Get Thee Behind Me, Subjective Genitive
"The argument for the subjective genitive reading is so weak as to qualify as one of the 'emperor has no clothes' variety." (Philip Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 157)If Hell exists, I wouldn't be surprised if there's a special bolgia reserved for advocates of the subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou (Rom 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16, 20; Gal 3:22; Philip 3:9). Over a year ago I explained why "faith in Christ" is the better translation, and why "the faith(fulness) of Christ" is a house of cards, but this demon won't be exorcised so easily. It's time to revisit, taking Stephen Carlson's bait, with a five-point summary against the exegetical fad.
"[Advocates of the subjective genitive] are bringing out something that is potential within Pauline thought, but that Paul himself did not develop." (Stephen Finlan, The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition, p 113)
"The subjective genitive reading is like it sounds: subjective, speculative, and self-indulgently faddish. The objective genitive reading is also like it sounds: objective, plausible, and nicely in touch with the historical Paul." (Loren Rosson, The Busybody)
(1.) Let's look at the crucial text of Rom 3:21-26. It sits between two sections that contrast human activity. The former (1:18-3:20) is about human sin, human works. The latter (3:27-31) contrasts human faith over against all of this boasting and works. The middle section of 3:21-26 thus tells people what to believe in order to achieve this faith. Likewise, a believer's faith (not Christ's) is the focus of Romans 4. Abraham's trust is emphasized, and believers are to follow the example of his faith (Rom 4:12), not Christ's. Abraham believed the initial promise, and believers may now believe in the content of that promise (Christ). The stress of Rom 4, as Stephen Finlan has argued, is on believing the promise. To share the faith of Abraham (Rom 4:16) is to believe in Christ (the promise).
* Richard Hays (the pioneer of the subjective genitive reading) thinks it is puzzling to say that God's justice would be revealed through human believing. To him, God's righteousness could only have been shown forth by an act of God -- the death of Jesus -- and so Paul is contrasting the faithful Jesus with the rebellious humans of Rom 1:18-3:20; "God put forward as a sacrifice the one perfectly faithful human being." But it isn't puzzling at all to say that God's righteousness is revealed through human belief as a natural response to grace (Rom 3:24), and thus that "God put forward Jesus as a sacrifice effective through faith". Hays' objection is a non-argument, as far as I'm concerned.(2.) Ironically, advocates of the subjective genitive need to rely heavily on the transformation doctrine of Rom 5-8, where Paul speaks of copying or imitating the savior -- dying with Christ, dying to sin, etc. But it is precisely in this section where Paul does not mention "faith" (aside briefly in 5:1), let alone pistis Christou! He never contrasts Christ's faith with any disbelief of Adam's ("something that would be crying out to be said, if the 'faith of Christ' were the focus of salvation", notes Stephen Finlan), only Christ's obedience vs. Adam's disobedience. Rom 3:21-4:25 and Rom 9:30-10:21 are about faith: what people must do in order to be saved. Rom 5-8 is about mystical union with the savior: what people do naturally as a result of being called. (In Galatians the categories mesh briefly (2:19-21).)
* Douglas Campbell argues that the faith claims of Rom 3-4 & Rom 9-10 should be read through the participationist language of Rom 5-8, which is the heart of Paul's gospel. While I agree that Rom 5-8 is most important for the retrospective angle, it doesn't follow that its entire content can be aggressively imposed on the justification language implied by the term pistis Christou in Rom 3, or even by the more general faith-claims made throughout Rom 3-4 and Rom 9-10. (And it certainly doesn't follow that Rom 2-4 can be drastically rewritten to square with the same thrust of Rom 5-8.) As Stephen Finlan notes (see the citation at the top of this posting), advocates of the subjective genitive are bringing out a potential of Pauline thought, but it's something Paul never developed. Put simply: that Paul's participationist language is compatible with a subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou doesn't make that reading of pistis Christou correct.(3.) For that reading is plainly wrong. If the subjective genitive were really what Paul had in mind when speaking directly about faith, we would expect him to have used (at least once, surely) Christ as the subject of the verb "believe"/"have faith", but as Thomas Tobin points out (Paul's Rhetoric in its Contexts, p 132), that never happens in the 42 places the verb is found in his letters. On the other hand, Paul used Christ as the object of the verb in clear cases (Rom 9:33, 10:11). And if exegetes then desperately insist that the verb should be translated one way ("believe"/"trust"), the noun another ("faithfulness"), then they will have to contend with Francis Watson's demolition of that distinction (Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, pp 241-244), based on the evidence of Paul's scriptural interpretations in Rom 4:1-12 and 9:30-10:21 -- where noun and verb are seen to be interchangeable; "believing" and the response of "faith" one and the same. This point alone shows how flimsy the subjective genitive reading is.
(4.) There is the glaring and embarrassing fact that later church fathers never read Paul in terms of the subjective genitive. Michael Whitenton thinks he has demonstrated otherwise, and we'll have to await his article to see what he makes of this business. But for now, this fact stands as a serious strike against the subjective genitive reading. [Edit: See comments below. I misunderstood Michael's thesis. He's talking about the earlier apostolic fathers (and not how they read Paul per se) rather than later church fathers (who did in fact read Paul with the objective genitive). So this point will remain standing in any case.]
(5.) Finally, a more oblique point. When confronted with faddish readings of the bible, we must always ask what agendas are being served. Here are a few (with thanks to Stephen Carlson for the third). (a) Hyper-Protestant phobias: if "faithfulness" (or "fidelity") is the natural response to an elective call made by God, then the subjective genitive reading allows one to put to bed the fear that "faith" is a work. (b) Proto-Arianism: if Christ is more a role-model (whose faith(fulness) is to be followed) than a deity (to have faith in), then the subjective genitive reading allows one to think of Jesus as a buddy/brother more than the proto-trinitarian Father Paul truly believed in. (c) New frontiers, new paradigms: it could just be that some (especially Duke scholars, in this case) are in love with new paradigms which allow them to read Paul completely on their own terms outside the confines of Reformationist categories; but like it or not -- and the same can be said against the New Perspective -- Luther was not wholly in error. Largely in error, yes, but not entirely.