Posted by: mattcolvin | March 18, 2011

“Faith Comes by Hearing”? Really?


Romans 10:16-17 is frequently mistranslated, but the mistranslation does not consist so much in getting any word’s meaning wrong, so much as in losing a pun that is present in the original.

17 is frequently rendered as “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” And this is understood by many evangelicals as an explanation for how people come to believe the Bible. Thus John Piper says, “Assurance comes from hearing the Word of Christ. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” Romans 10:17.”

To be sure, that is a fine doctrine, and I have nothing to say against it, except that it is not exactly what Paul is saying in our passage. Here’s the Greek:

16Ἀλλ’ οὐ πάντες ὑπήκουσαν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ: Ἠσαΐας γὰρ λέγει, Κύριε, τίς ἐπίστευσεν τῇ ἀκοῇ ἡμῶν; 17ἄρα ἡ πίστις ἐξ ἀκοῆς, ἡ δὲ ἀκοὴ διὰ ῥήματος Χριστοῦ.

Please notice that our usual English translations quote Isaiah, “For Isaiah says, Lord, who has believed our report?” They then translate the same word, ἀκοὴ, as “hearing” in the next sentence.

But this is to make hash of Paul’s argument. He is talking about the rejection of the apostles’ testimony by the unbelieving Jews. That is why he compares himself to Isaiah, who experienced similarly frustrating results in his own ministry. “Who has believed our report?” is a rhetorical question. “No one” is the expected, albeit perhaps hyperbolic, answer. Paul is saying that he is not the first emissary of the Lord to be met with unbelief.

Verse 17’s first statemen is thus not “faith comes by hearing” but “faith comes from the report” — i.e. faith is brought about by the preaching that is done by God’s apostles and prophets. These are authorized by God or by Christ. That is what is meant by “the report comes by the word of God”: it has in mind such passages as “Moreover the word of YHWH came to Jeremiah a second time, while he was still shut up in the prison…” or any of the other notices that “the word of the Lord came to such and such a prophet…” Having received such a commission, the prophet is bound to go spread his ἀκοὴ. The prophet’s ἀκοὴ comes by the command of the Lord.

It is only after grasping this that we can pun upon the multiple senses of ἀκοὴ. For yes, it can mean “hearing” or even “ears.” And verse 18 unpacks that option:

18ἀλλὰ λέγω, μὴ οὐκ ἤκουσαν;

“But I say, Did they not hear?”

This is a very strongly phrased rhetorical question, with μὴ οὐκ. “Of course they heard,” is the expected answer. The problem isn’t that Israel didn’t hear. They heard quite well, since the “utterance went out into all the earth, and their words to the uttermost parts of the world.” (μενοῦνγε, Εἰς πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ἐξῆλθεν ὁ φθόγγος αὐτῶν, καὶ εἰς τὰ πέρατα τῆς οἰκουμένης τὰ ῥήματα αὐτῶν.) No, the problem with Israel was that they did not obey. They were, as verse 21 says, “a disobedient and backtalking people.”

Thus, the meaning of Romans 10:16-17 does not support the usual Evangelical reading whereby “faith comes by hearing.” It is rather “faith comes from the prophets’ message”. How? By obeying it.


Responses

  1. Very interesting. I am a Protestant Presbyterian slowly going towards Orthodoxy; it is all to true. Hearing doesn’t bring faith by itself, but doing the Word (obeying the commandments) does. Protestants would never deny that works (obedience) is not necessary for salvation; we just always leave out the how to part, because we are afraid of legalism (i.e. Medieval Rome).

    Thanks for the post!

    • Let me hope that it is Protestant Orthodoxy, and not Eastern Orthodoxy, that you are moving toward.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Hey, Matt, could it also be that v. 17 should read, “So the faith comes from the report and the report through the word of Christ.” In other words, Paul is not talking about individual faith, but “the faith” that is being proclaimed through Christ’s apostles.

    • Hi Jeff! I’ll have to think about that. It’s attractive.

  3. God bless you, Matt.

    • Thanks, Jon. Always thankful for blessings from a brother. I gotta ask, though, what made you dig up this okd post and comment on it?


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