I spent most of last week at a very stimulating conference in St Andrews, devoted entirely to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. As a non-specialist who doesn’t know Greek, I found a lot of it was above my head. Why, I thought from time to time, are we spending 30-45 minutes at several points in the conference analysing two words of text, or an obscure Greek particle? When I was doing my Master’s at St Andrews, exegesis was of zero interest to me, and in my essay on it I was far from covering myself with glory. Indeed, I had a friendly disagreement with the relevant lecturer, insisting that I couldn’t see the point of detailed technical exegesis for the kind of work I was doing at the coalface of ministry. I don’t think we managed to convince each other.
Yet there were moments of real illumination during the conference, when things suddenly jelled, and the relevance of this meticulous approach became clear. For example, a good deal of time was spent on the phrase pistis Christou, which can be read either as ‘faith in Christ’ or ‘the faith of Christ’, depending on whether Christou is taken as a Subjective Genitive or an Objective Genitive (things well known to New Testament scholars, but news to me). Just at the point where this was threatening to become mind-numbing, it struck me that this has far-reaching implications for faith, for pastoral care, and for preaching. ‘Faith in Christ’ can take one in the direction of requiring assent to doctrinal formulae as a qualification for membership of the Christian Church. ‘The faith of Christ’ seems to me to be more open-ended and spacious. If it means our sharing Christ’s faith, his trust in God even in the midst of apparent rejection, continuing to trust despite not being able to see the future, then it is more congenial to the notion that God is always doing a new thing, and that the working out of God’s intentions will take us further than we can possibly imagine now. The implications of this for opening up new understandings of those parts of the Christian tradition which have, for example, oppressed women and stigmatised gay people are profound.
So I came away convinced that the jobbing pastor needs to understand the relevance of this highly academic work to the everyday task of accompanying his/her flock in their journey towards and with God. And yes, I shall make an effort to learn Greek.