Pauline Studies

Listening to the Conversation on Paul and Faith (3): Jeanette Hagen Pifer’s Faith as Participation

As we continue our reviews of recent books on “faith” in Paul’s letters, I get to talk about my favorite: Jeanette Hagen Pifer’s PhD dissertation at the University of Durham, Faith as Participation: An Exegetical Study of Some Key Pauline Texts. WUNT 2/486 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019). Pifer’s book is detailed, clear and well-written, and nuanced—more than I can be in this brief review. 

Pifer’s book is especially interested to understand and emphasize “the significance of human faith for Paul” (1). Paul’s emphasis on “justification by faith in Christ” and not by “works of the law” has resulted in far more debate than just what “works” he’s talking about. Why faith? Some have thought it is just “easier” or more Gentile-friendly than “works of the law.” Others define faith as entirely “passive.” How does faith relate to participation “in Christ,” or is being justified “by faith” really a wholly different idea? Is human faith really that important, or have we perhaps, as several argue, mistranslated as “faith in Christ” (pistis Christou) what should rather be translated “the faith(fulness) of Christ”?

We need to understand the role of human faith in Paul and his theology. For even if we have mistranslated “faith in Christ” (and Pifer persuasively argues we have not), Paul still uses “those who believe” (hoi pisteuontes) as a summary description of those being saved (cf. 1 Cor 1:21; 1 Thess 1:7), describes faith as a key element in conversion and wants faith to increase or growth as part of Christian perseverance (cf. Rom 4:11; 13:11; Gal 5:6; 1 Thess 1:3, etc.). Pifer aims to illuminate human faith and the role it plays Paul’s theology of salvation.  

Certainly faith has “noetic content” (60-61); “those who believe” are those who believe that Jesus is Lord and that he has died and risen for our salvation. However, beyond mere assent to unseen things, faith is a trust and abandonment to Christ for the present and the future. It is out of what is believed that one acts (2 Cor 4:13), works (1 Thess 1:3), loves (Gal 5:5-6), and out of faith that one “stands,” “holds fast,” and endures (cf. Rom 11:20; 1 Cor 15:1-2; 16:13; 2 Cor 1:24; see pp. 75-78). Through and through, faith is an “active dependence on Christ” (63). And, as Paul speaks of faith’s growth, testing, and potential loss (e.g., 1 Thess 3:5, 10; 2 Cor 13:5), it demands a dynamic account.

Pifer thus characterizes faith not merely as a discreet virtue of believing without seeing but as a “mode of existence” (63, 169, etc.). By faith one identifies with the crucified and resurrected Christ. This is true socially: the conversion of the Thessalonians demanded that they disassociate from idols and many civic practices to be joined to Christ; the Corinthians have to realign their boasting from worldly sources to the Lord alone (1 Cor 1:31). More than socially, one’s by-faith connection to Christ also identifies one’s present and future with Christ mystically: Paul connects faith directly with one’s present suffering in Christ, as a mode by which those sufferings are joined to Christ’s own (2 Cor 1:9; Phil 3:9-10), as well as the present “new creation” present by the life-giving Spirit of faith and love (cf. 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 3:1-5; 5:5-6) and the future resurrection from the dead after the manner of Christ’s own (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-18). Being “in Christ” and justification “by faith” are thus not two distinct ideas, nor is faith a replacement for “works” as a criterion for salvation. Faith is the mode according to which one lives by participation in Christ, and indeed the channel through which Christ’s death and life are received and appropriated. “Faith is the means by which the Christ-event envelops believers as his life attaches to those who trust in him” (156).

When engaging the question of divine and human agency that often plagues faith-debates, Pifer argues that Paul did not see God’s activity and human activity as the “zero-sum game” some theologians set up (34). Faith is “dynamic” (52) and active, yet Pauline faith is not an autonomous human activity—Pelagius was wrong. Faith is occasioned and continually sourced by the prior initiative and power of God in the Christ and through the Spirit (148-149).

For Pifer, following mentor John Barclay, God’s activity to vivify the sinner makes the sinner more truly free and active, not less (208; see Phil 2:12-13). Faith is both “self-negating” and “self-involving” (167, etc.). Subjectively, faith is an absolute reliance and dependence on God; one despairs of one’s own ability to save oneself apart from grace, actively identifies oneself with the Crucified, trusts God’s promise and stakes one’s life upon it. “In this relationship of complete dependence, the sole soteriological basis of salvation in Christ is realised within the believer because, ultimately, faith is participation in Christ” (215). Faith “appropriates” the effective work of Christ and “shares” or takes part in his life (152, 156-57) as the believer’s self is renewed in suffering, love, and ultimately resurrection. For Pifer, such an account does not shift focus “from” Christ to the human, but it offers a truly Christocentric account of redeemed anthropology.

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Galatians 2:20, ESV

Pifer’s book is soberly argued from the biblical texts and offers an account that does not require “explaining away” texts. This is a boon among exegetical-theological proposals, and successfully elucidates faith in Paul beyond a number of entrenched divides. Those who disagree will still be sharpened and productively challenged, and those who agree will see venues for further research opened up (in Pauline anthropology, for instance, or in relating this perspective on faith and participation to Paul’s baptismal theology). The book is not cheap, nor will it be light reading for non-scholars. But for scholars of Pauline soteriology it should be on the reading list.

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