But now, quite apart from the law (though the law and the prophets bore witness to it), God’s covenant justice has been displayed. God’s covenant justice comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who have faith. For there is no distinction: all sinned and fell short of God’s glory—and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus. God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his covenant justice, because of the passing over (in divine forbearance) of sins committed beforehand. This was to demonstrate his covenant justice in the present time: that is, that he himself is in the right, and that he declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. (Rom 3:21-26)
N. T. Wright’s construal of the Pauline teaching on justification by faith hinges on one key claim: namely, that when the Apostle employs the “righteousness” words, say in Romans 3, that his usage is ruled by the metaphor of the Hebrew law court. To be declared “righteous” by the court is to be vindicated by the court in reference to the specific charges that have been brought by the plaintiff against the defendant. It is not a declaration of ethical uprightness but of legal status:
For the plaintiff or defendant to be ‘righteous’ in the biblical sense within the law-court setting is for them to have that status as a result of the decision of the court.
How does this work out? Let us take the plaintiff first. If and when the court upholds the plaintiff’s accusation, he or she is ‘righteous’. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is good, morally upright or virtuous; it simply means that in this case the court has vindicated him or her in the charge they have brought.
It is the same with the defendant. If and when the court upholds the defendant, acquitting him or her of the charge, he or she is ‘righteous’. This again, doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is good, morally upright or virtuous; simply that he or she has, in this case, been vindicated against the accuser; in other words, acquitted. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 98)
This forensic interpretation of δικαιοσύνη, δικαιόω, and δίκαιος has long been popular in Protestant exegesis of Romans and Galatians, and an increasing number of Catholic exegetes have followed suit. Thus, for example, Joseph Fitzmyer: “When Paul speaks of Christ Jesus justifying the sinner, he means that because of the Christ-event the sinner stands before God’s tribunal and hears a verdict of ‘not guilty.’ … The sinner is pronounced dikaios (Rom. 5:7) and stands before God’s tribunal as “righteous, acquitted” (“Justification by Faith in Pauline Thought,” in Rereading Paul Together, p. 84). I confess that I am not 100% convinced that the law court is semantically determinative for Paul. Is the meaning of the dikai- words so defined by legal usage that when the original auditors heard them they immediately thought of the mechanics of the juridical setting? Chris VanLandingham has raised questions about the interpretation of these terms in his book Judgment & Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. After surveying how the words are used in the Septuagint and intertestamental literature, he offers this conclusion:
None of the δικαι- group of terms is intrinsically forensic. The verb, however, is always forensic in classical Greek, but with the meaning “treat justly” or “give justice to” and most often with the sense of “condemn” or “punish.” Since Paul never uses the verb in this sense, one is forced to look elsewhere for a sense in which Paul used the verb. Still, a survey of Jewish and Christian usage of this verb yields thirteen different meanings, a few of which may be possible in Paul: to be righteous, to be proven righteous, to be acquitted, to be made righteous/pure/free, or less likely, to have been made to appear righteous. … With much of the scholarly attention focused on the verb, it is important to note distinctions among the various senses since these distinctions are important for understanding Paul. In general, he believes that the person of faith moves from being a sinner to being righteous (Roman 5), indeed, even “to be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). Significantly, δικαιόω alone can mean “to make righteous,” since there are five occasions where the term means this (Ps 72:13; Luke 18:14; Jas 2:21, 24, 25). Δικαιόω is neither intrinsically eschatological nor intrinsically forensic, especially since it only sometimes has the sense in Jewish and Christian literature that it does in classical Greek literature. Even when used in a judicial context, the various possible nuances or definitions of the term within that context make inconsequential the notion that δικαιόω is forensic. (pp. 271-272)
I lack the competence to adjudicate this dispute. I have not read reviews of VanLandingham’s book nor have I read any scholarly research that has been done on this topic since the book’s publication. But VanLandingham’s analysis does put a question mark besides the lexical claim that “to justify” must mean “to acquit” or “to confer a legal status.” VanLandingham also quotes a passage from J. A. Zeisler which is important for us: “Moreover, even if the legal background is pressed, the legal system in question was less concerned to pronounce innocent or guilty than to put wrongs right and to restore people to their proper place, no more and no less, in the covenant community” (p. 255). We immediately recall J. Louis Martyn’s preference for the English rendering “rectify” to translate δικαιόω. He does not believe that the courtroom is determinative, at least not completely, for the interpretation of Pauline righteousness. “The subject Paul addresses,” he comments, “is that of God’s making right what has gone wrong.”
