Perhaps your experiences are similar to mine. As a young adolescent reading a King James Bible, I would occasionally stumble upon the phrase “faith of Christ,” as in Galatians 2:16. Since I had never heard anything about the faith of Christ, this phrase seemed to be an incomprehensible anomaly. After all, we were the ones who needed to have faith!
I smiled a sense of relief when I later discovered that other translations rendered this phrase as “faith in Christ.” However, my journey did not end here. This was only the beginning. Here’s the first few milestones from my journey as well as a few initial suggestions.
While taking Greek in high school, I learned that this language alters the forms of its nouns and pronouns by sticking little flags on them. There are four different types of suffixes to indicate the function for a noun or pronoun. Neat eh?
I learned that if I encountered a masculine noun ending with “ou,” we should translate it with “of ___” or “from ___.” I was taught this form was called the genitive case. However, if that masculine noun ended in a “w” with a small iota under it, then we should translate it as “in ___,” “with ___,” or “to ___.” The teacher called this form the dative case.
Later during my college days I came across those verses in the Greek where the KJV contained “faith of Christ.” To my dismay, the word for Christ ended with an “ou,” not a “w” with an iota subscript. This meant they should be translated as “faith of Christ,” not “faith in Christ.”
However, I was reassured that “faith in Christ” was the proper translation when an objective genitive modifies faith. When expert testimony agrees with what you already believe to be true, it is easy to accept.
However, the disconcerting evidence continued to mount. First, a well-known preacher and commentator, Burton Coffman, wrote in his commentary on Romans, “The true scriptural justification ‘ by faith’ has no reference at all to the faith of stinking sinners, but to the ‘faith of the Son of God.’ … the faith of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the scriptures is the legitimate ground of justification because Christ’s faith was perfect.” I began to wonder, if the popular understanding is as clear cut as I had been led to believe, why did Coffman accept an opposing view?
Many will recognize the name Everett Ferguson. I have always appreciated his careful scholarship. Then I came across his comments in his book, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology. “The decision in individual passages does not greatly affect the overall understanding of New Testament teaching. … Even if all the passages speaking of ‘the faith of Christ’ refer to Christ’s faith, there are many passages remaining where righteousness is connected with human faith.”
I determined this was a subject I could not afford to ignore any longer. I needed to investigate it for myself.
Some initial questions came to mind. If Greek provides a clear way to write “faith in Christ” using the dative case, why would an author use the obscure method of an objective genitive? Is it legitimate to translate an objective genitive with “in” or is this a case of special pleading by a predetermined theological outlook? Do these “faith of Christ” phrases appear in vastly different contexts or are they tied to certain contexts? Might this suggest translating them one way or the other? What about the early Greek Christian writers? Did they also use this expression and if so, how?
Before pushing deeper into this subject, here are some initial observations about what it would mean even if the New Testament references to “the faith of Christ” designate Christ’s faith.
- They would not diminish our need to place our faith in Christ since many other verses teach we must have faith in Christ.
- They would enrich our understanding of the role Jesus’ life and death played in providing our salvation. We already know his righteous and sinless life enabled him to die on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:18-19).
With this being the case, the question becomes can we determine what Paul intended to communicate?