The perfect Philippians translation

I read with interest the recent discussion about Philippians 2:6-7. The re-imagining of the frame of that verse has led to a new way of translating the verse. For me, it’s always been a slightly strange expression, “consider equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

Since we’re in the neighborhood, I thought I’d bring up a few of the interesting translation puzzles in chapter 3. First, there is a radical reinterpretation of Phil. 3:9, which is reflected in the NET translation:

and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.

That “Christ’s faithfulness” has traditionally been rendered “faith in Christ” and has created a lot of excitement and controversy. I’ve never thought about it very much, but recently I’ve been reading (and reading and reading… ) Philippians 3. Specifically, verse 3:8 has been very dear to me in the past six months or so as something of a life verse. And that concentration on verse 8 has made me see that the “Christ’s faithfulness” reading makes sense in the context of the whole chapter.

The other translation issue in chapter 3 is the “perfect” problem. How do you translate, TELEOS. Occuring in various forms in 1:16, 3:12, and 3:15. It seems that the NET translators tried to maintain some sort of concordance by always using some form of the word “perfect.” And the first two examples don’t sound too strange, but 3:15 sounds very strange, partly because of punctuation:

Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view.

Especially in the context of all our righteousness being dung, it’s unlikely that any of us is perfect according to Paul’s theology. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying here. Instead, those who are mature in their faith will adopt this point of view. The quote marks around perfect are what we call scare quotes these days, meaning “supposedly this thing but not really.” Again, I doubt that was Paul’s intended meaning so “perfect” is not a perfect translation.

There are many other interesting things to look at in this chapter but I will end our little tour with a question that Gary Simmons asked me on Facebook yesterday:

Would you mind a little dialogue on this chapter? I’d be very interested in hearing whatever insight you might have to share. One thing I’ve never been able to grasp is the sense of 3:16. Is it: “nevertheless [despite the fact that God will… correct you if you go astray], let us live by [the example] we’ve attained.”?

I specifically have trouble understanding the sense of both phthano + eis and stoicheo. The two words are rare and obscure to me. Could you offer any help in understanding them? Does stoicheo relate to the simplicity of living the servant life, or is that overloading the word?

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “The perfect Philippians translation

  1. iverlarsen says:

    According to Webster, the English word “perfect” used to have the meaning “mature”, but that sense is now obsolete. So, we may not be justified in faulting the KJV, but I believe we can fault those versions which still cling to this obsolete and far from perfect rendering. Most of them talk about mature in v. 15, but for some reason keep the “perfect” in v. 12, maybe because of the negative construction there.

    To translate διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ as “through Christ’s faithfulness” is definitely wrong, but I have commented on that in an earlier post, so I won’t repeat it now.

    3:16 is part of a section that invokes the walking or running scenario. In v. 12. Paul says he has not yet reached the goal or finishing line. In v. 13 he is not looking back to his past life as a Pharisee (what he now considers dung), but he is looking forward to the prize waiting ahead (v. 14.) 15-16 is the concluding admonition (οὖν): As many as are mature in their faith in Christ, let us think the same, i.e. let us agree. And if it should happen that you think differently about a certain issue, then God will reveal it to you (so that you will come to agree with me.) 16: Nevertheless (in spite of some minor disagreements) up to the point each one of us has reached (in our walk/growth with Christ) (εἰς ὃ ἐφθάσαμεν), we should keep in line and run towards the same goal in front of us (τῷ αὐτῷ στοιχεῖν). So, as you run towards the goal, don’t run off to the side, but stay on the track. It doesn’t matter if you have not reached the finishing line yet (none of us who are still alive have done that), but what matters is that as far as you have come, you keep the goal in sight and run in the same direction as me, following the basic principle of righteousness by faith, not by law.

  2. Mike Sangrey says:


    I agree that “Christ’s faithfulness” makes a lot of sense. It seems to me the whole passage reads much more smoothly that way. It also ties in rather nicely with verse 12: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me.” The theme that God has been faithful to his covenant promise through Jesus and therefore we need to respond by putting our trust in Jesus and also being faithful recurs in Paul’s writings many times.

    Now, regarding the “perfect” problem.

