From the Letter to the Romans:
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 3:21-22 (NRSV) – June 23, 2014)
Great! Here it is, the single phrase in Paul’s writing, the single preposition the translation of which can radically change one’s understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith. But . . . I’m not going to address that doctrine this morning; I’m more interested right now in ambiguity.
And in that vein, what I just wrote about translating the original Greek is not entirely accurate: it’s not how a preposition is translated because, in the Greek, there is no preposition. The Greek of the last phrase (everything after the last comma) is dikaiosene de Theou dia pisteo Iesou Xristou ei panta tou pisteuonta. The construction pisteo Iesou Xristou is what is called the genitive case. The standard translation of this case into English requires insertion of the preposition “of”. However, it can also be understood as a variant called the objective genitive in which the preposition “in” is inserted for interpretation. In other words, Paul’s Greek is ambiguous.
Which means — right? — that we have to figure out which it is. Is the righteousness of God disclosed by our faith or by Jesus’ faith? Are we saved by our trust in Jesus or by Jesus’ trust in his Father?
This is a debate that has gone on for centuries and the church’s traditional answer has been to go with the objective genitive translation and insert an “in” in this sentence (and similar statements throughout Paul’s writing). But doesn’t that put the ball in our court? Doesn’t that say it is something we do, not something Jesus does? Somehow, it seems to me, that that one little preposition — “in” — puts us in charge of the process of redemption; it requires of me that which Jesus once painfully demonstrated even his most ardent followers did not have — faith at least the size of a mustard seed. (Mt 17:20; Lk 17:6)
So, we have to figure this out! Or do we? What if there is no definitive answer to this question? The ambiguous Greek of this otherwise simple phrase cannot be made any clearer. Like much of Holy Scripture it is a matter of interpretation and either reading can find support in other verses of the Bible; whole theologies have been constructed on one reading or the other.
Early in the morning, not yet showered, with only one cup of coffee in me . . . I’m not going to reach any definitive answer nor build a theory of salvation. In fact, wide awake and dressed for battle I wouldn’t be able to do so. And that’s just fine, because in its ambiguity, Paul’s prose probably should be understood in both ways. I believe that Paul (or perhaps the Holy Spirit working through Paul) is being deliberately inexact, forcing his readers to think in alternative and creative ways!
This is both the beauty and the frustration of bible study, the beauty and the frustration of Christian belief. Accepting such ambiguity, and learning to live with it, is why I am an Episcopalian, an Anglican. For me, this is the beauty and delight of Anglicanism. Our theological tradition is sometimes called a “both/and” tradition. Anglicanism is also sometimes caricatured as attempting to be everything to everyone and thereby being nothing to anyone. We Anglicans describe ourselves as a via media (“middle way”) among the various iterations of western Christianity, between the papal authoritarianism of Rome and the paper authoritarianism of the Protestants. This middle position has been called both a strength and a weakness; I tend to view it positively, but I have to admit that it’s often an awkward place to be. Anglicanism is often awkward!
I think that awkward position is precisely where consideration of which preposition to insert when interpreting Paul’s Letter to the Romans puts us, and I think that it’s a good place to be. Between “of” and “in”, between either/or and both/and, between nothing and everything is a place of dynamic tension. It’s not a place to find definitive answers, but it’s a good place to start the day.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.