The problem of Israel’s unfaithfulness is thrown into sharp relief when we recognize the tension that exists between the covenantal and the lawcourt meanings of ‘righteousness.’ On the one hand, YHWH is committed to His covenant to Israel; He has made promises and must fulfill them. On the other hand YHWH must be impartial as the Judge of the world. The covenant with Israel was supposed to have been the means by which God would ‘address the problem of human sin and the failure of creation as a whole to be what its creator had intended it to be.’52
It had been God’s intention to vindicate Israel and save the world through the faithfulness of Israel
However, Israel itself was found unfaithful to the covenant task. How could God judge impartially and vindicate a guilty Israel? How could God be faithful to His promises to Israel and still condemn sin? Israel itself was infected with the disease that it was supposed to be the means of eradicating.
The problem of Israel’s sinfulness is clearly presented in the OT:—
The body of the Old Testament, from [Genesis 12] onwards, carries — and the writers know it carries — the deeply ambiguous story of how Abraham’s family, the people through whom God’s solution was being taken forwards, was composed of people who were themselves part of the problem.54
As Israel is supposed to be the solution to the problem of sin and evil within the world, the problem of Israel’s own sinful rebellion is seen to be all the more acute. As Wright observes, ‘the larger biblical shape of the problem of evil is reflected in the more sharply focused shape of the problem of Israel in exile.’55
For Wright, recognizing the shape that the OT narrative gives to the problem of evil is crucial if we are to appreciate the solution to it. The problem of evil is not some vague philosophical problem, but is a problem that is brought into focus in the tragedy of God’s chosen people in exile. The OT narrative crystallizes the general problem of evil into the specific problem of Israel in exile. If God’s restorative justice is going to heal the fallen creation, it must work by means of restoring exiled Israel. New creation will only occur by means of new covenant.
Integral to the problem of exiled Israel is the whole issue of the Torah. In his various works Wright explores the complicated role of the Torah in some depth. Wright argues that the word δικαιωμα
used with reference to the Torah (e.g. Romans 1:32; 8:4) can be understood to mean ‘the covenant decree’. The just decree of the Torah is ‘the decree according to which one who does these things shall live (Deuteronomy 30:6-20).’56
Wright argues that we should not confuse the ‘righteous decree’ (δικαιωμα
) of the Torah with the ethical stipulations of the Torah (‘righteous requirements’).57
The ‘righteous decree’ of the Torah is the giving of life. However, this positive decree has a negative aspect which corresponds to that used in Romans 1:32. The Torah intends to bring life, but finds itself thwarted.
The Torah, as it were, goes on trying to put God’s will into operation, but because of the flesh and sin it has the opposite effect from that which it ultimately intended. Simply by issuing the double δικαιωμα (1.32, 8.4) the law results in death for those who are ensnared in sinful flesh (i.e. all human beings; though the law speaks especially ‘to those who are under the law’, i.e. Jews).58
Far from marking Israel out as YHWH’s new humanity, the Torah reveals that Israel, like the other nations, is still ‘in Adam’ and condemned with him.59
The problem that this poses for God’s ‘righteousness’ is an acute one: the very people that YHWH is in covenant with are as guilty as all the nations in His sight.
God’s covenant always envisaged Israel’s being faithful to the commission to be the light of the world; Israel’s untrustworthiness does not abolish God’s trustworthiness. It merely sharpens up the question: What will God do now?60
The statement of this problem is one of the principal purposes of Romans 1:18—3:20.61
In the light of the covenant and the law-court aspects of the meaning of δικαιοσυνη θεου
we must add one further dimension, that of ‘eschatology’62
Israel looked forward to the time when the δικαιοσυνη θεου
would be revealed, when God would act decisively and climactically in history to vindicate Israel. The revelation of God’s righteousness was to take the form of an event or series of events. The revelation of the δικαιοσυνη θεου
, of course, would necessitate God’s dealing with the problem of Israel’s sin; Israel could never be ‘affirmed as she stood’.64
In YHWH’s eschatological revelation of His righteousness, the tension between YHWH as the covenant God and YHWH as the Judge of the earth that had resulted from Israel’s unfaithfulness would be finally resolved.65
‘Through God’s actions on behalf of Israel, the world would see the truth for which it had longed, the justice for which it had striven.’66
At the same time, God would vindicate Himself; He would demonstrate Himself faithful to the covenant, truly address the problem of sin, rescue the helpless and do all this with ‘due impartiality between Jew and Gentile.’67
The apocalyptic revelation of YHWH’s righteousness can be properly thought of as YHWH’s own theodicy. This theodicy is revealed in the climactic events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.68
At this point it is perhaps best for us to step back, examine and further unpack some of the salient features of Wright’s understanding of righteousness language. Wright is concerned that we see the bigger picture before we try to negotiate the details. Righteousness language is, he claims, highly nuanced; we must carefully attune our ears to it if we are to understand the manner in which Paul deploys it in the course of his arguments.
