“The Faith of Jesus Christ” and Ephesians: Two Views

Bird and Sprinkle’s recent book, The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies (Milton Keynes, U.K., and Peabody, Mass.: Paternoster and Hendrickson, 2009), concerns Ephesians with two particular chapters. Paul Foster argues for the subjective reading (faith of Christ: Christ’s faithfulness) in Eph 3:12 in the book’s sixth chapter, which is followed by Richard Bell’s chapter arguing for the objective reading (faith of Christ: faith in Christ) instead. They both treat Eph 3:12 together with Phil 3:9, but our concern here is with Ephesians. We will summarize the relevant sections of both chapters and then compare and contrast the two positions before determining who has presented the better argument.

In chapter 6 (pp. 91-109), Foster treats Eph 3:12 from pp. 100-109. He begins the chapter with a few comments on what is at stake in the debate. The debate is not concerned about orthodoxy, nor is it focused on any theological ramifications or the end result. Instead, the debate is about obtaining a clear understanding of what Paul was saying when he used the genitival construction in question. Foster mentions how the objective view can be grossly misrepresented as arguing that human individual faith is a “work” activating the salvation found in Christ while the subjective view can be wrongfully heralded as the solution to the aforementioned objective view so as to prevent anyone from thinking that his or her faith puts salvation into effect. According to Foster, such arguments are not helpful. He recognizes that it is the task of the scholar to perform exegesis, which is “not an exercise in ‘rescuing’ ancient authors to make them more palatable to modern taste” (p. 92). He wants to discuss the debate using Paul’s own terms while knowing full well that Paul’s terms, phrases, and theology have gaps, they are at times underdeveloped, and even have their own inconsistencies (pp. 91-93).

Foster begins his discussion of Eph 3:12 by noting three reasons why this verse is typically excluded from the πίστις Χριστοῦ debate. First, and most likely, because the authorship of Ephesians is debated among scholars and not commonly considered to be genuinely Pauline, Eph 3:12 is not included. If it is not Paul writing it, then Eph 3:12 does not reflect necessarily Paul’s use and understanding of the genitival construction. Foster responds to this point by saying that Pauline authorship is not imperative because the author of Ephesians, if it was not Paul, then it was most likely from someone who was a disciple or follower of Paul and could think and write like him, and very well may have continued to use the genitival construction in a similar way.  Second, πίστις itself is not directly linked to Jesus like the other texts in the debate, but rather it is connected to him indirectly through the use of αὐτός. Last, the structure of the phrase in question is different from the other texts in the debate as well. Unlike the others, this text includes the definite article before πίστις. Some have said rather strongly that subjective genitives in use with πίστις practically always have the article, whereas objective genitives are anarthrous. Foster concludes that such tests are inconclusive, stating that the presence of the article in Eph 3:12 does not clarify between a subjective and objective genitive. He motions towards understanding the context of the letter to best determine the use of this genitival phrase rather than relying on syntax (pp. 100-103).

Foster looks first at the immediate context within which Eph 3:12 is found—Eph 3:1-12. He acknowledges what Paul says of himself: he is a possessor of the mysteries of Christ (3:3-4); he is a minister of the gospel (3:7); and he is an appointed preacher to the Gentiles (3:8). Foster appeals to Andrew Lincoln’s commentary on Ephesians to demonstrate that the mystery of Christ is especially concerned with the church, and the mystery itself is revealed in Eph 3:6. He argues that Eph 3:6 is filled with participatory language, which places the emphasis on Christ. According to Foster, Eph 3 is focused on Christ, and this focus remains in the foreground throughout the rest of the section. Foster then entertains how the revelation of the mystery leads to the boldness and confidence in Eph 3:12; he appeals to “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8) and Phil 2:6-11, where wealth is bestowed on Christ because of his willful obedience and faithfulness. He argues that believers participate somehow in this process by sharing in Christ’s riches (Foster notes that Peter O’Brien in his commentary on Ephesians shares this position about Christ sharing his wealth with believers). As a result, the text leads up to Eph 3:12 in the following way: the mystery is stated that Gentiles are partakers of the promise of Christ (3:6), thus making them benefactors of Christ’s riches (3:8), the result of which is boldness and access (3:12). Just as Harold Hoehner states in his commentary, according to Foster, it is in Christ that believers have boldness and access to the Father, which is indicated by ἐν ᾧ. In conclusion, the immediate context of Eph 3:12 has the key theme of revelation linked inseparably with Christ’s faithfulness (pp. 103-104).

