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The Christo-Centrism of Faith in Christ: Martin Luther's Reading of Galatians 2.16, 19–20

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 September 2013

Jonathan A. Linebaugh*
Knox Theological Seminary, 5554 North Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, FL 33308. email:


It is regularly suggested that the great weakness of reformational orderings of ‘faith’ and ‘justification’ is that they fail to coordinate Christology and the doctrine of justification. Behind this assertion is a particular construal of the pistis Christou debate: the interpretative decision to read Christ as the object of faith contributes to an anthropocentric account of justification whereas a ‘subjective’ interpretative of the genitive phrase restores the (Pauline) relationship between Jesus and justification. This article will argue that this is a misreading of Protestant theology, at least as it comes to expression in Martin Luther's exegesis of Galatians 2.16, 19-20 which presents a radically Christocentric account of ‘faith in Christ’. For Luther, the sola fide, as an interpretation of a Pauline antithesis—‘not by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ’—, is an anthropological negation and a christological confession: it excludes the human as the subject of salvation and confesses Christ, who is present in faith, as the one by, in, and on the basis of whom God justifies the ungodly.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics IV/1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation (ed. Bromiley, G. W. and Torrance, T. F.; trans. Bromiley, G. W.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956) 632.Google Scholar

2 Hays, Richard, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3.1–4.11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2d ed. 2002) xxix;Google Scholar quoting Ebeling, Gerhard, ‘Jesus and Faith’, Word and Faith (London: SCM, 1963) 203Google Scholar.

3 Hays introduced the ‘anthropological-christological’ contrast with Bultmann as the named polemical target (The Faith of Jesus Christ, xxv–xxvi). The expansion of the contrast to include ‘anthrocentric-theocentric’ is most notable in the work of Douglas Campbell, as are the ‘contractual-covenantal’ and ‘Arian-Athanasian’ distinctions which he borrows from James Torrance's critique of Federal Theology. For Campbell, see especially The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009)Google Scholar. For Torrance, see Covenant and Contract: A Study of the Theological Background of Worship in Seventeenth-century Scotland’, Scottish Journal of Theology 23 (1970) 5176CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Torrance, The Covenant Concept in Scottish Theology and Politics and its Legacy’, Scottish Journal of Theology 34 (1981) 225–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Interestingly, in the essay Hays quotes, Ebeling anticipated this rhetorical situation and warned that we must ‘not let ourselves be impressed by the labels…like “anthropological approach”’ (‘Jesus and Faith’, 202 n. 1).

4 Moo, Douglas J., The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 225Google Scholar. Moo's opinion reflects Aquinas's insistence that the infused knowledge of the incarnate Son negates Jesus' need for faith; see Aquinas, ThomasSumma Theologiae 3a. 7, 3. References to the Summa Theologiae are to the Blackfriars edition (60 vols.; New York: McGraw–Hill, 1963–76)Google Scholar.

5 Allen, R. Michael, The Christ's Faith: A Dogmatic Account (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology; London: T&T Clark, 2009)Google Scholar.

6 Once the theological objections are addressed, the strong semantic case for something like the objective genitive can be heard: (1) Paul's instrumental faith clauses are derived from the ἐκ πίστɛως of Hab 2.4, which does not (pace Hays, R. B., The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel's Scripture [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005] 119–42)Google Scholar employ ὁ δίκαιος as a christological title but as a reference to the generic, believing human, a point confirmed by the appeal to Abraham in Rom 4 and Gal 3 (Watson, Francis, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007] 240)Google Scholar. (2) In Paul, Jesus is never the subject of the verb πιστɛύω and Paul's habit of interpreting an instance of the verb in a citation with reference to the noun (e.g. Rom 4.3, 5; 9.32–33; 10.5–11, 16–17) indicates that the meaning of the noun and verb have not drifted apart (Matlock, R. B., ‘Detheologizing the ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟϒ Debate: Cautionary Remarks from a Lexical Semantic Perspective’, NovT 42 [2000] 123Google Scholar [13–14]; cf. Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles, 243). (3). The question of redundancy in Rom 3.22, Gal 2.16, 3.22 and Phil 3.9 points to ‘a much wider pattern of repetition of πίστις/πιστɛύω in Galatians and Romans, rooted in Genesis 15.6 and Habakkuk 2.4’ that functions to disambiguate the genitive phrase (Matlock, R. B., ‘Saving Faith: The Rhetoric and Semantics of πίστις in Paul’, The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical and Theological Studies (ed. Bird, M. F. and Sprinkle, P. M.; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009) 7389 (89).Google Scholar

7 Chester, Stephen, ‘It is No Longer I Who Live: Justification by Faith and Participation in Christ in Martin Luther's Exegesis of Galatians’, NTS 55 (2009) 315–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reaches a similar conclusion by considering the relationship between justification and participation in Luther's reading of Galatians.