Righteousness as a Relational Concept
For Wright, righteousness is conceived of as far more of an ‘interpersonal’ category. Righteousness is not measured against an abstract law or ‘idea of justice or virtue’.69
Rather, righteousness is understood as ‘right standing and consequent right behaviour, within a community.’70
For this reason, righteousness can take different forms depending on one’s place within a community (e.g. the difference between the ‘righteousness’ of the judge and that of the plaintiff or defendant). Both the law-court and the covenant settings for righteousness language demonstrate the fact that ‘the idea of righteousness…is inescapably a matter of interpersonal relationships.’71
Wright also stresses the fact that righteousness is never cold and detached, but is inseparable from love.72
These emphases have not always been as clearly present in Reformed and evangelical understandings of righteousness language.
By understanding righteousness as a relational concept within the framework shaped by the covenant, the law-court and eschatology, Wright is led to regard many common evangelical ways of speaking about righteousness as misleading.
If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths or conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. For the judge to be righteous does not mean that the court has found in his favour. For the plaintiff or defendant to be righteous does not mean that he or she has tried the case properly or impartially. To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake. This is not how the language works.73
Here some of Wright’s reasons for denying the doctrine of imputed righteousness come to the surface. To speak in terms of the ‘imputed righteousness of Christ’ or ‘the righteousness of God put to our account’ is nonsensical. Righteousness is a relational, interpersonal category and we should beware of the danger of reifying it and speaking of it as if it were some concrete substance. Speaking of righteousness in this manner also has the effect of depersonalizing righteousness. There is a constant danger that, in speaking about righteousness in the wrong manner, we might be led into dangerous theological misconceptions.
The Nature of Righteousness Terminology
The distinctions established between such things as ‘forensic’ and ‘ethical’ uses of righteousness terminology — as one example among many — are not so easy to maintain if we follow Wright’s approach.74
For Wright these senses of righteousness language interpenetrate each other. For Wright, as ‘righteousness’ comes essentially to mean ‘covenant membership’ it also carries ‘all the overtones of appropriate behaviour.’75
However, as Wright points out, God’s ‘demands of absolute covenant loyalty from his people include but far transcend what we mean by “ethics.”’76
To ‘flatten out’ the nuances of righteousness language ‘into the either/or of “forensic” and “ethical” meanings simply fails to catch what Paul is talking about.’77
When Wright describes such things as the legal, covenantal and eschatological aspects of righteousness language it is clear that he is not trying to establish a method by which each instance of righteousness language in Paul is assigned to just one of these categories. Rather Wright is like someone drawing our attention to the roles played by the different instruments within an orchestra. The precision of Wright is the precision of the ear attuned to the text rather than the mathematical precision of the type of systematic theologian who seeks to ensure that we always speak univocally, with each theological term being assigned a tidy and watertight definition.
When Wright deals with terms such as ‘righteousness’, it is clear that the terms are not seen to have rigidly defined parameters. Wright wants us to allow terms such as ‘righteousness’ considerable room to bleed outside of their more central meanings. Rather than, for example, trying to mute the overtones of the rhetoric of the Roman Empire in Paul’s use of righteousness language in order to give us a more scientific or clear definition, Wright believes that clarity is better served when we are trained to hear these overtones.
It is interesting to observe the uneasiness manifested by some evangelicals when faced with unusual uses of the verb δικαιοω
(‘justify’), for example. The employment of the verb δικαιοω
in a verse like Romans 6:7 clearly does not fit to the standard narrow definition.78
Many evangelicals are willing to recognize the fact that the verb is used in a different sense, but are unwilling to allow this to have much of an impact upon their doctrine of justification.79
As he allows for far more flexible definitions of terms such as ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’, we should not be at all surprised that Wright’s doctrine of justification stands opposed to the more rigid definitions of many evangelicals. A narrow definition of terms will lead to a narrowly defined doctrine. Certain metaphors will be privileged over others and even the metaphors that are privileged will often be far more constrained than they are in Scripture.80
The terms employed by Paul are not hermetically sealed scientific categories, but are more like the words employed by a poet, frequently bleeding into each other, without clearly defined edges.