Foster then turns to the wider context of Ephesians, specifically Eph 2:18 and 2:8, respectively. Ephesians 2:18 shares a similar construction to 3:12, yet the basis for both verses are highlighted instead by Foster. Both texts concern access to the Father, but on what grounds? Foster claims that Eph 2:11-22, including 2:18, finds its basis in 2:13: Christ’s blood. He explains that Christ’s blood is language that refers to Christ’s death on the cross. Christ’s death on the cross has brought the Gentiles, those who were far away, near to God, providing them with access to the Father. For Eph 2:18, the basis of the access to the Father is Christ’s death. For Eph 3:12, the basis of the access to the Father is διὰ τῆς πίστεως αὐτοῦ, which Foster takes to mean Christ’s death or his faithfulness and obedience on the cross (pp. 105-106). He concludes this point with these words: “If the author has been consistent in his understanding of that basis of access, then πίστεως αὐτοῦ would refer to Christ’s faithfulness and obedience described both in Eph 2:18 and 3:12” (p. 106). Foster looks also at Eph 2:8 in connection with 3:12. He notes that πίστις is anarthrous in Eph 2:8 just as it is in the other texts in this debate, but here it does not have a genitive. He highlights the fact that this verse emphasizes that the faith is not from the believers, but rather, it is from God as a gift. Appealing to Markus Barth’s commentary on Ephesians, Foster argues that a believer’s faith is dependent on God who himself is faithful, and the faith of Eph 2:8 is predicated on God’s faithfulness (pp. 106-107).

Foster concludes that διὰ τῆς πίστεως αὐτοῦ in Eph 3:12 is best understood to have a subjective genitive when understood alongside of Eph 2:8, 18. This subjective genitive marks Christ’s faithfulness and obedience on the cross, through which Gentiles have been brought near and provided access to the Father (p. 107).

Foster acknowledges that his argument has not removed all doubt (p. 107). He even considers other possibilities: plenary genitive (the genitive is at once both subjective and objective) or whether Paul actually had a clear understanding to begin with (perhaps instead he was using an artful phrase that was familiar and had good rhetorical effect, but it did not have a specific distinction between the objective and subjective). However, he concludes that the subjective genitive argument is the stronger one in Eph 3:12, not because of the presence of the definite article, but because the immediate and broader contexts of Eph 3 points to Christ’s faithfulness. He adds at the end that the author of Ephesians interpreted Paul’s (the undisputed letters where the debate is mentioned) use of πίστις Χριστοῦ language in a subjective sense, a measure of which needs to be given full consideration.

In chapter 7 (pp. 111-125), Bell makes the case for the objective reading in Eph 3:12. In this chapter, he devotes pp. 120-125 to Eph 3:12. He opens the chapter by simply stating his purpose: to argue from exegetical and theological reasons for the objective reading, “through faith in him” (p. 111). No other introductory matters are discussed. He immediately starts in presenting his arguments. He states as though it is a matter of fact that the objective reading “gives an excellent sense to Eph 3:11-12” (p. 121, sic). He supports this claim by appealing to two parallel verses: Rom 5:1-2, and Eph 4:13, respectively. In Rom 5:1-2, similar vocabulary is used to what is in Eph 3:12. Bell implies, but does not explicitly state, that faith in Rom 5:1-2 clearly is faith in Christ, and, therefore, because Eph 3:12 parallels Rom 5:1-2, faith in Eph 3:12 should be understood similarly, i.e., that the faith in question is faith in Christ. This point is rather underdeveloped. It seems that he is relying on the second parallel, Eph 4:13, where he says that it is a parallel because both Eph 3:12 and 4:13 have “the Son of God” as the object of the “knowledge,” which is in fact “faith.” But “knowledge” is not the same as “faith” necessarily, and there are no other syntactical or vocabulary parallels to the two verses whatsoever, so it remains unclear as to how he can see them as parallels (pp. 120-121).

From this point onward, Bell begins to critique his opponents in three ways. First, he looks at Barth’s position on Eph 3:12 and he raises a syntactical issue as a rebuttal to Barth’s translation, as Barth utilizes the subjective genitive. Bell argues that it is often suggested that the lack of the definite article marks an objective genitive, whereas the presence of the article indicates a subjective genitive, and he admits that as a general point of usage, Paul does seem to follow this sort of pattern, but there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, so that it is possible to have a subjective genitive without the article and an objective genitive with the article. He concludes that grammar itself simply cannot settle the debate, and so he must turn to exegesis. Note that he never once critiqued Barth according to any criterion Barth set forth. He quoted Barth and then turned to the works of Foster to describe how those of the subjective view make their case (pp. 121-122).

Second, Bell critiques Foster for claiming that Eph 3 implies Christ’s faithfulness. Bell argues that subjective view supporters look certain ideas into the text, ideas that simply are not present. Bell attempts to disarm such an argument by claiming that elsewhere in Paul the emphasis is on God acting in Christ, so that Christ was not actually being faithful or obedient to the Father; furthermore, sacrificial language marks God’s gift of grace, which he brought about through Christ, and it does not mark Christ’s faithfulness to God. He turns to Rom 5:18-19 to support the idea that even when speaking of Christ’s obedience the real emphasis is on the free gift of the grace of God found in Christ (Rom 5:15-17), which, Bell states, is the same point being made in Eph 2:8-9 (pp. 122-123).

