Did Martin Luther Get It All Wrong about Faith in Christ?

By William O. Walker, Jr.

From The Fourth R
Volume 29, Issue 6
November – December 2016
Download the PDF version

There are three parts to this article:

Did Martin Luther Get It All Wrong about Faith in Christ?


In a sense, the Protestant Reformation began when Martin Luther discovered the “true” meaning of Romans 1:17: a person becomes “righteous” or “justified”—that is, in right relationship with God—by faith.1 Luther then applied this insight to other Pauline passages, particularly in Romans and Galatians, and thus was born the rallying cry of the Reformation: “Justification by Faith and Not by Works.” The classic “proof text” for this is Galatians 2:16, which the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates as follows (emphasis mine):

We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.2

Until recently, most New Testament scholars (particularly Protestant ones) have concurred in Luther’s understanding of Gal 2:16 and related texts,3 and this, of course, is what most of us—at least most of us Protestants—were taught and have believed: a person is justified not by obeying the commandments but rather through faith in Christ.

Footnotes in the NRSV, however, indicate other possible translations in Galatians 2:16 and elsewhere:

Gal 2:16“the faith of Jesus Christ,”
not “faith in Jesus Christ”
Rom 3:22; Gal 3:22“the faith of Jesus Christ,”
not “faith in Jesus Christ”
Rom 3:26“the faith of Jesus,”
not “faith in Jesus”
Gal 2:16; Phil 3:9“the faith of Christ,”
not “faith in Christ”
Gal 2:20“the faith of the Son of God,”
not “faith in the Son of God”

These footnotes reflect the fact that increasing numbers of New Testament scholars are questioning the traditional Lutheran-Protestant doctrine of “Justification by Faith and Not by Works.”4

The debate hinges upon the translation of a simple two-word Greek phrase: pistis Christou.5 It concerns a technical point of grammar, and so it might seem as though scholars are making a great deal of fuss over such a small matter. The stakes, however, are high—both for our understanding of Paul and for Christian theology in the wake of the Reformation. In short, if the Christou in pistis Christou is an objective genitive (“faith in Christ”), then Luther was right and Protestant theology since Luther has generally been on the right track so far as this issue is concerned. If, however, the Christou in pistis Christou is a subjective genitive (“the faith/faithfulness of Christ”), then Luther got it all wrong, and Protestant theology since Luther has generally been on the wrong track. Thus, the difference between “faith in/faithfulness to Christ” and “Christ’s [own] faith/faithfulness” is important because it goes to the very root of one of the major issues that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

A Question of Grammar

Pistis can mean (1) “belief”/ “faith”/ “trust”/ “confidence” or (2) “faithfulness”/ “trustworthiness”/ “reliability”/ “fidelity”/“commitment.” It is likely, however, that Paul’s use of pistis carries both meanings, with sometimes one and sometimes the other predominating. To simplify matters, therefore, we can say that pistis means “faith/ faithfulness.” Paul says that people are justified through faith/faithfulness.

The second word in the Greek phrase, Christou, is the genitive (possessive) form of the noun Christos, which, of course, is anglicized as “Christ.” The genitive case can express various types of relationships. When a noun or pronoun in the genitive case modifies a noun that involves some kind of physical, mental, volitional, or emotional activity (such as pistis), the genitive can be either an objective genitive (the word in the genitive case is the object of the activity indicated by the noun it modifies) or a subjective genitive (the word in the genitive case is the subject of the activity indicated by the noun it modifies).  Sometimes, however, it is unclear which is intended. For example, “the love of Christ” (2 Cor 5:14) can mean either “[our] love for Christ” (objective genitive) or “Christ’s love [for us]” (subjective genitive), and “the love of God” (Rom 5:5) can mean either “God’s love [for us]” (subjective genitive) or “[our] love for God” (objective genitive).

The question, then, is whether Christou in the phrase pistis Christou is an objective or a subjective genitive. If it is an objective genitive, then pistis Christou means “faith in/faithfulness to Christ”; if, however, Christou is a subjective genitive, then pistis Christou means “Christ’s [own] faith/faithfulness.” Grammatically, either interpretation is possible. Translators, therefore, need to look beyond the grammar of a given sentence for clues about the precise meaning of the phrase. In what follows, I will summarize the reasoning for and against translating pistis Christou, first as an objective genitive, then as a subjective genitive.

