Book Review: The Righteousness of God

righteousnessofgodTitle: The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation

Author: Charles Lee Irons

Series: WUNT II, 386.

Bibliographic info: xxiii + 382 + 61

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2015.

Buy the book at Amazon

With thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy.

The phrase, δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, “[the] righteousness of God”, appears several times in the Pauline corpus of the New Testament. Prior to the Reformation, the expression was commonly understood to refer to God’s justice, with this notion no doubt being supported by the Latin rendering of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ as iustitia Dei. When Martin Luther came onto the scene, however, he concluded that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is talking about a righteous status given by God to a person, in other words, we are declared righteous by God, though not because we actually are righteous in reality, but due to God imputing righteousness to us (think simul iustus et peccator). This understanding of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is a staple in Protestant theology, though it has been modified by various people, e.g., Wesley stressed that in addition to God declaring us righteous, God actually imparts righteousness to us (through the sanctification of the Holy Spirit).

In recent years, there has paradigm shift in how we should understand δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Paul. It is argued that the concept of God’s “righteousness” in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls refers to God’s power to save his people and God’s character to remain faithful to his covenant promises, with the corollary being that this too is how Paul essentially understood δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ. In this view, δικαιοσύνη  is not a legal concept, nor does it mean conformity to a norm; it is instead a relational concept and denotes the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship (think of the phrase “covenant faithfulness”). This relational interpretation was proposed by Hermann Cremer in 1899 and is now “a dominant influence on Pauline scholarship.” This paradigm suggests that the translation of the צדק-group in Hebrew with the δικ-group in the Greek of the Septuagint introduced covenantal ideas into the meaning of the δικ-group of words (even though such ideas are not found in use of these words in non-biblical Greek).

This is where this volume—a revised version of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation completed at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011—comes in. In this study the author seeks to disprove Cremer’s relational theory, critique and disprove the “covenant faithfulness” interpretation, and make a positive case for the traditional interpretation of the reformers. This is no small task, as this “reigning paradigm” of understanding Paul has had the support of many scholars in the past—e.g. Gerhard von Rad, Adolf Schlatter, Ernst Käsemann—and is still being advanced by many today—e.g., N.T. Wright, James Dunn, Richard Hays, and Michael Bird.

Chapter One provides the obligatory review of the topic, a history of interpretation of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Paul, covering the Greek and Latin fathers, the medieval period, the reformation era, and the new relational view (from its inception through to the contemporary New Perspective on Paul). Chapter Two then delves into methodological considerations, including lexical semantics and the role of the Septuagint in mediating Hebrew meanings into Greek.

Chapter Three looks at “righteousness” in extra-biblical Greek (from the sixth century BCE through to the Bar Kokhba revolt in the second century CE). Chapter Four does the same for the Old Testament. Irons concludes that the 41 occurrences in the Hebrew text and the 44 in the Septuagint (not including the apocrypha) of “my/your/his righteousness” are “focused on God’s judicial activity” and that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ terminology in both the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint is “best understood in light of the judicial context of legal controversy, so that God’s righteousness is precisely iustitia distributiva.” Chapter Five then takes a look at “righteousness” in other Jewish literature, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, the apocrypha, the Old Testament pseudepigrapha composed in Hebrew and Greek, and the New Testament.

Chapter Six carries this study forward with exegesis of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Paul. Irons attempts to find some evidence that Paul takes δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in a Hebraic sense as referring to God’s saving activity or covenant faithfulness, but finds this “barely possible.” After examining the ten instances of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Paul, Irons sees seven of these occurrences—Rom 1:17; 3:21-22; 10:3 (twice); 2 Cor 5:21; and Phil 3:9—as being best understood in a soteriological sense referring to “the status of righteousness that believers possess by virtue of union with Christ.” The other three instances of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ (Rom. 3:5, 25-26) are, according to Irons, best understood as “God’s attribute of righteousness or his distributive justice.” This chapter also includes a short excursus (pp. 329-33) on the πίστις Χριστοῦ debate which is closely related to the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ debate, though it must be noted that not all who interpret the latter phrase as God’s covenant faithfulness necessarily interpret the former phrase as the faithfulness of Christ (Dunn falls into this category IIRC). Additionally, in this chapter Irons makes a salient point in noting that if δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ does indeed mean God’s covenant faithfulness, then it’s difficult to understand why Paul failed to use it in Romans 11 (where he is quite concerned at upholding God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises with Israel).

Chapter Seven concludes this study, providing a synopsis of the author’s findings and some implications, with the overarching conclusion being that Cremer’s relational theory of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ has been “decisively disproven.” There is also an Appendix containing all occurrences of “righteousness” in the Old Testament.

All in all, this study is a must-read for those interested in the New Perspective on Paul. From the little bit of literature I had read on the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ debate in the past, it made me quite partial to the “covenant faithfulness” interpretation (though I was less convinced by the subjective genitive interpretation of πίστις Χριστοῦ). This study, however, is quite convincing and gives one serious pause to wonder if Luther was right all along. Future studies on this debate will have to take Irons’ findings into account, and it will sure be interesting to see how this changes the conversation.

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