Friday, July 02, 2004

N.T. Wright on Justification and Imputation Part II 

Righteousness Language
What St Paul Really SaidIn 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.10 Whilst a number of solutions have been proposed for these linguistic difficulties,11 Wright appears to believe that we still lack the verbal tools to do full justice to the use of ‘righteousness language’ in Paul, comparing its translation to the translation of poetry.12 Recapturing many of the more subtle nuances of Paul’s ‘righteousness language’ would require a broader palette than the word-stock of the English language provides us with.13 Wright maintains that no great disjunction exists between the use of righteousness language in the Old and New Testaments, stressing that the NT idea of righteousness is founded upon that of the OT.14 Paul does not employ righteousness language in some idiosyncratic fashion, but in a sense that is consistent with the manner in which it was used in the OT. Wright argues for a ‘relational’ understanding of righteousness:—
[Righteousness] … denotes not so much the abstract idea of justice or virtue, as right standing and consequent right behaviour, within a community.15
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,16 to which he generally adds a third — eschatology or apocalyptic.17 The Covenant The promises that God had made to their forefathers and the requirements that He had laid upon them as His special people formed the overarching framework in which the Jews understood the world and their place within it. Wright speaks of this relationship in terms of ‘covenant’.18 The basis of the covenant lay in the promises made to the patriarchs, in God’s election of Abraham and his descendents ‘to belong to him in a special way.’19 The events of the exodus were interpreted as the ‘initial fulfillment’ of this covenant, but complete fulfillment was still awaited.20 Even the exile was ‘part of the covenant’,21 resulting from Israel’s disobedience. Israel believed, however, that God would vindicate them at last and restore them to the land. When interpreting righteousness language, Wright believes that the covenant provides an essential framework:—
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-.22
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.23
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’,24 to be a ‘covenant partner’.25 Romans 4:11 is one verse that Wright claims as support for this understanding.26 δικαιοσυνη θεου The ‘righteousness of God’ (δικαιοσυνη θεου) is to be understood primarily as God’s ‘covenant faithfulness’27 — the righteousness always being God’s own righteousness. This ‘covenant faithfulness’ is conceived of ‘both as a quality in God and as an active power which goes out, in expression of that faithfulness.’28 Wright believes that the distinction between possessive and subjective genitive29 can be unhelpful at this point:—
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.30
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.’31 Nevertheless, as Wright points out, ‘Righteousness, please note, is not the same thing as salvation; God’s righteousness is the reason why he saves Israel.’ Furthermore, we should observe that God’s covenant righteousness is not ‘purely a matter of salvific activity’32 as God’s ‘covenant-justice’ also includes judgment upon Israel when the covenant is broken.33 This need not be seen as contradictory to the earlier statements as, despite Israel’s disobedience, God would remain loyal to the covenant and would one day ‘vindicate’ or ‘justify’ them. In the meantime, He is righteous in waiting before He judges, granting time for repentance.34 Although the salvation may be delayed, it will eventually arrive. YHWH, the covenant God, is Israel’s judge and king and when Israel stands either as ‘plaintiff (pleading her cause against her enemies) or defendant (on trial for failure to keep the covenant)’35 it is God’s righteousness that they appeal to. The Law-Court ‘Righteousness’ is forensic language and is taken from the Hebrew law-court.36 In the Hebrew law-court there were three parties: the judge, the plaintiff and the defendant. Righteousness language is employed in a different manner with respect to the judge than it is with respect to the plaintiff or defendant. For the judge to be ‘righteous’ is for him to
…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.37
‘Righteous’ used with reference to a plaintiff or defendant is a statement of ‘how things stand in terms of the now completed lawsuit.’38 The ‘righteous’ party is the ‘vindicated’ party. ‘Righteousness’ is principally to do with the status that a person receives when the court finds in their favour, and should not be confused with a statement about moral character.39 Nevertheless, Wright allows for the fact that ‘once someone had been vindicated, the word “righteous” would thus as it were work backward, coming to denote not only the legal status at the end of the trial but also the behaviour that had occasioned this status.’40 The covenantal setting ‘merges’ with that of the law-court,41 the interwoven nature of the two concepts being at least in part due to ‘the fact that the law (Torah) is the covenant charter.’42 The Torah is more than a ‘general code of ethics’; it is the ‘charter of Israel’s national life.’43 As Israel is ‘taking on the role marked out for Adam’, the Torah is the charter for Israel’s national life ‘precisely as the way of life of God’s true humanity.’44 As a result of the unfaithfulness of Israel to the Torah, God may end up being ‘Israel’s adversary at law’. Nevertheless, God has committed Himself to setting the world to rights through His covenant with Israel.
…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.45
God’s ‘setting the world to rights’ should be thought of primarily in terms of restorative justice rather than in terms of punitive justice.46 Furthermore, as the OT judge was responsible for establishing justice and ensuring that sentences were executed and not merely with deciding what was just,47 YHWH, as the Judge of all the earth, is under an ‘obligation to set things right’ and to ‘vindicate the oppressed’.48 Pauline Theology: Volume IIWright frequently pits his understanding of δικαιοσυνη θεου against that of E. Käsemann. Käsemann understood δικαιοσυνη θεου as God’s ‘salvation-creating power’ by which He subdues the rebellious cosmos.49 Wright maintains that Käsemann is wrong to allow ‘righteousness’ to leave behind the sense of ‘covenant faithfulness’, because the covenant was always the means by which God intended to deal with the problem of the world as a whole.50 In the second chapter of The Climax of the Covenant, Wright argues that Israel understood itself to be the chief heir of the role of Adam within the world.51 When God finally put the world to rights, Israel would be the means by which He would do so. Endnotes

