Translating ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν in Romans 1:17

by Alan S. Bandy, Ph.D.
Rowena R. Strickland Associate Professor of New Testament
Oklahoma Baptist University

 

The task of interpreting Paul and translating Romans never grows old. The discussions and debates continue to surface regarding the writings of the apostle. This is not surprising when you consider that his writings, especially Romans, are so central to the Christian Faith. I was recently reading through Romans in the NIV when I was riveted to how it translated the Greek phrase ek pisteos eis pistin (lit. “from faith to faith”) in Rom 1:17 as “by faith from first to last.” A glance of other English translations is not only an excellent case study in translation theory, but also demonstrates a number of interesting interpretive decisions about the meaning of this unusual phrase:

The most popular, “from faith to faith,” opts for a rather straightforward literal translation:

KJV For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith

HCSB For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith

NAS For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith

NET For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith

The RSV and NRSV opt for a translation that does not seem to reflect the normal glosses for the key prepositions: “through faith for faith.” In other words, that the righteousness is revealed through the means of faith for the purpose of faith (see also Murray Harris’ commentary on Romans).

This brings us to the translations that interpret the phrase idiomatically to convey the sense of a comprehensive duration:

NIV/TNIV For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last

NLT his Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith.

There are a few other interesting translations/interpretation that deserve mention:

Augustine/Schelkle describe it as a “transference from faith in the law to faith in the gospel”

John Chrysostom interprets it as “from faith to faith” meant from the faith of the Old Testament saints to the faith of the New Testament believers.”

Thomas Aquinas argued that it meant “from present faith to future faith.”

John Calvin translated this construction as “by faith unto faith.”

The Darby Translation (1890) employed the unusual “on the principle of faith, to faith.”

Barth argued that the first “faith” refers to God’s faithfulness and the second “faith” refers to the faith of the person.

 

What do some commentators have to say?

J. D. G. Dunn notes that phrase is clearly an idiom denoting some sort of progress, where ek refers to the starting point and eis refers to the ending. Hence it is viable to translate the phrase as “from first to last.”

Dunn also points out, however, that ek pisteos mostly likely should be translated as “by faith” because of Paul’s quotation of Hab 2:4.

Interestingly, Dunn also points out that “[f]ollowing a verb like ‘reveal’ the ek is more naturally to be understood as denoting the source of the revelation… and eis as denoting that to which the revelation is directed.”

N. T. Wright following Dunn contends that the phrase parallels Rom 3:22 and translates it as “from God’s faithfulness to human faithfulness.”

Of course, the primary discussion is devoted to whether or not “faith” refers to God’s faith or human faith. At this point, I am really only concerned with the syntax and translation of this phrase so I will refrain from weighing in on the theological issues.

Doug Moo, following Cranfield and Barrett, argues that the construction is rhetorical and is intended to emphasize that faith and “nothing but faith” can put us into right relationship with God. In other words, it could be translated as “faith alone.”

Tom Schreiner, similar to Moo, maintains that this phrase “foreshadows one of the cardinal themes of the letter here in declaring that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel by means of human faith.” He favors the translation “by faith from first to last” based on the citation of Hab 2:4 (cf. Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38).

A recent study by Charles L. Quarles (NovT 45 no. 1) examines the construction of ek + A + eis + A in the TLG database. Of the 340 occurrences, he found that most fit neatly into several categories:

  1. The construction was often used by ancient writers to express transformation, change, or exchange. It was most commonly used to describe the transformation of one substance into another and sometimes was used to describe business transactions.
  2. While some have argued that it was used to as an idiom of “emphasis,” a careful examination of the evidence does not support this interpretation.
  3. The construction was sometimes used to express distance (e.g., “from sea to sea”) or to denote a time span (e.g., “from Panathenaian Festival to Panathenaian Festival.”)
  4. The construction, in some instances, expressed development or intensification.

Quarles next examined the 17 occurrences of this construction in the LXX and made the following observations:

  1. In nine of the occurrences, the construction has a temporal sense to express duration, progression or repetition.
  2. In seven occurrences, it has a locative sense to express point of origin and destination.
  3. One difficult case involves Ps. 83:8 because it most closely parallels Paul’s use in Rom 1:17, but Quarles argues that it represents an attempt to translate a Hebrew construction of two prepositions. As such, it would then be a construction that expresses physical movement from one place to another or progressive degrees of strength.

After Quarles examines the construction in 2 Cor 2:16 and 3:18, he lists three things that should directly relate to understanding this phrase:

  1. That it represents a programmatic statement relating to the key themes in the epistle.
  2. That the term “faith” should have a sense that is congruent with Paul’s normal usage of vocabulary.
  3. That the sense of ek pisteos in Paul’s quotation from Hab 2:4 is important for understanding the phrase ek pisteos eis pistin.

In the end, Quarles contends that John Chrysostom has the most plausible interpretation of the phrase: “from the faith of the old dispensation to the faith of the new dispensation.” He supports this conclusion with several arguments:

  1. Chrysostom as a Greek speaker would have been aware of the way that this construction was commonly employed (or that it was never used as an emphatic construction).
  2. Chrysostom is correct in other places involving unusual constructions (e.g., John 1:16).
  3. This interpretation fits the ancient uses of the construction in that it refers to a span from one point in space to another point.
  4. It does justice to the construction as a programmatic statement for the entire epistle especially as it relates to Rom 3:21, Rom 4:24, and Romans 9¬-11.
  5. It dovetails nicely with the quotation of Hab 2:4 that “the revelation of the righteousness of God extends from the faith of the Old Testament believer to the faith of the New Testament believer by showing that the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk wrote about the faith that results in eschatological life.”

I am most impressed with the analysis of Quarles because he performs the most comprehensive treatment of the construction. The problem is that I still have some questions that I want answered:

  1. What is the best way to translate the construction: ek pisteos eis pistin?
  2. Should it be translated as an idiom? If so, how much should it reflect your interpretation?

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