What Is Measured Out in Romans 12:3?

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In Rom. 12:3 pistis refers not to believing in God, nor to the adequacy of one’s service to God, but rather to the aspect and area of stewardship or responsibility that God has assigned to each believer.

One occasionally encounters the view that saving faith is a gift from God, and that those who believe are able to do so only because God gave them the faith to do so. The scary correlate of this view is that those who don’t believe are plumb out of luck: God hasn’t seen fit to give them the faith they need.

Several of the contributors to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (= TDNT [compiled in Germany before and after World War II]) operated from the premise that faith is a gift from God, and used that view as a datum in their theological unpacking of word meanings. H. Hanse makes the following remarks in an entry that he contributed to TDNT:

That faith is the work, not of man, but of God or Christ, is not stated with equal clarity in all parts of the NT, but it must be constantly borne in mind. It can be seen plainly in Ac. 13:48, and Ac. 17:31 is particularly relevant in expounding the present passage [2 Pt. 1:1], for here God proffers faith to all. Again, in R. 12:3 God apportions the measure of faith. The same thought occurs in the chain of R. 8:28-30, and cf. also Hb. 12:2; Jd. 3 (πίστις παραδοθεῖσα). God does not merely give to both Jews and Gentiles the possibility of faith; He effects faith in them. Ephesians 2:8 makes it especially plain that all is of grace and that human merit is completely ruled out. To understand the Pauline and then the Lutheran doctrine of jusification [sic] it is essential to make it clear that faith is not a new human merit which replaces the merit of works, that it is not a second achievement which takes the place of the first, that it is not something which man has to show, but that justification by faith is an act of divine grace. Faith is not the presupposition of the grace of God. As a divine gift, it is the epitome and demonstration of the grace of God.[1]

If it strikes the reader as odd that so many contributors to the greatest theological dictionary of the twentieth century should assume (without explanation) that an expression of faith counts as a work if that faith originated from within that person’s innate (or life-cultivated) religious or psychological mettle, then I have the unpleasant duty of explaining that a large part of Reformation-based theology sees things exactly that way. For Luther especially, the category of works served as a great junkyard for every human contribution to both the objective and subjective sides of redemption. For his followers (including the writer quoted above) the New Testament has to be read that way. As a consequence, passages like Ephesians 2:8 and Romans 12:3 are held in high profile. According to this way of thinking, leaving faith in the hands of the believer amounts to turning personal salvation into a sort of synergism. (While many Christians are [rightly] shocked by the suggestion that God withholds saving faith from some people, those who believe in this sort of determinism often insist that such a view is necessary to safeguard God’s sovereignty.)[2]

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  • [1] H. Hanse, “λαγχάνω,” TDNT 4.1-2, esp. 2. The commitment of the contributors to TDNT to this idea (a commitment grounded in their Lutheran heritage) is shown by Bultmann’s equivocation in his entry on “πιστεύω κτλ.” (TDNT 6.197-228, esp. 219-20). (Bultmann correctly notes that Paul “never describes faith as inspired”!) One would think that today’s NT scholars could see beyond the miscategorization of believing as a work, but that mistake wrecks a number of arguments in a volume of essays that appeared two years ago. See D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (eds.), Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2: The Paradoxes of Paul (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2004).
  • [2] It is true that Heb 12:2 refers to Jesus as “the author and perfecter of our faith.” But Hebrews has in mind Jesus as one who brings us through experiences that help develop our faith in accordance to the natural means of its development (so that, in essence, this verse testifies against the notion that God drops faith in us like we might drop a coin in a vending machine). This is hardly unexpected in a letter that (remarkably) refers to Christ as having “learned obedience” (5:8)! On the other hand, we must ask: Why does Christ upbraid his disciples for having “little faith” in Mark 16:14 (admittedly not original to the gospel), if in fact it’s not their fault that their faith is lacking?

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  • Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier is the chair of biblical studies at the newly forming Kingswell Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio (scheduled to open in Fall 2008). Jack earned his doctorate in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he wrote a dissertation…
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