10 What St Paul Really Said, pp.95-96; The Letter to the Romans, p.459 (return)

11 See, for example, Richard Hays, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI: 2 Corinthians — Philemon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p.238. (return)

12 Wright lists some of the neologisms and archaisms that have been employed by various NT scholars and theologians in What St Paul Really Said, pp.95-96. (return)

A Royal Priesthood?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)

15 Ibid. For a study of righteousness as a relational concept see, for example, Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology: Volume One (London: SCM Press 1975) pp.370ff. (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)

New Dictionary of Theology17 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)

18 It is important that we do not confuse Wright’s use of the term ‘covenant’ with its use in some forms of Reformed ‘covenant theology’ (What St Paul Really Said, p.117). (return)

19 Tom Wright, Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (London: SPCK, 2002) p.164 (return)

20 See The New Testament and the People of God, pp.260ff. (return)

21 The Letter to the Romans, p.398; The New Testament and the People of God, p.271 (return)

22 The Climax of the Covenant, p.203 (return)

23 Ibid., p.214 (return)

24 What St Paul Really Said, p.124 (return)

25 ‘Righteousness’ in New Dictionary of Theology, p.591 (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.]

27 See, for example, ‘Paul and Caesar: A New Reading of Romans’, p.188 (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)

29 He explains this distinction in ‘On Becoming the Righteousness of God’, p.201. (return)

30 What St Paul Really Said, p.103 (return)

31 Ibid. p.96. (return)

32 New Perspectives on Paul, p.6 (return)

33 In his commentary on Romans, Wright maintains that ‘paradoxically’ even the exile was ‘part of the covenant’ (The Letter to the Romans, p.398). (return)

34 See The New Testament and the People of God, pp.271ff.; ‘Righteousness’, p.591 (return)

35 ‘Righteousness’, p.591 (return)

36 What St Paul Really Said, pp.97-99; ‘Righteousness’, p.591; New Perspectives on Paul, p.7; The Letter to the Romans, pp.398-399 (return)

37 ‘Righteousness’ (return)

38 New Perspectives on Paul, p.7 (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]

40 The Letter to the Romans, p.399. See also What St Paul Really Said, p.98 (return)

41 ‘Righteousness’, p.591 (return)

42 Ibid. At this point, Wright’s dislike of a generic understanding of ‘law’ should be mentioned. When Paul uses the word ‘law’ it is the Jewish Torah that he is referring to. (return)

43 The Climax of the Covenant, p.24 (return)

44 Ibid. p.26 (return)

45 The Letter to the Romans, p.400 (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)

48 The Letter to the Romans, p.400 (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)

50 The Letter to the Romans, p.399; What St Paul Really Said, p.118; ‘On Becoming the Righteousness of God’, p.207. (return)

51 ‘Adam, Israel and the Messiah’ in The Climax of the Covenant, pp.18-40 (return)

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