    I’ll just mention that I’ve thought for some time now that Philippians naturally breaks into three sections: one addressed to the general church, second addressed to the Elders, and the last addressed to the Deacons. This follows from 1:1 as well as Paul’s use of τὸ λοιπόν in 3:1 and 4:8. λοιπόν refers to making a concluding statement. I think it’s generally agreed there are textual seams somewhere around 3:1-2 and again around 4:8-10. Some scholars (whom I would strongly disagree) suggest that these “breaks” indicate different authors or different redactions. I think it merely indicates a sectioning of the letter.

    So, the reference to “those who are perfect” falls in the section addressed to the Elders who would naturally be thought of as more mature. It should also be noted the entire church is a secondary audience. So, the second section maintains a certain applicability to all. Ditto for the final section.

  3. Jim Van Hook says:

    Isn’t using “Christ’s faithfulness” just a way of weighing in for “faith of Christ” as opposed to “faith in Christ”?

  4. Iver Larsen says:


    I think you are right that the leaning towards “faithfulness of Christ” is in part based on what the literal rendering of the genitive “faith of Christ” can possibly mean in English. Since it can hardly mean that Christ is the one having faith, people suggest that “faith” here refers to “faithfulness”.

    But apart from thinking in and doing exegesis from English rather than Greek, there are probably also theological reasons. It is more acceptable today in some theological circles to talk about the faithfulness of Jesus than the requirement that a person must have faith in Jesus.

    Although I have not yet seen anyone suggest that “faith of God” in Mark 11:22 could possibly mean “God’s faithfulness”, that day may come.

    It does not seem to be a problem when the text is talking about people other than Jesus in the genitive construction. As far as I know no one has yet suggested that Jesus said to the woman: “Your faithfulness has healed you.” (Mark 9:22 and dozens of similar texts.)

    This new theology is seen in how the NET has wrongly translated the following verses:

    Rom 3:22 “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” where the Greek text in context means “through faith in Jesus Christ.”

    Rom 3:26 “the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.” The Greek text says:
    “who justifies a person based on (his) faith in Jesus.” There is nothing that can justify the addition of “lives” and the Greek preposition means “on the basis of” rather than “because of.”

    Gal 2:16a “no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus.” The Greek text means: “A person is not justified on the basis of law works but through faith in Jesus Christ, and WE have come to believe in Christ Jesus.” Having faith in Jesus is the same concept in the last two clauses that are closely connected and should not be separated by a full stop. The change is from a person in general to the emphatic WE (in context: Paul and Peter and by extension other Christian Jews).

    Gal 2:16b “so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” The Greek text here is a result of the previous statement about having come to faith in Jesus. It is not a future possibility, but a past fact: “resulting in us having been justified on the basis of faith in Christ and not on the basis of law works.” The whole context talks about the basis for justification. Is it by observing the Jewish laws or is it by having faith in Jesus? Christ’s faithfulness is true, but irrelevant in this context and in Galatians as a whole.

    Gal 3:22 “the promise could be given – because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ – to those who believe.” The Greek text means: “resulting in the promise being given/fulfilled based on faith in Jesus Christ to/for those who believe.” The whole context is based on the faith of Abraham as a model. And even the NET did not say “faithfulness of Abraham” in Rom 4:16. Here they correctly said “faith of Abraham.”

    Nor did NET mistranslate “faith of Jesus” as “faithfulness of Jesus” in Rev 14:12: “those who obey God’s commandments and hold to their faith in Jesus.”

  5. BradK says:

    Iver, how would we expect Paul to have written it if he had meant “faithfulness of Christ” instead of “faith in Christ”? How would he have written it if he had intended the meaning “Christ’s faith” as in the belief or faith of Christ?

    I’ve pretty much dismissed the whole “subjective genitive” debate that has been going on for a while now, figuring it was much ado about nothing and likely due to somebody grinding a theological axe. Besides that, I just don’t know enough to properly engage the debate. But something I ran across recently caused me to wonder. I was doing a word study and did a search on the word faithful (pistos) in the NT. It appears about 65 times in the NASB. Then I looked for the word faithfulness. If I recall correctly, it only appears about 3 times or so. It seemed to me that there is a relative dearth of “faithfulness” considering how often “faithful” appears. Maybe this is not unusual at all. Or is it? How would faithfulness be written? Is it just pistis like faith? Is the meaning determined by context alone or is there another word that would normally indicate faithfulness?

