The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Proposal

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.


14 thoughts on “The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Proposal

  1. Thanks for the synopsis, I’ve had this book on my summer reading list since I first stumbled across it a few months ago.

    Can’t wait to get to it, especially because I DO think the argument he’s advancing provides us solid ground to do some very constructive work exegetically and dogmatically. I’m working on a paper doing this very thing, interacting with the Torrances on Christ’s humanity. I’ve been hoping for something exactly like what Allen’s done here to help me connect the dots. We’ll see what comes of it….

  2. Kyle,

    Just found your blog (us old guys are a little slower with these things). You are familiar with my work on Philippians 2, so you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I find the subjective reading highly appealing for sociological/pragmatic reasons. Allen’s arguments, as you have laid them out, make perfect sense to me theologically. This is clearly an important book.
    I would not be as quick as you (second sentence of your post), however, to dismiss linguistic patterns as potentially informative. I think that the language-versus-context debate is somewhat of a false dichotomy, since it is the mutual dialogue between language and context (theological, sociological, or otherwise) that finally generates intelligible meaning. Linguistic patterns can therefore be quite informative in certain situations.
    But I certainly get your point in the present connection. For the pistis Christou debate, there is little if any water left to beat out of the rock of the Greek genitive construction, and, as you rightly note, much of the debate on this issue has, in fact, been informed behind the scenes by theological viewpoints to begin with (cf. M. Hooker’s comments, above).
    Finally, a question. Does Allen treat Philippians 2 in the book? I hope so, since it is the premier NT imitatio Christi text. Although the pistis word-group is absent from the passage, I can’t help but think that Philippians 2 has ‘the Christ’s faith’ written all over it—that is, Christ’s faith in a God who honors those who use their status in the service of others. [Or is Jesus, perhaps, taken completely by surprise, when God exalts him to the highest place in response to his self-giving pilgrimage (vv. 9-11)?!]
    However, if Christ’s faith is, indeed, a key aspect of Paul’s story here, then we have quite a conundrum on our hands, or so it seems. For according to Paul’s narrative in Philippians 2, ‘the Christ’s faith’ in God’s relational economy first manifests itself, before Christ becomes human, or, perhaps more precisely, in the act of the incarnation itself (vv. 6-7). I’ll let you theologians figure out how that might fit into an understanding that views faith as a quintessentially human endeavor. :)
    At any rate, great post, Kyle. As you can tell, ya really got me thinking.


    • Joe, great to hear from you! I agree about the linguistic patterns, but think, as you noted, that route has been explored ad nauseum with shockingly little theology import into the conversation. Allen notes, and I think he is right, that the conversation has stalled because few people have actually given any real theological traction to the concept of the subjective genitive. In the end, it sounded good, but no one really was able to do much with it. Allen shows us, I think, that a lot can be done (and should be for that matter).

      I don’t recall him focusing on Philippians 2, but that is an interesting example. It would have to be navigated carefully, because, as you note, the mission to lower himself would have been made in the inner-triune life and pre-incarnation. But Jesus’ faithfulness is clearly being hit on here. Of course, this provides an important Christological question of how to talk about kenosis, mission and faithfulness with a robust metaphysic of the incarnation that takes seriously Jesus’ humanity and divinity – which is what Allen is seeking to achieve.

      I think N. T. Wright’s exegesis of righteousness here is also an important question – that righteousness is synonymous with “covenant faithfulness” (not that Wright is the first to say this). It could be that this scheme would provide further in-roads between Wright’s view and a Reformed soteriology by talking about Christ’s righteousness as his faithfulness being imputed to the believer through union with Christ.

      In any case, great to “hear” from you Joe!

    • Joe, after a brief glance back through (sadly there is not a Scripture index), I did find a place where Allen references Phil. 2, but it is in a list of verses which highlight Christ as example. This is key, of course, for the point he is making, but once he has made his overall point it simply adds justification for his view.

      With further thought, that seems to be the right place to use Phil. 2 to me with this kind of argument. The key question is not whether Jesus followed God well, but if he followed God in analogously the same way that we do, as a pilgrim in some sense. Phil. 2 provides evidence that Jesus’ life, in at least some sense, provides fodder for our imitation. What Phil. 2 does not offer however is evidence that Jesus was living by faith as opposed to sight (or something else opposed to faith as such). Allen’s argument is that Christ had faith and not that Christ was faithful, and there is an important difference between the two. His use of Thomas is to show that in some understandings of the incarnation, faith is impossible – but that certainly doesn’t negate Christ’s faithfulness to his mission, if that makes sense.

    • If another “old guy” may interject, I was glad to see Joe shifting the focus to a point “earlier” in the career of the savior (incarnation and original kenosis), because I am excited about possibilities in that direction.

      In fact I think we ought to consider the enormous room which opens out for an appreciation of the faith of Jesus (in relation to our own) during that span between incarnation and baptism.

