Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pistis Christou - Evidence from Ignatius

The latest fad among kids are these "silly bandz" (picture to the left). Kids wear so many of these that you begin to wonder if they can lift their arms. Before long, these "gotta have it" bracelets will be yesterday's fad, discarded and disregarded as silly nostalgia.

Biblical scholarship, like everything else, has trends and fads. This ought to suggest caution to anyone who jumps on the bandwagon of a new idea. Unfortunately, much of scholarship thrives on novelty that often rewards iconoclasts. Still, part of the scholarly task is to continually rethink received assumptions in light of new paradigms and evidence. Recently, there has been something of a paradigm shift regarding an important phrase in Paul's letters. In Greek the phrase reads, "πίστεως [Ἰησοῦ] Χριστοῦ" (Rom 3.22; Gal 2.16 [x2]; Phil 3.9; cf. Eph 3.12) and the conflicting interpretations are referred to simply as the pistis christou debate. The question basically concerns whether or not this phrase ought to be translated "the faith of Jesus" as in Jesus' faith (subjective genitive), or "faith in Jesus" as in Jesus who is the object of faith (objective genitive).

It was almost universally understood as "faith in Jesus" (objective genitive) among modern scholars until Richard Hays's doctoral dissertation, The Faith of Jesus Christ. Hays forcefully argued for the subjective genitive interpretation-- that we participate in Jesus' faith. His work is still quite definitive. Many scholars have followed Hays, and it seems that the list is steadily growing. The primary implication of Hays's argument for Pauline theology was to suggest that salvation is participatory. Believers participate in Jesus' faithfulness and thereby are justified. Still, there are many detractors. Michael Bird and Preston Sprinkle recently edited a fine volume devoted to the pistis christou debate presenting both sides ‒ The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical and Theological Studies. I would not begin an attempt to solve the debate in a blog post, but I do want to observe how Ignatius used similar language that might be helpful for interpreting Paul.

In his letter to the Trallians Ignatius encourages unity under the authority of the bishop (7.1-2). He is glad that the Trallians have not refused the bishop's authority but he warns them in advance against disunity. Then he writes, "You, therefore, must arm yourselves with gentleness and regain your strength in faith (which is the flesh of the Lord) and in love (which is the blood of Jesus Christ)" (8.1). Ignatius references the Lord's Supper (LS) as a source of unity and participation in Christ. "Faith" is interpreted as Jesus' flesh. It makes sense to read this passage about participation in the eucharist as Christians participating in Jesus' faith. It cannot be definitive, however, because of the mystical nature of the LS and the lack of clarity often associated with the metaphors associated with it.

In his letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius is again arguing for the unity of the church under the bishop (Ign. Phil. 7.1-2). Still, if there has been disunity God forgives all who repent. Ignatius then writes, "I believe in the grace of Jesus Christ," which implies belief in Jesus. This indicates that Jesus was the object of faith in at least some cases. It is also interesting to point out, however, that the phrase "in the grace of Jesus Christ" [τῇ χάριτι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ] is a genitive phrase. This would seem to be a clear instance of the subjective genitive – the grace that belongs to Jesus. This is a grace, by the way, which Ignatius describes as freeing believers from all restraint (Ign. Phil. 8.1). Ignatius provides us with an example of Jesus as the object of faith and a similar genitive phrase that is subjective.

Writing to the Ephesians, Ignatius addresses the necessity of acts of faith and love to accompany words. Unity will be maintained, "If you have perfect faith and love toward Jesus Christ. For these are the beginning and the end of life: faith is the beginning and love is the end, and the two when they exist in unity, are God" (Ign. Eph. 14.1). This is an example Jesus as the object of faith. Shortly after this description, Ignatius addresses false teaching by drawing an example from everyday life. Just as criminals are punished, Ignatius rhetorically asks, "how much more if by evil teaching someone corrupts faith in God [πίστιν θεοῦ], for which Jesus Christ was crucified [ὑπὲρ ἧς Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς ἐσταυρώθη]" (Ign. Eph. 16.2). Ignatius is not describing the faith that belongs to God being corrupted, but the faith directed toward God. This is the same grammatical construction as pistis christou but as pistin theou. Also, it is interesting that Jesus was crucified for this faith directed toward God. This passage shows that the genitive phrase after "faith" can be used in an objective sense.

In a third passage in the letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius mentions the possibility that he might write them another letter. In this second letter he intends to explain further, "the subject about which I have begun to speak, namely, the divine plan with respect to the new man Jesus Christ, involving faith in him and love for him, his suffering and resurrection" (Ign. Eph. 20.1). Mark Elliot, who wrote an article on the pistis christou phrase in the early church fathers in the Bird and Sprinkle book mentioned above, considers Ign. Eph. 20.1 "the strongest case" that in the letters of Ignatius, Jesus is "the author of faith, and faithful as God is faithful, but not . . . one who himself had faith" (282). It does not seem quite so "open and shut" to me. The Greek of Ign. Eph. 20.1 could read, "in his faith and in his love, in his suffering and resurrection" [ἐν τῇ αὐτοῦ πίστει καὶ ἐν τῇ αὐτοῦ ἀγάπῇ, ἐν πάθει αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀναστάσει]. Could it be that the divine plan is to participate in Jesus' faith and Jesus' love just as in his suffering and resurrection? This fits quite well with Ignatius' soteriology, not to mention Paul's.

At the beginning of his letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius addresses the church, "When I learned how well ordered your love toward God is, I rejoiced and resolved to address you in the faith of Jesus Christ [ἐν πίστει Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ]. In this case, Ignatius is addressing believers as those who are in Jesus' faith. Does this indicate that believers participate in Jesus' faith or that Ignatius is addressing those who believe in Jesus? Contextually, Ignatius is celebrating the fact that he is in chains and thus bearing "a most godly name"— Jesus. Ignatius is glad to be participating in Jesus' life. Later in the same letter, Ignatius describes the "two ways . . . death and life, and everyone will go to his own place" (5.1). These two ways are marked like a coin. On the way of life there is the stamp of God and on the way of death there is the stamp of the world. So, Ignatius writes, "the faithful in love bear the stamp of God the Father through Jesus Christ, whose life is not in us unless we voluntarily choose to die into his suffering [ἔχωμεν τὸ ἀποθανεῖν εἰς τὸ αὐτοῦ πάθος]" (5.2). Clearly, Ignatius does not believe that believers cannot believe without participating in his way of life, particularly, without participating in his suffering.

No matter how the phrase gets translated, it is clear that Christians are called to do more than "believe in," which is often understood to mean "think it really happened." Being a Christian, for Ignatius, meant nothing less than participating in the kind of life and death that Jesus lived and died. In the same way, believers will participate in Jesus' resurrection. If this sounds familiar, read Romans 6 and Philippians 3 and you'll remember why.

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