  6. Iver Larsen says:


    I agree with you that the subjective/objective genitive debate is missing the point, or if you want, barking up the wrong tree. Did you read my earlier post where I discussed this in more detail. It was here:

    You are very right that the word “faithfulness” only occurs 3 times in the NASB NT, and this reflects the Greek usage quite well.

    The noun form πίστις (pistis) is ambiguous. NASB used faithfulness in Mat 23:23, but this is questionable. It might better be understood as “faith”, the way KJV translated it. These Pharisees were very faithful in keeping the law as they understood it, but they did not have true, personal faith in God.

    NASB also used faithfulness in Gal 5:22. This is again in a list, so context does not help us. KJV has “faith”, but most modern versions interpret it to mean faithfulness. Both are possible.

    Finally, NASB used faithfulness in Rom 3:3, and this is ok, although I would have preferred trustworthiness. Or one could avoid the long, abstract nouns and use adjectives as NLT did: “but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful?” The contrast is between the lack of faith of certain rebellious Jews and God’s dependability.

    So, the default meaning of πίστις in the Greek NT is “faith”, but in very extraordinary and few cases it is used in the sense of trustworthiness. Of the 243 times where this noun occurs in the NT, there is only one place (Rom 3:3) where the context makes it clear that the intended meaning is “faithfulness”. There are two ambiguous cases, where it is hard to decide, because the context is insufficient to make it clear. That is how Greek works.

    The normal way to express faithfulness is to use the adjective pistos, which means either “have faith” or “be faithful” or “be trustworthy”. It occurs 67 times and it usually refers to people (80% of its occurrences), but it does describe God in 1 Cor 1:9, 10:13, 2 Cor 1:18, 1 Thess 5:24, 2 Tim 2:13 (parallel to Rom 3:3 above), Heb 10:23, 11:11, 1 Pet 4:19, 1 John 1:9 and the Lord Jesus in 2 Thess 3:3, Heb 2:17, 3:2, Rev 1:5, 3:14, 19:11.

  7. BradK says:

    I did miss your earlier post, Iver. I will check it out. Thanks.

    So typically “faithfulness” is not expressed as a noun in Koine Greek, but rather pistos would be used? Is this typical for LXX usage as well?

  8. Iver Larsen says:


    The LXX is a bit more complex because it is translation Greek. The adjective pistos occurs 74 times in the LXX and describes dependable, trustworthy people. The noun pistis occurs about 57 times and it is usually in the form en pistei. It has a rather wide range of meaning in the areas of fidelity, loyalty, trustworthiness, truthfulness, confidence. It almost always (95%) describes a characteristic of people rather than of God. However, in three places it refers to the reliabilty or dependability of the deeds of God:
    Psalm 33:4 (32:4)- NLT: we can trust everything he does. NETS: all his works are in faithfulness.
    Jer 32:41 (39:41) – NIV: I will… assuredly plant them in this land. NETS: I will plant them in faithfulness.
    Hos 2:20 (22) – NIV: I will betroth you in faithfulness. NETS: I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness.

    The normal Hebrew word to describe God’s covenant faithfulness and loyalty is hesed, but this word is never to my knowledge translated by pistis. (A common translation is mercy). The Hebrew words that get translated with pistis are from the root ‘aman (truth, certainty, dependabilty.)

    So, the general picture is the same. The word pistis is used almost exclusively to describe people rather than God.

  9. Sid Williams says:

    3.8-9: Also more than all [things] I consider to be loss through the excelling [fact] of the knowledge of Anointed Iesous* of the Lord of me, through whom the all, I sustained [loss of] and I consider to be rubbish in order that I may gain Anointed, and may be founf in Him, not having rifghteouss of me,the [one]from law, but the [one] through [salvation] of faith of Anointed, the [one] from righteousness on the faith of God, of the knowing Him and the power of the resurrection of Him … Therefore [as] many [that] are perfect [sinless by prayer for forgiveness], this we will think,and if whoever (Ti) you will think otherwise, the God will reveal to you. Nevertheless, into the [One] we attained in the (TW) rule , in Him (autw)the (To) same to think – 3.15-16.

    Note*: The words “let” and “may” are from Shakespeare, and are not in the Bible. Strong listed ober 4,000 errors with these two “added” words, with no Hebrew or Greek counterpart. “We (N) will make man in our image.”

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