Pauline Studies

Listening to the Conversation on Paul and Faith (4): Downs’s and Lappenga’s The Faithfulness of the Risen Christ

This post continues a series of notices on recent books that treat “faith” in the letters of Paul. As we have seen, many recent books are pressing to see the connection between saving faith and participation in Christ. Today’s entry is a coauthored work by David J. Downs and Benjamin J. Lappenga, The Faithfulness of the Risen Christ: Pistis and the Exalted Lord in the Pauline Letters (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2019). In it the authors come to the discussion from another angle, focusing not on the role of human “faith in Christ” but on the “fathfulness of Christ.”

Many readers will know that at several places where English translations read “faith in Christ,” the Greek πίστις Χριστοῦ (pistis Christou) might instead refer to the “faith” or “faithfulness of Christ” (see, e.g., the NRSV’s footnote on Rom 3:22). Though Paul is explicit and unambiguous about the value of believing in Christ in other passages (e.g., Rom 1:16), the reading here emphasizes not human assent or reception of grace but the “faithfulness” of Jesus that brings the reality of salvation about. Most scholars understand these references to Christ’s “faithfulness” to refer to his death on the cross, in which he in his humanity was faithful to the plan of salvation and willingly died for our sake.

Downs and Lappenga’s new book surveys Philippians, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, and Ephesians to argue instead that Christ’s faithfulness refers not simply to Christ’s faithful dying but “primarily to the faithfulness of the risen Christ Jesus who will remain faithful to those who, in their own faith, are justified through union with Christ, raised and exalted” (3).

Simply put, this view can be sourced from two primary points. Firstly, the change of angle of Christ’s faithfulness. If understood simply as equivalent to Christ’s obedience, we might interpret Christ’s faithfulness in Paul simply by those passages in which he is said to be “obedient,” and thus understand it as his faithful obedience to the father in dying (as in Rom 5:19; Phil 2:8). But Downs and Lappenga point instead to references such as 2 Tim 2:11b-13:

“If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”

2 Tim 2:11b-13 ESV, italics added

Here Christ is referred to as faithful (here with the adjective πιστός), and this faithfulness is a source of confidence and saving power for those who persevere in their confession. But that faithfulness does not terminate in his death in the past; rather it is an attribute and activity of the risen Jesus exalted to the right hand of the Father. Likewise, his faithfulness is not a matter of obedience directed toward the father but toward humanity; he rules, judges, intercedes and in every way remains faithful to his character and promises toward his people.

Second is the logic of participation itself. Believers must participate in the death of Christ; Paul indicates this by his many baptismal references and appeals to the value of present suffering in union with Christ (cf. Rom 6:3-11; 8:17; Phil 3:10-11). But participation itself presupposes that the dead Christ rose again—without which his death would have no benefit, for who can participate and be constantly sourced with life from a dead man (cf. 1 Cor 15:17-19)? The risen Christ sends out his Spirit that the faithful may be joined to his very life, that the one who died for them might by the life-giving Spirit now continue his divine life within them (Gal 2:20). They summarize:

“Christ’s πίστις, which is directed primarily toward humanity, continues beyond the cross as the faithful Christ, particularly through the Spirit, is present with those joined to him by πίστις” (107).    

On the theological logic of participation itself, this emphasis is refreshingly intuitive. It also brings with it several interesting interpretive moves that will surely provoke discussion, such as their argument that reference to Christ’s “atoning sacrifice” and blood even in Rom 3:25 refers not to his dying itself but to “the risen and ascended Jesus … offer[ing] his atoning, sacrificial life to God in the heavenly realm” (124), a notion familiar from the “heavenly High Priest” arguments of the book of Hebrews. This is not to deny the theological or salvific value of Christ’s death on the cross, but to emphasize that “the story of Christ’s faithfulness in Paul’s letters, which is evoked in the phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ, does not end with Jesus’ death” (155). It continues in his ascended life now as believers do not merely assent to facts about the past but take hold by faith of the one who died and shares his new life with them by the Spirit. Perhaps to put it bluntly, it happens “through”the cross but not merely “on” it. To speak Thomistically, if the graces given us flow from the passion (SCG 4.79; ST III, q. 62, a. 5), they are applied in time especially by the work of the Spirit (ST I-II, q. 112, a. 1) whom Christ sent after ascending (John 16:7), that we might participate in and be elevated to his life, resurrection, and reign with him.  

Other aspects will be less immediately convincing to certain readers. If the basic thesis is intuitive based simply on the nature of participation in Christ, certain textual arguments to set up this reading are less obvious, such as their insistence that “the one who supplies the Spirit” in Gal 3:5 is the exalted Son and not the Father (95-96). Many of the arguments begin and end in the letter alone, claiming that “readers shaped by Paul’s discourse” in one letter would not hear meanings he does mention in others; such arguments can be valid, but we ought not forget the potential of his oral preaching (or simply word use in the audience’s everyday life) to shape key terms in ways Paul assumes when he writes. Lastly, the book assumes throughout that Paul’s letters are rife with a discourse about Christ’s own “faithfulness.” And those who do not accept that 2 Timothy or Ephesians takes its wording (or content) directly from Paul will not find 2 Tim 3:13 (above) relevant to translate Rom 3:22. However, one who does not believe that πίστις Χριστοῦ should be translated “faithfulness of Christ” will still find much helpful for New Testament theology and, I think, much that is convincing here about participation and Christ’s resurrection and exaltation.

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