About two years ago, I read a book that I have returned to time and again.

Paul and the Language of Faith


This is why I wanted to learn the Greek of the Bible. Because even something as seemingly simple as one word in Greek carries within it such a wealth of meaning, it is almost impossible to imagine how to bring that into the translated text.

Right after I read the book, I had to write a review. I wanted everyone to know what a treasure this book is.

Without exception, each chapter was a page turner, and the insights within those pages not only answered many of my own questions, they also opened whole new areas of thought. I especially appreciated chapter 10’s treatment of “faith of Jesus Christ,” chapter 3’s overview of the various meanings of pistis, chapter 6’s strange wisdom, and how faith and works interact in Paul’s language.

This is a great book for those who would like a juicy commentary, rich with spiritual power as well as intellectual piquancy, and bonus—every word counts in this slim, yet packed volume

My Review on Amazon

The first thing I learned about the koine Greek word that is most often translated as faith or belief—πίστις | pistis—does not have either of those definitions listed first in my Greek Word Study Tool. The first definition listed is trust.

Dr. Gupta explains that pistis is a “polyvalent” word: it has an array of meanings that range from belief to trust, endurance, loyalty, mental assent, spiritual disposition, the gospel, faithfulness, reason, and obedience. It is, in a way, misleading to choose just one of its definitions and use it across the board. To the Greek reader of Apostle Paul’s day, to read the word pistis would conjure up so much more.

So, the first chapter of this book lays the groundwork for understanding the much deeper and pithier meaning of pistis, that it is not simply believing something, or even having faith in something. It is instead a “full body” response.

πίστις was a crucially important word in the Greco-Roman world, signaling networks of relationships of trust and mutuality, though they could function in many different ways based on the situation. When it comes to Paul, Morgan is certainly correct that Christ mediated divine πίστις toward believers, which was then channeled horizontally in the church.

Nijay Gupta, Paul and the Language of Faith, p35-36

Apostle Paul had dedicated his life, as a Pharisee, to obedience to the Torah out of reverence for God. In discussing Paul’s conversion, Gupta explains how “Paul chose to talk of obligation in terms of ‘obedience of faith,’ rather than Torah obedience.” (p142) Meeting Christ brought a profound paradigm shift for Paul that moved his relationship with God from Torah to Christ. There is still all the polyvalent meanings of pistis here, obedience, trust, loyalty, relationship, but it is no longer oriented around a book of words but around the Living Word.

Dunn observes in Galatians that the focus of πίστις is not on the idea of nondoing, but active trust in God in cooperation and relationship with Jesus Christ, The problem of the law is not that it was about doing, but that the gospel of Jesus Christ revealed to Paul the relationship with God itself stood in the center of religion and the law could not become something that circumvented or cut short this πίστις dynamic.

Nijay Gupta, Paul and the Language of Faith, p146

Throughout his book, Dr. Gupta carefully explains that Paul did not position faith apposite to works. As though the one were the opposite, or the alternative, to the other. Certainly, Gupta acknowledges, Paul placed these two concepts in juxtaposition to each other.

So, why, then?

First, no one in the ancient Hellenistic world would have thought of πίστις as kinetically passive (as in nonactive). In fact, it was often considered something you do—you do πίστις (e.g. Matt 23:23). The matter of πίστις was involved faith and trust of course, but especially as a virtue it was active, energizing, propelling. Second, Paul had no problem with works per se. His letters are highly oriented toward doing what is good and right as a matter of obligation (e.g. 1 Thess 5:12-22; Gal 6:9-10), and he spends ample time in his letters preparing his gentile converts for the return of the Lord, implying moral purity and upright behavior (Rom 15:6). Not only could Paul emphasize the importance of good works (1 Cor 3:13-15), but even in Galatians Paul brought together the language of faith (πίστις) and work(s) (ἔργον) in reference to the telos of life: “The only thing that counts is faith working through love [πίστις δι’ ἀγάπης ἐνεργουμένη]” (5:6 NRSV).

Nijay Gupta, Paul and the Language of Faith, p184

This goes back to Paul’s profound paradigm shift.

It is not that works are bad, or obsolete, or even that they might be too “self-active.”  The problem with works—when there is a problem—has to do with the core of a Christian’s life. Is the center Torah, or is the center relationship with Christ?

This was the “radical step” Paul took. The emphasis of πίστις is already spread throughout the Hebrew scriptures, as Habakkuk 2:4, quoted by Paul in his treatise to the Romans and his letter to the Galatians , and by the writer of Hebrews illustrates.

the righteous live by their faithfulness.

Habakkuk 2:4 (NRSV)

But Paul separated πίστις from Torah religion, Torah works.

Jews would naturally have believed that their covenantal relationship with God was based on trust and fidelity ) πίστις), but all of this was mediated by and through Torah (ἔργα νόμου). Paul argues that the mediation of Torah works conflicts with the relational agency of Christ, what I call the Christ-relation.

Nijay Gupta, Paul and the Language of Faith, p154

The language of faith helps me to understand the synergistic relationship between believing something so deeply and completely that my whole life reflects it. When that “something” is a “Someone,” the change is all the greater.

2 thoughts on ““Paul and The Language of Faith”

  1. Joanne, is there a word for “relationship” in the Greek? We (modern Western Christians) use the word relationship so much in understanding and explaining how to live out our faith authentically. We summarize our paradigm shift in receiving as true the atoning work of Christ on our behalf and the gift of the indwelling Spirit as establishing a relationship with the God of the universe that we never understood (or even imagined) before. We also use the phrase “being in a right relationship with God” (Christianese for having recognized God’s forgiveness in Christ for our sins and surrendering our life to Jesus as Savior and Lord). But is there any word used like this in the Greek? or in Hebrew? Or is “pistis” the closest idea because of its wide and deep connotations? I love that the first definition given in the Greek Word Study Tool is “trust”. That definitely implies relationship, and to me, trust is rooted in love, an active expression of my response to His love for me, even when faced with difficult circumstances.

    1. I think you’re onto something with that question. So far as I know, there isn’t a word that means all the relational things pistis means, though Jesus and Paul both spoke on the family relationship and how that is our model for the Kingdom of God. Relationally, we are so deeply connected as to be family with each other -and with God-.

      I have heard some argue that “personal relationship” is not New Testament language, but rather belief and faith. As you are pointing out, that kind of talk is patently untrue. Pistis absolutely goes there.

Leave a Reply