Understanding Faith (04)

24 11 2008
Julius Caesar Bust

Image by iirraa via Flickr

Today’s entry is where I put in a plug for knowing something about the culture behind the NT. Here is where I mention that many Christians feel really comfortable with the current Scholarly focus on Judaism. And why not? Those who read the Bible are familiar with Judaism through the OT and the controversies of the NT. Jesus, Peter, Paul… they were all Jews. So of course we’ll feel at home with this! But there is another context, which we don’t feel so at home in… i.e. the Graeco-Roman world. But let’s not forget that Paul (at least) was also very connected to this world. He had to be if he was going to be a missionary. So the Graeco-Roman world is relevant to the context into which Paul was writing. Therfore it must be of some importance for us who read the NT today! This will be something I will come back to in future entries. For now though, we need a quick lesson into the fabric of Romans society in the first century. The Roman world was literally held together by relational exchange A ↔  B. As Richard Saller says in his exceptional little book Patronage in the Early Empire, “The Romans could hardly conceive of friendship apart from reciprocal exchange.” In fact from the Emperor all the way down to the lowest citizen it was reciprocal exchange which held everything together. And so fides (the Latin word for faith) has been defined as “”confidence” (fides) and, especially (in a more derivative sense of fides), the “good faith” or “trustworthiness” that inspires confidence.” Whenever the Romans thought about a relationship they thought in terms of two way exchange (A ↔ B). When we talk then about “faith” or “grace” as exchange words because they are used in relationships, this is therefore not a big jump. Rather, the culture of the day confirmed that this was a logical way for people to see things. Now we are ready to tackle pistis Christou which we’ll do next entry.

Bruce Lowe

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Understanding Faith (02)

10 11 2008
muggy sunset 2

Image by paul+photos=moody via Flickr

Believe it not, the best place to start in understanding faith, is a “strange phenomenon” (often overlooked) within the word grace (charis). The Greek word charis almost always means the favor of God → people. But sometimes it can mean a person’s reciprocal thanks → God, e.g. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:25). “Thanks” here is charis! This means that one word can describe both the original act of generosity (i.e. God’s rescue) and the person’s appropriate response (i.e. thanks). David deSilva puts it this way: “grace can be used to speak of the response to a benefactor and his or her gift.” So charis is a remarkable little word, able to describe the complete exchange process of gift giving A ↔ B. Interestingly the word for “thanks” (eucharistia) had the same two meanings in earlier times! And so (I propose) does the Greek word for faith, i.e. pistis in NT times. “Faith” is also an A ↔ B word, as I will show next time via the example of Romans 3:1-8. But if so, this has powerful implications for how we understand faith, and how an ancient reader could have understood it.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Understanding Faith (01)

3 11 2008

Image by Mr Messy! via Flickr

Image by Mr Messy! via Flickr

In case you didn’t know, there’s a revolution happening right now over the meaning of faith. The expression “for the love of Pete,” means either “love towards Pete” (objective genitive) or “Pete’s love” (subjective genitive). Likewise, pistis Christou in Paul means either “faith in Christ” or “Christ’s faith” (Rom 3:22 & 26; Gal 2:16 [twice] & 20; Gal 3:22; and Phil 3:9). Traditionally it has been taken as “faith in Christ.” But more recently, people have gravitated towards the second. The implications can be big, as Mark Reasoner suggests: “Proponents… who hold that Christ’s faith is what saves will not call for… placing one’s faith in Jesus. They will rather call people to join the church that lives out… the faith that Jesus displayed” (Romans in Full Circle, 39).

This is a great example of how your reading impinges upon the message you preach. The specific issue also has implications for where Christian ethics should be placed in the scheme of things. In this series of contribution (posted weekly), I want to use this debate to illustration the importance of how you read. More than this though, I hope to stir thinking in a new direction on the issue itself (and thus the ethical question), by focusing on what has been a blind spot. What happens when we read pistis Christou as a Graeco-Roman person would have read it? Surprisingly perhaps, the answer has much to do with relationships!

posted by Bruce Lowe