Ruminating Romans: Wrighting the Divine Righteousness

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)

After his encounter with the risen Messiah and his experience of the Holy Spirit, St Saul was compelled to redefine his understanding of the dikaiosynê theou. Land, Temple, Torah—each was now to be reinterpreted by the wondrous act of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. The God of Israel was indeed faithful to his covenantal promises, yet the way he had chosen to fulfill his promises had surprised everyone. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrated that the long awaited kingdom had arrived, yet it had arrived only in Jesus. Jews were expecting the resurrection of all human beings, or at least the resurrection of all faithful Jews. No one conceived the possibility of the resurrection of one man. That would have made no sense. And yet it had happened! The kingdom was here … yet it was still future. N. T. Wright elaborates on the eschatological paradox:

The significance of Jesus’ resurrection, for Saul of Tarsus as he lay blinded and perhaps bruised on the road to Damascus, was this. The one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time. Saul had imagined that YHWH would vindicate Israel after her suffering at the hand of the pagans. Instead, he had vindicated Jesus after his suffering at the hand of the pagans. Saul had imagined that the great reversal, the great apocalyptic event, would take place all at once, inaugurating the kingdom of God with a flourish of trumpets, setting all wrongs to right, defeating evil once and for all, and ushering in the age to come. Instead, the great reversal, the great resurrection, had happened to one man, all by himself. What could this possibly mean?

Quite simply, it meant this: Jesus of Nazareth, whose followers had regarded him as the Messiah, the one who would bear the destiny of Israel, had seemed to Saul rather to be an anti-Messiah, someone who had failed to defeat the pagans, and had succeeded only in generating a group of people who were sitting loose to the Torah and critical of the Temple, two of the great symbols of Jewish identity. But the resurrection demonstrated that Jesus’ followers were right. In his greatest letter, Paul had put it like this: Jesus the Messiah was descended from the seed of David according to the flesh and marked out as the Son of God (i.e. Messiah) by the Spirit of holiness through the resurrection of the dead (Romans 1:4). The resurrection demarcated Jesus as the true Messiah, the true bearer of Israel’s God-sent destiny.

But if Jesus really was the Messiah, and if his death and resurrection really were the decisive heaven-sent defeat of sin and vindication of the people of YHWH, then this means that the Age to Come had already begun, had already been inaugurated, even though the Present Age, the time of sin, rebellion and wickedness, was still proceeding apace. Saul therefore realized that his whole perspective on the way in which YHWH was going to act to unveil his plan of salvation had to be drastically re-thought. He, Saul, had been ignorant of the righteousness of God, ignorant of what YHWH had been planning all along in apocalyptic fulfilment of the covenant. The death and resurrection of Jesus were themselves the great eschatological event, revealing God’s covenant faithfulness, his way of putting the world to rights. … Saul was already living in the time of the end, even though the previous dimension of time was still carrying on all around him. The Present Age and the Age to Come overlapped, and he was caught in the middle, or rather, liberated in the middle, liberated to serve the same God in a new way, with a new knowledge to which he had before been blind. If the Age to Come had arrived, if the resurrection had already begun to take place, then this was the time when the Gentiles were to come in. (What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 36-37)

The risen Jesus turned Saul’s world upside down, and from that dizzying perspective it suddenly made sense.

Wright translates dikaiosynê theou as “covenant justice.” This phrase brings together the theme of God’s personal fidelity and the theme of God “putting the world to rights” (one of Wright’s favorite expressions). The two motifs need to be kept together. If we were to focus only the divine faithfulness, we might forget that God’s great desire is to restore his creation to the perfection, harmony, goodness, and glory he everlastingly intends. If we were to focus only on the divine justice, we might come to think of it as conformity to a philosophical standard of our own invention, as if God is bound to an ancient law external to himself—tooth for a tooth and eye for an eye. But as Wright explains, the dikaiosynê theou “springs not from some abstract ideal but from the creator’s obligation to the creation and from the covenant God’s obligation to be faithful to his promises” (Paul: In Fresh Perspective, p. 26). Through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the Father will set the world to rights.

(Go to: “Was Paul a Diatribilist?”)

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