8 Matlock, ‘Saving Faith’, 77 notes Gal 2.16, 19, 20, 21; 3.2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 18, 21, 22, 24, 26; 5.4, 5; Rom 3.20, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31; 4.3, 6, 11, 13, 14, 16; 5.1; 9.30, 32; 10.5, 6; Phil 3.9; cf. Rom 4.4–5; 9.32 (Eph 2.8-9).

9 Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians (1531/5), LW 26:122 = WA 40/I:218, 15–18. References to Luther are from the 55 volume American edition of Luther's Works (ed. Pelikan, Jaroslav et al. ; St. Louis: Concordia, 1958–86).Google Scholar

10 LW 26:4 = WA 40/I:40, 25–6. While this article will focus on the 1531 lectures, it is worth noting that this basic contrast is present in the 1519 revision of his 1516–17 Lectures on Galatians as well: ‘There are two ways in which a man is justified… In the first place, there is the external way, by works… This is the kind of righteousness the Law of Moses, even the Decalogue itself, brings about… In the second place, there is the inward way, on the basis of faith and of grace’ (LW 27:219–20).

11 LW 26:122 = WA 40/I:217, 27–28.

12 LW 26:5 = WA 40/I:42, 18–19.

13 LW 26:140 = WA 40/I:245.

14 LW 26:5 = WA 40/I:42, 22.

15 Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation (1518), LW 31:39, 42.

16 LW 26:137 = WA 40/I:240, 17–19.

17 Martin Luther, Work on the Psalms, WA 5:128, 36.

18 Hays, Richard B., ‘ΠΙΣΤΙΣ and Pauline Christology: What Is at Stake?’, Pauline Theology. Vol. 4, Looking Back, Pressing On (ed. Hay, David M. and Johnson, E. Elizabeth; Atlanta: Scholars, 1997) 3560.Google Scholar

19 Hays, ‘ΠΙΣΤΙΣand Pauline Christology’, 293.

20 Hays, ‘ΠΙΣΤΙΣ and Pauline Christology’, 293.

21 LW 27:220.

22 The Disputation Concerning Justification (1536), LW 34:189 = WA 39/I:120.

23 Bayer, Oswald, Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (trans. Trapp, Thomas H.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 188.Google Scholar

24 LW 26:5 = WA 40/I:41, 1–2.

25 Martin Luther, Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (1522), LW 35:370 = WA, DB 7:11.

26 LW 26:6 = WA 40/I:43, 15–16.

27 LW 26:8 = WA 40/I:47, 15–16.

28 This theme is already present in the 1519 lectures, where Luther insists that righteousness ‘on the basis of faith and of grace’ occurs ‘when a man utterly despairs of his former righteousness’ (LW 27:220).

29 Barth, CD IV/1, 621.

30 Bayer, Martin Luther's Theology, 172; cf. 191: ‘faith, for Luther, is in forgetting the self completely’.

31 Cf. Iwand, Hans J., The Righteousness of Faith according to Luther (trans. Lundell, Randi H.; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008)Google Scholar: ‘in faith a person takes a decisively judging position for God and against himself’ (italics original).

32 LW 26:130 = WA 40/I:229, 22–30.

33 Luther, Martin, ‘Freedom of a Christian’, Three Treatises (trans. Lambert, W. A.; rev. Harold Grimm; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970) 286–7.Google Scholar

34 LW 26:129 = WA 40/I:228, 31–229, 15. For the ‘joyous exchange’ in the Galatians lectures, see LW 26:284 = WA 40:443, 23–4.

35 LW 26:132 = WA 40/I:233, 16–19.

36 Forde, Gerhard, Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).Google Scholar

37 LW 26:170 = WA 40/I:287, 30–288, 2.

38 Oberman, Heiko, The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986) 120-5Google Scholar indicates Luther's awareness of the distinction in Roman law between the right to use (possessio) and ownership (proprietas).

39 Cf. Chester, ‘It Is No Longer I Who Live’, 317: ‘In his exegesis of Paul, Luther displays a profoundly participatory understanding of justification in which human faith is of salvific significance solely because it is itself christocentric’.

40 Lectures on Jonah (1525/6), LW 19:11 = WA 13:246. For a penetrating reading of this text, see Bayer, Martin Luther's Theology, 133.

41 For Luther on the pro me, see LW 26:176–79 = WA 40/I:295–300.

42 LW 26:172 = WA 40/I:291, 3–4.

43 Cf. Chester, ‘It Is No Longer I Who Live’, 321: ‘Christ himself is the gift received by the believer’.

44 On this theme, see Paulson, Steven D., Lutheran Theology (T&T Clark ‘Doing Theology’; London: T&T Clark, 2011) 136–7.Google Scholar

45 Käsemann, Ernst, Commentary on Romans (trans. Bromiley, G. W.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980)Google Scholar 101: ‘Precision is given to sola gratia by sola fide’.

46 LW 26:387 = WA 7:69, 12–13.