The Objective Genitive

(Faith in/Faithfulness to Christ)

Luther interpreted Christou as an objective genitive and translated pistis Christou into his native German as Glauben an Christus (“faith in Christ”). This became generally accepted, particularly by Protestants, and is still defended by many scholars. Various arguments have been advanced supporting the objective genitive interpretation:

  1. Paul clearly does speak at times of “having faith in/being faithful to” Christ. For example, Philemon 5 refers to “the faith/faithfulness (pistis) that you have toward the Lord Jesus,” and Paul twice employs the verb pisteuein (cognate of the noun pistis) followed by the preposition eis (“into” or “in”) with “Christ Jesus” or its equivalent as the object of the preposition (Gal 2:16; Phil 1:29). Particularly significant is Gal 2:16, which I here translate using “trust” for pistis,

    But knowing that a person is not justified by works of law but by trust in Jesus Christ (pistis Iésou Christou), we also have trusted in Christ Jesus (eis Christon Iésou episteusamen)in order that we might be justified by trust in Christ (pistis Christou) and not by works of law, because by works of law no one will be justified.

    Notice how the phrase with eis (“have trusted in”) occurs between the two pistis Christou phrases. This arrangement within a single sentence can be taken as strong evidence that Paul intended all three phrases to carry the same meaning.

  2. Paul frequently uses the verb pisteuein independently, without an object, to characterize the desired stance of his readers—that is, to refer to human faith/faithfulness.6 Indeed, he regards pistis as a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). Thus, he suggests that pistis is something that humans exercise, not something that Christ exhibits.
  3. Paul appears to draw a parallel between the “faith/faithfulness” of Abraham and that of his readers (Gal 3:6–9; Rom 4:1–25). Again, this suggests that pistis is exercised by humans, not by Christ.
  4. Typically, when Paul employs the subjective genitive to indicate someone’s “faith/faithfulness,” he includes the definite article “the” before “faith/faithfulness,”7 but the definite article never appears in the phrase pistis Christou. This suggests that the subjective genitive is not applicable here.
  5. There are similar phrases in which the genitive is clearly an objective genitive, including “the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8) and “zeal for God” (Rom 10:2).

The force of these arguments is such that, on strictly exegetical grounds (that is, on the basis of a careful examination of individual passages), I would be inclined to favor the objective genitive interpretation of pistis Christou and would translate it as “faith in/faithfulness to Christ.”

Some critics argue against the objective genitive interpretation, however, on the grounds that it would suggest a rather serious contradiction in Paul’s theology.8 He says that people cannot be justified by “works of law”—that is, by things they do (or don’t do),9 but having faith in/being faithful to Christ is something that people either do or don’t do. Thus, justification by faith in or faithfulness to Christ would appear to suggest that people can work their way into a right relationship with God by having faith in/being faithful to Christ. In principle, this would appear to be no different from working one’s way into a right relationship with God by following the commandments, by being “good.”

Some theologians have responded to this argument by maintaining that, for Paul, faith is a gift of God, not something that is self-generated. This, however, raises another serious theological problem: some people have faith and others do not. This suggests that God arbitrarily chooses to bestow the gift of faith on some but not on others. Although Paul occasionally suggests that such is the case (see, for example, Rom 8:29–30, which, however, may be a later interpolation, and Rom 9:10–18), the main thrust of his message is that people can choose whether or not to be “reconciled to God” (Rom 5:20).

The Subjective Genitive

(Faith/Faithfulness of Christ)

In light of the above, and for other reasons as well, a few scholars have long argued, and more now insist, that the genitive in pistis Christou is a subjective genitive and that the phrase should therefore be translated as “Christ’s faith/faithfulness.”10 Various arguments have been advanced supporting this interpretation.

  1. The most literal translation of pistis Christou (“faith/faithfulness of Christ”) would appear to support the subjective genitive interpretation.11
  2. There are no instances in Paul’s letters where a genitive with pistis must be understood as an objective genitive, but there are places where it must be understood as a subjective genitive. For example, Rom 4:5, 4:12, and 4:16 refer, respectively, to “his [that is, Abraham’s] faith/faithfulness” (hē pistis autou), “the faith/faithfulness of Abraham” (hē pistis Abraam) and “Abraham’s faith/faithfulness” (pistis Abraam), employing what is clearly a subjective genitive for “Abraham.” Moreover, Rom 3:3 refers to “the faithfulness of God” (hē pisti tou Theou), and the meaning clearly is “God’s faithfulness,” not “faithfulness to God.”12
  3. Translating pistis Christou as “Christ’s faith/faithfulness” overcomes the apparent contradiction in Paul’s theology, mentioned earlier, that is created by the objective genitive interpretation and would appear to be more in line with Paul’s overall theological perspective, which stresses God’s activity in Christ to effect human salvation.

