Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Faith of Jesus Christ (9)

Previously on Paul.

So what does it matter if Paul grammatically meant to say that the "faith of Jesus" is how we come to be declared "right" with God? He still taught that we must direct our faith toward Jesus. And even if this grammatical expression did not invoke Jesus' faithfulness, he clearly saw Jesus' obedience as an element in the equation. Is this debate simply a squabble between scholars that, aside from our desire to know what Paul really was saying, does not really make much of a difference in what we believe?

It probably does not change too much the individual things we believe. What it changes is the overall emphasis and picture, and I personally find the changed overall picture to ring much truer to Paul. It shifts several aspects of Paul in particular that move us away from some of the extremes we have inherited from history and arguably back to Paul himself.

For example, if Romans 3 and Galatians 2 use the "faith of Jesus" as the starting point, then our understanding of Paul shifts just the right amount away from our faith and on to Jesus. The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith was an important corrective in the 1500s, but in the intervening centuries pushed Protestants more and more to a "me" centered path to God. My faith is significant in Paul, to be sure. But if Paul's initial focus was on Jesus' faithfulness, then we have a better balance of emphasis that seems to fit Paul and his time very well indeed.

Related to the human focus is also a kind of individualism that the Protestant emphasis on my faith tends to foster that does not ring as true to the group orientation of Paul's world. I as an individual believer become more the focus rather than what Jesus has done. It seems to fit Paul's world much more, as we will see in the next chapter, if his focus is much more on our incorporation into Christ and into what he has done.

Another shift that seems to fit Paul and earliest Christianity better is a slight shift of focus from faith in Jesus to faith in God the Father. It is not that Paul does not still speak of our faith in Jesus. Directing our faith toward Christ Jesus remains a crucial element in Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16 no matter how one takes the phrase "faith of Jesus." But a careful look at what Paul says elsewhere reveals a consistent priority of God the Father over Jesus. After every knee bows in the Philippian hymn (Phil. 2:11), after everything is put under Jesus' feet (1 Cor. 15:28), God the Father is still the one to whom Jesus is servant and subject.

Throughout Romans 4, it is God that is the object of faith. It is God who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). It is God who calls into existence the things that do not exist (4:17). It is God who raised Jesus from the dead (4:24). Christians understand Jesus to be God, "eternally begotten of the Father," as the Nicene Creed of AD381 would put it. So we sometimes do not hear carefully the emphasis of Paul's writings at his stage in the flow of revelation. The "faith of Jesus" interpretation seems to recover Paul's balance of where faith is directed a little more accurately. Yes, it is directed toward Christ, but it is even more directed in Paul's language toward God the Father.

Finally, the "faith of Jesus" interpretation recovers a greater sense of the importance of the life of Jesus and of his humanity rather than Paul simply being interested in Jesus' death. Again, because we rightly believe Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity, it is all too easy for us to forget that we also believe he was fully human. Paul and the New Testament authors did not have this problem. Hebrews, for example, can speak of Jesus learning obedience through the things he suffered (Heb. 5:8) and being tempted like us (4:15).

None of these shifts proves that the "faith of Jesus" interpretation is correct. But they do contribute to a picture of Paul's thinking that, I think, fits not only Paul's time better but also things he says elsewhere. It fits with the fact that faith for Paul is primarily directed toward God the Father. It puts the focus of justification more on Jesus than on us as individuals. And it appropriately includes the human struggle and obedient action of Jesus in the equation of salvation.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Paul used Jesus, as an exemplarary example for social cohesion and identification. The same could be said for any exemplarary example for a social group.

The saints are examplarary examples in the Catholic Church, Martin Luther King to the African American, Gandhi to the Indian, or fathers to their children, etc.

Any individual can become an exemplaray example in their sphere of influence, if they develop beyond groupthinking or group behaving....a principled conscience.

Randy said...

Having first encountered the "faithfulness of Christ" as contrasted with "faith in Christ" concept a couple of years ago and saw it more fully fleshed out in N.T. Wrights "Justification", I found that the former resonated more truly with how I read the rest of the New Testament.

I tend to agree that there is no exegetical "silver bullet" that will firmly settle the translation of "pistis Iesou Christou", but I do like the subtle change of the "overall picture" by using "faith of Jesus Christ".

The change tends to push us away from the "me-centered" individualistic Christianity that has become so prevalent in the Western world to a more ecclesiastically centered faith which is, at least in my mind, more of what Paul seems to write about in his letters.

I am enjoying your series here. I appreciate your taking the time to write on this.