-118. Print.


  1. fr. Chris Moody says

    I have always contended for this position. We are saved by the faith of Christ. Hence He is faithful to the uttermost to save them that come unto God by Him. An excellent article and interaction with contemporary scholarship. Bravo sou.

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