More about what I believe

I said in my previous post that I thought that perhaps there was another way to translate the scriptures which appear to state that in order to be saved we need a personal faith in Jesus Christ. I’m sorry if you’re fed up with me banging on about Greek - but here I go again!

I think Western Christianity has, in some ways, ‘painted itself into a corner’ by the insistence on ‘salvation by faith’ (by which we mean ‘faith in Christ’) - which can lead us into the ‘slavery’ of it mattering how ‘strong’ our faith is - for instance, if our prayers aren’t answered in the affirmative, it’s because we didn’t have enough faith. It can also tempt us into a place where it seems as though we can almost control (or manipulate?) God by our belief and our actions: ‘If I pray hard enough, I’m sure God will honour that and…' So, surely, something must be wrong with that interpretation?

In Romans 3:22 (an almost identical phrase also occurs in Galatians 2:16, and the following discussion also applies to that verse) we read:

“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ...(NIV)

The bit in question is “...through faith in Jesus Christ...

There’s a footnote in most NIVs with an ‘alternative reading’:

through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ...

The footnote is quite significant. Depending which reading you believe to be correct, effectively it means that our righteousness either depends on the strength of our faith, or else it’s all down to Christ’s faithfulness. I prefer the latter reading, for several reasons. Firstly, it removes any need for ‘works’ on our part - we don't have to ‘try’ to have enough faith; we needn’t be afraid when we doubt or when we feel really ‘down’ and God feels distant - with that reading we just don’t need to worry because the entire onus is on God rather than us.

Translating the Greek at this point isn’t easy - that’s why there’s more than one possible reading.

... δικαιοσύνη δὲ Θεοῦ διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ...

... dikaiosyne de Theou dia pisteos Iesou Christou ...

... righteousness now God through faith/faithfulness Jesus Christ ...

'dia pisteos Iesou' is what’s called a genitive constructive - it’s a phrase showing possession, most commonly rendered in English by an ’s. The problem in translating this Greek genitive constructive, is that there’s no way (other than context) to tell whether it’s subjective or objective - in other words, depending on context, it could mean either ‘faith in Jesus’ or ‘faithfulness of Jesus’.

Until the reformation, it was always assumed to be ‘faithfulness of Jesus’ (and that persisted, a bit, in some later translations - that’s the wording in the early King James Version for example). But ‘faithfulness of Jesus’ doesn’t really suit the ‘justification by faith’ arguments started by Luther and brought to full flowering by Calvin during the Reformation, so they decided it ought to be ‘faith in Jesus’ - and we’ve been more or less stuck (in the Western churches at least - the East stuck with the old reading) with that reading for the last five hundred years.

The context though, suggests quite strongly that it ought to be ‘faithfulness of’ - which fits the rest of the wording around it much better… Although obviously it doesn’t fit reformed theology, especially Calvinism, anything like as well. Contemporary biblical scholars, amongst them such luminaries as Tom Wright and Douglas Campbell, are arguing nowadays in favour of the subjective option - ‘faithfulness of Christ’.

If the latter translation is correct, that then removes all agency, and all responsibility, for salvation from us - it becomes a matter of pure grace. Once it becomes ‘faithfulness of’ rather than ‘faith in’, then how much (or how little) we do, what we say (or don’t say), how weak or strong our faith is, etc., cease to matter - because then salvation is entirely a gift from God. That makes us truly free to live our lives with, and for, God, without concern as to whether we have enough faith…

‘If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed’. John 8:36

We in the West don’t do well with stuff for which we haven’t had to pay for or strive to achieve - we say we like ‘free stuff’, but actually, we’re really bad at receiving it, especially if it’s something valuable, and if we can ‘dress it up’ to look either as though it’s ‘transactional’ or as though we’ve had to put some effort in, we’re far more comfortable…

But…

The ‘heavenly economy’ doesn‘t, in my experience, work that way at all. And part of ‘being transformed from degree of glory to degree of glory’ (2 Corinthians 3:18) is learning to embrace that new way of thinking and being - learning to accept the gift of grace for just what it is - the ultimate expression of love.

Our faith ‘fluctuating’ really doesn’t matter if it is ‘faithfulness of’ instead of ‘faith in’. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but really, nothing we do has any impact on how much God loves us, nor how much grace he extends towards us. 1 John 4 tells us that ‘God is love’…And so it seems to me that there are no ifs, buts or maybes about it. That being the case, we have nothing whatsoever to worry about.

Lastly, a thought occurred to me… I think these ideas link strongly to those in Romans 8:38-9:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In view of our salvation being entirely the work of God, our lack of faith is one of those many things which is unable to separate us from the love of God! Ultimately, as it says in Romans 3:23-24 (and lots of other places!), and to which I keep returning, I believe everyone will be saved (not, as some would have it, from the wrath of God, but from ourselves and our foolishness):

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

The belief in ‘ἀποκαταστάσεως πάντων’ (apokatastasis panton) - the restoration of all things (or all people) is very ancient. The words come from Acts 3:21:

Heaven must receive him {Christ} until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.

It was the majority view for the first several hundred years of the church’s existence - many of the most prominent of the church fathers were firm believers in it. It only began to be supplanted by views most of us are much more familiar with, around the time of St Augustine - a figure revered in the West, but many of whose ideas have always been much less readily accepted in the East, where he is quite a divisive figure. Personally, I believe that scripture shows very much more support for an inclusive message of universal restoration than it does for the ‘exclusive’ views of Augustine and those following him in which only a few find their way to God… Views which I needn't describe in detail, because they’re all too familiar to most of us.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022