Genitives and the semantics of love and faith

The question is often asked: ”Is this genitive an objective or a subjective genitive?” I am going to suggest that this is an old-fashioned and unhelpful question, which can lead to questionable conclusions. It is based on the grammatical concepts of subject and object and it was asked long before people started to talk about semantics.

I am saying it is unhelpful, because it is too restricted. In terms of syntax there are three kinds of potential participants in a clause. They are best illustrated with a common ditransitive verb like ”give”. A gave B to C. A is subject, B is object and C is indirect object. In terms of semantics for ”give”, A would be the Agent, B the Patient and C the recipient. In semantics we operate with a bigger set of roles, including Experiencer, Location, Source, Goal, Direction, Instrument, Beneficiary, Recipient. Different theories of semantics operate with slightly different sets and the borderline between the roles are at times fuzzy.

Sometimes people ask about a phrase like ”the love of God”, is it a subjective or objective genitive? But quite often it is neither.  In a clause like ”I love you”, it is more interesting to ask what are the semantic roles than what is subject or object. Is the subject an Agent? Is ”love” an action? Or a feeling or an attitude? It seems to me that the subject expresses the role of Experiencer. This semantic role is somewhere in-between Agent and Patient, probably closer to Patient. When I say ”I am in love”, or ”I love you” I am describing my feelings, not my actions. So, if the grammatical subject is Experiencer, what is behind the grammatical object? I would suggest the role to be a Goal or Direction. My love is directed towards ”you”. Similarly, in the phrase ”the love of God”, God might be the Direction (A loves God) or the Experiencer (God loves A) or the Source (love from God).

The Greek verb πιστεύω is usually translated by ”believe” or ”trust”. A few times it corresponds to ”entrust”.  In the sense of ”entrust” it may take an accusative direct object and a dative indirect object in Greek (e.g. John 2:24, Luke 16:11), but it never has an accusative object in the common sense of ”believe, trust”. I suggest that the subject is best described as Experiencer and the ”object” for belief is the semantic Direction. The Direction can be expressed in different ways in the grammar.  The most common Greek preposition used is εἰς, and this is understandable since εἰς indicates Direction. A quite rare preposition with πιστεύω is the Greek ἐν (Mark 1:15, John 3:15).  In Koine Greek a prepositional phrase with ἐν is often equivalent to a simple dative, and we find that the ”object” for faith is often expressed in the dative, especially if it is a pronoun. This is understandable since the dative is often connected with the semantic roles of Direction, Goal and Beneficiary.  It is common to have a mismatch between semantic roles and grammatical cases. One case may correspond to several roles, and one role may correspond to several cases or prepositions. Another preposition used with this verb is ἐπί (Matt 27:42; Luk 24:25; Acts 9:42, 11:17; 16:31, 22:19,; Rom 4:24,9:33, 10:11; 1Tim 1:16; 1Pet 2:6). Again, ἐπί with accusative often indicates Direction or Goal.

Now, when a noun is used rather than a verb, all semantic roles are made implicit and must be deduced from context. In order to indicate at least one of the roles, another noun or pronoun is often connected to the first noun by way of a genitive construction. The genitive in itself does not determine whether the second noun functions as Experiencer or Direction. In the case of a genitive pronoun, we find the following:

1st person singular: faith in me (Jesus speaking) – Rev 2:13, my faith – Rom 1:12

1st person plural: our faith – 1Jn 5:4 (once in NT)

2nd person singular: your faith – Matt 9:22 etc. (11 times in the NT)

2nd person plural: your faith – (24 times in NT)

3rd person singular: his faith – (Rom 4:5), faith in him – (Eph 3:12)

3rd person plural: their faith – (4 times in NT)

In each and every case the Direction for this faith is Jesus or God. Only two places do we have the pronoun in the role of Direction. That all the others are what is traditionally called ”subjective genitive” has nothing to do with the grammar or semantics, but is what is to be expected pragmatically. Faith is assumed in these contexts to be faith in Jesus and different people can have faith. In a few cases the role of Direction is explicit by way of a prepositional phrase, e.g. ἐν (1 Cor 2:5, Col 1:4), εἰς (1 Pet 1:21; Col 2:5) and πρός (1 Th 1:8), but it is rarely necessary to make this explicit.

