Thursday, September 07, 2006


The obedience of faith

In Rom 1:5 we find the expression υπακοη πιστεως:

Rom 1:1Παῦλος δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, κλητὸς ἀπόστολος, ἀφωρισμένος εἰς εὐαγγέλιον θεοῦ,
2ὃ προεπηγγείλατο διὰ τῶν προφητῶν αὐτοῦ ἐν γραφαῖς ἁγίαις,
3περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ τοῦ γενομένου ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ κατὰ σάρκα,
4τοῦ ὁρισθέντος υἱοῦ θεοῦ ἐν δυνάμει κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης ἐξ ἀναστάσεως νεκρῶν, Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν,
5δι' οὗ ἐλάβομεν χάριν καὶ ἀποστολὴν εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν ὑπὲρ τοῦ ὀνόματος αὐτοῦ,
6ἐν οἷς ἐστε καὶ ὑμεῖς κλητοὶ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ,

How should one translate εις υπακοην πιστεως? What does it refer to?

As for translation, one could literally render it as "to obtain/bring about obedience of faith" and be done with it. But in reality there are several questions to be asked:
  • Does the translation "obedience" truly make justice to the meaning of υπακοη? What does Paul mean by "obedience"?
  • What type of genitive is πιστεως? Should we say "obedience that is expression of faith"? Or simply "obedience that is faith" (epexegetical, or genitive of definition)? Or "obedience produced by faith" (genitive of production)? Or again "obedience rendered to faith" (objective genitive)? Does our understanding of faith (πιστις) influence our choice of the type of genitive and how?
In this post, I shall first examine the NT usage of υπακοη and of the verb υπακουω; I shall then evaluate the etymological origin of these words with the goal of throwing some light on their fuller meaning. Having done that, I shall proceed to consider what type of relation is there between obedience and faith, eventually proposing a translation for the expression εις υπακοην πιστεως. Finally, in the concluding section, I shall try to clarify the connotation of Christian obedience.

1. The meaning of υπακοη

This is where the word υπακοη occurs in the NT (ESV translation):
  • Rom 1:5: through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,
  • Rom 5:19: For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.
  • Rom 6:16: Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
  • Rom 15:18: For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience--by word and deed,
  • Rom 16:19: For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
  • Rom 16:26: but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith--
  • 2Cor 7:15: And his affection for you is even greater, as he remembers the obedience of you all, how you received him with fear and trembling.
  • 2Cor 10:5: We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (lit: the obedience of Christ, εἰς τὴν ὑπακοὴν τοῦ Χριστοῦ)
  • 2Cor 10:6: being ready to punish every disobedience (πᾶσαν παρακοήν), when your obedience is complete.
  • Phm 1:21: Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
  • Heb 5:8: Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.
  • 1Pet 1:2: according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ (ὑπακοὴν ...᾿Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ) and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
  • 1Pet 1:14: As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,
  • 1Pet 1:22: Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth (ἐν τῇ ὑπακοῇ τῆς ἀληθείας) for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart,
While the verb υπακουω occurs in the following passages:
  • Mar 1:27: And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, "What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him."
  • Mar 4:41 (par. Mat 8:27, Luke 8:25): And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"
  • Luk 17:6: And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
  • Act 6:7: And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith (ὑπήκουον τῇ πίστει).
  • Act 12:13: And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer (ὑπακοῦσαι).
  • Rom 6:12: Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.
  • Rom 6:16: Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
  • Rom 6:17: But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,
  • Rom 10:16: But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?"
  • Eph 6:1: Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
  • Eph 6:5: Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,
  • Phi 2:12: Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
  • Col 3:20: Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
  • Col 3:22: Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.
  • 2Th 1:8: in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
  • 2Th 3:14: If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.
  • Heb 5:9: And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,
  • Heb 11:8: By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.
  • 1Pe 3:6: as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
(In the translations, I have highlighted the Greek words "obey" or "obedience" in red, and sometimes the object or subject of obedience in green. Note that colors or emphasis might not be visible if you are reading this post through a blog aggregator rather than directly on the web site.)

A cursory look to the lists above shows that υπακοη seems to be a rather cherished word for Paul. Etymologically, υπακοη is formed by υπο + ακουω, i.e. "hear under". There is then the meaning of attentive listening, and, by implication, of conforming to some command or authority.

It is useful to compare it with its opposite "disobedience", i.e. παρακοη (cf. Rom 5:19, 2 Cor 10:6), formed by παρα + ακουω, that is, "hear aside", or mis-hear, and, by implication, neglect to hear. παρακοη is a rare word, and is purposedly employed in contrast with υπακοη. In Rom 5:19, παρακοη is the sin of Adam, which sheds some light on its true meaning (cf. Gen 3): the willful refusal of God's commandments. By contrast, then, obedience is true listening to God's message; in particular, the Pauline model of obedience is Christ, and this not only ethically, so to speak, but soteriologically: the effects of Christ's obedience, that is, διὰ τῆς ὑπακοῆς τοῦ ἑνὸς δίκαιοι κατασταθήσονται οἱ πολλοί, are in themselves a model for the individual effect brought about by obedience: through (δια) obedience the Christian shall be saved. Paul states the same thing in Rom 6:16, when he speaks of obedience εἰς δικαιοσύνην, εις having as usual a meaning of causality: obedience toward/meant to achieve/leading to righteousness.

