The question regarding a subjective or objective rendering of pistis Christou has been plagued by an overemphasis on the ability of grammar and linguistics to answer theological questions. Deep exegesis is needed, to be sure, but no number of studies on how Paul tends to use genitive constructions can give us insight into his other usages – that simply is not how human beings use language. The broader theological questions have tended to be ignored, but fortunately, a theologian has taken up the question, and in this post I will outline his argument.
R. Michael Allen, in his volume The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Account (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, 2009) argues for a subjective reading of pistis Christou. Allen focuses his attention on the necessary Christological implications of this kind of reading, arguing for important theological import into Reformed theology specifically. To do so, Allen navigates a critique of Aquinas’ understanding of Jesus’ beatific knowledge (thereby excluding faith for the incarnate One), works alongside Barth and develops his constructive proposal within the broad contours of Reformed theology. Allen invokes Morna Hooker to highlight the general concerns with a subjective reading:
(1) ‘a concern lest this translation undermines the basic Reformation emphasis on faith’; (2) ‘the assumption that faith is an appropriate action for the believer, but is inappropriate for Christ himself’; (3) ‘dislike of the principle of imitatio Christi‘ (25).
Hooker’s worries, Allen explains, can be boiled down into two doctrinal concerns: one soteriological and the other Christological. The first brings into question the role of the believer’s faith, the other the Christological possibility of Christ having faith. Allen’s argumentation addresses these two concerns, emphasizing a Reformed Christology as the proper dogmatic space to talk about Christ’s faith as well as the imitation of Christ. In doing so, Allen takes a close look at Aquinas’ understanding of the incarnation, arguing that Thomas’s depiction of the beatific nature of Christ’s knowledge is inadequate for a robust understanding of the incarnation. Thomas’s understanding of Christ’s knowledge, therefore, made it unreasonable (and unneeded) for Christ to have faith – Allen contends differently – suggesting that Thomas’s own account pushes against his conclusions:
Christ did not possess the beatific vision of God’s essence and, in so doing, know all things in the divine essence, precisely because Christ’s humanity was pre-glorified, in via, warfaring. Thomas’s own eschatology disallows the Christological claim that he makes: the beatific vision is inherently a glorified activity which requires a transformation of one’s body such that it no longer limits one’s ability to focus intellectually on the divine essence” (66).
The question of Christ having faith, therefore, is a question of the metaphysics of the incarnation as well as the theological range of terms like “faith.” In other words, Allen’s argues first for the coherence of Christ having faith by arguing positively for a properly human existence, and then he takes a step back to question whether the semantic (read “dogmatic”) range of faith is robust enough in accounts like Thomas’s. Allen suggests they are not, and turns to Reformed dogmatics as an alternative. After locating the Christ’s faith in soteriology, covenant and eschatology, Allen moves to engage what he believes has been one major lack in the discussion – an obvious doctrinal import of the subjective reading.
The key issue Allen addresses is the imitation of Christ, an emphasis long ignored by his preferred doctrinal tradition. In his words,
Intrinsic to Christ’s human representation, the faith of Jesus grounds the principles of justification solus Christus and sola fide. While maintaining a fundamental asymmetry, locating ontology prior to ethics, participatio Christi does not eliminate imitatio Christi. By affirming the praxis of imitation, the life of Jesus receives due attention as the basis for moral wisdom and faithful discernment” (184).
First, Allen argues (with Paul in Rom. 14:22-23), that divinely accepted obedience requires faith on the part of the human – therefore Jesus needed to have faith to please the Father with his actions. Second, for Christ’s righteousness to be imputed to the believer, so that righteousness is “faithful righteousness,” Christ’s faith is vicariously applied to his people: “The active obedience of Christ may best be construed as the dual response of Jesus: his faith and the obedient love which flows from this trust” (194). Third, the vicarious reality of Christ’s faith does not overwhelm imitation, but creates the very space for it – “Christ’s faith precedes and transcends, yet elicits and supports Christian faith…The Christ’s faith functions in two ways: as vicarious ground for human justification and as model for analogical imitation by those who are united with Christ” (199).
Ethical action is grounded in the very faith of Christ, where our own action analogously corresponds to Christ’s. This does not deny, of course, the qualitative and quantitative difference between Jesus’ faith and our own, but grounds ours analogously within his as the representative saint obeying the will of the Father. Ethics, therefore, through an imitation of the One who took on flesh and dwelt among us, is the fruit of a proper subjective rendering of pistis Christou.
My outline here has been brief, but Allen persuasively shows, in my mind, that an imitation of Christ finds its best proper dogmatic space in a robust Reformed Christology and soteriology. There is some real meaty theological work being done here as well as some wide ranging exegesis. In my mind, Allen pushes the discussion of the subjective reading back on the table to the various dissenters (many of whom are Reformed) and demands deeper theological-exegetical analysis.
Any thoughts on this kind of reading? For those of you who are for a subjective reading already, does this help to provide some more space to utilize this read dogmatically? He goes after Torrance a bit for limiting the import of the read by allowing participation to undermine imitation – so I don’t know if any of our Torrance guys want to speak to that at all.