Ruminating Romans: Dikaiosynê Theou

I am under obligation to barbarians as well as to Greeks, you see; both to the wise and to the foolish. That’s why I’m eager to announce the good news to you, too, in Rome. I’m not ashamed of the good news; it’s God’s power, bringing salvation to everyone who believes—to the Jew first, and also, equally, to the Greek. This is because God’s covenant justice is unveiled in it, from faithfulness to faithfulness. As it says in the Bible, “the just shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:14-17)

Through the proclamation of the gospel the dikaiosynê theou is being revealed. The phrasing is rendered in the present tense (“is revealed” or “is being revealed”), not in the aorist past tense (“was revealed”). The preaching of the gospel is itself an ongoing act of divine revelation. The gospel does not simply speak about the dikaiosynê theou; it participates in its manifestation.

Translators and commentators debate how best to translate dikaiosynê into English. “Righteousness,” “justice,” “uprightness,” “covenant justice,” “covenant loyalty,” “rectification” have all been proposed. I will address this question in a subsequent article, but for the moment I will stick primarily with the word “righteousness.” Dikaiosynê theou also poses a grammatical challenge. Is it best rendered as the “righteousness of God” (subjective genitive), the “righteousness from God” (objective genitive), or the “righteousness of God that proceeds to human beings” (genitive of origin)? (Quite frankly, I’m not sure what the difference is between the objective genitive and the genitive of origin.) Apparently each is grammatically possible, and each has its defenders among contemporary and classical exegetes.

St John Chrysostom, for example, interpreted the phrase as objective genitive: “For you do not achieve it [righteousness] by toilings and labors, but you receive it by a gift from above, contributing one thing only from your own store, believing” (Hom. Rom. 2). St Augustine, reading Romans in a Latin translation, also understood “righteousness” in the objective sense: “This is the righteousness of God, which was hidden in the Old Testament and is revealed in the New: called the righteousness of God, because God by imparting it makes man righteous, even as it is ‘the Lord’s salvation’ by which he causes men to be saved” (The Spirit and the Letter 18). We’ll call this a “communicated justice.” The anonymous 4th century exegete Ambrosiaster, also relying on a Latin translation, interpreted the iustitia Dei in the subjective sense: “It is the justice of God, because he has given what he has promised; hence the one who believes that he has acquired that which God had promised through his prophets, shows that God is just and becomes a witness to his justice” (In ep. ad Rom. 1.17)—God is faithful to his promises. Most famously, Martin Luther dramatically “re-discovered” the objective sense of the phrase in what is often called his tower experience:

I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

Having been taught that the iustia Dei signifies the divine attribute of retributive justice, Luther finds personal liberation through the interpretation of the righteousness bestowed by God. Sometime afterwards Luther read Augustine’s The Spirit and the Letter and “discovered that he too interpreted ‘the justice of God’ in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.” The Council of Trent followed Augustine in its Decree on Justification: “The alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just.” The dispute between Catholics and Protestants thus boiled down to a question whether the gift of righteousness was imparted or imputed.

It’s impossible for a nonexpert like myself to arrive at a definitive opinion regarding the proper construal of dikaiosynê theou; but I am persuaded by those who argue in favor of the subjective genitive. It seems to make the best sense of Romans, though it’s also possible, as we shall see in a later post, that the Apostle simultaneously intended both the subjective and objective meanings.

First scholar up to bat–Joseph Fitzmyer:

Dikaiosynê theou (or dikaiosynê auto, “his uprightness”) appears again in 3.5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3(bix). Here dikaiosynê theou stands in contrast to orgê theou, “the wrath of God” (1:18), an attribute, property, or quality in God. Because that sense is also found in 3:5 and best suits the other verses in chap. 3, that sense is used for all passages in Romans in which this phrase occurs.

Theou is thus understood as a possessive or subjective gen., descriptive of God’s upright being and of his upright activity, and not as a gen. of author or origin. When dikaiosynê is called an attribute or quality, nothing static is implied; it is an aspect of God’s power, whence proceeds his acquitting and salvific activity in a forensic mode.