If pistis Christou is translated as “Christ’s faith/faithfulness,” a clue to what Paul means by the phrase can be found in Rom 1:5, where he apparently equates pistis and hypakoē (“obedience”).13 This, in turn, points to Rom 5:18-19, where Paul contrasts Christ and Adam in the following words:

Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.14 (NRSV, emphasis added)

Photo, 4th R Cover

Are you enjoying the article?
Consider buying this issue of The Fourth R.

The contrast is between Adam’s “trespass”/“disobedience,” which establishes people as “sinners” and leads to “condemnation for all,” and Christ’s “act of righteousness”/“obedience,” which establishes people as “righteous” (that is, “justified”) and leads to “justification and life for all.”15 Christ’s “act of righteousness”/“obedience,” reverses the “trespass”/“disobedience” of Adam. This “obedience” is then spelled out more explicitly in Phil 2:8, which says that Christ “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” When Paul speaks, therefore, of “Christ’s faith/faithfulness” as the basis for justification, he has in mind Christ’s faithful obedience to the will of God, obedience that led to his death on the cross. In Paul’s mind, it is Christ’s faithful obedience, and this alone, that is the basis for justification.

There is, however, a problem here for modern interpreters of Paul. When Paul says that Christ’s “obedience” reverses the “disobedience” of Adam, he clearly is assuming that Adam was an actual historical character and that the Genesis creation accounts are real history. These accounts, however, are not history; they are myth, and, as such, must be demythologized if they are to have meaning for those who understand the difference between myth and history. The biblical creation stories express profound truths about the human condition, including the fact that we experience ourselves as somehow alienated, separated from God, the Ground of Our Being. Thus, when I demythologize Paul’s statement that Christ’s obedience reverses Adam’s disobedience, what I come up with is the following: Our experience of alienation is not the real and final truth about our relationship to God, the Ground of our Being. The real truth, as Paul puts it in 2 Cor 5:19, is that “God in Christ was reconciling the world unto himself” (emphasis mine)—in other words, that, whether we recognize it or not, we are already “reconciled” or “justified,” rightly related to God, quite apart from anything we may do. Thus, Luther was on the right track when he denied that human “works” could lead to justification, but he should have gone further by also denying that human “faith/faithfulness” could lead to justification.


The debate between objective genitive and the subjective genitive interpretations of pistis Christou has not been resolved. Exegetical arguments appear to support the objective genitive interpretation, while arguments based on Paul’s overall theological perspective appear to support the subjective genitive interpretation. The evidence is rather evenly balanced, and I must confess that, although I lean toward the subjective genitive interpretation, I have not as yet been able to decide definitively between the two.

Copyright © 2016 Westar Institute. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

William O. Walker, Jr.William O. Walker, Jr. (Ph.D., Duke University) is Jennie Farris Railey King Professor Emeritus of Religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. The author of Gospels, Jesus, and Christian Origins (2016), Paul and His Legacy (2015), and Interpolations in the Pauline Letters (2001), he is a longtime Fellow of Westar Institute.


 1. Rom 1:17 is notoriously difficult to translate. See both the translation and the footnote in the NRSV.

 2. The New American Bible, the official Roman Catholic translation, is very close to the NRSV here, rendering pistis Christou as “faith in Christ.”

 3. See Gal 2:15–21; 3:1–14, 23–29; 5:2–6; Rom 3:21–31; 4:1–25; Phil 3:9.

 4. A good summary of the debate can be found in Part II (pp. 33–92) of E. Elizabeth Johnson and David M. Hay, eds., Pauline Theology, vol. IV: Looking Back, Pressing On (Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 4; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997).

 5. The phrase actually appears in five different forms: pistis Iēsou Christou (Rom 3:22; Gal 3:22), pistis Iēsou (Rom 3:26), pistis Christou Iēsou (Gals 2:16), pistis Christou (Gal 2:16; Phil 3:9), and pistis tou huiou Theou (Gal 2:20; the last three words mean “of [or “in”] the Son of God”). For the sake of consistency, however, I shall use pistis Christou in the discussion that follows.

