Reviews of

Faith as Participation

In Gregg S. Morrison, Jeanette Hagen Pifer, Mohr Siebeck, Participation, Paul on October 2, 2020 at 3:17 pm

2020.10.17 | Jeanette Hagen Pifer. Faith as Participation: An Exegetical Study of Some Key Pauline Texts. WUNT II 486. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019. VII + 258 pp. ISBN: 978-3-16-156476-5.

Review by Gregg S. Morrison, Birmingham, Alabama (USA).

Jeanette Hagen Pifer, currently Assistant Professor of New Testament at Biola University, has written a stimulating work that focuses on Paul’s conception of πίστις and union with or participation in Christ as found in 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians. The monograph, published in Mohr Siebeck’s WUNT II series, is a revision of her doctoral dissertation at Durham University, which was supervised by Professor John M. G. Barclay. The book consists of seven chapters—an introduction and conclusion with the second, third, and fourth chapters entitled “Faith and Participation in…” 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, respectively. Pifer’s discussion of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is divided into two chapters and entitled simply “Galatians 2:15–21” (chapter 5) and “Galatians 3–6” (chapter 6).

There she eliminates the tag “Faith and Participation in” to present the wider context of Galatians, since it contains more controversial questions regarding the nature of πίστις than the Thessalonian and Corinthian correspondences (p. 118). The concluding chapter (chapter 7) offers (i) a summary of her thesis, (ii) several important implications of her reading, and (iii) brief hints as to how πίστις is to be read in Romans and Philippians.

Pifer’s introduction (chapter 1) does four things: (1) define her question; (2) frame her question within the context of three wider debates that have taken place in Pauline studies; (3) suggest that faith is best understood as some form of participation in Christ; and (4) outline her methodological approach. The burden of her work is clearly stated on the first page: “[T]he primary question driving this study is: What does Paul mean by faith?” In establishing the context for this primary question, she engages the work of five key thinkers: Martin Luther, Adolf Schlatter, Rudolf Bultmann, Fritz Neugebauer, and Teresa Morgan. While each may bring a certain dimension to the notion of faith, Pifer suggests that all five interpreters posit that faith is the way human beings relate to God (p. 9). The question of “what is faith in Paul” is then framed in the context of three wider debates that have ensued in Pauline studies since at least the nineteenth century—namely, the center of Paul’s theology, πίστις χριστοῦ, and divine and human agency. These debates reappear in relevant exegetical discussions in Pifer’s work and become acute in her exegesis of Galatians. The final section of Pifer’s introduction deals briefly with her methodology, which she holds is not a word study on πίστις or the examination of broader contextual issues but rather an analysis of Paul’s concept of faith, including linguistic cognates (p. 38).

Pifer chooses to begin her study with three letters written in the early years of Paul’s mission activity—1 Thessalonians (which she holds is Paul’s earliest), 1 Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians suggesting later that such an approach “makes a hermeneutical advance as it widens the Pauline frame of discussion and provides a larger context for the study of the disputed passages in Galatians” (p. 216). The detailed exegesis of the relevant “faith passages” in these letters lead Pifer to see πίστις primarily as a human mode of existence that is simultaneously self-negating and self-involving dependence on Christ (pp. 71, 85, 96, 117) and, thus, implicitly participatory. Supporting this view are the various conceptual/linguistic cognates that Paul uses in discussing faith—verbs that clarify and give shape to πίστις by illuminating its origin, dynamism, and effects on the lives of believers. 