Paul uses dikaiosynê theou in the sense in which God’s uprightness is spoken of in postexilic writings of the OT, even though the specific phrase never occurs as such in the LXX. It is the quality whereby God actively acquits his sinful people, manifesting toward them his power and gracious activity in a just judgment (see Isa 46:13 [where “my righteousness,” and “my salvation” stand in parallelism]; 51:5, 6, 8; 56:1; 61:10; Ps 40:9-10). It is now manifested toward humanity because of what Christ Jesus has done for them. (Anchor Bible: Romans, pp. 257-258)

In the Septuagint dikaiosynê is used to translate the Hebrew word sedaqah. According to the exegetes sedaqah refers primarily to God’s covenant fidelity. God is righteous in that he is faithful to his promises to his people and actively works for their deliverance from enemies, evil, and chaos. James D. G. Dunn explains further:

Righteousness is not something which an individual has on his or her own, independently of anyone else; it is something which one has precisely in one’s relationships as a social being. People are righteous when they meet the claims which others have on them by virtue of their relationship. … So too when it is predicated of God—in this case the relationship between the covenant which God entered into with his people. … God is “righteous” when he fulfills the obligations he took upon himself to be Israel’s God, that is, to rescue Israel and punish Israel’s enemies (e.g., Exod 9:27; 1 Sam 12:7; Dan 9:16; Mic 6:5)—“righteousness” as “covenant faithfulness (Rom 3:3-5, 35; 10:3; also 9:6 and 15:8). Particularly in the Psalms and Second Isaiah the logic of covenant grace is followed through with the result that righteousness and salvation become virtually synonymous: the righteousness of God as God’s act to restore his own and to sustain them within the covenant. … It is clearly this concept of God’s righteousness which Paul takes over here; the “righteousness of God” being his way of explicating “the power of God for salvation.” (Romans, I:40-41)

Similarly Brendan Byrne:

Behind Paul’s Greek term dikaiosynê lies the biblical and early post-biblical usage of the Hebrew word group sedeq/sedaqa which it overwhelmingly (though by no means exclusively) translates. The notion denoted by the word group is essentially relational and has to do with the assessment of one’s action or behavior according to whether it conforms or does not conform to the demands of expectation of some other person with whom one is in relationship. Put in plainer language, the righteous person is the one who “does the right thing” by some other party. Righteousness is the state or status of the person who, in terms of the relationship, is acknowledged by the other to have done the right thing, to be “in the right.” The classic biblical illustration is the acknowledgment given by Judah to Tamar at the end of the sordid episode recounted in Gen 38:26: “She is more righteous than I.”

In his more specific appeal to the “righteousness of God” as “revealed” (apokalyptetai) in the gospel, Paul stands in continuity with a biblical tradition greatly shaped by the exilic prophet who speaks in Isaiah 40-55. This (Second) Isaiah employed the language of “righteousness” in particular connection with the saving and liberating acts of God on behalf of captive Israel. God’s saving acts on behalf of the exiled people are an exercise of righteousness, revealing God to be “righteous” (“faithful”) in terms of relationship with Israel.

In Paul’s eyes, the gospel “reveals” the “righteousness of God” in that it announces that God has acted faithfully, not only with respect to Israel, but, as Creator, with respect to the entire world. What is at stake is God’s own righteousness, which human beings acknowledge in the act of faith (cf., later, 3:36). (Romans, p. 53)

N. T. Wright also stands in this interpretive tradition. We will explore his analysis in the next posting (or maybe the not so next posting).

(Go to “Rediscovering Rabbi Saul”)

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7 Responses to Ruminating Romans: Dikaiosynê Theou

  1. Rhonda says:

    Ahh…the intricacies of ancient Greek which defy attempts at English translation! Where’s my Tylenol? 😉


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree. Paul should have written his epistles in English!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      jrj, the King James Version contains the authentic words of the Apostle. This means that not only are later English translations of the Pauline epistles based on the KJV, but so are all the ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts. We’ll let the physicists figure that one out!


  2. Rhonda says:

    I just realized how that sounded 😦 Its the Greek that gives me the headache, not the article.Good thought-provoking article, Fr. Aiden.


  3. Pingback: Who is righteous? | All Along the Watchtower

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