From Faith to Faith

What makes us Christians? What defines us as a people?

“I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son, our Lord…”

That’s one way of doing it. We are articulate what we believe. In an upward gesture, we define ourselves by a common set of postures toward God, Jesus, and Spirit.

What makes us who we are, what saves us, is our faith.

But, as I’ve argued here before, we need to be careful how we identify ourselves. We need to exercise care because how we define who we are will determine what we think faithful action looks like.

Ethics and identity are inseparable.

I’ve been arguing for some time that we need to reconstrue our identity and our ethics in narrative terms. We need to loosen our grip on statements of faith, and move toward more fully living into the story of the narrative of the faithful Christ.

It strikes me that what I’m arguing for is a wholesale transformation of our way of understanding Christian faith that corresponds to a shift in the way many Paul scholars are reading the phrase, “the faith of Christ” (πίστις χριστοῦ).

This phrase can be read one of two ways.

  1. Christ can be seen as the object of faith (thus the phrase “objective genitive” as the Greek construction). This would mean, “[our] faith in Christ.”
  2. Christ can be seen as the subject of faith (thus the phrase “subjective genitive” as the Greek construction). This would mean, “Christ’s faithfulness.”

At bottom, what is Paul after? By what are we justified in the sight of God? Is it our faith in Jesus? Or is it Jesus’ faithfulness in going to death on the cross?

The idea that we’re justified by our own faith in Christ is part of a larger way of construing Christian identity in terms of believing the right things about God.

When Richard Hays renewed the argument for the subjective genitive (“Christ’s faithfulness”) reading of Paul, the subtitle of his work was this: “The narrative substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11.”

The point is not simply that we translate a phrase in one particular way. The larger point is that this translation reflects a deeper structure in Pauline theology.

Paul is a narrative theologian. He tells the saving story of Jesus. And he invites his congregations into it.

It might be that Hays was onto something even larger than his own initial project caught sight of (or, at least, articulated): by decentering our faithful response, the faithfulness of God in Christ can return to center stage. We can being to creatively reimagine what it means to be the faithful people of God, not as those who believe a certain list in a shared statement of belief, but those who are active participants in the saving story of the crucified Christ.

Not only might we make room for a storied theology, we might make room for a storied identity that gives rise to a faithful, storied ethic.

12 thoughts on “From Faith to Faith”

  1. Great blog post.

    Michael J Gorman treatment of faith in Paul in chapters 6 & 7 of “Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross” came to mind immediately as I read your post. Thanks!

  2. Daniel,

    Thank you for the blog post. I find this to be a helpful approach. Sometimes we can get stuck on arguing over something when it is all we are seeing, but by backing up and gaining a larger picture we may find that things make more sense. The nature of the genitive may go either direction if we focus solely upon the sentence alone, but within Paul’s train of thought there does seem to be good reason for interpreting it to be about Christ’s faithfulness.

  3. If I have faith in Christ, then I will believe what he told us, yes? As Galatians, “… by hearing with faith, as Abraham believed God…” Likewise Acts 16:31-32: the jailer will be saved by belief, and the belief has content which Paul and Silas go on to supply. Of course Jesus had quite a lot to say about how life in the Kingdom should be conducted. How I can connect to my own narrative as a subplot in the greater narrative. “I am saved by doing what God in the Spirit tells me to do” isn’t at all the same thing as “I can know and do by myself what is needful to be saved.”

    Sometimes people seem to talk as if faith in Christ has no content except that Jesus lived his own narrative. Certainly Christ’s faithfulness is important, but there doesn’t seem to be any room for me in that part of the story; it’s all done and finished with. Am I misunderstanding?

    1. Yes, Marshall, we certainly need to get wrapped into the story. That’s actually part of why I want to focus on the story itself.

      The question then becomes, what does faith look like? If Jesus’ faith looks cruciform, must ours as well? There are ways of thinking about faith that make it categorically distinct from doing anything, ways of defining it that make Paul’s phrase, “the obedience of faith” seem like a logical contradiction.

      The focus on Jesus’ narrative invites us, not to create our own narratives, primarily, but to fulfill our union with him in his, or our following of him in his.

      1. Daniel, isn’t it funny, the gen. objective really isn’t objective at all? To be “in Christ” makes it impossible for us to know Christ objectively doesn’t it? Being “in Christ” changes my knowing Him objectively to another kind of knowing (as part of the process of His becoming). This knowledge is different from the common subjective-objective knowing that dominates the sciences (theology as well). It seems to be the gnosis Paul was grasped by and the one he strove to attain more of in Phil.3. Daniel, my question to you is, where are you going with this trajectory? You know, the one where Paul invites others into the redemptive story of Christ? Are you suggesting I might have an actual redemptive responsibility for the world along with Jesus? Are you implying while Jesus defines Christ, Christ is not limited to Jesus? What would be the ramifications of that? I wonder if you are leading us down a rabbit hole out of which we may never be able to climb–into a world where we can never clearly know where God ends and we begin and vice-versa. Honestly, how far do you plan on going with this?

  4. The credal tradition of the early church is also a kind of narrative, or has a certain narrative structure to it. The Apostles’ Creed, for example, moves from creation to everlasting life. It begins “in the beginning” with creation, and ends with everlasting life with God. In that narrative, the God who created “heaven and earth” is the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus, while obviously not complete, emphasizes his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. It really focuses more on his story, what happened to him, than it does on things that the church later came to believe about him. The Spirit and church come next. And so on.

    It is striking how much of what is predicated in the various statement beginning “I believe” is patterned on the life of Jesus: he was conceived by the Spirit, suffered, died, was raised to life, and ascended into heaven where he presently is with the Father. So too, “I believe” in the Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting with God. What happened to Jesus, happens or will happen to me.

    Yes, the creeds articulate beliefs; but they did so in order to tell a different story than one that was being told when they were formulated. In that other story, the God who created the world is not the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Human beings have fallen into this alien world, and they don’t need forgiveness of sins so much as illumination to escape from the mess of physicality. In that world there is (sometimes) no real suffering of Jesus on the cross, and no resurrection of the body.

    The creeds, and especially the Apostles’ Creed, are spare, to be sure, but it is striking how they arise out of one narrative and not another, and how they fund one narrative and not another. For example, in highlighting creation, the suffering of Jesus, and the resurrection of the body, they may not explicitly articulate, but they do lead to a certain ethical disposition that values the physical world and our bodies; perhaps they even suggest a cruciform ethic (we follow a suffering Lord). At least the experience of early Christians, who knew and experienced martyrdom, might find the note their Lord “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” to be somewhat more immediately relevant than we do. In naming God as the Father Almighty, and Jesus as his only Son and our Lord, the creeds show us that the God who created us is also the God who saves us. We are not saved from God, or from the world; we are saved from ourselves. The world is not the problem, in other words: we are, and our sins are.

    When we say “I believe,” we are committing ourselves to trust this God, this Lord, and live in this narrative. That is an act of faith: but I am not saved by believing these things, or this narrative, by the one whose story is told there. So it matters who that is, and what that story is. To be sure, there are certain beliefs that are ruled out by the creeds (thank goodness, I would personally add). The creeds also rule out certain ways of reading the narrative of Scripture (i.e., separating the work of Father and Son, OT from NT, creation from salvation, body from spirit). The creeds provide some hooks to hang the story on; but they were never intended to be a substitute for Scripture itself. (It is still interesting to me in the Episcopal church one regularly recites the creeds, while also hearing much more Scripture – three lessons a Sunday! – than is ever heard and read in most evangelical churches. And the sermon is shorter too.)

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