D. A. Carson, ” ‘Faith’ and ‘Faithfulness’ “, Tabletalk 2/34 (February 2010)
When the Greek word pistis is used in the New Testament, does it mean “faith” or “faithfulness”? Are these translations of the same word exactly synonymous? N. T. Wright states, “Faith and obedience are not antithetical. They belong exactly together. Indeed, very often the word ‘faith’ itself could properly be translated as ‘faithfulness’, which makes the point just as well.” (What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 160.)
Carson agrees that the Greek word can be translated as either “faith” or “faithfulness,” and no one really denies that fact. However, Carson’s concern with Wright is based on two additional assumptions made by Wright. In the first, the word is translated in a number of texts in our English translations with “‘faith in Jesus Christ’ or ‘faith in Christ’ or the like (Rom. 3:22, 26; Gal. 2:16; 3:22; Phil. 3:9).” Without exception, Carson notes, Wright “takes the expression to mean ‘faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ . . . what is at issue is the faithfulness that Jesus Christ exercised by being the faithful Israelite, doing His Father’s will and going to the cross, not the faith that Jews and Gentiles alike exercise, with Jesus Himself as faith’s object.” The soteriological nub of this, Carson writes, is that for Wright, “when Paul speaks of the ‘faith’ of Christians, he is really talking about their ‘faithfulness,’ more-or-less equivalent to their obedience.”
In response, Carson makes three observations, which I include only excerpts with the intention you will read the whole article.
First, in defense of Wright, it is important to recognize that he does not deny that human beings must place their faith in Christ.
Second, although the theme of Jesus being faithful and obedient to His heavenly Father is quite a strong one in the New Testament (especially in John and Hebrews, but witness also Phil 2:5–11; Gethsemane in the Synoptics), it is far from obvious that the theme is found in the half-dozen “faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ” passages. . . . it [i.e. Wright’s emphasis on Jesus’ faithfulness or the faithfulness of the Father to fulfill His covenantal plan for Israel in and through Jesus] is not so much wrong as guilty of putting emphasis in the wrong place. Wright concedes that Christ on the cross deals at some level or other with sin, righteousness, guilt, condemnation, and holiness, but for him these are relatively minor themes compared with the controlling themes of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and of Christ’s obedient faithfulness to His role as the ideal Israelite. In the insightful assessment of Douglas J. Moo, Wright backgrounds what the New Testament foregrounds, and foregrounds what the New Testament backgrounds.
Third, Wright’s penchant for finding “faithfulness” instead of “faith” seriously misses the point in many Pauline passages. . . . In dominant Jewish understanding, God’s justifying of Abraham is entirely appropriate: Abraham deserved it, for he was “faithful.” In Paul’s understanding, God’s justifying of Abraham is in defiance of Abraham’s ungodliness. Small wonder: for Paul, the justification of sinners turns absolutely on Christ crucified.
This is a very helpful and simple, without being simplistic, explanation of the complex position known as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). Through ongoing discussion and debate, it may be more accurate to refer to the present discussion as post-New Perspective on Paul. But if we are to understand this new discussion, we must understand the older discussion that preceded it. And even though we might be in the post stage, I am quite certain that the important nuances spelled out by Carson above are still very much a part of the discussion. I find that many have assumed this understanding of the Bible and its storyline and what it teaches about salvation such that it is not defended, but simply assumed.