If we look at those cases where no pronoun or genitive is involved, we find the same three prepositions (εἰς, ἐν and ἐπὶ) used to indicate the Direction role:

Acts 24:24 περὶ τῆς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν πίστεως about the faith in/towards Christ Jesus.

Rom 3:25 διὰ [τῆς] πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι through (the) faith in his blood

Gal 3:26 διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ through the/our faith in Christ Jesus

2 Tim 3:15 διὰ πίστεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ though a faith that is in/towards Christ Jesus

Heb 6:1 πίστεως ἐπὶ θεόν faith in God

We found with the verb form that the dative case was used more often than a prepositional phrase, and in the case of a noun plus genitive we find that a genitive is also more common than a preposition.

These cases are somewhat debated, because it is a matter of context whether the genitive indicates Experiencer or Direction or even Source. One would need to look carefully at the context, and I am only giving references here:

Mark 11:22 πίστιν θεοῦ – probably faith in God (possibly Source)

Rom 3:22 διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ – probably through faith in Jesus Christ

Rom 3:26 πίστεως Ἰησοῦ – probably faith in Jesus

Rom 4:12  πίστεως τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Ἀβραάμ – the faith of our father Abraham

Rom 4:16 πίστεως Ἀβραάμ – the faith of Abraham

Gal 2:16 διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν – through faith in Jesus Christ, and WE have come to believe in Christ Jesus.

Gal 3:22 ἵνα ἡ ἐπαγγελία ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δοθῇ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν – so that the promise based on faith in Jesus Christ could be given to those who believe (in him)

Php 1:17 τῇ πίστει τοῦ εὐαγγελίου – probably a genitive of Source, the faith that is contained in and brought by the Good News

Php 3:9 μὴ ἔχων ἐμὴν δικαιοσύνην τὴν ἐκ νόμου ἀλλὰ τὴν διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ, τὴν ἐκ θεοῦ δικαιοσύνην ἐπὶ τῇ πίστει – not having a righteousness of my own which is based on (keeping) the law, but the (righteousness) that (comes) through (having) faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on (us having) faith (in Christ)

Col 2:12 διὰ τῆς πίστεως τῆς ἐνεργείας τοῦ θεοῦ – through faith in the (powerful) operation/working of God

Rev 14:12 οἱ τηροῦντες τὰς ἐντολὰς τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν πίστιν Ἰησοῦ – those who keep/hold on to the commands of God and the/their faith in Jesus.

As can be expected, when the genitive refers to a person (like Abraham), the genitive indicates the Experiencer (”subjective genitive”), and where the faith is directed towards Jesus or God or an activity of God then we have the role of Direction.

Some people have argued that a ”subjective genitive” is possible in some of these constructions as long as we understand πίστις to refer to ”faithfulness” rather than ”faith”. Normally ”faithfulness, trustworthiness” is expressed by the adjective πιστός, but πιστός can occasionally also mean ”a believer” and πίστις can at times mean ”faithfulness”. There is one genitive construction where the context demands this sense, namely Rom 3:3:

εἰ ἠπίστησάν τινες, μὴ ἡ ἀπιστία αὐτῶν τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ καταργήσει;

If some were unfaithful, surely their unfaithfulness does not obliterate God’s faithfulness. Here the contrast is between the unfaithfulness of people and the faithfulness of God, a common topic in the Old Testament.  The faithfulness of God is not a common topic in the NT, because that is assumed to be a known fact. When the writer wants to remind the hearers of God’s faithfulness, the adjective πιστός is used. I have only found two places where the faithfulness of Jesus is being mentioned (Heb 3:2, Rev 1:5)

12 thoughts on “Genitives and the semantics of love and faith

  1. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    Iver says: As can be expected, when the genitive refers to a person (like Abraham), the genitive indicates the Experiencer (”subjective genitive”), and where the faith is directed towards Jesus or God or an activity of God then we have the role of Direction.

