The Righteousness of God (2 of 4)

It’s time to pick up on yesterday’ post on the Righteousness of God. The current debate between Piper and Wright is tied to how we understand this concept. Is “righteousness” tied to covenant (Wright) or is it more an atemporal idea, tied simply to God (Piper).

Piper is adamant that righteousness is not connected to anything in history. He says, “The essence of the righteousness of God is his unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name.” This connection to God’s name is seen as an alternative to Wright’s construal that ties it more specifically to the people of Israel and God’s covenant with them.

Appeal is made to numerous passages in support of this position. Psalm 145 says that the Lord is righteous in all his ways–not just his covenant relationship with Israel (p. 64). This means that God’s allegiance to his own glory is more basic than covenant keeping. Piper will further connect this to passages in which God speaks of the importance of glorifying God’s name.

Piper suggests that expounding righteousness as “covenant faithfulness” puts too much historical specificity into the word that has a much more general meaning.

Wright turns the tables on him.

“I am not aware of any other scholar, old perspective, new perspective, Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical, anyone, who thinks that tsedaqah elohim [=righteousness of God] in Hebrew or dikaiosune theou [=righteousness of God] in Greek actually means “God’s concern for God’s own glory.”

Wright goes on to suggest that righteousness means conforming to a norm, and God’s righteousness is God’s conforming to the norm God himself has established. Wright invokes the ultimate New Perspective poster child </sarcasm> J. I. Packer to illustrate this position (64-65).

Both Piper and Wright actually agree that “righteousness” in and of itself, its lexical definition, is not going to solve this conundrum. The question is, what sort of biblical / theological framework helps us understand what it means for God to do what is right.

The challenge that faces both exegetes as they turn to Paul is that the larger frameworks are often what must come into play when the specific term “righteousness” or “righteousness of God” appears.

Thus, Piper will turn to Rom 3:23 and say, “All sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and there show how God’s own glory must be to make up for the deficit of glory-rendering due his name. So God will manifest his righteousness in the death of Jesus, condemning him representatively for all who failed to glorify him.

Alternatively, Wright will ask us to take stock of how all of chs. 3-4 or Romans (and reaching back into ch. 2 at points) are about how God will fulfill the promise to Abraham to make one world-wide family. Within this covenant promise, God has to overcome Israel’s own faithlessness to be a missionary people, and provide an alternate means for the blessing of Abraham to come to the nations.

That, in fact, is the covenant that Wright sees controlling so much of Paul’s “righteousness of God” language: God promised Abraham in Genesis 15 that he would be the father of many nations. And this obligation upon God is fulfilled when “Christ becomes a servant, on behalf of the truth of God, to confirm the promises given to the fathers and for the gentiles to glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15).

Romans does couch the problem of humanity as a failure to glorify God. And, it recounts the righteousness of God as the divine provision to make up for this lack.

As I read these two dueling theologies, it suggests itself repeatedly that Piper’s concerns about God’s glory, and the preservation of the name of God, are met precisely through God’s meeting God’s covenantal obligations to Israel, as Wright proposes.

Romans begins with Paul saying that the gospel he proclaims was prepromised by God in the scriptures concerning God’s son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, appointed son of God with power by the resurrection of the dead by the Holy Spirit, and this gospel is what Paul is entrusted to take to the gentiles so they will obey with faith.

These verses present a cluster of themes that Paul takes up in the so-called thesis statement later on: the gospel is for Jew first but also for the Greek; it concerns the faithful son who now lives having been raised from the dead, and it is the story in which God’s righteousness is revealed (Rom 1:16-17).

What, then, is this righteousness? In the context of Romans 1 we have already been told: God’s fidelity to bring about what was promised beforehand in the prophets.

Although I sometimes fear that Wright makes too much of “covenant” as a category for making sense of Paul, nonetheless he is correct that what is “right” for God to do is, in the biblical story to which God has bound Godself, nothing less than fulfilling the promises made in scripture. This is how the letter begins (1:1ff; and this is how its argument is drawn to its conclusion (Rom 15:7ff.).

