Many of the debates in Christian theology directly or indirectly relate to the definition of righteousness. Is righteousness a moral quality as per Augustine, which influenced the whole of Roman Catholicism? Is righteousness and justification a legal declaration, as per traditional Protestant theology? Is it a recognized status as part of the covenant as per NT Wright and others, in response to the classic Protestant theology?
Since God is the one who justifies, one’s definition of righteousness determines the nature of the divine action that produces righteousness. If it is a moral quality, then God infuses righteousness. If it is a legal declaration, then God imputes righteousness. If it is a covenantal status, then God is faithful to His covenant.
But what if the whole concept of righteousness throughout the Bible in general and the epistles of Paul in particular can not be represented with a singular definition, but that it is essentially polysemic, with each different semantic strand intertwined with the others? For instance, what if righteousness is a attitudinal quality of the way one relates to God and others? What if, then, this attitude entails putting this attitude into the righteous action through integrity, trustworthiness, responsiveness, and care? Is it possible, then, since this attitude and its enactment often times gets drown out by other struggles we have, justification is about God’s recognition of our righteousness despite our failures? Could we then imagine that God’s righteousness response to us will engage faithful action to bring us to the way of life God envisions for us, both in how we relate to Him and the world in which we live?
Consider the analogy with the word “good.” A person can be good in that they have a good heart. They can be good in that do good things, generally coming from a good heart. They can be a good person in that they have had their failures, but these things do not truly represent who they are. They can be good in that they are valued and helped, even in their weaknesses. “Good” can be used in a polysemic nature and we intuitively understand these different uses and the relationships between the different strands. In fact, I would suggest that this is a prevailing tendency in human language when it comes to evaluating people and our interpersonal contexts; there is little systematicity and univocality of usage, but relational and social terms are understood and employed with a wide range of different nuances. Yet, these different nuances maintain relations to the other nuances.
So if this is the case for righteousness, then what blinds us as it pertains to the understanding of righteousness is not our definitions, but our systematicity that trains us to find a singular definition of righteousness that operates in all instances. A more appropriate response then is to attempt to discern the cluster of related semantic strands, paying close attention to individual context to see which semantic shade is appropriate for the specific usage while also considering how these different strands operate together in the Biblical discourse. The academic and intellectual penchant for systematic univocality can make us resistant to observing these subtleties in normal discourse and then, if we observe them, make us skeptical of treating these subtleties as legitimate and reasonable.
If Christian theology is largely endebted to specific understandings of righteousness, what would theology look like if righteousness was legitimately construed in a more polysemic fashion? How would it impact how we construe the action of God in our lives?