Pistis (Faith) Conversations in New Testament Scholarship

Nijay K. Gupta

Mark Twain once said, wryly, “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.” Many Christians, including myself, would have much to disagree with in Twain’s description, but one thing he got right about virtually all modern readers of the English Bible—they assume that “faith” is about “beliefs.” Now, there must be some connection between “faith” and “belief”—hence the historical Christians creeds begin with credo, “I believe in.” But is there more to faith than belief?

While this is an “evergreen” conversation in biblical and theological studies, several significant studies have been published in the last decade or so on faith language in the New Testament and its world. Two broader conversations that have inspired these works are “divine and human agency” in the Bible and the infamous pistis Christou debate. Divine and human agency involves questions about how biblical writers imagine and construe what roles humans play in religion and salvation, and what roles divine agents play. In the past, scholars have focused on keywords and concepts like law, works, justification/righteousness, covenant, and grace. But lately it seems that the Greek terminology pistis (often translated as faith) has been pushed into the spotlight.

Faith in Action

If Twain’s pithy soundbite had a modern nemesis, it would be Teresa Morgan. Morgan wrote a major tome in 2016 called Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Church (Oxford University Press). Morgan’s study is wide-ranging, almost encyclopedic, but by the time one finishes the book, it is clear that in Paul’s time pistis pointed to a social quality in most of its usage: “it is inherently relational and characteristically expressed in action towards other human beings” (472). Therefore, it would be natural, even necessary, to translate pistis often as “loyalty,” “faithfulness,” or “allegiance.” This is a crucial insight as we think about biblical faith language, because many readers of the Bible today have learned the false notion that “faith” is the opposite of doing, and that doing leads to the sin of works-righteousness.

A kind of precursor to Morgan’s work can be found in Zeba Crook’s monograph, Reconceptualizing Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean (de Gruyter, 2004), especially Crook’s fifth chapter on patronage and benefaction. Crook argues that, today, we tend to view religious “conversion” as primarily a psychological phenomenon, involving changing of “beliefs” as we move from one religion to another. But when the New Testament writers engaged with “conversion” they viewed it as having a core social dynamic, namely, the shifting of one’s loyalties (i.e., pistis) from one group to another. Conversion was not simply about adopting new beliefs; rather, it included severing ties to old communities, patrons, and “friends,” and adopting new social ties and allegiances. Conversion, for all intents and purposes, was as much a social phenomenon as it was a personal belief.

Neither Crook’s nor Morgan’s work is meant to leave personal beliefs completely out of the equation of religious formation, experience, or expression. Rather, their works seek to examine as carefully and as accurately as possible the meaning of pistis as it was commonly used in the ancient world. Broad usage simply refutes any idea that pistis was simply about “belief.” It was generally understood that this was a relational word. To get up to speed on the conversation about the meaning of pistis, I encourage you to read Matthew Bates’ 2020 article in Currents in Biblical Research: “The External-Relational Shift in Faith (Pistis) in New Testament Research: Romans 1 as Gospel-Allegiance Test Case.” Also, check out Peter Oakes’s important article, “Pistis as Relational Way of Life in Galatians,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 40 (2018): 255–75.

Faith, Allegiance, and King Jesus

Within the body of scholarship on faith language in the New Testament produced in the last decade, no work has made a bigger splash in the life of the church than Matthew W. Bates’s provocatively titled book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Baker Academic, 2016). In June of 2015, Matt emailed me out of the blue—we hadn’t known each other well before that—and told me he would be visiting family in Portland, Oregon, where I live. Matt told me he was publishing a book related to pistis and wanted to chat with me, since he knew I was also working on a book on pistis. We met for burgers and talked pistis. Little did we know his book would drop like a bombshell. Bates, much in line with Crook and Morgan (though not dependent on either of them for his ideas), made the case that the expected human response to the gospel according to the New Testament is not “faith,” if by that one means mental assent or affirmation of certain concepts like the Trinity or the resurrection of the body. Bates argues that it is much more appropriate to translate pistis as “allegiance,” the language of loyalty and commitment that is fitting for a message about following a king (Jesus).

One of the missing pieces, then, of the equation of how we interpret pistis in the New Testament involves how we understand Jesus, not just as savior, but also Lord and King. Bates explains, “We need to recover Jesus’s kingship as a central, nonnegotiable constituent of the gospel. Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of ‘faith’ (pistis) as ‘allegiance’ in relation to salvation. Jesus as king is the primary object word which our saving ‘faith’—that is, our allegiance—is directed” (67). Bates has a book trilogy planned, and his second book has already come out: Gospel Allegiance (Brazos, 2019) where he further explores the dimensions and dynamics of this “faith as allegiance” proposal.

