Pauline Studies

Listening to the Conversation on Paul and Faith: Harrisville’s The Faith of St. Paul

It has been now over forty years since the “New Perspective on Paul” and responses to it reinvestigated old oppositions between Paul and the Judaism of his day regarding divine mercy and grace, Paul’s view of humanity, the place of the Law given to Israel, righteousness and justification “by faith,” etc. Though these issues have resurfaced in every major era of controversy over the Apostle, fruitful work is still being done (and still needed) to bring nuance and clarity in the aftermath of the New Perspective and opposition to it. New paradigms are being drawn, and old—indeed ancient—ones are reemerging.

In just the last five years, several books have taken another look at what “faith” means in Paul’s letters. This is a happy development, and an important one. What “faith” means for Paul lies at the heart of several debates about his view of the atonement (forensic justification, participation in Christ, universalism), the human’s role and responsibility in salvation, and much more. 

In a series of posts here on The Sacred Page, John Kincaid and I (James Prothro) will be airing some of the new work in the conversation. Today we will look at Roy A. Harrisville’s new book, The Faith of St. Paul: Transformative Gift of Divine Power (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019):

Harrisville’s little book (just over 100 pages) sets out to reevaluate faith in a way that resolves these debates in which scholars “are often talking past each other” and firing shots from “entrenched positions” (1). His opening chapters take issue with others readings of faith that he finds too human—viewing faith as a mere “response” within the person that God’s grace elicits, which Harrisville seems to argue makes faith a simple power or ability in the unredeemed “Old Adam” (55). Highlighting passages like Galatians 3:1-5 or Romans 4:4-5, 14 (xiv, 42), he argues that saving faith cannot be something that resides within the un-justified human’s power; that would make faith a “work,” and would demolish the sharp barrier Harrisville sees Paul make between justifying faith and “works.” However, Harrisville notes, Paul himself does speak of faith, trust, and belief as something people do. His book attempts his own resolution to this dilemma.

Harrisville’s solution is that faith is a divinely gifted power. “[F]aith cannot be reduced to a human attitude, choice, or condition” (64). Rather, the human heart believes “by virtue of its transformation through the word of God” (63). Faith is a gift wrought by the creative word of God (and, by the power of the words operative in them, the sacraments as well). Faith is created by the divine word and, like other creatures, is continually sustained by it: 

“When speaking of faith as a gift, one must not assume that it is like a Christmas present that is given once and then used solely according to the wishes of the recipient, independent of the giver. Rather, faith has its avenue in the Word that is constantly being proclaimed and voiced. It is in that Word, as in a flowing stream, that faith is continually bestowed and never separated from its source” (74). 

Faith is powerful because through faith God constantly supplies and produces acts of power, charity, perseverance, and all other manner of righteous living—the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). Living by faith is participating in a sphere or divine influence; faith is “like the air we breathe” (92), Christ’s own life lived in us and transforming us (101). 

“The faith of St. Paul is a divine transformative gift. As such it is not a separate entity manufactured by the human being with or without the ‘assistance’ of God, but it is God in a person’s life busily transforming that life from one of death to a life truly lived from faith that results in love and salvation” (93).

Harrisville has put his finger, I think, on perhaps the central question that can resolve several debates about Paul’s view of salvation and life in Christ. This perspective on faith fits with several other scholars’ arguments justification “by faith” and salvation by “participation” in Christ are more than overlapping (rather than contradictory). The theological stakes of the “faith in/of Christ” debate are reduced as well. 

However, if he has identified an avenue by which major issues can be resolved, I think students of Paul will need to think beyond Harrisville at many points. His way of setting up the problem—critiquing as “double minded” those who view faith not as a dreaded “work of the law” but still as human activity (e.g., p. 13)—assumes Paul’s contrast between faith and “works of the law” means any human effort or responsibility in believing negates salvation being a work of God’s grace. (At some points, he seems problematically to imply that this was a main difference between Jewish and Christian religiosity.) One who agrees with ancient and many modern readers that this sketch of the problem is inaccurate will naturally disagree with aspects of his solution. Must faith be “coerced or forced by God” (35) if God is truly justifier? What of the ups and downs of day-to-day faith as it hopes, struggles, questions, or even fails? How does God’s word bring about faith in sinners—is it like putting a new engine in an old car, putting a remote control chip in a person’s brain, or like bringing a corpse back to life? 

Important conversations are always worth renewing. Our future posts will turn to other voices in this conversation, hoping as always to listen and learn in stereo. 

One comment

  1. “…that would make faith a ‘work,’ and would demolish the sharp barrier Harrisville sees Paul make between justifying faith and ‘works.'” In point of fact, St. Paul (following Christ Himself) characterizes faith as a work. Christ characterized faith as “the work of God” (cf. Jn. 6:29). St. Paul, for his part, referred to “…your work of faith….” (cf. 1 Thess. 1:3, 2 Thess. 1:11). The Church understands this to be infused with, and empowered by, Divine grace and so not a natural effort such as Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism envisage. The Apostle to the Gentiles evidently holds a synergistic view of justification, as he exhorts the Corinthians, “Working together with [Christ], then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1; cf. Rom. 6:13, Phillip. 2:12-13). This is clearly harmonious with Our Lord’s teaching on salvation (Mt. 5:19-22, 6:12,14-15, 7:1-2,21-23, 12:36-37, 19:16-22, 20:1-16; Lk. 7:36-50).

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