Monday, December 10, 2012

Discipleship and pistis Christou

As I've been researching for one of my final papers, I came across a section in Charles Cousar's The Letters of Paul that discusses the more recent trend in biblical scholarship to define pistis Christou as "faith of Christ" instead of "faith in Christ." The latter was the chosen translation of the Reformation so that "Christ" became the object of faith.  Thus, the Reformers understood Paul to be "calling for trust in Christ rather than the carrying out of the law's commandments," which was entailed in the doctrine of justification by faith (130). In this revised reading of pistis Christou, "believers are justified not by their believing but by Jesus Christ's faithfulness in fulfilling God's redemptive purposes" (130). In anticipation that some might think replacing the preposition "in" with "of" means denying the importance of faith, Cousar offers three points defending why he believes this is not the case. In these three points, Cousar sees a reorientation of what faith means rather than the nullification of faith:

1. The essence of Paul's understanding of the Gospel supports the notion that "the salvation of 'those who believe' depends not on their knowing or believing but on the action of Jesus Christ who fulfills God's purpose. To put it another way, human faith is not the precondition for receiving God's grace, but the responding "Yes" to a grace already given in the Christ event" (131, emphasis added).

2. Human faith is not so much a response of the individual as much as "participation in the faithful obedience of Jesus. Believers claim their solidarity with him in his death, including fidelity to his divine vocation" (131). As far as I can tell, Cousar is not defining participation as some mystical union with Christ so that the individual believer is ontologically changed or somehow now shares in the divine nature of Jesus Christ. Participation is more in terms of sharing in the sufferings of Christ as an act of obedience that is carried out through the life of discipleship.

3. I found this point to be the most interesting. The response of the individual is "defined by the faith of Jesus. The Reformation understanding ("faith in Christ") has often resulted in a faith that is pure passivity, a "non-thing" that seeks only to avoid any taint of works. Jesus' faith, however, provides a pattern of response to grace that is active and aggressive, that risks much and becomes vulnerable to suffering. The believing community is drawn into the pattern of Jesus' faith ('conformed to the image of his Son' [Rom 8:39]), which is much more than the renunciation of works. Thus for Paul a bridge is built from justification to ethics" (131). Instead of negating the importance of faith, Cousar believes that the translation of pistis Christou actually opens up the individual and the community of believers to radical discipleship. And this takes the form of conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. And what do we witness in the life of Jesus Christ through the biblical witness? Radical solidarity with the least of those in this world. Faith defined in this way takes the disciple of Jesus Christ into the depths of this world's sufferings and death zones instead of some sort of escape from this present reality.

Whether or not some would find Cousar's presentation of the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith and the Reformers interpretation of "faith in Christ" to be sufficient (my guess is that some would not), I found it fascinating that Cousar seems to implicitly argue that faith means discipleship. Rather than faith as some sort of epistemic assurance of what Christ has done for me, faith is primarily an action. This, without doubt, has radical implications for how we can understand the life of faith for both the individual and the community of believers.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

An Alienating Antithesis.

Two of my friends have referenced this excerpt from Barth in the past couple of weeks. I finally looked it up for myself and deeply appreciated these words that are found in the "later" Barth:

"For Jesus, and as seen in the light of Jesus, there can be no doubt that all human orders are this old garment or old bottles, which are in the last resort quite incompatible with the new cloth and the new wine of the kingdom of God. The new cloth can only destroy the old garment, and the old bottles can only burst when the new wine of the kingdom of God is poured into them. All true and serious conservatism, and all true and serious belief in progress, presupposes that there is a certain compatibility between the new and the old, and that they can stand in a certain neutrality the one to the other. But the new thing of Jesus is the invading kingdom of God revealed in its alienating antithesis to the world and all its orders. And in this respect, too, the dictum is true: neutralitas non valet in regno Dei [There can be no neutrality in the Kingdom of God]. There is thus concealed and revealed, both in what we called the passive conservatism of Jesus and the individual signs and penetrations which question the world of human orders as such, the radical and indissoluble antithesis of the kingdom of God to all human kingdoms, the unanswerable question, the irremediable unsettlement introduced by the kingdom of God into all human kingdoms."

- Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.2, 177.