Douglas Campbell makes a helpful distinction here. Campbell agrees with the classical forensic construal of δικαιόω, but points out that
judicial verdicts are both indicative and performative. They usually comment on a given state of affairs, recognizing something about those—that is, that someone is “in the right” or not—and so function indicatively, but in so doing they also effect a further state of affairs, and so function performatively. A person pronounced “in the right” by a human court may receive damages or be exonerated or perhaps be set free from prison. Thus, things happen as a direct result of this action and are in fact enacted by this verbal act. And in an eschatological setting, these enacted consequences are especially important. In pronouncing his verdict, God actualizes either heaven or hell for those who have just been judged! To pronounce someone “righteous,” or “in the right,” in the final judgment qualifies and effects eternal life for that person—or the converse—as in fact Romans 2 clearly suggests. (The Deliverance of God, p. 659)
If Hebrew justice is restorative, rather than just declarative, then the verdict, especially if it is the verdict of God, will be performative, reparative, rectifying, liberative. It will seek to redress the damage and harm that has been suffered and to restore the righteous to their previous state of wholeness. Justice is hardly served if it is reduced to mere announcement of legal status.
As noted above, Fitzmyer agrees with most exegetes that δικαιόω has its home in a forensic setting. But he then goes on to ask,
Does the Pauline verb dikaioō mean “to declare righteous” or “to make righteous”? One might expect that dikaioō, being a verb belonging to the —oō class of contract verbs, would have the causative or factitive meaning typical of such verbs: deloō (make clear), douloō (enslave), nekroō (mortify). Thus it would mean “to make righteous.” Normally in the Septuagint, however, dikaioō has a declarative, forensic meaning: “declare righteous.” At times, the declarative sense seems to be, indeed, the meaning in Paul’s letters (Rom 2.13; 3.4, 20; 8:33). Some of these cases are quotations of or allusions to the Greek Old Testament, but others are simply ambiguous. The effective sense of the verb seems to be supported by Romans 5:10 …: “through the obedience of one [man] the many will be made [or constituted] righteous.” Those who so argue often quote the Old Testament idea of God’s effective or performative word in Isaiah 55:10-11. Moreover, if Kasemann’s idea about dikaiosynê theou connoting God’s “power” is correct, it might be invoked to support this effective sense of justification. (pp. 84-85; Byrne and Matera follow Fitzmyer here)
This effective or transformative sense of δικαιόω is supported by both Eastern and Latin patristic readings of Paul. St John Chrysostom, commenting on Rom 3:24-25, declares: “What is declaring of righteousness? Like the declaring of His riches, not only for Him to be rich Himself, but also to make others rich, or of life, not only that He is Himself living, but also that He makes the dead to live; and of His power, not only that He is Himself powerful, but also that He makes the feeble powerful. So also is the declaring of His righteousness not only that He is Himself righteous, but that He does also make them that are filled with the putrefying sores of sin suddenly righteous” (Hom. Rom. 7). All who come to Christ in faith are rectified through his regenerative power.
The transformative reading of δικαιόω was powerfully stated in the 19th century by (then) Anglican John Henry Newman:
God’s word, I say, effects what it announces. This is its characteristic all through Scripture. He “calleth those things which be not, as though they are,” and they are forthwith. Thus in the beginning He said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” Word and deed went together in creation; and so again “in the regeneration,” “The Lord gave the word, great was the company of the preachers.” So again in His miracles, He called Lazarus from the grave, and the dead arose; He said, “Be thou cleansed,” and the leprosy departed; He rebuked the wind and the waves, and they were still; He commanded the evil spirits, and they fled away; He said to St. Peter and St. Andrew, St. John, St. James, and St. Matthew, “Follow Me,” and they arose, for “His word was with power;” and so again in the Sacraments His word is the consecrating principle. As He “blessed” the loaves and fishes, and they multiplied, so He “blessed and brake,” and the bread became His Body. Further, His voice is the instrument of destruction as well as of creation. As He “upholds all things by the word of His power,” so “at the Voice of the Archangel, and at the trump of God,” the visible world will dissolve; and as His “Voice” formerly “shook the earth,” so once more “the Lord shall roar out of Zion, and utter His Voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shall shake.” [Joel iii. 16.]
