The journey continues (3): gleaning genitive gems

The previous article in this series is Analyzing the Authorities.

Imagine landing on a remote deserted island with a small group of people. To your delight, you encounter unknown exotic plants, fruits and animals. Probably before too long names will be assigned. Will your group create names by appearance, smell, function or something else?

In a similar way, grammarians enter the world of language identifying how words function and relate to each other within sentences. Labels are assigned describing these characteristics.

In my journey, I learned Greek alters the forms of its nouns, pronouns and adjectives by sticking little suffix flags on them to indicate their function and relationship within a particular sentence. Neat eh? One of these suffix forms, the genitive, lies at the heart of the controversy swirling around the “faith of Christ.”

The Nature of the Genitive

Here is some of what I’ve learned. The genitive case can enable a noun or pronoun to describe another noun by limiting it or separating it from other possibilities. Here’s how this works. If someone were to say, “Frank gave a gift,” the gift might be anything. Right?

However in the sentence, “Frank gave a gift of money,” now we have descriptive information limiting what the gift was. The gift was not a book nor a rose. The gift was money. In Greek, the word money would be in the genitive case to show that it is specifying what the gift was. It was a gift of money. To communicate a genitive in English, we use “of.”

When a person or pronoun is in the genitive case, such as in the phrase the ball of Tom, the genitive “of Tom” specifies which ball is being described. It is Tom’s ball, not anyone else’s ball. In this case, the descriptive limitation reveals possession. Grammarians might label this as a possessive genitive.

Paying attention to context, grammarians might label other specific genitive usages as a genitive of time (“middle of night” Matthew 25:6), genitive of relationship (“mother of Joses” Mark 15:47) and so forth. When they assign such labels, they use their analytical insight to provide their understanding. However, the Greek itself does not use some form to distinguish between a genitive of possession and one of time.

Objective & Subjective Genitives

In the phrase “the love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:14; Ephesians 3:19), “of Christ” limits the love being described. Although we know this is a love related to Christ, without a context, ambiguity exists. It could refer to someone exemplifying a Christlike love (objective genitive). Or it might refer to the love Christ possessed (subjective genitive). Only a reader with clear insight into the context will be able to determine what the author intended.

Similarly, does the “gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38; 10:45) specify a gift the Spirit gives (objective genitive) or is the Spirit himself the gift (subjective genitive)? Once again, only an accurate understanding of the context can determine this.

Now imagine what would happen if a grammarian does not believe in the indwelling of the Spirit or perhaps if another does support the Spirit’s indwelling. That theology could shape what they would publish about these verses!

Faith Of Christ

All of this brings us to the debate swirling around Paul’s nine occurrences of “faith of Christ” and its equivalent expressions found in Romans 3:22,26; Ephesians 3:12; Galatians 2:16,20; 3:22; and Philippians 3:9. Are we to understand these as subjective genitives, namely Christ’s faith? Or should we understand them as objective genitives, a Christ kind of faith?

When it comes to an objective genitive interpretation, no one is willing to go with the most natural understanding. Who is going to claim that these verses assert people can possess a faith like Christ’s? Yikes!

Instead, those who support an objective genitive interpretation suggest that for this phrase to specify a faith associated with Christ, this must be our faith “inChrist. Under the heading Objective Genitive, the grammar by Blass, Debrunner and Funk categorizes Romans 3:22 as an example of “dative expressions.” At first, this seems reasonable enough.

However, to impose this function ceases to describe faith (genitive). Instead it enters the realm of locating where our faith is placed. The idea of where is handled by a different Greek case, the dative (or the locative in an eight case system).

In my journey, questions surfaced:

Since Paul readily uses the dative case to indicate our faith in Christ, why use an unnatural understanding of the genitive to try to communicate the dative idea? What within the context demands an objective genitive interpretation?

Why should we ignore the primary meanings for both the objective and subjective genitive to embrace an unusual one?

Since the phrase “faith of _(Abraham, you, etc.)_” consistently refers to that person’s faith and not the faith of others in them, why treat “faith of Christ” differently? (Romans 4:16; James 2:18).

The normal is to be preferred over the exceptional.

The next article in this series is The Data Depot

The following two tabs change content below.

Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

Latest posts by Barry Newton (see all)

Share your thoughts: