I am not sure I have never done a blog post “by request” before, but when Mat Loverin calls the tune, I have to dance. This is a difficult little problem which touches on the syntax of the Greek New Testament, but may very well reflect the presuppositions of the reader more than anything else. In addition, this is an allusion to the book of Habakkuk and may also illustrate how Paul uses the Hebrew Bible to evoke more ideas that are contained in the actual words.
In his magisterial commentary on Romans in the ICC series, C. E. B. Cranfield lists the following options for understanding this phrase:
- From the faith of the Old Testament to the faith of the New Testament.
- From the faith of the Law to the Faith of the Gospel (Tertullian)
- From the faith of the preachers to the faith of the hearers (Augustine)
- From faith in one article to faith in another (Mentioned by Aquanis)
- From faith in the present to faith in the future (Mentioned by Aquanis)
- From the faith of the words (whereby we now believe what we do not see) to the faith of the things, that is realities (whereby we shall possess what we now believe in) (Augustine)
- God’s faithfulness to man’s faith (Ambrosiaster)
- Growth in faith (Sanday and Headlam)
Notice that some of these possibilities seem to bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New, it is all “one faith.” Others see “faith” as a technical term for “doctrine,” others here the word faith as our response to God. Some of these historical suggestions are very much driven by presuppostions.
Cranfield says that the problem with all of these views is that they take “from faith” in a different sense that it is used in the Habakkuk quotation. He mentions that it is possible to take “from faith” as meaning by faith and “by faith” as an instance of “an abstract for a concrete.” The Habakkuk quote probably intended to link righteousness and faith. Habakkuk is commenting on the fall of Judah to the Babylonians – how does a faithful person respond to such a spiritual disaster? Cranfield therefore suggests that the meaning is something like “for in it (the gospel that is being preached) a righteous status which is God’s gift is being revealed (and so offered to men) – a righteous status which is altogether by faith.” (Romans, 99). This is a theological unpacking of the text which may very well be good theology, but is it what Paul intended to communicate?
Should the meaning of this line in the book of Habakkuk bear on Paul’s use of the line in Romans 1:17? It is possible that Paul wanted us to hear the words of Habakkuk in their original context and “hear the echoes” of the fall of Jerusalem in the quote. If so, then the reader ought to be thinking about the faithfulness of God in keeping his covenant despite the sin of Israel and the judgment of the exile. The faithful God is working in the people of faith to reveals his righteousness / justice at the present time. Perhaps this is a text which could be read as an “end of the exile” motif in Paul. How is it that God has ended the long exile of Israel? By revealing his righteousness through the faithful act of Jesus on the cross.
But if I say “we have nothing to fear except fear itself,” I am not sure I can expect my audience to hear the words in the context of Franklin D. Roosevelt, nor even know that the words are from his 1933 inaugural address. (In fact, his point was “we can get through the depression,” but until I looked it up, I would have thought this referred to entering World War II). There are some people who might think that someone else said the line and “hear and echo” of something I had not intended, and perhaps “create a meaning” in their own mind that was not my intention at all. Imagine the meaning if someone thought that Yogi Berra was the source of the phrase, describing the chances the 1969 Mets had at winning the World Series! Or worse yet, Harry Potter trying to convince Ron Weasley to follow the spiders into the Forbidden Forest. Those contexts might very well spin the meaning of my use of the quote off into unintended and perhaps disastrous meanings to my original text.
Overall I am inclined to give the context of the Hebrew Bible full weight in Paul’s allusion, especially since this line is something of a theme for the whole book of Romans. Paul is declaring that the faithful God is acting to reveal his righteousness in the faith actions of his Son, on behalf of the faithful.