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Reason No. 1: Semantic Fallacies – 100 Reasons πίστις Χριστοῦ is an Objective Genitive

Posted by NT Wrong on December 17, 2008

pistis_christouThis is the first of 100 reasons why πίστις Χριστοῦ (and variations) should be interpreted primarily as an objective genitive in the letters of Paul. The post is an abridged version of one of the 100 reasons included in my forthcoming book:

100 Reasons πίστις Χριστοῦ is an Objective Genitive

Did I say ‘primarily’ interpreted as an objective genitive? Yes indeed. I say ‘primarily’, because the objective meaning (having human faith in Christ) is, on examination, the main gist of the phrase in Paul’s writings. So I guess I’m not entirely excluding a secondary meaning, all mixed up in Paul’s mysterious way of thinking, as evidenced in his letters, which involves Christ’s own faithfulness to God in carrying out his salvific mission on Earth.

A few of my 100 reasons are rebuttals of arguments for alternative interpretations, which must also be provided to those who have wallowed in false understanding. In particular the (faddish) subjective genitive interpretation gets a pants-down spanking. Like in this first one…

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Reason No. 1: Semantic Fallacies

It is generally agreed that the meaning of πίστις ranges from faith/trust/confidence to faithfulness/trustworthiness, encompassing a fair few other meanings ‘inbetween’. Like all attempts at translation, there is no 1:1 correspondence between πίστις and any one English term. With this concept vaguely in mind, and only vaguely, Richard Hays argues that it is a “semantic fallacy” for his opponents to make a clear distinction between the two meanings of the term noted above, given that the Greek term connotes both meanings (2002: 295). It would mean that you couldn’t ever interpret Paul as referring to “faith in Christ”, because πίστις must also mean “faithfulness”, and it’s impossible to have “faithfulness in Christ” (well, at least that seems to be the rationale behind Hays’ objection).

If Hays were correct, he would be right to conclude that his opponents’ argument is fundamentally flawed. And this is what he does in fact conclude:

“Indeed, [James] Dunn’s whole argument depends on making a clear distinction between “faith” and “faithfulness” [emphasis added]:” (Hays 2002: 295).

The argument sounds kind of convincing, in particular because Hays has labelled his argument against the objective genitive with the very scary term, “semantic fallacy”. But the argument only appears convincing up until the point at which you realise that it is Hays himself who is making the semantic fallacy.

How? If a word takes a wide variety of meanings according to various contexts, it can still quite plausibly take one of those meanings in one particular context. Hays’ position is itself a fallacy of insisting on the diachronic range from ‘faith’ to ‘faithfulness’ in every case the word is employed. The fallacy consists of an illegitimate transfer of the totality of the diachronic range onto a particular occurrence, whether that involves denotation or, as in Hays’ contention, “connotation”. Or, in Barr’s terminology, it is a clear case of “illegitimate totality transfer”:

“The error that arises when the meaning of a word (understood as the total series of relations in which it is used in the literature) is read into a particular case as its sense and implication there, may be called ‘illegitimate totality transfer’” (Barr 1961: 218)

Barry Matlock makes a fairly similar criticism, in a couple of his landmark articles which tore apart the fragile foundations of the subjective genitive interpretation (2000: 6; 2002: 315). The term πίστις can simply mean either “faith” (e.g. Mk 11.22) or “faithfulness” (Rom 3.3), depending on the (so important) context. So it is, rather, a “semantic” fallacy to insist that it must mean both in any given context.


  • James Barr, Semantic Fallacy Detector Man, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Glasgow: OUP, 1961), 218).
  • Richard Hays, Subjective Genitive Man, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3.1—4.11. Rev. Ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
  • R. Barry Matlock, Objective Genitive Man, “Detheologizing the ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ Debate: Cautionary Remarks from a Lexical Semantic Perspective.” Novum Testamentum 42.1 (2000): 1-23.
  • R. Barry Matlock, “’Even the Demons Believe’: Paul and ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49.3 (2002): 300-318, 315.

6 Responses to “Reason No. 1: Semantic Fallacies – 100 Reasons πίστις Χριστοῦ is an Objective Genitive”

  1. You are Truly Great.

  2. John Ottens said

    This should hardly be included in a list of ‘100 Reasons πίστις Χριστοῦ is an Objective Genitive’. Maybe you should relocate it to the list of ‘100 Reasons πίστις Χριστοῦ is not necessarily a Subjective Genitive’. … Sorry, I suppose that I am just arguing semantics.

  3. NT Wrong? said

    You’re right, John. But I did admit to this in the post. And how else could I get to 100?

  4. Barry Matlock said

    ‘Objective Genitive Man’–how would that look on a t-shirt? Or maybe a superhero costume! NOW I know what to ask for for Christmas!

  5. Geoff Hudson said

    Comment moved to the Hobbyhorse Comments Post.

  6. Thanks for doing this series. You inspired me to blog my own take in The Meaning of Pistis Christou. (Sorry, you won’t find 100 reasons here.)

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