Chapter 5 on Galatians 2:15–21 primarily engages with the work of J. Louis Martyn and Martinus de Boer. It is in this chapter that Pifer tests the temporary conclusions on faith and participation derived from her study of the early letters to this passage and then connects her exegesis to the wider debates that have occurred in Pauline circles. Pifer holds that Galatians 2:15–21 affirms her earlier tentative view on πίστις as both the believer’s self-involving and self-negating dependence on Christ, pointing especially to 2:19–20 as the crux interpretum of Paul’s thought (p. 219). On the first theological debate, Pifer argues that the center of Paul’s thought is neither justification nor participation, but both since the two concepts are joined in Galatians: “[j]ustification is accomplished solely through Christ’s efficacious death and resurrection” while it is “experienced through participation in Christ” (p. 156). For Pifer, then, Galatians 2:16 is the “fullest measure of justification,” while 2:17 restates the same in “the most fundamental terms” (p. 156). Regarding the πίστις χριστοῦ debate, Pifer’s understanding of human πίστις as self-negating and Christ-affirming helps to “retheologise” the objective genitive reading (p. 147) by making it the “logical extension of divine priority in God’s justification through Christ as the believer participates in God’s act by faith” (p. 176.) Finally, on the matter of agency, (prior) divine agency and the (subsequent) human activity of πίστις go together in Paul’s thinking: “Paul presents a mysterious partnership in which the divine agent enables the activity of the human” (p. 176). To relate her memorable phrase, “The ‘I’ [of Gal 2:20] is revivified in Christ, reconstituted by the Holy Spirit to live in this mode of faith in Christ” (p. 223).

Pifer’s penultimate chapter (chapter 6) tackles the role of the Holy Spirit in faith and the resulting ethical requirements of a believer’s life of πίστις. She sees the relationship of human faith and the Spirit as reciprocal—meaning that “the Spirit elicits and enables faith” (p. 213), and yet at the same time “humans must respond to this activity of the Spirit” (p. 182). Pifer suggests that Paul’s language of 5:5–6 provides his central message as it relates to behavior of a believer: a believer’s “new life in Christ operates out of faith, by the Spirit, continuously participating in and manifesting the self-giving love of Christ” (p. 210).

The final chapter (chapter 7) serves as Pifer’s conclusion to her work. In short, Pifer summarizes πίστις as Paul’s favored response to God’s prior gracious act of salvation in which the believer identifies her or himself with the Christ-event. This identification, which for Pifer implies participation, becomes an ongoing mode of existence and is both self-negating and self-involving dependence on Christ in all aspects of life. 

Pifer sets out to address what Paul means by πίστις, by examining not the entirety of the Pauline corpus, but only the early letters (1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians). She indicated that she wanted to do so from a conceptual point of view, applying rigorous exegesis to these letters. Second, she suggested that πίστις is much more participatory in nature than previously understood. So, has she been successful in achieving these stated purposes? I believe she has. 

Pifer’s choice of beginning with the early letters, which are often neglected in discussion of πίστις, provides a helpful corrective to address Paul’s development of πίστις as a response to the gospel and as an ongoing mode of human existence. Second, her exegetical rigor is impressive. The limited space of this review has made it impossible to convey this particular aspect of Pifer’s work, but I dare say this is one of the most thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating aspects of her work. Not all biblical scholars will agree with her conclusions, but her arguments are logical, clear, and well-reasoned, and the voices upon whose shoulders she stands formidable. I should also add that her prose is very readable, at times even elegant. Her attention to a passage’s linguistics and grammar is impressive, and she displays and interacts appropriately with the secondary literature. These items are particularly evident in her two chapters on Galatians, which in my opinion are worth the price of the book.  

The major weakness of the book relates to her [lack of] discussion on methodology. She is very clear in stating that she approaches the study of Paul’s use of πίστις from a conceptual point of view. Yet, oddly, her notion of “concept” is hardly explained—her entire discussion on methodology is only four short paragraphs (pp. 37–38)—and her comparison to other methods (namely, word studies and those addressing “wider contextual issues”) only mentioned in passing (p. 38). 

However, lack of methodological clarity should not detract from what I thought was an important and compelling study. Pifer’s work should ably join the chorus of recent works on faith and participation/union with Christ, not to mention the three major debates in Pauline scholarship (i.e., center of Paul’s theology; the πίστις χριστοῦ debate; and divine and human agency in salvation). This reviewer hopes that Pifer will soon expand her findings into a work that examines more fully Paul’s “later” letters of Romans and Philippians (and beyond).

Gregg S. Morrison
Birmingham, Alabama (USA)

gsm [at] wwminvest.com

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