It would seem, then, in all cases, that God’s word is the instrument of His deed. When, then, He solemnly utters the command, “Let the soul be just,” it becomes inwardly just;… On the whole then, from what has been said, it appears that justification is an announcement or fiat of Almighty God, which breaks upon the gloom of our natural state as the Creative Word upon Chaos; that it declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on the one hand, conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous. That it is a declaration, has been made evident from its including, as all allow, an amnesty for the past; for past sins are removable only by an imputation of righteousness. And that it involves an actual creation in righteousness has been argued from the analogy of Almighty God’s doings in Scripture, in which we find His words were represented as effective. And its direct statements most abundantly establish both conclusions; the former, from its use of the word justification; the latter, from its use of the word just or righteous; showing, that in matter of fact, he who is justified becomes just, that he who is declared righteous is thereby actually made righteous. (Lectures on Justification)
Newman’s reading of God’s justifying deed has proven influential in 20th century ecumenical discussions. N. T. Wright, however, rejects this performative or transformative construal of justification. Such a construal is just beside the point. He is convinced that a close reading of Paul within his first century Jewish worldview leads one to the conclusion that Paul’s righteousness language can only be understood properly within the courtroom metaphor: when God declares someone justified, he confers upon them a legal status within the covenantal life of Israel. According to Wright’s reading of Paul, justification addresses the question “Who constitutes the people of God?” The Apostle’s answer—those Jews and Gentiles who have converted to Christ Jesus the Messiah by faith. Wright’s interpretation escapes the criticism frequently advanced against Protestant construals of imputation, as there is no legal fiction involved: Christian believers truly do belong to Israel. Hence his repeated insistence that justification is subsequent to conversion:
My proposal has been, and still is, that Paul uses vindication language, that is, the dikaioō word group, when he is describing not the moment when, or the process by which, someone comes from idolatry, sin, and death to God, Christ, and life but, rather, the verdict that God pronounces subsequent upon this event. The word dikaioō is, after all, a declarative word, declaring that something is the case, rather than a word for making something happen or changing the way something is. (Nor do we need to get around this, as many have done, by saying that when God declares something to be the case, God brings it into being; that is not the point here. … When we talk of God’s vindication of someone, we are talking about God’s declaration, which appears as a double thing thing to us but, I suspect, a single thing to Paul: the declaration (a) that someone is in the right (his or her sins have been forgiven through the death of Jesus) and (b) that this person is a member of the true covenant family, the family that God originally promised to Abraham and has now created through Christ and the Spirit–the single family that consists equally of believing Jews and believing Gentiles. (“New Perspectives on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective, p. 258)
I confess that Wright’s presentation leaves me feeling that he has reduced justification in Christ to something much less theologically interesting and substantive. If he is correct, then the Apostle’s teaching on justification has little relevance to the Church today, given that it is a polemical device that directly addresses what was a burning question in the first century Church but is no longer–namely, whether Gentiles may be included in the people of God without submitting to Torah. Michael Gorman has recently protested Wright’s minimalist reading: “It is misguided, however, to find the sole or even primary meaning of justification to be the welcoming of Gentiles qua Gentiles into the covenant community. Their inclusion is a necessary dimension of a proper understanding of justification, but it is not the totality” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p. 54 n. 41). Gorman believes that in Galatians and Romans Paul has redefined the meaning of δικαιόω in light of the concrete experience of Christian faith. If we want to know how Paul understands our righteousing in Christ, we must read Romans 5-7 back into Romans 3:21-26. To be incorporated into the Church is to simultaneously die with Christ and rise with him into new and eternal life. Ecclesiology and soteriology cannot be separated.
It’s difficult to know where to draw the line between a purely historical reading of Paul and a theological and canonical reading. Yet I do want to advance a point that I believe is often overlooked in Pauline exegesis. Wright has correctly insisted that we must do the hard work of trying to identify the worldview and Jewish metanarrative, the “big story,” that shaped and informed the Apostle’s understanding. How else can we read Paul within his historical context? But Paul was not just a Jew. He was a Jewish-Christian. He belonged to communities that baptized converts and united Jews and Gentiles in the sacrificial meal of the risen Lord’s body and blood. Although we have limited information about the liturgies, rituals, prayers, and ascetical practices of the first century churches, I propose that we cannot accurately exegete the Epistles of Paul without at least attempting to read them in light of the sacramental and ascetical experience of the Church. Hence when I read the verse “But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24), I immediately interpret “justification” in terms of the totality of Paul’s soteriology. I immediately think of baptism and Holy Eucharist. I find it implausible to think that Paul restricted his employment of δικαιόω to forensic declaration of covenant membership, as if baptismal induction into the new covenant community had not also effected a change in the legal status of believers but also of their spiritual condition, identity, and relationship with God. To be justified is to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. To be justified is to be co-crucified with Christ and raised into the life of the kingdom. To be justified is to be reborn and regenerated in the Holy Spirit. To be justified is to partake of the Lord at his heavenly banquet. To be justified is to be adopted as sons in the Son and thus given the privilege of addressing God as Father through the Son in the Spirit. To be justified is to be deified. And all of this has happened and happens “apart from Torah.”
Am I guilty of reading back into the first century the theological and sacramental convictions of the patristic Church? Perhaps. But that’s my metanarrative and I’m sticking to it.