In his commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo outlines three possible options for the meaning of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Romans 1.17: (1) An attribute of God, (2) Status given by God, and (3) an activity of God.1 In Moo’s judgment, the third option garners the most support from the Old Testament, taking it ot refer to God’s saving activity.[/note]Ibid., 72.p[/note] However, there is not real agreement that this is the actual sense of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ. Ben Witherington disagrees with Moo, suggesting it refers to “[God’s] fairness and and faithfulness to his promise” on the grounds that God’s righteousness and saving activity are not equated in the OT, but merely associated.2 Robert Jewett takes a position closer to Moo, thinking that the “missional context” of the letter suggests that the phrase refers to “God’s activity in this process of global transformation.”3 Richard Longenecker believes that the phrase is used in multiple senses that would satisfy each of three of the options presented by Moo:
For “the righteousness of God” that Paul speaks of in these passages is a righteousness that is both (1) an attribute of God and a quality that characterizes all of his actions (the attributive sense) and (2) a gift that God gives to people who come to him “by faith” (the communicative sense). It is a type of righteousness that enables ables God to be both δίκαιον (“just”) and διακαιοῦντα (“justifier” or “the One who justifies”), as the confessional material of 3:24-26 affirms at its close in verse 26b.4
Trying to determine the meaning of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ has major implications as to how one interprets Romans. The phrase occurs eight times in Romans, whereas it only occurs one more time in the rest of Paul’s epistles in 2 Corinthians 5.21.5 Because of its place in the propositio in Romans 1.16-17, we can safely say that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is a critical concept for understanding Romans.
However, I want to suggest that there is something of a mistaken linguistic assumptions being used in trying to determine the meaning of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ. In the commentaries surveying, the assumptions is that there is a clear meaning of the phrase for Paul that we ourselves are ignorant of and that we simply need to reconstruct by looking at the uses of the phrase in the Old Testament and the literature of Second Temple Judaism. However, what if there wasn’t a clear, unanimous understanding of δικαιοσύνη when used in reference to God in the first place. Much like modern theological uses of the phrase “God’s love” to refer to very different ideas that can be mutually exclusive sometimes, what if δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ has a similar dynamic. I would put forward that it is this ambiguity that provides a background by which we can make sense of Paul’s different portrayal of God and the different usage of διακιόω between Romans 1.18-3.20 and 3.21-8.39.
Analytic philosopher W.B. Gaille puts forward the idea that there are concepts that are essentially contested between different users of the concepts. Gaille observes that:
We find groups of people disagreeing about the proper use of the concepts, e.g., of art, of democracy, of the Christian tradition. When we examine the different uses of these terms and the characteristic arguments in which they figure we soon see that there is no one clearly definable general use of any of them which can be set up as the correct or standard use. Different uses of the term “work of art ” or ” democracy ” or ” Christian doctrine” subserve different though of course not altogether unrelated functions for different schools or movements of artists and critics, for different political groups and parties, for different religious communities and sects. Now once this variety of functions is disclosed it might well be expected that the disputes in which the above mentioned concepts figure would at once come to an end. But in fact this does not happen. Each party continues to maintain that the special functions which the term ” work of art ” or ” democracy ” or ” Christian doctrine ” fulfils on its behalf or on its interpretation, is the correct or proper or primary, or the only important, function which the term in question can plainly be said to fulfil. Moreover, each party continues to defend its case with what it claims to be convincing arguments, evidence and other forms of justification.6
While we can not go back and directly see if there were any disagreements on the understanding of God and His righteousness, we can certainly surmise there must have been some disagreements about what righteousness is and how it was demonstrated or obtained. This seems to be at the core of what Paul describes in Philippians 3.9 as a conflict of two different visions of righteousness. The conventional Pharisaical relationship of righteousness to the Torah was contested by Paul. This contention would also impact how one also understood God’s own righteousness, as God’s righteousness was occasionally connected to God’s commandments and ethical instruction (especially in Psalm 119). Also, insofar as God’s righteousness is related to the way God delivers His righteous people, there would have been various disagreements as to the understanding of God’s righteousness and who were the recipients of God’s mercy. For instance, the Damascus Document portrays God’s deliverance as coming to those who are “anointed by the holy spirit” (CD 2.12) that distinguished the remnant of Israel from the rest of Israel, whereas the Psalms of Solomon vision God’s righteous judgment being levied against the Gentiles who desecrated Jerusalem (Ps. Sol. 2.15-21).
To that end, it is perhaps best to leave Paul’s usage of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ as relatively undefined in Romans 1.17. Certainly, we can say that it refers to something we know about God and also God’s activity, but to push with much more specificity than this general sense is, in my mind, to risk missing the purpose of Paul’s discourse to describe and explain what God’s righteousness is according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In favor of this is how both Romans 1.18 and 3.21 share a somewhat similar syntactic structure to Romans 1.17: Paul seems to be explicating upon two different visions of what God’s righteousness is. In 1.18-3.20 Paul deconstructs one understanding of God’s righteousness as a future vindication of the righteous Israel against her pagan oppressions, suggesting that such a view fundamentally misunderstands the way God will judge the world. While still recognizing the place of a future judgment, how God in His righteousness works to save people is fundamentally misunderstood by *some* Jews according to Paul’s argument. Meanwhile, Romans 3.21-8.39 further reflects on the nature of God’s righteousness as not simply occurring in some distant, future apocalyptic judgment of the world, but is also being demonstrated in the present time (νυνί; Rom 3.21) through Jesus Christ. This vision of God’s righteousness harkens back to Abraham as the prototype of faith and God’s vindication. God’s righteousness made known in Christ (Romans 6) and realized through the Spirit (Romans 8.1-17) rather than Torah (Romans 7) eventually culminates in the future redemption and vindication of God’s people even as they face the trials of the present time (Romans 8.18-39).
What Paul presents, then, is an understanding of God’s righteousness that is not just a future act of redemption from those hostile to God and His people, but it is an act of God in the present time to prepare people to be the recipients of this future redemption and mercy in the future. Put differently, in Jesus Christ, God’s righteousness is demonstrated throughout the life span of faith from coming to faith, just as Abraham did in receiving the promise, to endure in faith, just as Abraham did in receiving the promise (cf. “from faith to faith” in Rom. 1.17). The salvation that comes from God’s righteousness spans human life and human history, transforming people from disobedience to obedience, rather than being reduced to a punctiliar point of time in the future.
In conclusion, δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ makes sense of only if we leave it as rather ambiguous in its meaning except insofar as Paul explicates on what God’s righteousness is. While some preliminary semantic observations are helpful, this provides false confidence that I would suggest overlooks the ambiguity that the term would have had in virtue of being an essentially contested concept between various Jewish sects and groups. But with this ambiguity in tow, we can begin to make sense of the development of Paul’s argument in Romans 1-8.
- Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 70-71.
- Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 51-52.
- Robert Jewett, Romans. Hermenia. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 142.
- Richard Longenecker, Introducing Romans, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), EPUB Edition, ch. 9, Use of δικαι-terminology.
- Richard Longenecker also points to Philippians 3.9 as another example of the phrase. However, the Greek reads τὴν ἐκ θεοῦ δικαιοσύνην. This phrase is not an exact equivalent, but the presence of the preposition ἐκ makes the phrase less ambiguous than δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ.
- W.B. Gaille, “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol 56, 1955-56, 167-198: 168.