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N.T. Wright and Romans 3:21, Part 1

August 14, 2006

Romans 3:21-22 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe

N.T. Wright wrote the following in his paper, “Romans and the Theology of Paul”.  

“Second, the divine “righteousness” (covenant faithfulness) is emphatically not the same as the “righteousness” that humans have when they are declared to be covenant members. That idea, despite its often invoking the “forensic” setting of the language, fails to understand what that forensic setting means. In the Hebrew lawcourt the judge does not give, bestow, impute, or impart his own “righteousness” to the defendant. That would imply that the defendant was deemed to have conducted the case impartially, in accordance with the law, to have punished sin and upheld the defenseless innocent ones.“Justification,” of course, means nothing like that. “Righteousness” is not a quality or substance that can thus be passed or transferred from the judge to the defendant. The righteousness of the judge is the judge’s own character, status, and activity, demonstrated in doing these various things. The “righteousness” of the defendants is the status they possess when the court has found in their favor. Nothing more, nothing less. When we translate these forensic categories back into their theological context, that of the covenant, the point remains fundamental: the divine covenant faithfulness is not the same as human covenant membership. The fact that the same word (dikaiosunh) is used for both ideas indicates their close reciprocal relationship, not their identity.” 

In today’s post I will aim to undermine two of Wright’s arguments.  Tomorrow I will begin to present some counterarguments for a better reading of Romans 3:21.  

First, Wright says that “righteousness” is not a quality or a substance that can be transferred from the judge to the defendant because this fails to understand the forensic [legal courtroom] setting.  This doesn’t happen in a Hebrew lawcourt.  Wright makes this argument often, he brings it out like it is his champion.  But I cannot feel any force to it whatsoever.  So what if this can’t happen in a Hebrew lawcourt?  There are many aspects of our justification that are impossible in a Hebrew lawcourt, or any human lawcourt.  In a human lawcourt, the Judge and the Advocate are not both of one Substance.  In a human lawcourt the Judge cannot condemn the Advocate to suffer the punishment due to the defendant.  If we can affirm the imputation of our sin to Jesus without being accused of abusing the forensic metaphor, why can’t we affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us?  And in a future post I will make some arguments for why I believe the Bible does say that there is a “gift of righteousness” that can be transferred to us. 

Second, Wright does not believe that the righteousness of God can be imputed to us because he understands “righteousness of God” to mean not a gift of righteousness from God, but the attribute of God’s righteousness, which he defines as God’s “covenant faithfulness”.  He defines it this way because many times in the OT, especially in Psalms and Isaiah, “righteousness” is seen to be in parallelism with “salvation”.  So God’s righteousness means there his saving activity, his eschatological vindication of his people, his faithfulness to his covenant with Israel.  I think he’s right about this.  The eschatological vindication of the people of God is a delicious and stirring and underemphasized aspect of our salvation and it is understandable that those who read of it in Wright would be moved by it.   But it does not exhaust the semantic range of “the righteousness of God”; it is not what “the righteousness of God” means in every text; and I do not believe it is the meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Romans 3:21.  

Mark Seifrid wrote an excellent chapter in Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1, titled “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism”.  In it he writes,  “to speak of ‘righteousness’ as ‘covenant faithfulness’ is to invert the actual semantic relation between the terms.  Only rarely do [covenant] and [righteousness] terms appear in any proximity to one another, despite their considerable frequency in the Hebrew Scriptures.  ‘Covenant’ occurs 283 times, [righteousness] terminology some 524 times, and yet only in seven passages do the terms come into any significant semantic contact…. [fn. one can hardly overlook the fact that in three of the seven contexts…a retributive divine righteousness seems to be in view (Ps 50:1-5, Dan 9:4-7, Neh 9:32-33)] In biblical terms one generally does not ‘act righteously or unrighteously’ with respect to a covenant.  Rather, one ‘keeps,’ ‘remembers,’ ‘establishes’ a covenant, or the like….  [R]ighteousness language is more often found in parallel with terms for rectitude or in opposition to terms for evil, expressing approbation or condemnation.  Contrastingly, terms such as [lovingkindness] and [faithfulness], which carry associations of enduring friendship, appear with special prominence when a covenantal relation is in view…. All ‘covenant-keeping’ is righteous behavior, but not all righteous behavior is ‘covenant-keeping.’  It is misleading, therefore, to speak of ‘God’s righteousness; as his ‘covenant-faithfulness.’  It would be closer to the biblical language to speak of ‘faithfulness’ as ‘covenant-righteousness.’” 