    I’m a little confused by this: isn’t Jesus a person too?

  2. iverlarsen says:

    Two brief comments:
    Stephen, yes I was thinking of saying “ordinary peson”, but that has its own problems, so I decided to only add “like Abraham”. The point is that if we see “faith of X” in the NT, the pattern and expectation is that X has the role of Direction if it refers to Jesus or God, but the role of Experiencer if it refers to anyone else.
    Gary, you could initiate a discussion by asking specific questions. I have already given my take on the verse.

  3. Gary Simmons says:

    It’s non sequitor, but thank you for graciously allowing my questions.

    If we “boast in Christ rather than putting our confidence in the flesh,” then what sort of pistis Xristou would 3:9 be referring to? Following dia, the pistis Xristou is an agent (with respect to dikaiosune), but as far as the phrase’s internal logic goes, I don’t know where to start in analyzing whether Christ is the Direction (Our faith in Christ) or Experiencer (Christ’s faithfulness to God).

    The preceding encomium is a self-parody of Paul’s accomplishments, which adds weight to the Direction interpretation, but then again, if we are to “boast in Christ Jesus,” then that must be relating to His faithfulness (2:6-11, cf. 2:12), wouldn’t it?

    I don’t know whether to turn to the right or to the left in interpreting this.

  4. Bill Klein says:

    As can be expected, when the genitive refers to a person (like Abraham), the genitive indicates the Experiencer (”subjective genitive”), and where the faith is directed towards Jesus or God or an activity of God then we have the role of Direction.

    What I would like to know is, who made the rules as stated above?

    Is the above statement a Greek grammar rule or is it more of an English translation rule?

  5. iverlarsen says:

    Hi, Gary,
    The “boasting” you refer to is from Php 3:3, and there the context is the contrast between boasting in one’s own ability to keep the law and be a “good Jew”, which is accomplished primarily by being circumcised. It is similar to people who may be baptized as children and therefore by definition have become church members and Christians. In my country about 80% of the population is in that category and about 2% regularly attend church and/or have a personal faith in Jesus.
    But Paul is no longer boasting of that kind of outward religious status and practices, because he has come to faith in Jesus, so if he wants to boast, he will only “boast” of what God has done for him and what Jesus did on the cross. The word “boast” is not the best here in English, since one rarely boasts of what others have done, except maybe our children, but then we are really boasting about ourselves by extension.
    What I see as a common theme in these verses is “how to become righteous in God’s eyes”. In verses 4-8 Paul is looking back on his earlier life as a fanatic Jew who could boast of his own accomplishments. But he no longer does that. He has stopped counting on his OWN righteousness based on his keeping the law, and now counts on the kind of righteousness that is based on having faith. Of course, faith must have an object (or direction), and that is Christ.
    As I said, when you only have a noun like ἐπὶ τῇ πίστει in 3:9 (based on faith) you need to supply the participants from context. Here the faith must be directed towards Jesus and/or God and the one having faith is Paul or by extension every Christian.
    When you look at τὴν ἐκ θεοῦ δικαιοσύνην (the righteousness from God) it must be compared to ἐμὴν δικαιοσύνην τὴν ἐκ νόμου (my own righteousness which is based on law). Whenever we see these nouns, we need to supply participants. The word “law” invokes a person keeping the law, and righteousness invokes God considering a person to be righteous, i.e. acceptable to God.
    It must also be compared to τὴν διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ (the righteousness that is a result of either Christ’s faithfulness or faith in Christ). We have three times righteousness in this sentence. Two are in apposition and refer to the same thing, the third is in contrast to that. Of course, it is true that if Jesus had not been faithful and obedient to God’s will for him, he would not have died on the cross and there would be no basis for salvation. But because of the parallelism between the two phrases in apposition: τὴν διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ and τὴν ἐκ θεοῦ δικαιοσύνην ἐπὶ τῇ πίστει, I find it most likely that the same pistis is in view in both. The διὰ πίστεως is the means to salvation/righteousness, the ἐπὶ τῇ πίστει is the basis for salvation. If you take pistis to refer to faith, then it must refer to faith in both parts. If you take it to refer to faithfulness, it must refer to faithfulness in both parts. Because keeping the law is an activity of the person living under the law as a Jew, it is most likely that faith is the activity of the person living under grace as a Christian. This is the traditional understanding, and I see no good reason to go against it.
    Sorry if this is a bit long.

