Pistis Iesou: “Faith of Jesus” or “Faith in Jesus”

In the scholarly world, a debate has been raging for a while now regarding the proper way to translate the Greek phrase “πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ” (pistis Iēsou Christou), meaning either the “faith of Jesus Christ” or “faith in Jesus Christ.”  This would apply to other variations where we have the word pistis (faith) followed by different combinations of the name/title of Jesus in the genitive case.

The reason for the debate revolves around the fact that both options are grammatically possible and significant theological positions are at stake.

In simple terms, one could correctly translate the genitive Iēsou here either as an objective genitive or as a subjective genitive.  The terms objective and subjective are simply labels we apply to the genitive, depending on how we believe it is being used. There is no magical magnifying glass we can pull out and peer through to discover a small marking that indicates what type of genitive it is.  These are interpretive labels applied to the genitive case in Greek.

Translated subjectively, we would read the phrase pistis Iēsou as the “faith of Jesus”, meaning that Jesus produces the faith (so he is not the recipient of our faith in this scenario).  Alternatively, to translate it objectively would yield “faith in Jesus,” meaning Jesus is the recipient of our faith.  Both options are within the range of possible meaning grammatically.

Consequently, scholars can argue all day long in sophisticated ways and at the end of the day both sides still hold the same old positions stronger than ever. I’m simplifying, but that is the core of the issue.

The primary verses affected by this debate are mostly in Paul’s letters and would include Rom. 3:22, Rom. 3:26, Gal. 2:16; Gal. 2:20, Gal. 3:22, Eph. 3:12, and Phil. 3:9. Revelations 14:12 also applies, although it is not as commonly debated.

Let’s take a look at a couple examples and decide if a subjective or objective genitive would make more sense based on the context.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21-25 ESV)

In verse 22, we read that the righteousness of God has been revealed through pisteōs Iēsou Christou towards all those believing. Following most modern translations, the righteousness of God is through “faith in Jesus” and is for those believing. If understood this way, the concept of belief in Jesus is repeated twice unnecessarily. Paul would be saying that it’s revealed through believing in Jesus for those believing in Jesus, making it a bit of awkward phrasing.

It also raises an interesting theological dilemma. Is the righteousness of God revealed through our faith?  Or is it through the faith of Jesus, Jesus’ faithfulness through death on a cross? I think most would agree that humanity didn’t reveal God’s faithfulness, unless you are referring specifically to God in human flesh, Jesus Christ.  God revealed his righteousness through the person Jesus Christ.  This was specifically through His faithful obedience and perseverance.

Here’s another example to analyze from Galatians:

“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)

This is similar to the previous example from Romans, but is even clearer in my opinion.  The bold portions could also be translated as a subjective genitive, the “faith/faithfulness of Jesus.”  Translated this way, Paul would be saying that we are justified by Christ’s death (the implied reference of the “faith of Christ”) and not by ritual observance of the Mosaic Law. Because we have been justified by Jesus’ sacrificial death, we have put our trust in Christ Jesus, so that we are justified by Jesus’ death and not by works of the Mosaic Law.  Paul would not be denying the need to put our trust in Jesus, but rather puts greater focus on Jesus’ faithfulness as the paschal lamb.

If we took both instances in Galatians 2:16 as objective genitives, it would follow Protestant tradition nicely, but would make Paul repeat himself three times.  Paul essentially would be writing that we are justified by believing in Jesus, so we believe in Jesus, in order that we be justified by believing in Jesus. Suffice to say, it lacks the theological depth the alternative interpretation communicates so nicely.

Let’s move on to a non-Pauline example, one I find interesting and is probably less discussed.

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelations 14:12 ESV)

As I’ve discussed, “faith in Jesus” is a grammatically possible translation, but so is “faith of Jesus” or “Jesus’ faith.”  So we could instead read this verse as:

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keeping the commandments of God and the faithfulness of Jesus.

This would change the definition of the saints to those who keep the commands of God and also the faithful perseverance of Jesus.  The “faithfulness of Jesus” puts emphasis on the endurance of faith displayed throughout Jesus’ entire life. The saints are those who have not only believe in Jesus (which is expressed elsewhere in scripture), but those who live by the same obedient faith Jesus lived by.

Although one can’t grammatically prove the correctness of one translation over the other, understanding the alternate possibilities provide a new (or quite old) perspective that could be easily overlooked otherwise.

One word of caution, not every instance where we read about our faith in Jesus is applicable to this discussion. For example, Paul writes in Ephesians 1:15, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus.”  The “Lord Jesus” here is in the dative and is preceded by the preposition “in” (en) in the Greek (unlike the examples discussed previously in this post). So any discussion of objective versus subjective genitives does not apply in this verse. There are a number of other verses like this. I would encourage you to use an interlinear or bible program accurately determine what grammatical construction is being used in the Greek.

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