Oh those exciting genitive clauses
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 3rd: Psalm 121; Micah 7:18-20; and Romans 3:21-31. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Scholars hold that the Epistle to the Romans is based upon the central idea of the “righteousness of God.” This is a much studied and debated biblical phrase. It means, in one sense (as a subjective genitive), an attribute of God, God’s own righteous character and actions. In another sense (the objective genitive), the phrase means God’s gift of righteousness, which is a righteousness given to those who believe.
In other words, in the former case, the “of God” (the genitive) refers back to the subject – God. “The righteousness of God” in this sense is a description of God, the subject – God is righteous. In the latter, the “of God” refers to “righteous” as an object that God bestows. “The righteousness of God” in this sense is the righteousness that God bestows as a gift upon believers.
So “the righteousness of God” may either be a description of God (subjective genitive) or a gift from God (objective genitive).
If you are still reading, congratulations. This grammar stuff can seem dry and uninteresting. Let’s see if we can change this by looking at the next genitive phrase, which is “through faith in Jesus Christ ...” As an objective genitive, faith is a gift presented by Christ to the one who believes. It does not refer to the person of Jesus, but to something of Jesus (an object and thus objective genitive), namely the faith Jesus bestows.
If “through faith in Jesus Christ” is read as a subjective genitive, however, then it becomes “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” It is a description of the subject, namely Jesus. In this sense, it is not the object of faith bestowed, but it is description of Jesus Himself and His own faithfulness.
If you would now turn to your Bibles. At Romans 3:22, you may read “through faith in Jesus Christ” in the text. You may also notice a footnote with an alternate reading that offers “through the faith of Jesus Christ.” The footnoted alternate is the subjective genitive; it is a description of Jesus’ faithfulness.
What a myriad of possibilities are opened by how a person chooses to read a genitive phrase in just this one verse of Romans 3:22! What I choose to read in the genitive about faith is Paul’s statement “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” Then onto vs. 25 which would be read not so much as “effective through faith,” but rather as “effective through Jesus’ faithfulness.” And at vs. 26, instead of “he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus,” it would be “justifies the one through the faithfulness of Jesus.” All of these alternative readings are possible in the text simply by choosing the subjective rather than the objective genitive.
This dry grammar has suddenly become theologically significant. Paul is saying that God’s righteous nature (subjective genitive) is manifest through the faithfulness of Jesus (subjective genitive). This turns attention away from our faith to Jesus’ faith. Instead of faith and believe in vs. 3:22 being somewhat redundant, now the righteousness of God is expressed perfectly in the faithfulness of Jesus, and this righteousness of God then becomes available “to all those who believe.”
Our belief opens us up to God’s righteousness not through our faith primarily, but through our belief in the faithfulness of Jesus. Jesus is the lynchpin. Jesus’ faithfulness is what we dive into especially during Lent when we consider that Jesus remains faithful even unto the cross. On this second Lenten Friday, let us focus on this extraordinary and extraordinarily important faithfulness, not ours, but Jesus’.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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