Friday, July 02, 2004
Righteousness LanguageIn sketching the contours of Wright’s doctrine of justification, the question of ‘righteousness language’ is perhaps as good a place to start as any other. At the outset we should appreciate that one of the problems facing the modern reader of Paul is the inability of the English language to adequately capture the connection between the verb δικαιοω (‘justify’), the adjective δικαιος (‘righteous’) and the noun δικαιοσυνη (‘righteousness’). Wright draws attention to this and to the fact that most of the vocabulary that we use in this area is at least slightly misleading in some form or other.
[Righteousness] … denotes not so much the abstract idea of justice or virtue, as right standing and consequent right behaviour, within a community.By stressing the relational nature of righteousness Wright seeks to guard against the depersonalization and reification that can occur in many common ways of speaking about righteousness. Wright commonly argues that righteousness language is given shape by two key fields of thought — covenant and law-court,
Though it is unfashionable to use covenantal categories in interpreting Paul, I believe … that they are actually central; and, moreover, they are habitually expressed in forensic language, i.e. using the root δικ-.For Wright righteousness language is steeped in the covenant. By interpreting the forensic aspects of righteousness language in a covenant framework the relational nature of righteousness language is more clearly seen. This relational emphasis can be seen in Wright’s definition of such terms as δικαιοσυνη:—
δικαιοσυνη is, more or less, ‘covenant membership’, the status within the people of God of which ‘righteousness’ (in any of its senses from the Reformation to the present day) is merely one aspect.In the covenant God promised a family to Abraham; God declaring a person ‘righteous’ is His declaration that they are members of this family. To be ‘righteous’ is to belong to the covenant, to possess a ‘covenant status’,
Since, for Paul, God is the creator, always active within his world, we should expect, in the nature of the case, to find his attributes and his actions belonging extremely closely together.In arguing for his position, Wright puts great weight upon the use of righteousness language in such places as Isaiah 40—55. Wright maintains that ‘God’s righteousness is … cognate with his trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel’s salvation on the other.’
…try cases fairly, i.e. he must be true to the law and/or the covenant, must condemn evil, show no partiality, and uphold the cause of the defenceless.‘Righteous’ used with reference to a plaintiff or defendant is a statement of ‘how things stand in terms of the now completed lawsuit.’
…God’s righteousness, seen in terms of covenant faithfulness and through the image of the lawcourt, was to be the instrument of putting the world to rights—of what we might call cosmic restorative justice.God’s ‘setting the world to rights’ should be thought of primarily in terms of restorative justice rather than in terms of punitive justice.
11 See, for example, Richard Hays, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI: 2 Corinthians — Philemon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p.238. (return)
13 Whilst beyond the scope of these posts, much could be said about Wright’s belief that Paul’s righteousness language is, to a great extent, an employment of the rhetoric of the Caesar cult as a foil for Paul’s own gospel. See The Letter to the Romans, pp.404-5; ‘Paul and Caesar: A New Reading of Romans’ in Craig Bartholomew, Jonathan Chaplin, Robert Song, Al Wolters (eds.), A Royal Priesthood? The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically — A Dialogue with Oliver O’Donovan (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002), p.184 and N.T. Wright, ‘Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire’. The interface between the Roman Empire and Paul’s Gospel is a subject to which Wright has given increasing attention over the last few years. (return)
14 “The basic meaning of ‘righteousness’ and its cognates in the Bible derives from the Hebrew ṣeḏeq, which was usually translated in the LXX as dikaiosynē.” See Wright’s article on ‘Righteousness’ in Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, J.I. Packer (eds.) New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988) p.591 (return)
16 For some of Wright’s discussions of the meaning of righteousness language (particularly with reference to God’s own righteousness) see N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p.271f.; The Letter to the Romans, pp.397ff.; ‘Righteousness’ in New Dictionary of Theology, pp.590-592; New Perspectives on Paul — 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference 2003, pp.6ff.; What St Paul Really Said, pp.95ff. and ‘On Becoming the Righteousness of God’ in David M. Hay (ed.), Pauline Theology: Volume II — 1 and 2 Corinthians (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002), pp.200ff. (return)
17 e.g. The Letter to the Romans, pp.400-401; What St Paul Really Said, p.99. Whilst, in his New Dictionary of Theology article on ‘Righteousness’, Wright only dealt explicitly with the first two of these aspects, by the time of writing What St Paul Really Said he added ‘eschatology’ as a distinct aspect of righteousness language. The eschatological dimension of righteousness language is also less pronounced in Wright’s earlier treatment of justification in the article ‘Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’ in Gavin Reid (ed.), The Great Acquittal: Justification by Faith and Current Christian Thought (London: Collins, 1980). (return)
26 He writes:—
We should note, in particular, that Paul’s effortless rewording of Gen 17:11 indicates clearly, what we have argued all along, that for him a primary meaning of “righteousness” was “covenant membership.” God says in Genesis that circumcision is “a sign of the covenant”; Paul says it was “a sign of righteousness.” He can hardly mean this as a radical alteration or correction, but rather as an explanation. The whole chapter (Genesis 15) is about the covenant that God made with Abraham, and Paul is spending his whole chapter expounding it; if he had wanted to avoid covenant theology he went about it in a strange way. Rather, we should see here powerful confirmation of the covenantal reading of “righteousness” language in 1:17 and 3:21-31. “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the covenant membership marked by the faith he had while still uncircumcised.” [The Letter to the Romans, p.494f.](return)
28 What St Paul Really Said, p.103. ‘The “righteousness of God” is the divine covenant faithfulness, which is both a quality upon which God’s people may rely and something visible in action…’ (‘On Becoming the Righteousness of God’ p.207). (return)
39 What St Paul Really Said, p.98. I will be returning to this issue later, but some have claimed that there is an unresolved tension in Wright’s thought at this point. On the one hand Wright strongly maintains that ‘vindication’ by the court constitutes someone as ‘righteous’. On the other hand in numerous places he seems to maintain that vindication is a declaration of fact and not a constituting declaration.
What then is this vindication, this dikaiosis? It is God’s declaration that a person is in the right… Notice that opening phrase: God’s declaration that. Not ‘God’s bringing it about that’, but God’s authoritative declaration of what is in fact the case. [New Perspectives on Paul, p.13](return)
46 Wright makes it clear that restorative justice does not exclude punitive justice (Ibid. p.399). Nevertheless, I believe that Wright would be in agreement with Tom Smail who argues that ‘God is concerned less with punishing wrong relationships than with restoring right ones’ [Tom Smail, Once and For All: A Confession of the Cross (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998) p.95]. I believe that the concept of restorative justice may help to illumine aspects of Wright’s approach to subjects such as the atonement that might otherwise appear opaque to many of his Reformed readers. (return)
47 See Peter Leithart’s “Judge Me, O God” — Biblical Perspectives on Justification for a helpful treatment of this. (return)
49 ‘Righteousness, Righteousness of God’ in Gerald F. Hawthorne; Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid (eds.), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) p.835; ‘On Becoming the Righteousness of God’, p.202. (return)