If we pay attention to the frequency in which Wright uses music, art, poetry and drama as analogies for Scripture we will soon appreciate that Wright believes that the exegete’s engagement with Scripture should take a form that differs markedly from the more scientific approach of many theologians. Some following a more scientific approach will seek to silence what they perceive to be background noise in order to obtain clear doctrinal definitions; Wright’s approach strains to hear the whispers and echoes of other texts in Paul and is more prepared to recognize the presence of such things as intentional ambiguities. When we understand the manner in which Wright approaches the text of Scripture and the definition of theological terminology we should be more prepared for some of the ways in which he differs from the highly refined definitions of the Reformed confessions.81
A further thing that can be observed is that, by bringing a number of categories together in his definition of righteousness language, Wright may have created a way in which narrow positions that have traditionally differed may be brought together under a broader definition. Many have focused on filial metaphors for justification over against forensic metaphors. By bringing together the covenant and the law-court settings for righteousness language it may be possible to reconcile some of these differing positions.
52 The Letter to the Romans, p.399 (return)
53 What St Paul Really Said, p.106 (return)
54 N.T. Wright, ‘What Can God Do About Evil? Unjust World, Just God?’ Lecture 2 of Evil and the Justice of God (return)
55 Ibid. (return)
56 The Letter to the Romans, p.577; The Climax of the Covenant, p.203 (return)
57 The fulfillment of the ‘righteous requirements’ of the Torah by Christians can be thought of as a ‘symptom’ by which the fact that the δικαιωμα has been fulfilled with regard to us is revealed. The new covenant life that we enjoy with God, although it certainly includes it, far transcends the mere fulfillment of ethical requirements. We fulfill the Torah, but are no longer under it. (return)
58 The Climax of the Covenant, p.211 (return)
59 Ibid. p.198; The Letter to the Romans, p.461 (return)
60 The Letter to the Romans, p.453 (return)
61 Ibid., p.428-429 (return)
62 What St Paul Really Said, p.99 (return)
63 The Letter to the Romans, p.400f. For a study of the meaning of ‘apocalyptic’ see chapter 10 of The New Testament and the People of God. (return)
64 The New Testament and the People of God, p.272 (return)
65 ‘Righteousness’ can even serve as a periphrasis for God Himself, as in Romans 6:13-20 [N.T. Wright, ‘New Exodus, New Inheritance’ in Sven K. Soderlund and N.T. Wright (eds.), Romans and the People of God (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999) p.33]. (return)
66 The Letter to the Romans, p.401 (return)
67 Ibid., p.477 (return)
68 Wright writes:
The gospel message about Jesus, in other words, opens people’s eyes to see for the first time that this was what God had been up to all along. It enables Jews to see how the promises they had cherished had been fulfilled, quite otherwise than they had expected. It enables Gentiles to see that there is one true God, the God of Israel, the creator; that this God has purposed to set the world to rights at last; and that this God has now in principle accomplished that purpose. And when we say “enables to see,” we should not think merely of propositions commanding intellectual assent. Paul believed that the announcement of the gospel wielded a power that overcame the unseen forces, inside people and around them, that prevented them from responding in obedient belief and allegiance (see 2 Cor 4:1-6). [Ibid. p.424f.](return)
69 ‘Righteousness’, p.591 (return)
70 Ibid. (return)
71 Ralph Smith, Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002) p.96 (return)
72 What St Paul Really Said, p.110 (return)
73 Ibid., p.98 (return)
74 See, for example, ‘New Exodus, New Inheritance’, p.33 (return)
75 ‘Righteousness’, p.592 (return)
76 ‘New Exodus, New Inheritance’, p.33 (return)
77 Ibid. (return)
78 Contra John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002) pp.76ff. (return)
79 Peter Leithart gives a very helpful discussion of this in “Judge Me, O God” — Biblical Perspectives on Justification. (return)
80 See Wright’s comments on Romans 6:7 in The Letter to the Romans, p.540 (return)
81 Wright would probably accuse the definitions of being over-refined. (return)