18 thoughts on “The Righteousness of God (2 of 4)”

  1. Piper’s definition seems so abstract and esoteric it almost becomes devoid of any meaning whatsoever. What does “upholding the glory of his name” even mean? Out of all the times I’ve read the word “glory” in Piper, I don’t know that he has ever defined it.

    More than that, he might as well define “righteousness of God” as “narcissism of God,” because he only seems to care about himself. While this may be faithful to Edwards and Calvin, I struggle to see how it’s faithful to the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. I think this is the problem when we use systematic theology, rationalistic philosophy, logic, and an a-temporal hermeneutic. Wright seems to be suggesting that righteousness is centered on the cosmos. God’s “righteousness” is his commitment to humanity and the world as he’s revealed throughout Scripture.

    Is Piper really defending the “traditional” view? In what sense is it “traditional”?

  2. Thanks for this. I was thinking about writing a similar post one of these days. This debate summarizes a lot of what is happening in evangelical theology these days. Methodologically it comes down to giving greater emphasis to systematics or historical exegesis. But it seems to me that righteousness is fairly well defined in the context of Romans 3. Wright does not want to see it because it would mean emphasizing the legal framework of justification that he has critiqued and is fundamental to Piper’s Calvinism. The point is that by dealing with sin in Jesus Christ God show himself to be a good judge, one who does assign a punishment for evil done. This is theodicy. Blessings!

    1. Rob, I think you’re off on your charge of culpable misreading here.

      First off, Wright acknowledges that justification has to do with lawcourt and judgment. So there’s no reason for such a theme to impede his vision.

      And yes, righteousness is clearly defined, and it’s something that the God of Israel enacts despite Israel’s unrighteousness. This is the point of 3:1ff., that should not be separated from the last few verses.

      Also clear is that God’s righteousness comes through Jesus’ death rather than Israel’s law. We’ll get into that a bit more tomorrow.


  3. Daniel,

    nicely stated! I think you have put your finger on some of the key differences between the two authors (as well as suggesting which reading is more in line with the trajectory of the biblical narrative).

    re: “concerns about God’s glory, and the preservation of the name of God, are met precisely through God’s meeting God’s covenantal obligations to Israel”–

    This can be seen quite clearly in Ezek 36:20ff, where it is precisely because of God’s concern for his reputation that he cannot tolerate the situation of exile, and will therefore work for the restoration of his people (which Ezekiel describes by using and transforming the covenant language of Lev 26).

    1. Yes! Ezek.36 is a place I go back to time and again to make this point. YHWH IS the God of Israel. That means his name is theirs and theirs is His. The ramifications are huge, not least for those who, today, claim to be baptized into the name of the F, S, and Holy Sp.

      1. Couldn’t the same also be said of the “glory of God”? “Falling short of” and “exchanging” the glory of God entails–a la Psalm 8–humans not fully embodying the glory that God has set on/given to humans. It is God’s but God gives it to us (viz. imaging). God suffers no (metaphysical) loss when we fail to embody this glory, but we rob ourselves of full humanness, which also means relational fractures vertical and horizontal.

        I.e., I’m critiquing Piper’s non-relational understanding of “glory” also.

  4. Maybe it’s a pity that Piper and Wright are being selected for contrast, when it’s not as though either one or the other is right. Both have defects. Paul may well sometimes be fastening on God being righteous in how he deals with Israel historically, but that’s only the outworking of larger things that righteousness consists in. There seem to me to be many holes in the plot of the story that Wright expounds, that I’d like to see exposed, I think Wright tends to gloss over them. But in the first place Paul also tells what needs to be seen as a culture bound story.

  5. I have just read that Ezekiel passage again with this idea in mind and how beautiful that passage is.

    What a vision that is cast for the glory of God manifested through his faithfulness to his promises for Israel!!!

    I cannot help but fall down in worship of our great God and King for his faithfulness in the midst of Israel’s and even my own faithlessness. We truly serve a great God.

    Thank you for this Daniel and Michael.