 6. See, for example, 1 Thess 1:7; Gal 3:22; Rom 1:16; 3:22; 4:11; 10:4.

 7. For example, Rom 1:8, 12; 3:3; 4:5. The article is absent, however, in Rom 4:16, where the genitive is clearly a subjective genitive.

 8. We cannot, of course, rule out the possibility that Paul actually did contradict himself on this point. However, it is almost always better for translators to assume that Paul (or any author) did not contradict himself, especially on a matter such as this one that is so central to his theology. When considering the whole of Paul’s thought, scholars debate whether or to what extent Paul was, in fact, consistent in his own thinking. See, for example, Heikki Räisänen, “A Controversial Jew: Paul and His Conflicting Convictions,” The Fourth R 21–5 (Sep–Oct 2008) 3–7, 24.

 9. Some scholars now argue that “works of law” refers specifically to the ceremonial practices that distinguished Jews from Gentiles (for example, circumcision, the dietary laws, and Sabbath observance). I find this argument unconvincing because Paul sometimes speaks of “works” without mentioning the Jewish Law (see, for example, Rom 4:4–5, which speaks of the “wage” to “the one who works” as something that is owed and the “wage” to “the one who does not work” as “grace.”

10. Despite the Lutheran-Protestant emphasis upon “faith in Christ,” English translations—including the much revered King James Version—regularly translated pistis Christou as “Christ’s faith” until the Revised Version in 1881 adopted “faith in Christ.”

11. Some years ago, I asked the Chair of Trinity University’s Department of Classical Studies how he would translate pistis Christou; his immediate response was “Christ’s faith” or “Christ’s faithfulness.”

12. See also Rom 1:8, 12; 1 Cor 2:5; 15:14, 17; 2 Cor 10:15; Phil 2:17; 1 Thess 1:8; 3:2, 5, 6, 7, 10; Philemon 5, 6.

13. Hypakoē pisteōs should be translated as “the obedience (hypakoē) that is faith/faithfulness (pistis).” The same phrase appears at Rom 16:26, but this is widely regarded as part of a later addition (interpolation) to the letter.

14. See the entire passage: Rom 5:12–21.

15. The words translated as “righteousness,” “justification,” and “righteous” all come from the same root as the word translated in Gal 2:16 as “to be justified.”

Paul, Luther, and Protestant Doctrine

A Response to William Walker

William O. Walker, Jr. anchors the Protestant Reformation in Martin Luther’s claim that he had discovered the “true” meaning of Paul’s gospel. In Walker’s words, Luther’s insight was that “a person is justified not by obeying the commandments but rather through faith in Christ.” For the past century the debate over Luther’s interpretation of Paul has revolved around a point of Greek grammar: how to translate the possessive case that relates the noun “faith” to the possessive word “Jesus” (or “Christ” in Walker’s summary)? Since Greek does not have an ’s (apostrophe + s) to indicate possession, a modifier in the genitive case can be translated either as the object or as the subject of the action implied by the noun it modifies. Walker, a leading Pauline scholar, provides a clear and detailed explanation of the crucial Greek phrase pistis Iēsou: does it mean “[our] faith in Jesus” (objective genitive) or “the faith of Jesus” (subjective genitive, “Jesus’ faith”)? Martin Luther opted for the objective genitive, concluding that our standing before God depends on our belief in Jesus, not on whether we share Jesus’ obedience to God. Though Walker confesses that he has “not as yet been able to decide definitively” whether Paul intends the subjective or objective genitive, the team that translated the Scholars Version of Paul’s letters for Westar concluded that Paul intended the subjective genitive.1 What’s the evidence?

