There has been quite some discussion on various blogs over the post by Daniel Kirk (no relation of mine) suggesting that translations of Galatians 5:6 are “theologically manipulated”. First David Ker reported on it here at BBB. Then I posted about it on my own blog – and later corrected my post because I had taken David Ker’s summary of Daniel’s post as accurate, when in fact it wasn’t. Then Joel Hoffman posted twice on the same matter. See also interesting discussions in the comment threads.
But I still see something seriously lacking in all the discussion of this verse, and that is a proper understanding of the semantics here. Now I don’t claim to be an expert in semantics, or in how it can be applied to New Testament Greek. So what I write here should be taken as provisional, as a first attempt to find a proper semantic understanding of the phrase traditionally translated “faith working through love”.
We are looking in particular at the Greek verb, actually a participle, energoumene, a present participle, feminine singular nominative, of the middle or passive voice of the verb energeo.
One of the basics of semantics, of the kind I am considering, is that any action or state has various participants, and these participants fit into various roles. Typically but by no means always in actual language actions or states are represented by verbs and participants by nouns or pronouns. When the verb is a typical verb of action one of the participant roles is the agent, and this is usually represented by the subject of the active verb.
Let’s look at this first in English. Consider these example sentences (modified from “Syntax” by Van Valin and LaPolla, CUP 1997, p.87):
- Fred broke the window.
- Fred broke the window with a rock.
- The window was broken by Fred.
- The window was broken.
- The window broke.
- A rock broke the window.
In 1. there is an explicit agent, Fred, who is the subject of the active verb. There is also a patient, another semantic role, which is the window, and this is the grammatical object.
2. is the same as 1. except that an instrument is also specified, a rock, in a prepositional phrase.
3. is essentially synonymous with 1. (although it differs in its topic-focus structure), with agent and patient still specified. The verb is now passive and so the linguistic representation differs: the patient is the subject and the agent is in a prepositional phrase.
In 4. only the patient is specified, as the subject of the passive verb. But the English passive implies that there was actually some agent – or possibly a force, another semantic role, like the wind.
5. is almost synonymous with 4. except that it could also mean that there was no agent or force involved, that the window broke because of its own intrinsic weakness. But note how in English the verb is again active, but intransitive, with the patient as the subject. It is common in English, but not in many other languages, for active verbs to be used intransitively with a more or less passive meaning, with a patient as the subject. I note that one implication of the existence of this kind of sentence is that sentences like “*Fred broke” or “*A rock broke”, with “window” as an implicit patient, are not permitted in English – the object must be explicit, if only as “it” or “something”.
Finally in 6. the grammatical subject is the instrument, and the object is the patient. As in 4. an agent is implied. While sentences of this kind are quite common, they do come across as somewhat anomalous, as everyone knows that an inanimate object like a rock cannot be an agent.
Now let’s look at this in Koine Greek. I won’t try to translate the example sentences, but I will look at how they would come out. There is no problem with 1. and 2., where Fred would be the subject of an active verb (nominative case), the window would be the object (accusative), and the instrument in 2. would probably be in the dative. Similarly there would be no problem with 3. and 4., where the verb would be passive, and the agent in 3. would be in a prepositional phrase probably introduced with hupo. I’m not sure if a sentence like 6., with an instrument as the subject, would be allowed in Koine.
The difference from English comes with 5., as in Greek an active verb cannot be used in this way. According to traditional Koine grammar, the verb form here would be in the middle voice, which is distinct from the passive voice used in 4. But there is a difference in form between these two only in some tenses, and it has recently been realised that it is rare, if not completely unknown, for any one verb to have both middle and passive forms used with any distinction of meaning. So it is better to say that in Koine Greek there is one combined medio-passive voice. This means that in that language there is no simple way to distinguish between the senses of 4. and 5.
So let’s put this understanding to work on Galatians 5:6. Now in semantic terms “faith” is not really a participant, but an action “someone believes something”, expressed as an abstract noun, as quite commonly with actions especially in Greek. But let’s treat it for now as a participant, and energeo as an action verb like “break” in my examples. What would be the semantic role of faith?
For this we really need to examine how energeo is used in the New Testament. Here are the 21 NT occurrences of energeo:
- Mt 14:2 || Mk 6:14: active, intransitive, subject is “powers” (powerful spiritual beings?)
- Rom 7:5: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is “sinful passions”
- 1 Cor 12:6: active, transitive, subject is God, object is gifts of the Spirit
- 1 Cor 12:11: active, transitive, subject is the Holy Spirit, object is gifts of the Spirit
- 2 Cor 1:6: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is comfort
- 2 Cor 4:12: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is death (and life)
- Gal 2:8 (twice): active, intransitive, subject is God, indirect objects are Peter and Paul
- Gal 3:5: active, transitive, subject is God, object is miracles
- Gal 5:6: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is faith
- Eph 1:11: active, transitive, subject is God, object is “all things”
- Eph 1:20: active, intransitive, subject is God
- Eph 2:2: active, intransitive, subject is the devil
- Eph 3:20: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is power
- Phil 2:13 (twice): active, intransitive, subject is God
- Col 1:29: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is “energy” (energeia)
- 1 Th 2:13: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is the word of God
- 2 Th 2:7: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is “the mystery of lawlessness”
- James 5:16: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is prayer
Here we see a consistent picture in the NT, and one which isn’t quite consistent with Joel’s suggestion that energeo is “a light verb — a verb that gets its semantic content largely from the words around it”. I accept that Joel wanted to avoid being too technical. But sometimes there is no alternative to going into technicalities, as I am here.
In every one of the 12 occurrences of the active verb, the subject, which is also the agent, is either God or a powerful spiritual being, acting in a way which might be called supernatural. When the verb is transitive, in just four of the 12 occurrences, the object is a work done by the powerful being – strictly an action rather than a participant, but if considered as a participant it would be called a patient.
By contrast, in the nine cases where the verb is medio-passive the subject is never a powerful being or any kind of person, but always an abstract noun representing an action, and in most cases the kind of action which only a powerful being would do. That strongly suggests that the medio-passive verbs are in fact more passive than middle or reflexive in meaning, and that their subjects have the same semantic role as the objects of the active transitive verbs – but not the same role as the subjects. In this case that means that they are pseudo-patients and express works done by powerful beings – in the various contexts, generally by God but in some cases by evil powers.
On this basis we are led to the conclusion that in Galatians 5:6 “faith” is a work which God is doing, through love. Or perhaps there is a link with the previous verse and it is the Holy Spirit who is working here, causing believers to have the faith to wait. This goes against my Arminian theology, but it is what the text seems to say! On that basis I might suggest a rendering something like “faith put to work through love” (compare my post title), but perhaps it is necessary to make more explicit that it is not believers who are putting faith to work.