ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ in the Apostolic Fathers

So I’m thinking of doing some posts on πίστις Χριστοῦ in the apostolic fathers. I’m rather interested to see how the early Fathers understood the now controversial phrase, which can be understood as either “faith in Jesus Christ” or “faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” This is a huge debate in Pauline scholarship right now. I’m tentatively in the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” camp, though I haven’t really read enough of either side. I’ve run some searches through accordance to see what I could find. One particularly interesting bit came in chapter 1 of Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians. I’ll post the Greek and English here (Michael Holmes’s translation).

“Γνοὺς ὑμῶν τὸ πολυεύτακτον τῆς κατὰ θεὸν ἀγάπης, ἀγαλλιώμενος, προειλάμην ἐν πίστει Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ προσλαλῆσαι ὑμῖν.
καταξιωθεὶς γὰρ ὀνόματος θεοπρεπεστάτου, ἐν οἷς περιφέρω δεσμοῖς ᾄδω τὰς ἐκκλησίας, ἐν αἷς ἕνωσιν εὔχομαι σαρκὸς καὶ πνεύματος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, τοῦ διὰ παντὸς ἡμῶν ζῆν, πίστεώς τε καὶ ἀγάπης, ἧς οὐδὲν προκέκριται, τὸ δὲ κυριώτερον, Ἰησοῦ καὶ πατρός·
ἐν ᾧ ὑπομένοντες τὴν πᾶσαν ἐπήρειαν τοῦ ἄρχοντος τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου καὶ διαφυγόντες θεοῦ τευξόμεθα.”

1) “When I learned how well ordered your love toward God is, I rejoiced and resolved to address you in the faith of Jesus Christ.
2) For inasmuch as I have been judged worthy to bear a most godly name, in these chains that I bear I sing the praises of the churches, and I pray that in them there may be a union of flesh and spirit that comes from Jesus Christ, our never-failing life, and of faith and love, to which nothing is preferable, and—what is more important—of Jesus and the Father.
In him we will reach God, if we patiently endure all the abuse of the ruler of this age and escape.”

Whenever I try to resolve this question, I feel the weight of my Greek ignorance! I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough to make a reliable judgment on the basis of grammar and syntax, but hopefully I can appeal somewhat to theology and context (two things I can do a bit better than Greek thankfully ;-) ).

Holmes here translates the first bolded phrase as “address you in the faith of Jesus Christ.” To me, this reading sounds like it’s focused on doctrine. “I address you as one who believes the correct things about Jesus.” I don’t think that’s the best way to understand the phrase though. (One thing to do would be to look and see if Ignatius uses “faith” as a short way of saying “Christianity.” He may, though I can’t think of any off the top of my head). I think a better way to render the phrase is “by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” with the rest of the chapter as supporting context.

My primary reasons here come from the beginning and end of verse 2. In the beginning of the verse, Ignatius writes, “in these chains I bear, I sing the praises of the churches.” I think the echo is a liturgical one; he’s drawing on the practice of singing together during the Eucharist. The next line follows the “song” with a prayer for the unity of the Church. The liturgy, as Ignatius understood it, was fundamentally participatory. In the Eucharist, the Church shared in the broken body and shed blood of Jesus (according to 1 Cor 10:14-17). This supports a “faithfulness of Jesus” reading because Ignatius is participating in the faithfulness of Christ. He is able to address this church only because of Christ’s faithfulness. In suffering for him, Ignatius shares in his sufferings, and thus shares in Jesus’ faithfulness.

This point is reinforced by the final part of the verse, where Ignatius writes, “In him we will reach God, if we patiently endure all the abuse of the ruler of this age and escape.” The exhortation here is to faithful sufferings, but the basis is participatory: “in him we will reach…” Because of the echoes to the liturgy and to faithful suffering, I think that a “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” reading is justified. Indeed, with Ignatius’ strong emphasis throughout his letters on “suffering with Christ,” many of uses as πἰστις probably have strong “faithfulness” connotations.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. More to come later!

~alex

3 thoughts on “ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ in the Apostolic Fathers

  1. I’m an objective genitive guy myself. I can’t actually think of an example I’ve come across in either Paul or the Apostolic Fathers that I think is justified even though they may be possible. You should check out Mike Whitenton’s article “After ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ Neglected Evidence from the Apostolic Fathers” in a recent edition of the Journal of Theological Studies if you haven’t already. He argues (unconvincingly to my mind) that the Apostolic Fathers did indeed refer to the faithfulness of Christ.

  2. Thanks for the link to that article! (to both Jason and Nick) I figured someone must have thought to look there, I just wasn’t sure how to find the literature.

    I’m thinking the reality is far less polarized than the debate. I also bet that the line between faith and faithfulness was blurrier for them than it is for us.

    Either way, it’s an interesting topic. I think it’s an issue that is settled more by the “big picture” you bring to the text rather than grammatical/syntactical concerns.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s