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The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ in Hippolytus's De Christo et Antichristo: Overlooked Patristic Evidence in the Πίστις Χριστοῦ Debate

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 August 2009

Michael F. Bird
Highland Theological College/UHI Millennium Institute, High Street, Dingwall, Scotland, IV15 9HA, UK email:
Michael R. Whitenton
Dallas Theological Seminary, 3909 Swiss Ave, Dallas, TX 75204, USA email:


The debate over the meaning of πίστις Χριστοῦ has been continuing for some time and shows no signs of abating, yet one conclusion has remained constant: the Church Fathers, generally, did not understand πίστις Χριστοῦ in the Pauline materials in the subjective sense as the ‘faithfulness of Christ’. Furthermore, there has heretofore been no text that correlates Jesus' faithfulness with his death on the cross in patristic writings. In light of that, the aim of this study is (1) to offer a critique of recent work on πίστις Χριστοῦ in the Church Fathers, and (2) to break the longstanding silence by presenting overlooked evidence from Hippolytus's De Christo et Antichristo that unambiguously relates Jesus' faithfulness to his death on the cross.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 Hays, Richard, The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1–4:11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2nd ed. 2002 [1983])Google Scholar.

2 For a fuller discussion of the wide array of issues in the debate, see Bird, Michael F. and Sprinkle, Preston M., eds., The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, forthcoming 2009)Google Scholar.

3 Cf. Harrisville, R. A., ‘ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ: Witness of the Fathers’, NovT 36 (1994) 233–41Google Scholar; Wallis, I. G., The Faith of Jesus Christ in Early Christian Traditions (SNTSMS 84; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Reasoner, Mark, Romans in Full Circle: A History of Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005) 2341Google Scholar; Calhoun, Robert Matthew, ‘John Chrysostom on EK ΠΙΣΤΕΩΣ ΕΙΣ ΠΙΣΤΙΝ in Rom. 1:17: A Reply to Charles L. Quarles’, NovT 48 (2006) 131–46Google Scholar; Mark Elliott, ‘Πίστις Χριστοῦ in the Church Fathers and Beyond…’, The Faith of Jesus Christ (ed. Bird and Sprinkle).

4 Cf. Bockmuehl, Markus, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (STI; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006)Google Scholar.

5 Hays, Faith of Jesus Christ, liii. See also Treier, Daniel J., ‘The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis? Sic et Non’, TrinJ ns 24 (2003) 77103Google Scholar; Barton, John, The Nature of Biblical Criticism (London and New York: Westminster John Knox, 2007) 130–5Google Scholar.

6 Harrisville, ‘ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ’, 233–42.

7 For his discussion on the Church Fathers and other early Christian sources, see Wallis, The Faith of Jesus Christ, 175–200.

8 In his discussion on Origen's Selecta in Psalmos (PG 112.1233), in which he holds that Origen understands πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ only in an objective sense, Harrisville neglects to consider that Origen may have more in mind that just ‘faith in Jesus Christ’. Commenting on Ps 17 (MT 18) v. 24, Origen quotes Matt 7.2 and relates them both with language reminiscent of Rom 3–4, ‘“Repay your servant”. It says the righteousness of faith of Jesus Christ, which has been disclosed to all who believe. [Δικαιοσύνην λέγɛι τὴν ἐκ πίστɛως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἥτις πɛφανέρωται ɛἰς πάντας τοὺς πιστɛύοντας]. For to those who rightly believe, faith is reckoned as righteousness [τοῖς γὰρ ὀρθως πιστɛύουσιν ἡ πίστις ɛἰς δικαιοσύνην λογίζɛται]'. But whose πίστις is in view? Harrisville argues that Jesus' πίστις cannot be in view because Origen says that it refers to the plural, ‘those who rightly believe’. However, he shows no consideration that both senses may be in view. It is possible to argue that Origen understands πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ to signify ‘the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’, which is reckoned as righteousness to ‘those who rightly believe’. Whether this is the correct understanding of Origen here is beyond our current purposes; we merely wish to point out that it should have been considered as an option. See Harrisville, ‘ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ’, 238.

9 Unless otherwise noted, the Greek text for the Apostolic Fathers is taken from Bihlmeyer, K., ed., Die Apostolischen Väter (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1970)Google Scholar.

10 Cf. Gregory, A. and Tuckett, C., eds., The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (New York: Oxford University, 2007)Google Scholar.

11 Cf. Ign. Eph. 20.1; Magn. 1.1; Rom. Inscr.; Barn. 4.8; 16.9; Herm. Vis. 4.1.8; Mand. 11.4; Sim. 6.1.2; 6.3.6; 9.16.5.

12 The strongest case for a subjective genitive can be made in Ign. Eph. 20.1, where Ignatius refers to a future letter that he wishes to write with reference to ‘[Jesus Christ's] faithfulness, his love, his suffering and resurrection’ (ἐν τῇ αὐτοῦ πίστɛι καὶ ἐν τῇ αὐτοῦ ἀγάπῃ, ἐν πάθɛι αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀναστάσɛι) (cf. Ign. Magn. 1.1; Rom. Inscr.; Barn. 4.8; 16.9; Herm. Sim. 9.16.5).

13 Cf. e.g. 1 Clem. 1.22; Ign. Eph. 14.1; Smyrn. 6.1; Phld. 2.1; Herm. Vis. 4.2.6; Mand. 4.1.4; 4.3.3.

14 This unique construction (ἡ πίστις ἡ δι᾽ αὐτοῦ) also shows up in Acts 3.16. Cf. Herm. Vis. 4.1.8; Mand. 11.4; Sim. 6.1.2; 6.3.6.

