Aug 18, 2012

WHAT IS “THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD”?


*this is my 8th post in the current series on the NPP  
The NPP believes Paul uses the phrase “the righteousness of God” (δικαιοσυνη θεου) to denote the covenant faithfulness of God.[1] Wright claims Paul’s Jewish readers would have seen it as the “obvious meaning” that “the righteousness of God” would mean “God’s own faithfulness to his promises, to the covenant.”[2] Therefore, for a person to be seen as righteous means he displays faithfulness to the covenant and is to be counted among the people of God; this means righteousness has to do with keeping promises and proper relations. NPP writer Terrence Donaldson speaks of righteousness “as a membership term describing the status of those who belong to the community of God’s people.”[3] He later elaborates, saying one is not righteous because they conform “with some absolute standard of moral perfection, but that the person is a member in good standing of the covenant community.”[4] The way the NPP views the righteousness of God has a ripple effect on how they understand the question of “in what sense is the believer ‘righteous’” (more on that later).
Using Psalm 98, Mark Seifrid critiques this reduced interpretation by showing God’s righteousness cannot be reduced to his covenant-faithfulness toward Israel here, for they are only one aspect of the righteousness of God and not the total picture.  Seifrid demonstrates that Yahweh’s actions in this Psalm are better described as ‘creational’ (although his covenantal actions are part of his righteousness). Seifrid notes that Yahweh’s actions in Psalm 98 are that of a King (The King of His Creation!) and this is why “the nations themselves expect to receive his saving justice”.[5] This is why even the sea, rivers and hills are pictured as celebrating his coming to judge in verses 7 and 8. 
Seifrid gives another example characteristic of the way God’s righteousness is understood in Scripture from the Sodom and Gomorrah episode. In Genesis 18:22, Abraham asks, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” The title used for God shows that the “activity of ‘judging and ruling’ extends well beyond God’s relationship with Israel”.[6] Seifrid gives other Old Testament examples taking place within the context of a contention (Ex. 9:27; Neh. 9:33) to show there is more to God’s righteousness than salvation; there is also the parallel aspect of wrath or retribution. This means the righteousness of God also has a punitive or “juridical orientation”.[7] I think the work done by Seifrid and others demonstrates the NPP take on the righteousness of God is incomplete;[8] one that usually leads to further misunderstanding.
Most notably is how Wright relates it to the gospel: “the gospel…reveals God’s righteousness, his covenant faithfulness.”[9] This matters because in Romans Paul links the righteousness of God to the gospel (1:17; 3:5, 25-26).[10] J.V. Fesko points out that Augustine saw these connections and understood ‘the righteousness of God’ (such as in Romans 1:17) “refers not to the righteousness by which God himself is righteous but that by which he justifies sinners”.[11] Fesko quotes Augustine, demonstrating he saw justification as a free gift: “In a word, not by the law of works, but by the law of faith; not by the letter, but by the Spirit; not by the merits of deeds, but by free grace.” [12] Even with some confusion in his soteriology, Augustine is able to “land” here because he understands the “gift” aspect of the righteousness of God.
It is important to have a full-orbed and biblical picture of ‘the righteousness of God’, as the limited definition of the NPP often aids in proponents compounding error upon error.[13] In my estimation, the biggest error in NPP theology is the denial of imputation – the removal of imputation has numerous adverse results, all of which I see as damaging, some of which I see as downright dangerous (even if accidentally so). It is now time to explore whether or not imputed righteousness is a biblical concept in the first place.


[2] Wright, Saint Paul, 96.
[3] Terrence L. Donaldson, Paul and the Gentiles: Remapping the Apostle’s Convictional World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997), 121. For an overview and critique of Donaldson’s work, see Gerhard H. Visscher, Romans 4 and the New Perspective on Paul (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009).
[4] Ibid., 171
[5]  Mark A. Seifrid, Christ Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 40.
[6] Ibid., 40.
[7] Ibid, 40.
[8] For example, see Seifrid’s more technical and expansive treatment in Chapter 2 of Justification and Variegated Nomism: Vol. 2 or Cornelius P. Venema’s basic and straightforward writing in The Gospel of Free Acceptance: An Assessment of the Reformation and ‘New Perspectives’ on Paul (Carlisle, NJ: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), 208-222 or Stephen Westerholm’s balanced and fair view in Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 284-296.
[9] Wright, Saint Paul, 106. 
[10] He also does this in 1 Corinthians 1:30 and 2 Corinthians 5:21.
[11] J.V. Fesko, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 12.
[12] Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, 22 in NPNF1 5:93. Also see 11 in NPNF1 5:87. Fesko is sure to make his readers aware this does not mean Augustine had a strictly forensic view of justification. In fact, one could say imputation was absent from his construction (Justification, 13-16). Louis Berkhof summarizes Augustine’s doctrine of justification (good and bad) and the effects on later generations of theologians in The History of Christian Doctrines, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975), 206-210.
[13] For example, most NPP commentators interpret key portions of the Book of Romans very differently; in part, this is a result of their limited understanding of ‘the righteousness of God’. Wright believes Romans is “Paul’s exposition of God’s faithfulness to his covenant (in technical language, his righteousness)” (Saint Paul, 48). When talking about interpreting Romans, Wright says this about those who read ‘the righteousness of God’ differently: they are scholars who have “lost their mooring completely” and “allowed the little ship of exegesis to be tossed to and fro with every wind of passing philosophy” (Justification, 178). Another “obvious exegetical casualt[y] of the old perspective” is that the point of [Romans] chapter four “is thereby completely missed” (Justification, 179). Wright bemoans (in regards to another oversight) that “such is the effect of the late-medieval blinkers still worn within the post-Reformation traditions” (Justification, 180). N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).

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