The evidence supports the subjective genitive

1. The history of critical scholarship

In 1983 Richard B. Hays published an exhaustive study, The Faith of Jesus Christ,2 that demonstrates the inaccuracy of Luther’s translation and provides convincing evidence that Paul intended the phrase to be read as a subjective genitive, “the faith or faithfulness of Jesus.” In surveying the history of scholarship on this question, Hays cites the works of Johannes Haussleiter (1891), Gerhard Kittel (1906), Otto Schmitz (1924), and Adolf Deissmann (1926) as German scholars dating back to the nineteenth century who argued for a subjective genitive. In the past generation those who have favored this view for various grammatical and exegetical reasons include A. G. Hebert (1955), Thomas Torrance (1957), P. Valloton (1960), H. W. Schmidt (1966), G. M. Taylor (1966), George Howard (1967, 1970, 1974), E. R. Goodenough (1968), J. Bligh (1968), Markus Barth (1969), D. W. B. Robinson (1970), R. N. Longenecker (1974), Sam K. Williams (1980), Lloyd Gaston (1980), T. E. Pollard (1980–81), and Luke T. Johnson (1982).3 Hays’ detailed examination of the question, followed by the work of Sam Williams and Stanley Stowers,4 was a major influence on the decision of the translators of the Scholars Version to render pistis Iēsou Christou as a subjective genitive in Galatians 2:16, “a confidence in God like that of Jesus, God’s Anointed.”

2. The linguistic criterion

As Walker himself observes (n. 10), scholars of ancient Greek normally translate the possessive use of the genitive in Greek as a subjective genitive, not as an objective genitive. For example, the Greek phrase that comes into English as “love of God” normally meant “God’s love [for us],” not “[our] love for God.” When the objective genitive was intended, Greek writers usually added a preposition such as eis, “in, into” to clarify the “direction” of the possessive force of the genitive.5 An example is pistin eisIēsou, “faith in … Jesus” (Acts 20:21).

3. The criterion of coherence

For the Scholars Version team, the evidence that clinched the argument for translating pistis Iēsou, “the faith of Jesus,” as a subjective genitive is Paul’s parallel usage of “the faith of Abraham” in Rom 4:12. As Hays emphasizes, “the expression ek pisteōs Iēsou (Christou) (Rom 3:26, Gal 3:22) has a precise parallel in Rom 4:16, ek pisteōs Abraam,”6 where Paul refers to “those who share Abraham’s confidence and reliance upon God.” In Romans 4 Paul is not claiming that one must have “faith in Abraham” or “believe in Abraham” (objective genitive), but that Abraham’s trust or confidence in God is the forerunner to Jesus’s trust in God that validates God’s reliability in keeping the promise to “the nations” (4:17–18).7

4. The exegetical context

The debate about the translation of pistis Iēsou must also be placed in the larger context of Paul’s argument and his use of other genitive phrases, especially hē dikaiosune tou theou, “the righteousness of God” and ex ergōn nomou, “works of the law.” If “the faith of Jesus (Christ)” is a subjective genitive, as the above evidence indicates, then what about these parallel genitives, since all three phrases are connected in Paul’s argument in Rom 3:21–4:25? In fact, changing one piece of the puzzle impacts the entire passage:

as objective genitiveas subjective genitive
the faith of Jesus[our] faith in JesusJesus’s trust [in God]
the righteousnes of God[our] righteousness
before God
God’s reliability
[to the nations]
works of the law[our] fulfillment of the
law’s requirements
the “law’s” power/limits

Paul employs the Greek rhetorical convention of the diatribe* beginning in Rom 3:1–9 to anticipate a major objection to his world-changing insight that the faithfulness of Jesus has opened a way for the nations to enter the family of God. The objection to his message is that it portrays God as unreliable (“unrighteous”). To paraphrase the objection: “If God has made a new covenant with the nations (Gentiles), doesn’t this mean God has nullified the old covenant with the Jews (Rom 3:31)? If so, then how can we have any confidence (pistis) that God will fulfill the new promise to the nations (Rom 4:16)?”

* The diatribe was an ancient literary device by which an author debates an imaginary opponent, thus allowing the author to anticipate and answer an audience’s likely objections. See the cameo essay in The Authentic Letters of Paul, 257–59.