      You may say this period is no more to us than a cypher – and so it is. But there was a real life lived there prior to his coming down to the Jordan. Full of faith and perhaps disappointment, and certainly growth of character.

      I don’t mean to suggest the error that Jesus was human before his baptism and divine afterwards. I only suggest that the faith he lived in those hidden days may have been more natural and necessary to him than during his public career, when he entered increasingly (I would guess) upon a state closer to knowledge. From God’s perspective, the pre-baptism period may have been as important as the public teaching period of the mission as a whole.

      Anyway, thanks for opening the discussion, Kyle, because I feel inspired to do some more thinking and writing on this lovely possibility that, prior to his baptism, it is more likely that Jesus lived a life of faith which more resembles ours – which places us right by his side in the Jordan with the Baptist, if nothing else. I hear Paul’s baptism metaphors in the background somewhere.

  3. Clearly, I’m over my head here. And I woudn’t want to interrupt the discourse of those who do know what they are talking about here. But I might add this note, which may or may not be useful to those of you who are clearly far more familiar with this subject: in English of course, “the faith of Christ” clearly has two possible meanings. The first would have this phrase referring to 1) the possible faith that Christ himself might have, in God, etc.. The second would be 2) the faith that we have in Christ. The faith of Christians.

    A lot depends on which one of these interpretations is right. Though I don’t know much Greek, I would say however that this is the way it all settled down in English: the phrase “the faith of Christ” keeps the question deliberately open to both interpretations. In order to strike a balance between two major competing theologies, in the days before Nicea.

    The first theology, would be the one that insisted that 1)surely Jesus, as God, knew everything already. And therefore, Jesus did not even need faith at all. Which would suggest therefore, that the meaning of the term “faith of Christ,” is not Jesus’ faith in God, but our faith in him.

    Vs. the competing theology. That asserted that 2) Jesus was human. And therefore Jesus in some sense, like an ordinary human, did not know everything. So that therefore, Christ did need something like ordinary human faith: confidence in things not fully understood. Christ in some sense did not know everything – and therefore actually needed faith in the sense that we ourselves might.

    Which of these two interpretations of phrase “the faith of Christ” is right? (A question which may or may not correspond to your “subjective” vs. “objective” readings). Personally, I think the text was kept deliberately ambivalent, and open to both interpretations.

    Often biblical translations deliberately retain poetic ambiguity, in order to simultaneously accomodate two or more competing theologies. In this case, the phrase “The faith of Jesus,” would be a deliberate ambiguity, to try to accomodate the days when the matter of Jesus’ exact status – as 1) God or 2) man, as 1) fully knowledgeable or 2) not – was in question. In the days before Nicea.

    Is this what you are already talking about? Or is this a slightly different, but perhaps related matter? In any case, this is what the phrase finally looks like in English: it seems deliberately open to two intertpretations. I’m guessing it is similarly ambiguous in Greek as well. Or in any case, I would say that this is what our English translators did with ” the faith of Christ”: they for the moment, left it deliberately ambiguous.

    That’s how that single phrase shakes down in English. Though to be sure, there are other parts in the NT when Jesus seemed to not have complete foreknowledge of everything. And to therefore have faith in the ordinary human sense. Of trying to believe things that he did not completely understand. Though possibly even those episodes, are themselves open to a second reading too.

    Eventually of course, the Roman Catholic Church tried to strike a balance between these two. And to assert that Jesus was both “Fully man and fully god.” That the human part of him did not know everything, and needed faith. So that after all, he showed us a model of what a mere human could do. We could model ourselves after him. He was a human being who could make mistakes, who did not know everything, but who nevertheless managed to do good. Through faith. Which he needed, the same as everyone else.

    But being fully God, in a sense Jesus knew what he did not know. And his faith was always right.

    So finally his faith was somehow both a reflection of human ignorance, but also godlike knowledge, or acceptance of truth.


    Is that what this is about? And if so, is it fair to suggest that the text itself, did not really quite want to decide between the two possible readings? Since either reading alone presents problems. While many were deciding that somehow, it would be possible to accomodate both.

    • Brett,

      Many people have found a mediating position appealing, but I think its ambiguity has more to do with translation into English than with Greek. We could, as it were, say that about virtually every genitive used in the New Testament – there are always a variety of ways to translate a genitive into English, or a dative, etc., for that matter. To take a mediating position then would be relatively similar to saying that the word awful means full of awe and terrible at the same time. Presumably, there is a wider context within which we read that word, linguistic, grammatical and, in this case, theological, which must inform how we read these things.

      Furthermore, with this issue, if one accepts a subjective reading, that these key passages refer to Christ’s own faith, they also accept, because of broader theological commitments, that believers have faith in Christ. The same is not true for an objective reading which tends to try and rule out Christ having faith at all – which many, most notably Thomas Aquinas, does with his understanding of Jesus’s beatific knowledge.

