I had the great honor of asking Dr. Nijay K. Gupta, a prolific author and respected New Testament scholar, a few questions about his latest release, Paul and the Language of Faith (foreword by James Dunn). Dealing with whether or not English translations do justice to the layered meaning of the Greek word pistis, this is a well written and important read. My questions are in bold.
Can you give readers a brief summary of Paul and the Language of Faith?
Nijay: This book attempts to engage with Pauline theology and especially conversations around “divine and human agency in Paul” by looking at Paul’s faith language in depth. I argue that it is misleading when English translations only or primarily use the word “faith” to convey the meaning of the elastic noun pistis. I explain that pistis can convey many different shades of meaning depending on the context. Sometimes it is best to translate it as “faith” (focusing on cognitive formation), but other times “faithfulness” or “allegiance” (as a social virtue). And maybe “trust” (the will’s commitment) on other occasions.
I also argue that Jews became comfortable in the first century CE using pistis as a way of talking about a covenantal relationship with God, a relationship that includes pledges of mutuality, goodwill, and commitment. This opens up new ways of looking at Paul’s use of pistis—I especially draw that aspect out in the study of Galatians and Romans.
Why did Paul and the Language of Faith need to be written? What are your hopes for it in regards to Christians, the Church, and everyday living?
Nijay: One of the major reasons that I wrote this book was to move churches and scholars away from overly simplistic notions of “faith.” Some scholars get caught up in arguing, sometimes, that human faith is “passive” or the opposite of working. Other scholars believe that Paul tends to use pistis to talk about Christ’s faithfulness, not human faithfulness. This often leaves no space for a robust theology of human participation in God’s work. I wanted to revisit all of that and rethink some of these views and assumptions.
For Christians today, I want to communicate that Paul’s faith language is deeply relational, focusing on participating in a covenantal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This might seem obvious, but often we treat “faith” as a matter of “holding” doctrines. Sound teaching is important, but when Paul talked about “faith” (pistis), he primarily had in mind oneness with God through Christ expressed in relationship.
Why do you think it is that mainstream English translations tend to translate pistis as “faith?” What do we miss out on when this happens?
Nijay: Part of this is the power of tradition – we are used to this “Christian-ese” language. But that is part of the problem. You get so used to it, it loses its meaning and depth. I also believe translators are a bit allergic to translating pistis as “faithfulness” because this might seem to lead to works righteousness. But if we tie pistis to covenant, we are in a good place to think about relationships of mutuality where faithfulness or allegiance is entirely appropriate.
Regarding everyday living, does it really matter if we translate pistis as “faith” or “faithfulness,” or “trust?” Is this another example of merely squabbling over semantics?
Nijay: Sometimes it is hard to decide if pistis should be translated “faith” or “trust” or “faithfulness,” because these English words have meanings that blend into one another. But if I wanted to ensure that two ideas were clear in English translations of Paul, it would be that (1) pistis is often used as something active and related to “doing” (Gal 5:6), and (2) pistis often focuses on connection and commitment in relationship (in the case of Paul, in reference to relating to Jesus Christ). When Paul was concerned with “faith,” he was caring about their trust in and commitment to God in Jesus Christ. We tend to think of “faith” as doctrine, “beliefs,” or religion (as in “faith” traditions), but for Paul it was all about a person—Jesus (see Gal 3:23, 25).
You seem to challenge the notion that faith is to always be seen as passive in contrast with works. The idea of faith as passive is quite prevalent in evangelical circles, evident in sermons, gospel presentations, even songs. Why do you reject the dichotomy of faith and works, of passivity vis-à-vis activity?
Nijay: First of all, there are clear places where faith and doing belong together (1 Thess 1:3). Secondly, when Paul did juxtapose faith and works (e.g., Gal 2; Rom 4), he wasn’t treating faith as passive. Rather, he was concerned with anything, even works, that would distract from the focus on trusting in and clinging to Christ. It is like marriage.
In a marriage, you vow to do things, but the substance of the marriage isn’t the activities, but the relationship of love and trust.
Some are uneasy with the notion described above, fearing that it runs the risk of tampering with things that shouldn’t be tampered with, and could require a complete overhaul of evangelicalism, or that this could reverse the hard work of the Reformation. Are such concerns valid? How would you respond?
Nijay: If you read the Reformers, they were all about ad fontes, go back to the sources (i.e, the Bible). That is what I am advocating too. Those scholars, like me, who promote translating pistis (often) as “faithfulness” are not trying to undermine the doctrine of justification. I am trying to point to the covenantal nature of Paul’s faith. And what we learn in the OT is that covenants are relationships that involve goodwill (or grace) and mutuality. And that mutuality includes faithfulness. My own faithfulness or devotion to Christ, for example, doesn’t lead me to believe I can save myself. My only true hope in life and death is to hold on tightly to the Jesus who has given his life for me. I can believe in the unique grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ and pledge my full devotion to God as an expectation of this relationship.
Thank you for your time!
Blogging regularly at Crux Sola, New Testament and Pauline scholar Nijay Gupta is the co-editor of The State of New Testament Studies (2019, co-edited by Scot McKnight) as well as 1 and 2 Thessalonians (2019) in the Zondervan Critical Introductions to the New Testament series. He is the co-author of the forthcoming Philippians commentary (New Cambridge Bible Commentary, co-authored with Michael F. Bird) set to be released this summer. He is also the author of The Beginners Guide to New Testament Studies. Dr. Gupta currently teaches at Portland Seminary at George Fox University, but in the summer will be joining the faculty of Northern Seminary.