  6. iverlarsen says:

    Hi, Bill,
    What I wrote is not a grammar rule or a translation rule, but a matter of language use and pragmatics. Words are always used within context, and the context of faith in the Bible is faith in God, not faith in the chair you sit on. The Bible does not talk about God having faith in people, but only people having faith in God. When Paul has “faith” in people, he talks about having confidence, hope or knowing, and those are different words. Pistis is never used in these contexts. That is why when you see “faith of A” and A stands for Jesus or God, then that is where the faith is directed, but if A is an ordinary person who can have faith in God, then A is the Experiencer.
    The Bible DOES talk about God loving people, so “love of God” is more open. It could be God loving people or people loving God or people loving other people with love from God.

  7. Bill Klein says:

    Thank you for helping with explanation. It would appear, in the case of faith or love used with the genitive, that the approach to usage depends on the person doing the translating rather than the text itself. Some hold, as the KJV brings across, that both faith and love are OF (from as a source) God and not man. One text that is used is Galatians 5:22 where faith is said to be produced by the Spirit of God. Another one is Hebrews 12:2 where Jesus is called the “author and finisher” of the faith.

    I asked my initial question because there must be a Greek grammar rule that decides the source of faith rather than pragmatics and language use. Some have said they see the language use differently. Your thoughts?

  8. iverlarsen says:

    Hi, Bill,
    Any text whether spoken or written must be interpreted based on its context. And it often happens that different people have different interpretations of the same text. That is a fact of life that we cannot escape no matter how many grammatical rules you are searching for.
    In the case of Gal 5:22 there is very little context for pistis, but most people interpret this to refer to faithfulness rather than faith. It may refer to both, since the word covers both concepts. Even if God and/or the Holy Spirit is the ultimate source of both faith and love in a Christian context, it doesn’t mean that the person does nothing. You have to “step out” in faith and you to have to express your love. It is not an either-or but a both-and.

  9. Bill Klein says:

    I guess I am expressing the frustration of finding that we go by different interpretations of a text based on our own approach to any given issue or subject rather than submitting to the fact that there are no Greek grammar rules that state it is one way or another. It seems like we are doing the same thing with the Greek text as we are with the English text – presupposition and eisegesis rather than allowing the Greek text and Greek grammar rules limit us so that we don’t come up with out own views. Even though we do have a response to God’s Spirit and His Word, I think it is important to ascribe to Him all that is due Him. When interpretations change the emphasis from God’s ability and gift to man’s “efforts”, I get a little uneasy about what we are doing with the text, especially with how people are teaching self-works today. I am all for translating and interpreting the Greek text strictly according to the Greek grammar rules and if there is no specific grammar rule to support the interpretation, then the interpretation is of one’s own preference and belief and not what the writer intended. I know that view places limitations on us in our interpretation of Scripture, but it would establish that only what the writer intended in his presentation is the truth of the text. Again, your thoughts?

  10. Gary Simmons says:

    Thank you, Iver, for your wonderfully thorough explanation. Although I could see τὴν διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ as going either way, I could hardly see a “Christ’s faithfulness to God” reading for ἐπὶ τῇ πίστει. I “think I am convinced” (see 3:4b) now that I agree — most likely the idea of “our faith in Christ” is the proper unpacking of this semantic suitcase.

    Thanks again!

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