  4. So you would favor the subjective position? Which would have Jesus seeming more human, and needing faith; but perhaps also less all-knowing? And therefore even, less Godlike?

    • Hey Brett,

      Traditionally, Jesus is affirmed as both fully God and fully man and not, somehow, a third kind of thing – a godman in a way which somehow blends the two. I think that Thomas’ understanding actually leans this way because it tends to undermine Jesus’ humanity.

      I think the key question has to do with what faith is in the first place, and what we want to say about the incarnate Christ. I do lean a subjective direction for a variety of reasons, initially, through grammatical argumentation but finally for theological reasons. Christ’s faith, as it were, carves out space for our own faith. Christ’s obedience to the Father – his own faithfulness – is lived as faith and not as another kind of thing, which therefore provides the space for his faith to apply vicariously to us. So, despite our faithlessness, he is faithful.

      In this sense, I think a subjective reading does better justice to the tenor of the Gospel, and helps delineate well between Christ’s obedience and our own faith.

  5. Have you explored the idea that faith is not merely a mental function of believing in or upon a truth? Instead we could consider the function of faith as an action and not only a belief.

    James 2:20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless ?
    James 2:26″As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead”

    from this we can see that deeds are required if one is to ascribe the term faith to an individual. Therefore, i propose to you that the word faith is to be used as you would use a verb, as an action.

    James 2:22
    You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.

    You can do without faith, but you cannot faith without doing.

    Galatians 5:4-6 (New American Standard Bible)
    4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
    5 For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness.
    6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.

    once again faith is working through an action, in this case love. love is not a feeling, it is shown by obedience and service, devotion and truth.

    “Listen” to this passage
    1 Thessalonians 1:3
    3 constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father,

    are you beginning to see that faith is an action not a thought process?
    Do you want to see how we know that Jesus had perfect faith?

    read this scripture
    James 2:22
    22You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;

    • The Reformed tradition in which Allen functions has not wanted to limit faith to simply a function of “mental” assent. There are a variety of options here, but the major thrust is that faith is a movement of the heart – and is therefore a precursor to works, rather than being reduced to works itself. This seems right to me. The biblical evidence seems to point this way as well. The assumption is that faith will work because it entails a movement of the heart towards a given end. Edwards shifts this into an aesthetic register, which also seems right, so that the contours of faith analogously trace along beholding beauty – it is not simply assenting to beauty, but being genuinely inclined to it that marks faith.

  6. Oddly, the entire Old Testament only mentions the word “faith” about seven times or so; and at least two of those times, it refers to God’s faith in us, not ours in him. (While on another occasion, it refers to faith in the nature of an ox).

    The whole stress on “FAITH” therefore, is almost wholly a New Testament – and even overwhelmingly Pauline – development. (Unless you read the NT “faith”/pistis, as Wright suggested, not as an inner sensation, but as the traditional, OT faithful or obedient loyalty to the old covenants. But that is a usage at odds with modern Christianity).

    For these and other reasons, I’d have to say I don’t have much confidence that what we today call “faith” really is the intended heart of Christianity at all.

    • I know of no theological orientation outside of modern liberalism who wants to talk about faith as an “inner sensation.” The New Testament’s use of Abraham as the “Father of faith” is a helpful example here as well. Further, I’m not sure counting examples is the way to judge theological weight – which is a similar move to the Socinians against the Trinity – it just isn’t theological informative.

  7. Well as a matter of fact, at lot of people reject the concept of the Trinity as well. In part but not wholly because of the statistical Biblical record. That is, only because of the lack of a) even a single explicit mention. But also because of b) lack of structural support as well. THere are several sites by non-trinitarian Christians that speak of this, and are current debating the evidence, if you are intererested.

    It seems likely that in the very first days of Judeo-Christianity, the claim that Jesus simple was God, and not just his “son” etc., or was part of a trinity, was controversial. Especially to its overwhelmingly Jewish audience. And so, read more closely, the early pronouncements of Judeo Christianity seem to fudge on that subject. Jesus rarely simply said he was God. But 99% of the time, more often merely asked “who do you say I am.” Here statistics might begin to indicate a need for a theological revision or reconsideration.

    While indeed, the recent trend to see Jesus more as a fallible human being, seems to do the same.

    And, read more closely, the Bible – outside of Paul – many have said, seems to stress a religion based on observation of “fruits,” “works,” “signs,” “deeds,” and “proofs”; based on material evidence that we ourselves have “seen.”

    This is true not only in the OT, but also to some extent, even in the New.

    For that reason, I’m enclined to revise our understanding of “faith”; to stand for not an inner feeling of fidelity, of belief, no matter how seemingly exhaulted, but in the sence that Wright rightly explores: it just means faithfully or consistently, following the commands, of God.

    In other words, it means not “having faith,” in your spirit; but actually, reliablly – faithfully – doing what God told us to do.

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