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.