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Listening to the Conversation on Paul and Faith (2): Gupta’s Paul and the Language of Faith

 On Thursday of last week, James Prothro’s review of Harrisville’s The Faith of St. Paul served as the first in a series of posts covering recent scholarship on Pauline faith. Today I will offer the next installment in this series by taking a brief look at Nijay Gupta’s recent monograph, Paul and the Language of Faith (Eerdmans, 2020)(page on the publisher’s site). 

While the book was only released this year, it was the subject of a review session at last years’ annual meeting of the society of biblical literature in San Diego. Moreover, as a recent review of the book on The Gospel Coalition demonstrates, Gupta’s book continues to generate widespread interest. 

 In less than 200 pages, Gupta is able to cover an impressive number of topics, including an overview of the reception history of faith language. Gupta analyzes the meaning of “faith” in both Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts as well as in the Jesus tradition before turning to the topic at hand: faith in the Pauline corpus. 

 Gupta begins by noting “three problematic trends” (p. 2) in the way that Christians speak about “faith”:  faith as “opinion,” faith as “doctrine,” and faith as “passive.” In contrast to these trends, Gupta suggests that the faith language found in the scriptures of Israel is inherently covenantal, which means, “faith has less to do with theological ideas per se than with the nature and integrity of a relationship of trust” (p. 6, drawing on the work of Walter Brueggemann).  

In light of the way in which faith language is employed in Israel’s scriptures, Gupta questions whether the default English translation of pistis as “faith” is adequate. Gupta proposes viewing faith language on a continuum, where on one side, faith can mean “believing faith,”  and on the other, “obeying faith,” with “trust” or “trusting faith” serving to connect the two ends of the spectrum (pp. 12–13).

In addition to his suggestion that faith language is best viewed on a continuum, Gupta also highlights the importance of rightly accounting for the relationship between divine and human agency.  Rather than seeing the relationship between divine and human agency as zero–sum or competitive in regards to faith, Gupta once again suggests the importance of connecting faith to covenant (pp. 14–15). 

With these parameters in place, chapter two offers a brief overview of the reception history of the language of faith, beginning with the Apostolic Fathers, then moving on to Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, before concluding with an overview of a number of important contemporary accounts. 

In chapter three, Gupta offers an overview of “faith” in ancient Jewish and non-Jewish literature and concludes that while faith terminology can be employed in a wide variety of ways, in the overwhelming number of cases, faith language is employed to signify “relational fidelity” (p. 39). Against this backdrop, chapter four examines faith language in the Jesus tradition, noting the wide spectrum of meaning it has in the Gospels, ranging from “seeking,” “believing,” to “trusting” and “obeying.”  

Chapter five marks the beginning of Gupta’s direct engagement with the Pauline corpus, and he starts with an investigation of “faith” in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians. Gupta argues that” faith” in these letters is best understood as signifying “faithfulness” or “obeying faith.” Here he highlights passages such as 1 Thess 1:3, 3:8, 5:8 and Phil 1:25–27, 2:17. 

In chapters six and seven, Gupta looks at “faith” in 1 and 2 Corinthians respectively.  In 1 Corinthians, the knowledge of faith centers on the “strange wisdom” of Christ crucified (see 1 Cor 2:5 in particular), with Paul building on this account in 2 Corinthians in order to call for a “believing faith” that serves as a cruciform lens that enables one to see the glory to come (see 2 Cor 4:1–5:10 in particular). 

In his investigation of Galatians in chapter eight, Gupta revisits the challenge of rightly accounting for the relationship between divine and human agency in Paul. Gupta argues that Paul’s account of human agency is best described as “covenantal pistism,” where through Christ, the genuine human agency of those who have faith is transformed and empowered by grace. 

One particularly important section in chapter eight is Gupta’s analysis of Abraham’s faith in Galatians 3 (3:8–9 in particular). Gupta challenges the common English translations of Galatians 3:9 that describe Abraham as “the man of faith” (NIV, ESV) or “Abraham who believed” (NRSV). The reason for Gupta’s challenge is that Paul uses the adjective pistos to describe Abraham, and when this term is employed in the Septuagint and the New Testament as an attributive adjective, it refers to the given person as “faithful” (151). As a result, Gupta suggests that the right rendering is “faithful Abraham,” for as he notes:

. . . Paul reinforces the Jewish notion that Abraham is a model of obedient loyalty to God. For Paul, he is not a model of Torah obedience (and, thus, the father of circumcision) but the father of true faith in God–and such deep and committed faith that is, after all, natural to call him “faithful Abraham.”

Gupta, Paul and the Language of Faith, p. 152

In chapter nine, Gupta takes up the challenge of accounting for Paul’s faith language in Rom 1:16–17. In short, Gupta argues that rather than seeing Paul as “prooftexting” Hab 2:4 in Rom 1:17, Paul’s use of Hab 2:4 aligns with his Jewish heritage because he employs “faith” in a comprehensive manner that can rightly be called “trusting faith.”

In chapters ten and eleven, Gupta concludes his book by first offering his take on the pistis Christou debate (“faith in” vs. “faith of” Jesus Christ), before offering some concluding remarks by way of synthesis in chapter eleven. As for the pistis Christou debate (chapter ten), Gupta prefers the objective genitive reading, “faith in Christ,” yet in a way that is complimentary to the subjective genitive reading, “faith of Christ.” 

To choose to live by faith is to recognize one’s own poverty of vision and discernment. It requires denying self and depending on Christ. “Faith in Christ” is no more than a call to be rescued by the “faithfulness of Christ.” (p. 176)

Gupta, Paul and the Language of Faith, p. 176.

In conclusion, Gupta is to be commended for writing a book that truly advances the conversation regarding “faith” in Paul by both responsibly covering the subject matter and offering constructive paths forward for Pauline scholars and students alike. As we listen to the recent conversation regarding faith in Paul, Gupta’s book repays all the attention given to it.

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