In other words, “covenant faithfulness” is only one kind of righteousness.  More often in the Scriptures, “the righteousness of God” refers to his being a righteous judge who punishes the wicked.  And “righteousness” refers to moral rectitude without any reference in nearby texts to the covenant.  Consider the frequent contrast in the wisdom literature between the righteous and the wicked.  Anticipating an objection, I will say that if you say that “righteous” and “wicked” means “covenant keeper” and “covenant breaker” I will respond: 1) this is reductionistic  2) the textual evidence does not support this as the terms seldom are used togther and 3) “righteous” does not mean “covenant keeper”, rather, “righteousness” is what you need in order to be a covenant keeper.  To keep the covenant you must be a doer of the law.   This we have all failed to do.  Therefore we need the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Now I will announce a BLOG SPECIAL!!! THIS WEEK ONLY!!!  I will post any comment from anyone who can manage to abstain from rude ad hominems.  Don’t just tell me that N.T. Wright has the biggest brain of any living man and only a chosen few can understand him.   If you think that I misunderstand Wright, you explain to me your understanding of him and support it with a citation from his writings and make an argument from Scripture for or against his position.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bethlen Gabor permalink
    August 14, 2006 8:05 pm

    As Isaiah543 (Dare I dub thee “Quatro-Isaiah”?) points out, Wright’s assignment of a covenantal element to the righteousness of God is not entirely off-base. Wright’s error is in establishing this covenantal righteousness in opposition to “personal” righteousness, or by extension, imputed judicial righteousness, which is evident throughout the Bible when it speaks of our justification in Christ.

    Wright’s contention is that in the Hebrew mind, the only righteousness addressed between God and man is the covenantal redemption of God’s people (i.e. the Church since the resurrection of Christ). He sees no place for the righteousness of Christ imputed to morally depraved individuals.

    Over against this view, the Bible frequently and specifically speaks of individual moral righteousness throughout. Stealing the work of other men, I’ll list a few passages.

    Against accusations from Eliphaz that he was being judged by the Lord for his wicked deeds, Job protests “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know. I broke the fangs of the unrighteous and made him drop his prey from his teeth.” (Job 29:14-17)

    Note that Job does NOT cry out that he should be saved from his anguish because he is a member of the covenant. He does not ask to be redeemed by his association with God’s people. Righteousness for Job is MORAL righteousness. And lacking sufficient personal, moral righteousness, we must plea for the righteousness of Christ. David makes a similar claim in Ps 7: 4, 8. To quote Dr. J.V. Fesko (professor at RTS, Atlanta), “David’s plea to have God judge him according to his righteousness is not the claim of moral self-qualification, or self-righteousness, but the request that God declare him innocent of wrongdoing, to render a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict”. Again, covenant membership is not in view but status, namely David’s innocence.”

    See also Ps. 18:20-22, Ps. 24:3-4, Ez. 33:18-19, Dan 4:27, Matt 6:1, I Jn 3:7-12. The overwhelming opinion of both testaments is that, while there is a covenantal aspect to the righteousness of God, the dominant theme is of personal justification graciously imputed to God’s elect. We are saved INTO the people of God (see Rm. 11:16-22), not saved because we are already among them.

  2. August 14, 2006 9:49 pm

    to Bethlen Gabor and Mike, I give a hearty Hooah!

  3. August 14, 2006 9:53 pm

    Good post, General. No, thou darest not dub me quatro Isaiah. Now go do a good job at your job, we appreciate it! I think your point about being saved into is real important.

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