It is interesting to note that a more common word for "disobedience" is απειθεια, rather than παρακοη, cf. e.g. Rom 11:30, ὥσπερ γὰρ καὶ ὑμεῖς ποτε ἠπειθήσατε τῷ Θεῷ, νῦν δὲ ἠλεήθητε τῇ τούτων ἀπειθείᾳ ("Just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience"), which is from α + πειθω, i.e. "un-convince", or "un-believe". While παρακοη is contrasted to υπακοη within the framework of the presence of God, απειθεια is more linked to unfaithfulness, or refusal to believe in the first place. So the Vulgate, for example, translates Rom 11:30 as "sicut enim aliquando et vos non credidistis Deo nunc autem misericordiam consecuti estis propter illorum incredulitatem." In other words, υπακοη is a word whose meaning must be looked within the context of faith (note the aorist tense of ἠπειθήσατε). And indeed, in Rom 1:1-8 it is clear that Paul speaks to "all who are in Rome, loved by God", and who have already embraced the faith of Christ ("I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world", Rom 1:8). The "bringing about" of obedience is something that applies to the faithful.

From the quotations above, we see that in the NT "obedience" can be seen as the response of a slave toward a master. For Paul, who declares himself (Rom 1:1) δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, this would then be first and foremost obedience to Jesus Christ or, more precisely, to the claims of Jesus Christ. This is the obedience that (2 Cor 10:5) aligns every thought toward (εις) Jesus, that is, toward hearing and following him. Mishearing him then is disobedience (παρακοη), that must be fought and eventually punished (2 Cor 10:6). But it is important to stress that this "obedience" is really dedication of the slave to his master: in other words, Christian obedience implies positive engagement and personal commitment, rather than simply submission. (cf. Col 3:22, "obey [...] not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart.")

But while we are speaking of positive engagement, it is interesting to note that in Classical Greek the verb υπακουω has also the meaning of "answer (by voice or act) when called", or "answer (in a dialogue) when questioned" (LSJ). So, for example, in Homer, Odyssey 10.83, we find

ὅθι ποιμένα ποιμὴν ἠπύει εἰσελάων, ὁ δέ τ' ἐξελάων ὑπακούει

which can be translated as "where herdsman calls to herdsman as he drives in his flock, and the other answers as he drives his forth." I suggest that this link between obedience and [proper] answer to the call of God is implicit in the word υπακοη as used by Paul, and should not be forgotten. It is also apparently this meaning that the translation of Act 12:13b renders as "a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer [ὑπακοῦσαι]". ("answer a knock at the door" is another meaning of υπακουω found also in Classical Greek, and explicitly listed by LSJ.)

2. The genitive πιστεως

The positive engagement mentioned above is actually embedded - so to speak - in the Pauline concept of faith. For Paul, faith originates from personal hearing:

Rom 10:16᾿Αλλ᾿ οὐ πάντες ὑπήκουσαν τῷ εὐαγγελίω
17ἄρα ἡ πίστις ἐξ ἀκοῆς, ἡ δὲ ἀκοὴ διὰ ῥήματος Θεοῦ.

Which we may translate as, "But not all properly answered to (ὑπήκουσαν) the call of the gospel [or, obeyed to the gospel]. So, faith comes from hearing (ἐξ ἀκοῆς), and hearing comes through the word of God". Obedience then, which originates from faith through the word of God, is obedience to the gospel (the gospel "of our Lord Jesus Christ", 2 Th 1:8). Obedience (υπακοη), then, is the ultimate hearing (ακοη), and the complete expression of faith.

In the OT, faith, listening, and obedience are also closely linked: "obedience" is often the translation of שׁמע, originally "to hear", but also (BDB, Qal) "to hear with attention or interest, listen to", "to give heed", "to obey, be obedient"; it is typically associated with "voice" (very often of God), and translated in the LXX with ακουω or εισακουω (take notice in the latter word of the dynamics introduced by the preposition εις, and compare it with the Latin oboedire, from ob+audire). Cf. for example Gen 22:18, Gen 27:8, Ex 5:2 ("Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice..."), Dt 4:30, etc.

Having considered all these things, how should we interpret the genitive πιστεως then? The preposition εις in the expression ἐλάβομεν χάριν καὶ ἀποστολὴν εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως gives us a hint, since it suggest a movement toward obedience, in a context of faith. It does not seem then that an epexegetical genitive is appropriate here, that is, it does not seem that Paul wants to identify faith with obedience ("obedience that is faith"). Similarly, it does not seem that Paul has in mind an objective genitive, "obedience rendered to faith", as if identifying faith with a corpus of doctrines to which obedience is due. And it is not a genitive of production ("obedience produced by faith"), not in the sense of the production of obedience directly coming from faith, as a necessary consequence.

Rather, it seems to me that a translation of εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως needs to take into account several points: attentive submission, personal commitment and answer, and the dynamic nature of obedience as expression of a growing faith. As Heb 5:8 shows (καίπερ ὢν υἱὸς, ἔμαθεν ἀφ᾿ ὧν ἔπαθε τὴν ὑπακοήν - "although he was a son, he learned obedience through [or from/because of] what he suffered"), and as the preposition εις confirms with its meaning of purposedness, obedience is a progressive engagement, incarnated - if I may say so - in our incarnated faith. A faith that, to adopt terminology dear to Pauline theology, must always take into account our nature of man subject to personal sin. A suitable translation (or rather paraphrase) of the expression εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως could then be along the lines of "to bring about that obedience, that is personal answer to and full expression of faith [in the gospel of Jesus Christ]".

3. Conclusion

Many translations simply translate εις υπακοην πιστεως with "to bring about the obedience of faith". But an understanding of the meaning of true Christian obedience is vital to avoid falling, on the one hand, into rigid and cold observance of precepts ("the law"), and, on the other hand, into the illusion that faith by itself provides or produces obedience.

In this post I have argued instead that Christian obedience does come from faith, but in an evolving way, as a result of our journey in the faith of Jesus Christ, and that obedience can only be conceived in a framework of personal engagement with the gospel. In this sense, we should speak of the daily walk toward obedience, ultimate expression of the Christian faith.

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