A Feature Review of
Paul and the Language of Faith
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
Publications in the field of Biblical Studies can all-too-often fall into two broad categories: stuffy, overly academic and inaccessible; or easy to read and overly simplified. Occasionally, scholars like N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggeman, or Miroslav Volf demonstrate a broad ability to publish both academically-rigorous tomes and popular-level books, but rare is the single book that manages to be equally academic in scope and accessible in style.
Nijay Gupta’s Paul and the Language of Faith is just that, a wide-ranging, nuanced exegesis of the use of the term “faith” (Grk. pistis) in the New Testament documents and the surrounding Greco-Roman literature, as well as a synthesis of the history of the term in Christian tradition, an up-to-date presentation of various academic disputes surrounding its current translations, and a concise discussion of factors that should impact the translation of the term moving forward.
Oh, and all this is accomplished in less than 200 pages. I had to double-check that after writing the previous sentence, just to make sure.
Concise may indeed be the best word to summarize Gupta’s study of the Pauline use of pistis. But in being concise Gupta never gives short shrift to the necessary academic work. He fluently moves through the use of ancient languages, discussions of historical texts and cultural context, as well as current pastoral considerations. In penning such a deep work while remaining so utterly committed to clear and economic writing (and short page count), Gupta has surely given a gift to pastors and ministry leaders who do not have the time or energy to remain immersed in the academy, but wish to understand the contours of current scholarly conversations around Paul’s employment of pistis.
Opening Gupta’s study is a lucid discussion of the various understandings of faith in current Christian practice: does faith simply point to one’s opinions? Or doctrinal assertions? Or, in the popularly-understood Lutheran sense, can faith only be passive, or received, lest we stumble into works-righteousness? Immediately, the reader begins to grasp the complexities of understanding such a simple Greek word. Gupta continues to thicken this complexity by introducing the “faithfulness or faith” debate (Grk. pistis Christou), the use of “faith” in the Old Testament, its development in medieval and Reformation-era writings, as well as a foray into the appearance of pistis in extra-biblical texts like Philo and Josephus. This all takes place before any look at the Pauline documents, and lays the groundwork for one of Gupta’s central assertions: the ongoing understanding and translation of pistis must be dynamic. We must resist the urge to flatten such a layered word into a single English concept, be it belief, obedience, loyalty, trust, allegiance, etc.
With this groundwork established, Gupta takes the reader briefly through the appearance of pistis in the Gospels, before devoting the remaining chapters to the various undisputed letters of Paul. The exegetical work is careful throughout, and is consistently footnoted, pointing the reader to resources for further study. What emerges is a striking sense of theme for each of Paul’s letters to early Christian communities. Loyalty to Christ under suffering is clearly important for Paul as he wrote the first letter to Thessaloniki, while loyalty in the face of seductive idolatry is more his focus in his second letter to Corinth. In Paul’s first letter to Corinth, pistis is connected to a deep trust in the wisdom of God that appears as foolishness to the world, while Galatians incorporates pistis as a necessary step for believers to be connected to what Gupta labels the “Christ-relation” under the new covenant, and the letter to the Roman church connects pistis to the famous reference to Habbakuk: “The righteous will live by pistis,” which is obviously a reference to God’s covenantal work with Israel. Such nuances, all involved in the single word pistis are fascinating to explore, and Gupta is a confident guide. The reader of these chapters is rewarded, not only with a deeper understanding of a single, multi-layered Greek word, but also with an appreciation of the various contexts into which Paul wrote, and what was at stake for these early communities. It is all exegetically-rooted, culturally-sensitive, and enlightening.
Gupta thus contends in Paul and the Language of Faith that ongoing translations of pistis must be dynamic. The single English word, “faith,” with all its religio-cultural baggage, simply cannot bear the load of the rich and nuanced ways Paul employed pistis throughout his writings. In three broad categories, depending on the pastoral context, the modern Christian does well to consider faith as loyalty (which necessarily produces obedience), belief and relational trust. Each is crucial to properly understand, not only Paul’s exhortations to ancient people, but to the ongoing life and practice of Christian pistis today. Faith is “needed to make sense of God beyond the noise of the world’s idols” (108). Pistis is also “fundamentally social and embodied in an active way” (178), and the way in which we are relationally connected directly to God, through Christ, in a wholly new way (what Gupta terms “covenantal pistism”). Faith, pistis, is all these things. Not less.