“So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom. 10:17, KJV)
So reads a popular text that is often used by Christians for various variations on a theme that usually centers around listening to the preacher. The usual interpretation is best distilled, actually, by the rendering in the New International Version (2011, not 1973 or 1984):
“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”
The Amplified Bible makes a similar rendering:
“So faith comes from hearing [what is told], and what is heard comes by the [preaching of the] message concerning Christ.”
And the English Standard Version:
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
All of the above are popular translations used by many Christians. And only one of them gets accurately what the Greek text actually says. Here’s a link to it for any of you who want to check out the language yourself. And this isn’t just a rant for language geeks; this is a translation that has real meaning to what we emphasize in our churches. What we have here, with the exception of the ESV but particularly in the Amplified and NIV, is the translators substituting one very important concept from Scripture with an entirely different concept.
I’m focusing on the last two words in the Greek text, ῥήματος Χριστοῦ (rematos Christou). As you see from the above samples, it’s variously translated the “word of God,” “word about Christ,” “message concerning Christ,” and “word of Christ.” These are not at all equivalent concepts.
The first variation, substituting “God” for “Christ” is a textual issue … the King James translators used the Textus Receptus, a Greek text which actually says ῥήματος Θεοῦ (rematos Theou, or “word of God,” so they were faithfully translating what they had in-hand. Apparently there are manuscripts that render it both ways, but contemporary scholarship holds that the ones using “Christ” are more reliable. No biggie, that’s not a huge theological issue.
But the second variation is a big deal with real implications. According to Moulton’s Analytical Greek Lexicon, and confirmed by a couple Greek-scholar friends of mine, both words in the phrase ῥήματος Χριστοῦ are in the genetive case. Here’s a nice definition of the genitive case from http://www.ntgreek.org/: “For the most part, the genitive is often viewed as the case of possession.” The “word of Christ” in this phrase does not mean the word “about” Christ at all. It means the word belonging to Christ … that is, what Jesus said: his teachings, his sayings, his commands.
We have all too often been guilty of substituting our theology, our words about God, for God’s actual words. The result is a distorted picture of faith.
Asking the question “what is the most important book in the Bible?” is kinda silly — there’s wisdom and truth to be found throughout — but how people answer that question does say a good deal about them and their faith. Google the question and you get a variety of answers, but my quick, unscientific survey suggests that two books tend to bubble to the top: the Gospel of John (Billy Graham’s suggestion of where to start, incidentally), and Paul’s epistle to the Romans (popular with a lot of armchair theologians, though I can’t offhand find any major names saying so at the moment). Certainly in many Evangelical churches with which I’ve been associated, Romans is preached in far more exquisite detail than the gospels. Though it’s definitely an oversimplication, I would submit that the difference here illustrated is the difference between orthodoxy — right teaching — and orthopraxy — right actions. The former is a question of theology; the latter, of discipleship.
I have said before, in person and on this blog, that while we are saved by Christ, we are not saved by our Christology; saved by grace, not by our theology of grace. It’s really a question of what we mean by the word πίστις, “faith” that opens Romans 10:17 … is it belief in propositions and theology as many teach, or is it faithfulness to our Lord? Those who know me will instantly realize I advocate for the latter, and those who don’t already may want to read my post Why Faith? Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20 commanded his disciples to make disciples who observe his commands, not to make believers who think the right stuff about him.
So the kind of faith Paul is advocating in Romans 10 is one that comes, not by hearing the theology about Jesus, and certainly not by learning the Four Spiritual Laws and the doctrine of Justification; rather, by hearing the very words and commands of Jesus Christ: the stuff we often call the “red letters” of the Gospels. And hearing, I submit, isn’t a passive rattling of our eardrums either. It’s what he taught in Matthew 7:24-27:
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (ESV)
A better translation of Romans 10:17 is actually the one my Mom did in the Pioneers’ New Testament:
“Therefore, trust [faithfulness] (comes) from hearing, and hearing, through the message of Christ.”
So may we hear, and practice, the words of Christ, and by so doing increase our faithfulness to him.
Note: I am indebted to my pastor Jeff Jansen, and my Mom Ruth Martin for help with the Greek language interpretation in this post. The rest, including any errors, are my own.