Paul can both assert the reliability of God and, at the same time, reject the salvific power of the “works of the law” (Rom 3:28, 31) because of his understanding of nomos, conventionally translated as “law.” How to translate this phrase is complicated by the fact that Paul is using a Greek term that is used in the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) to translate the Hebrew word torah. While nomos can mean “law” in ancient Greek, its primary meaning is “custom” or “cultural practice.” In fifth-century bce Athens a debate erupted between the pre-Socratic philosophers who believed that all cultural institutions are divinely ordained and thus unchangeable (labeled as “orders of nature,” physis) and the Sophists who argued that cultural institutions are human creations and therefore relative (labeled as nomos, “custom”). Thus the Hebrew term torah is closer in meaning to the Greek word physis than to its opposite, nomos. Though Paul can use nomos to refer to the Torah (Rom 3:21b, “the law and the prophets”= the scriptures), he typically uses nomos to refer to Jewish religious traditions and ethnic practices that are culturally relative. This is how SV Paul translates Gal 2:16 where the terms pisteōs Iēsou Christou and ex ergōn nomou are repeated several times:

but we now see that no one becomes acceptable to God by relying on traditional religious practices. We gain this acceptance only through a confidence in God like that of Jesus, God’s Anointed. So we put our confidence in God along with the Anointed, Jesus, in order to be acceptable to God based on a confidence like that of God’s Anointed, rather than relying on traditional religious practices. The truth of the matter is “no one will be acceptable to God” on the basis of traditional religious practices.

Paul is not denying the validity of the Torah. Rather, he is distinguishing it from Jewish religious practices like circumcision and food customs that are important Jewish identity markers, but are not universal requirements for the nations.

The Four Rs of Literacy

Want to read more great articles?
Consider subscribing to The Fourth R.

Does changing Luther’s translation undermine the Reformation?

Walker worries that correcting Luther’s translation of the genitives would undo the Protestant Reformation. I would disagree with such an extreme conclusion for several reasons.

First, since all religions are historical phenomena, they need to be periodically reformed to keep up with historical changes and new cosmologies. The recognition that Luther mistranslated genitive phrases in Paul’s letters does not cancel out the Protestant tradition, but moves us forward to a more contemporary understanding of Christianity.

Second, there is surely a difference between Luther’s religious experience and “Protestantism.” Luther’s experience of being rescued from a guilty conscience was clearly life-transforming for him, regardless of whether he correctly understood Paul’s message. Put in general terms, all creative metaphors become clichés after they are domesticated and repeated ad nauseam. A new reformation implies new metaphors and fresh insights in place of the dead hand of sedimented traditions.

Third, despite Luther’s translation of pistis Iēsou as an objective genitive, a survey of major English translations indicates the phrase was translated as a subjective genitive until the Revised Version of 1881 (see the translation history in The Authentic Letters of Paul, 66).

And finally, there is a key theological issue at stake in the debate over the translation of “the faith of Jesus (Christ).” What is the relation of Christology to soteriology (the understanding of salvation) in Paul’s letters? The theologian Gerhard Ebeling contends that traditional Christology is actually incompatible with the doctrine of justification. In Ebeling’s words, “in the testimony the Christian faith bears to him Jesus is rightly understood only when he is not an object of faith, but its source and ground.”8 Hays labels Ebeling’s view as a “representative-christology.” He asks, “Is it really odd to think that Paul might attribute soteriological significance to Jesus’ faith? It is universally acknowledged that Paul speaks at least twice in his letters of Jesus’ obedience [Rom 5:19; Phil 2:8] and attributes to this obedience saving significance.”9 Walker notes this point as well when he concludes, “In Paul’s mind, it is Christ’s faithful obedience, and this alone, that is the basis for justification.” If this is so, then the subjective genitive does not contradict the mantra of the Reformation; rather, it is consistent with traditional Christology as well as the grammatical evidence.

Copyright © 2016 Westar Institute. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Lane C. McGaughyLane C. McGaughy (Ph.D., Vanderbilt) is Geo. H. Atkinson Professor of Religious and Ethical Studies emeritus at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. The co-author of The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010) and author of three books on New Testament Greek, he is a charter Fellow of the Jesus Seminar.


 1. Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. Salem: Polebridge, 2010. For an up-to-date reconstruction of the historical Paul that utilizes the SV translation, see Bernard Brandon Scott, The Real Paul. See also my “On Translating Paul’s Letters—for the First Time” for further discussion of the reasons for the SV translation of Paul’s letters.

 2. Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ, see especially pp. 157–67.

 3. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ, 186, n. 105.

 4. Sam K. Williams, “The ‘Righteousness of God’ in Romans” and Galatians; Stanley, K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans.

 5. See H. W. Smyth, Greek Grammar, ##1332–33. On the basis of a survey of Hellenistic Jewish sources, including the Septuagint, George Howard, “The Faith of Christ,” concludes: “It was inappropriate to the Hellenistic Jewish mentality to express the object of faith by means of the objective genitive … Characteristically the writers use the preposition when they wish to express the object” (213).