Faith Language in Paul

You might not be surprised to know that the lion’s share of attention in the recent pistis conversations in scholarship has been given to Paul’s language and formulations. Over the past half century, the so-called pistis Christou debate is responsible for much of that discussion. (We will return to pistis Christou a bit later.) But there have been a few outliers, like the chapter on “The Meaning of Faith in Paul’s Gospel” in Douglas Campbell’s monograph, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel (T&T Clark, 2005). In many ways, Campbell was a precursor to Morgan’s “external-relational” approach to pistis, though this aspect of Campbell’s book received little attention since it was not one of the key points of his book.

Another important discussion of Paul’s faith language appeared in Michael Gorman’s Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (Eerdmans, 2015). One can see how Gorman was anticipating Bates’s work when Gorman writes, “[A]lready in the first Christian century the apostle Paul wanted the communities he addressed not merely to believe the gospel but to become the gospel, and in so doing to participate in the very life and mission of God” (2). Part of Gorman’s argument involves Paul’s advocacy for the virtues of faith, hope, and love (1 Thess 1:3). Faith, hope, and love were not just teachings Paul handed over on paper for them to memorize for a theology test. Rather, “for Paul God is a missional God, the one whose goal is to impart this faithfulness, love, and hope to humanity so that human beings come to share in the life and character of God” (65).

In 2019, Jeanette Pifer published her University of Durham dissertation, entitled Faith as Participation: An Exegetical Study of Some Key Pauline Texts (Mohr Siebeck). As the title suggests, Pifer urges that for Paul, pistis is not primarily about thinking or believing, though such things are not left out either. Primarily Paul was referring to a relational dynamic of participating in Christ, what she calls “self-involvement,” which also includes “self-negation.” A key text for Pifer is Gal 2:20 as pistis refers to becoming one with Christ in cruciformity, which necessarily includes negation of self (“I no longer live”). In her own words, “Faith is self-negating when the believer looks away from the self, discovering his or her insufficiency, weakness, and neediness” (219). This leads to reliance on Christ through pistis-participation: “As a responsive, and not an autonomous, act, faith is a continuous surrender to and dependence on the gospel” (219).

Just about the time that Pifer released her monograph, I also published a book called Paul and the Language of Faith (Eerdmans, 2020). My research question was similar to Pifer’s: What does Paul mean when he uses the language of pistis? I agree with Pifer that pistis often has a relational, participatory orientation in Paul. But I take a bit of a different approach to pistis in general than Bates and Pifer. I argue that pistis is an elastic term in Greek, able to cover a range of meanings depending on the situation. I mark out three common uses of pistis language: believing faith (which has a more cognitive orientation), obeying faith (which is close to “allegiance”), and trusting faith (which is a kind of “kitchen sink” use that covers the whole spectrum from belief to obedience). One has to discern, in each usage, where the author (in this case Paul) falls on that spectrum in his rhetorical statement.

Another key argument in my book is that around the time of Jesus and Paul, Jews started to use pistis as a way of referring to relationships of goodwill, mutual benefit, and obligation, which aligns closely with Jewish covenant. The fact is, Jews did not use the language of covenant much in the Second Temple Period, so I surmise that pistis became a way of talking about that. If that is true, it has some interesting implications for Paul’s usage.

A final key study that is worth bringing to your attention—again published recently (2020), is David J. Downs’s and Benjamin J. Lappenga’s The Faithfulness of the Risen Christ: Pistis and the Exalted Lord in the Pauline Letters (Baylor University Press, 2020). This is a book that resurrects (pun intended!) the pistis Christou conversation, but genuinely offers a fresh approach. While some argue for the objective genitive reading (pistis Christou as “faith in Christ”), and others prefer the subjective genitive reading (“faithfulness of Christ” in his life-giving death), Downs and Lappenga put a new spin on the subjective genitive: pistis Christou as the “faithfulness of the risen and exalted Christ.” They do not see the “faithfulness of Christ” as a one-and-done action of Christ in the past, according to Paul. They view it as the risen-and-reigning Christ’s continuing faithfulness toward all those who participate in him by pistis.

(If you need to catch up on the pistis Christou conversation, check out the important essay collection edited by Michael F. Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle, The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies [Baker Academic, 2009].) Also, I have a status quaestionis essay called “Paul and Pistis Christou,” in the Oxford Handbook of Pauline Studies, ed. M. Barry Matlock and Matthew V. Novenson (Oxford University Press, 2021).

Final Words

If you haven’t paid attention to the lively conversations about pistis and faith in the New Testament, there is no time like the present! The best place to start is Bates’s Salvation by Allegiance Alone. If you want a more challenging, but highly rewarding study, read Roman Faith and Christian Faith by Morgan. And I hope you will take a look at my own Paul and the Language of Faith. I am fascinated by the fact that many of us working on this subject did our research independently (without even knowing who else was asking the same questions), yet we all came to similar conclusions. Truly there has been a revolution taking place, overturning the assumption that faith is equated with “belief,” and supporting the more relational, participatory, and missional nature of this language, especially in Paul’s letters. ¡Viva la revolución!

Posted Apr 07, 2021