Finally, Bell makes the case that faith in Eph 2:8 is the believer’s faith in Christ, even though Foster, Barth, and O’Brien argue that it is Christ’s faith. Appealing to Hoehner, he argues that in Eph 2:8b τουτοῦ is not linking to πίστις, but rather it is pointing back at the entire preceding phrase, whereas his opponents argue that it does link to πίστις. Bell argues that Eph 2:8 is all about God’s gracious provision of salvation. He sees the phrase “by grace you are saved” (Eph 2:8) as being inseparably linked to “through faith in Christ” (Eph 3:12), and, as a result, he implies and does not state it explicitly, the faith of Eph 2:8 is how we should understand the faith in Eph 3:12 (pp. 123-124).

In his conclusion, Bell emphasizes that those of the subjective view are depending on Hebrews and even James for a theology of Christ’s obedience and reading such a theology back into Paul, including Eph 3:12. He determines in the end that faith is different in Ephesians than it is in Hebrews or Revelation because of the threat of apostasy and persecution (p. 125).

Now that we have seen the arguments as presented by both sides of the debate, we can compare and contrast them. Both do acknowledge that syntax alone will not resolve the issue. Both authors attempt to appeal to exegesis to provide a solution to the answer, yet they arrive at different results. However, their methods for exegesis are somewhat similar: they both look at internal and external texts that they believe to be similar to the one in question. They do not compare the text to the same parallels in every situation. Foster looks to Phil 2:6-11 as well as Eph 3:1-12 and Eph 2:8, 18. Bell looks to Rom 5:1-2 and Eph 4:13 as well as Eph 2:8, though he mentions it as a matter of critique primarily and not directly as support for the objective position. Of particular importance is the direct support that Foster provides towards the subjective view. He focused on the immediate context within which Eph 3:12 exists, something that Bell neglected to do. Furthermore, Foster addresses an additional issue: why is Eph 3:12 typically not included in the debate? Bell has no comment on the matter. Finally, Foster recognizes that some other options should be considered, such as the plenary genitive, and the debate should include those other options, which is a way of humbly stating that he has not proven his case but has put forth his best efforts. In contrast, Bell simply states that the objective view is best and does not mention other possibilities. Unlike Foster, Bell spends most of his time critiquing the opposite view. Instead, he should have been offering positive support for the objective view rather than presenting two brief, underdeveloped, and, therefore, weak parallels and then indirectly attempting to support his view by trying to deflate the subjective view. While Foster did the same thing, Bell used outside texts to support the objective view. However, Foster used outside texts as a supplement, whereas Bell used them as the foundation. Curiously enough, the very thing that Bell critiqued for subjective view proponents is what he himself does: he used outside texts to look into what is in Eph 3:12. He relied on Rom 5:1-2 to provide the grounds for best understanding Eph 3:12. While this practice is not unacceptable, he could have at least grappled with the immediate context in Eph 3:12, as Foster had done.

Ultimately, both authors failed to address the Eph 3:12 alongside of Eph 3:17, which says, “κατοικῆσαι τὸν Χριστὸν διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν.” It lacks the use of αὐτοῦ, but otherwise it bears a similar construction. Questions could be asked and entertained by either side. Additionally, a similar construction occurs in Eph 1:7 and 3:6 (διὰ + genitive article + genitive noun + αὐτοῦ), and these could have been considered in the debate. Other uses of faith in Ephesians could have been addressed as well, such as Eph 1:15 or 6:23, where the former appears to be an instance of believer’s having faith in the Lord while the latter appears to be an instance of faith itself being something that comes from God or peace and love with faithfulness is bestowed upon them from God and Christ’s faithfulness.

In the end, Foster’s presentation was the better argument. Bell’s argument was rather weak as he did not spend enough time providing positive support for his own view. In fact, when he did offer positive support for his own view, it was underdeveloped and brief. Furthermore, said support was weak in itself, because his first and main point came not from within Ephesians but from Romans, and his second point did not seem to be a parallel like he suggested. How can one make an argument based on an external point and off of a parallel that is rather loose? Foster humbly offered his support for his view, first dealing with the immediate context of Eph 3:12, allowing external texts to supplement the internal, and second dealing with other texts of Ephesians as it pertains to Eph 3:12. He was not focused on taking the wind out of the sails of his opponents, but he was focused on providing as much positive support for his view as he could. As a result, his approach was much more helpful and persuasive. Foster’s argument was better than Bell’s, and in this debate the subjective view has won.

On a side note: I obtained the book from Nijay Gupta in a contest that he held over at his blog, and in the comments Douglas Campbell, one of the book’s contributors, offered a brief critique about a statement in my submission for the contest.