 6. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ, 164.

 7. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans, 194, 303, and passim.

 8. Gerhard Ebeling, “Jesus and Faith,” 201–2.

 9. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ, 166. The term “representative” Christology is also used by Markus Barth, “The Faith of the Messiah.”

Works Consulted

Barth, Markus. “The Faith of the Messiah.” Heythrop Journal 10 (1969) 363–70.

Dewey, Arthur J., Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. Salem: Polebridge, 2010.

Ebeling, Gerhard. “Jesus and Faith” in Word and Faith. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963.

Hays, Richard B. The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1—4:11. SBL Dissertation Series 56. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983. Second Edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Howard, George. “The Faith of Christ.” Expository Times 85 (1974).

McGaughy, Lane C. “On Translating Paul’s Letters—for the First Time.” The Fourth R, 24/5 (Sept–Oct 2011) 6–8, 24

Scott, Bernard Brandon. The Real Paul: Recovering his Radical Challenge. Salem: Polebridge, 2015.

Smyth, H. W. Greek Grammar. Cambridge: Harvard, 1966.

Stowers, Stanley, K. A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles. New Haven: Yale University, 1994.

Williams, Sam K. “The ‘Righteousness of God’ in Romans.” Journal of Biblical Literature 99/2 (June 1980) 241–90.

______. Galatians. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon, 1997.

“Faith in Christ” or “Christ’s Faith/Faithfulness”?

A Response to Lane C. McGaughy

I appreciate Lane McGaughy’s response, and I agree with most of what he says. Indeed, I am increasingly inclined to accept the subjective genitive interpretation of pistis Christou (in part this might be because, theologically, I would like this to be the correct interpretation). I do, however, take issue with McGaughy at three points:

  1. He prejudges the issue by saying that Christou is in “the possessive case.” If so, then pistis Christou must be translated as “Christ’s faith/faithfulness.” Actually, however, Christou is in the genitive case, which can indicate various relationships with its antecedent noun or pronoun, including but not limited to possession. Thus “faith in Christ” or “faithfulness to Christ” are equally grammatically viable translations (e.g., “love of God” can mean either “love for God” or “God’s love).”
  2. I don’t see how pistis Christou can be translated as “a confidence in God like that of God’s Anointed.” This interprets the genitive not as a subjective genitive but rather as what might be called a comparative genitive (“faith/faithfulness like Christ’s faith/faithfulness” or “Christ-like faith/faithfulness”). An important theological issue is at stake here. If pistis Christou means “Christ-like faith/faithfulness,” then “justification” (a right relationship with God) depends upon something that we do; if, however, pistis Christou means “Christ’s faith/faithfulness,” then “justification” depends solely upon what Christ has done, namely, trusting in and being faithful to God even to the point of death.
  3. I certainly don’t “worry that correcting Luther’s translation of the genitive would undo the Protestant Reformation;” this doesn’t concern me. I do, however, agree with McGaughy regarding the historical relativity of all religious phenomena, the “difference between Luther’s religious experience and ‘Protestantism’,” and the fact that a key theological issue is at stake in the pistis Christou debate.

Copyright © 2016 Westar Institute. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

William O. Walker, Jr.William O. Walker, Jr. (Ph.D., Duke University) is Jennie Farris Railey King Professor Emeritus of Religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. The author of Gospels, Jesus, and Christian Origins (2016), Paul and His Legacy (2015), and Interpolations in the Pauline Letters (2001), he is a longtime Fellow of Westar Institute.

Browse Other Articles

Gladiators and Martyrs

Susan M. (Elli) Elliott

How did prisoners who were publicly executed in horrifying and degrading ways become icons of Christian heroism, “The Martyrs” celebrated in song and story? While Christian culture now takes the martyrs’ heroic status for granted, the process by which they were transformed from objects of derision to icons of Christian heroism remains a paradox. To understand this paradox, we need to understand how another despised figure in the Roman arena became an emblem of Roman heroism: the gladiator. Read more

Jesus the Apprentice

The Origin of Jesus’ Reputation as Healer

Daniel Frayer-Griggs

Where did the idea of Jesus as healer originate? The answer probably lies in the story of his apprenticeship with John the Baptist. Read more