15 Cf. Herm. Vis. 4.1.8; Mand. 11.4; Sim. 6.1.2; 6.3.6. In his recent volume, Karl Ulrichs draws a similar conclusion regarding the evidence in the NT: ‘Ebenso ist eine Rubrizierung von PX, die ein einziges Genitivverständnis favorisiert und damit andere ausschließt, ein unphilologisches Bemühen—und ein unpaulinisches: Paulus denkt womöglich gar nicht in den Rubriken der Grammatiker, sondern verwendet bewusst “a general (‘vague’) expression”’ (Ulrichs, K. F., Christusglaube: Studien zum Syntagma πίστις Χριστοῦ und zum paulinischen Verständnis von Glaube und Rechtfertigung [WUNT 2/227; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007] 22Google Scholar, quoting Moises, S., God, Language and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the Light of General Linguistics [Leicester: Apollos, 1991] 109)Google Scholar. See similarly Watson, Francis, ‘As we have seen, the christological qualification of Paul's faith terminology is intended to refer neither to “the faithfulness of Christ” nor to “faith in Christ” but, more open-endedly, to the faith that pertains to God's saving action in Christ—originating in it, participating in it, and oriented towards it’ (Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentile: Beyond the New Perspective [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007] 255Google Scholar; cf. Watson, , Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith [London: T&T Clark, 2004] 75–6)Google Scholar.

16 Harrisville, ‘ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ’, 238.

17 Cf. Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle, 24–5.

18 Scherer, J., Le Commentaire D'Origène sur Rom. III. 5–V. 7, d'après les extraits du Papyrus no. 88748 du Musée du Caire et les fragments de la Philocalie et du Vaticanus Gr. 762. Essai de reconstitution du texte et de la pensée des tomes V et VI du ‘Commentaire sur l’Épi re aux Romains' (Cairo: Impr. de l'Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 1957) 154Google Scholar.

19 The Greek text comes from Scherer (Le Commentaire D'Origène sur Rom. III. 5–V. 7, 162) and the English translation is our own.

20 It is interesting to note that Jesus' faith in God is compared with Abraham's faith in God (so also Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle, 24).

21 Harrisville, ‘ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ’, 238.

22 Cf. Chester, Andrew, Messiah and Exaltation: Jewish Messianic and Visionary Traditions and New Testament Christology (WUNT 207; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2007) 423–34Google Scholar.

23 Ferguson, Everett, ‘Hippolytus’, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (ed. Ferguson, Everett; New York and London: Garland, 2nd ed. 1998) 531Google Scholar.

24 Translations and text are from ANF 5.217 and PG 10.781.

25 Cf. recently Allison, Dale C., ‘Healing in the Wings of His Garment: the Synoptics and Malachi 4:2’, The Word Leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honour of Richard B. Hays (ed. Wagner, J. Ross, Rowe, C. Kavin, and Grieb, A. Katherine; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008) 138–9Google Scholar.

26 Cf. e.g. Dunn, James D. G., Romans 1–8 (WBC 38A; Dallas, TX: Word, 1988) 284–5Google Scholar; Wright, N. T., ‘Romans’, NIB (ed. Keck, Leander E.; 10 vols.; Nashville: Abingdon, 2002) 10.528–9Google Scholar; Talbert, Charles H., Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 153–4Google Scholar; Kirk, J. R. Daniel, ‘The Sufficiency of the Cross (I): The Crucifixion as Jesus’ Act of Obedience', Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 24 (2006) 3664Google Scholar.

27 On the referent of πίστις, see the discussion in Hays, Faith of Jesus Christ, 153–5.

28 Bultmann, Rudolf, Theology of the New Testament (trans. Grobel, K.; 2 vols.; London: SCM, 1952) 1.314–15Google Scholar.

29 Longenecker, Richard N., ‘The Foundational Conviction of New Testament Christology: The Obedience/Faithfulness/Sonship of Christ’, Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ: Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology (ed. Green, Joel B. and Turner, Max; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994) 488Google Scholar.

30 Cf. Tonstad, Sigve K., Saving God's Reputation: The Theological Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narratives of Revelation (London: T&T Clark, 2006)Google Scholar; David A. deSilva, ‘On the Sidelines of the Πίστις Χριστοῦ Debate: The View from Revelation’, The Faith of Jesus Christ (ed. Bird and Sprinkle).

31 Elsewhere Hippolytus refers to Jesus as the one from ‘whose side also flowed two streams of blood and water, in which the nations are washed and purified’ (De Chr. 11). He also refers to the cross as a ‘trophy’ which the church carries about with her as a symbol of Christ's triumph over death (De Chr. 59). Hippolytus rehearses the Baptist's testimony from John 1.29 that Jesus is the ‘Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’ (De Chr. 45). Finally, Hippolytus alludes to 1 Pet 3.19 where he states that Jesus was ‘reckoned among the dead … by death overcoming death’ and he descended to Hades in order to ‘ransom the souls of the saints from the hand of death’ (De Chr. 26, 45).

32 See further, Pitre, Brant, Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile: Restoration Eschatology and the Origin of the Atonement (WUNT 2/204; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2005)Google Scholar; McKnight, Scot, Jesus and his Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2005)Google Scholar.