Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Faithfulness of Jesus

The upcoming lesson in our Sunday School's study of Romans is Chapter 3, verses 21-24. In this scripture passage, at verse 22, we bump into a very interesting translation battle. Here is the entire passage according to the NIV, and I bold the troubling verse:

21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Here is that same passage in the NET Bible, with the verse at issue also bolded:

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. [footnotes, and there are many, omitted]

In N.T. Wright's study of Romans, Paul for Everyone - Romans: Part One, he is on the same side as the NET Bible translators. In the footnote, the NET editors discuss fully the controversy, and Wright refers to it in his little [but so helpful] commentary. Wright diplomatically writes that what he translates as "the faithfulness of Jesus" could be written "faith in Jesus." But it is clear that the former is his choice, as it is the NET editors.

I never really gave much thought to the "faithfulness of Jesus," until I encountered this controversy. What I mean to say is, "Of course, Jesus was faithful. He's the Son of God, after all. He would of course be faithful. He's perfect. So why stop and argue over this particular translation?"

But it made me stop and think about this. Was it possible that Jesus could have been unfaithful? Did Satan simply not get it, when he took the time to tempt Jesus, both in the Wilderness and at Gethsemane? I mean, really, Satan could not be as smart as we might think, if he subjected himself to such humiliation twice. Maybe Jesus could have been unfaithful. Maybe he had the choice.

Think of the reasons why Jesus might have been unfaithful: the world was a mess, everyone was falling short of God's intention for his creation, and even the Jews, especially the Jews, had completely blown it multiple times. Why not simply take over, as Satan suggested and [insert Obamaism referring to what a really great leader does when people are being bad].

But if there was a chance he could have been unfaithful [call it the Man side of him, if it makes you feel better], then the idea that his faithfulness (not ours) is at the heart of the gospel makes a lot of sense. This central truth of Christ's faithfulness very much needs to be transalated correctly.

There is an other side of that point, that Jesus, as a person not burdened with sin, had a choice and could have been unfaithful but decided not to be. The other side is that Christians, as people who have been set free, now, finally, have a choice too. We can choose to be faithful.


The following is from the Preface to the First Edition of the NET Bible and, in particular, that part which describes "some of the distinctive characteristics of the NET Bible translation philosophy." In discussing their "commitment to following the text where it leads and translating it honestly," the NET editors address this very controversy. Here is what they say:

Passages Involving πιίστις Χριστοῦ and Similar Expressions in Paul. The phrase πιίστις Χριστοῦ ( pisti Cristou) is a difficult one to translate. The issue centers on the relationship of the genitive noun Χριστοῦ to the head noun πιίστις: is the genitive subjective or objective? That is, is the emphasis of this phrase on Christ as the one who exercises faith (subjective) or on Christ as the one in whom others have faith (objective)? Traditionally these phrases have been interpreted emphasizing Christ as the object of faith; “faith in Jesus Christ” is the traditional translation. However, in recent years an increasing number of New Testament scholars are arguing from both the grammatical and theological contexts that πιίστις Χριστοῦ and similar phrases in Paul (Rom 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16, 20; 3:22; Eph 3:12; Phil 3:9) involve a subjective genitive and emphasize Christ as the one who exercises faith: “the faithfulness of Christ.” A wider glance at the use of the noun πιίστις in the rest of the New Testament shows that when it takes a personal genitive that genitive is almost never objective. Certainly faith in Christ is a Pauline concept, but Bible scholars have begun to see that in Paul’s theological thought there is also an emphasis on Christ as one who is faithful and therefore worthy of our faith. The grammatical and theological contexts are not decisive, and either translation is acceptable. The editors decided to follow the subjective genitive view because a decision had to be made – “faith of Christ,” a literal translation, communicates very little to the average reader in the context – and because scholarship in this area is now leaning toward this view. The question is certainly not closed, however, and if further research indicates that the grammatical or theological context proves decisive for the other view, the translation will be modified to reflect that.

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