Sunday, July 13, 2014

What is "the righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17?

So last time in our series on "Reflections on Romans" (our periodic break from our chronicling of Hadassah and China), we glossed Romans 1:16-17 and acted like figuring out what the "righteousness of God" referred to in these verses meant.  But here's the thing: it's a really difficult thing to figure out.

Commentators have given it all sorts of meanings down through the years and all their work can be grouped under two main categories: (1) Those who see it as an attribute (or activity expressing an attribute) of God, and (2) Those who see it as an attribute of man.

And then you have those that try to form a synthesis of (1) and (2).  More on that later.

The reasons for (1), for seeing it as describing God, not man, are many.  (1.a) First of all, this is how the phrase is used in the Old Testament.  It's applied to God.  (1.b), The whole of Romans sets out God's justice.  And especially here in the first two chapters.  Man has "no excuse." (Rom 1:20 and 2:1a).  God's judgment is righteous (2:5b).  God's judgment "rightly falls" on people who sin (Rom 2:2).  God shows no impartiality (Rom 2:11).  And many more.  God is just.  He is righteous.  This is the message of Romans.  (1.c) Many commentators go this route.  This was how everyone interpreted the phrase before Luther.  And even most of the recent scholarship sees it falling under this head (they apply it to God, not man).  The NPP (new perspective on Paul) folks (e.g. E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn), also fall into this category and so do some of the folks (e.g. Kasemann) they were arguing against.  Maybe they differ on some particular points, but they mainly apply the phrase to God.  And the conservative literature always allows for this category, but they usually have a "both and" approach.

But the reasons for (2), for seeing it as describing man, not God primarily, seem even more compelling.  (2.a) First, you kind of feel like you're not protestant if you don't take this perspective.  I've even heard one preacher say that you might not be a Christian if you don't understand this phrase here in this way.  Luther's entire Christian conversion experience hinged on this verse.  This verse, and his interpretation of it, were largely what God used to spark the entire reformation.  I probably wouldn't be here writing this blog post if Luther didn't understand this phrase in this sense: he saw the phrase as being the righteousness that God imputes to man.  And it converted him.  And following him in his interpretation is almost everyone in the protestant tradition who takes a side in the debate.  So you really feel "out of bounds" if you disagree with, well, everyone that matters.  But! Sola Scriptura.  I will plow on with my other supporting reasons to adopt the "(2)" position.

But I'll do that in the next post on it.  It's getting late.

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