  6. Thank you for that. I do agree with you that God is concerned about his glory and that concern is manifested in God keeping his covenant to Abraham/Israel. Maybe if Piper fills out what he means by glory he might come to similar conclusions as Wright. I do find Piper’s approach troubling though.

    i remember as a young Christian in college sitting in a church, in an adult Sunday school class, and the question was asked “what is the difference between the way Jews approached God and the Greeks approach to God?” Well older people around gave answers it using lots of big words (now i think of their explanations as blah blah blah). I, because of my youth, said nothing, but came to a different conclusion that Greeks tried to reach God by reasoning their way to him and Jews realized that unless God revealed himself to them they would be lost. I still hold on to this distinction.

    I do not think anyone can understand God’s glory apart from the way he revealed or related himself to us. So i just don’t how God can maintain his glory without being faithful to his covenant.

  7. One important detail here is the framework by which each side is operating within. Generally speaking: Piper reads Paul as battling Pelagianism where as Wright reads Paul as dealing with a Racial-Covenental problem (cf Rom 3:29).

    With that in mind, for Piper, “righteousness” is a legal status bestowed upon those who keep all God’s commandments flawlessly, while for Write “righteousness” is more akin to a quality of one’s nature.

  8. Great stuff again, from JRDK and you folks commenting!

    Davey, What are the holes you see in Wright? And what is the larger thing you’re thinking of? I think all would agree that there are larger cosmic purpose of God – “ends” which are served by the “means” of God choosing Israel, to use that kind of language. But what larger things are included in the word righteousness? For my money one of the greatest strengths of Wright is that he doesn’t make certain words to more work than they’re intended. He often is wrongly accused of denying (the content of) what other folks think certain words mean, when really he’s often saying, “Yes that’s true and beautiful, but it’s not what is meant by this word used in this way.”

    Nick, I’d say that more than righteousness being a quality of one’s nature, it is one’s faithfulness to the covenant. In the same way that God’s righteousness is faithfulness to his side of the covenant, human righteousness is faithfulness to our (or Israel’s) side of the covenant. If dikaiosune is “conformity to a standard,” the standard in both cases is the covenant God made with Israel. God in his freedom chose to enter into this covenant, and thus defined what it would mean for him to be righteous/faithful/loyal. Because in Jesus God proves faithful to his part, so to speak, by aligning ourselves with Jesus we prove faithful to ours. No?

    1. Michael,

      Your take on righteousness conforms pretty well to the Biblical evidence.

      The term “righteousness of God” appears in Rom 3:5, but you don’t see many on the “classical” Protestant side examining it.

      ROMANS 3: 1Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.

      3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” 5But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? ( I speak in a human way.) 6By no means! For then how could God judge the world?

      7But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

      Clearly, “righteousness” and “unrighteousness” here are being paralleled to “faithfulness” and “unfaithfulness”.

      There is a lot of confusion surrounding this passage, but I think the best understanding of it is this: There was talk that since the Jews themselves failed to be faithful, that God’s Plans through them had failed, making God a failure in turn. Paul’s point is that Providentially, God’s Plans are never foiled, and that God even uses the (free) sins of people to accomplish His will – even bringing out a greater good.
      The Jews (and others) object by saying, “well, if God’s Will is accomplished through our sin, then we shouldn’t be condemned for our sin.”
      Paul notes that while God’s Plans are not foiled by sinners, and in fact gets His Way every time, He doesn’t let sin itself go unpunished. Thus even if a sinner is furthering God’s Plan, they are still culpable for their sin.

      THIS theme/thesis is how I believe Romans 9 is to be understood, as well as texts like Romans 6:

      1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

      Many folks (very) wrongly think the “only way this passage makes sense” is if the Christian is no longer able to be guilty of (future) sins, indirectly proving eternal security and/or imputed righteousness. This is a disastrous mistake. The way this text is to be properly understood is in light of Romans 3:1-8, where folks are thinking “let us sin so that God will bring out a greater good from that sin,” but Paul notes here that the Christian was just freed from sin, and the consequences of turning back to sin will be a return to bondage. Paul is *never* saying the sinner goes unpunished – that’s a corrupt (mis)reading of the text and his point!

    2. This is typical Wrightian stuff (by Kirk): “God has to overcome Israel’s own faithlessness to be a missionary people, and provide an alternate means for the blessing of Abraham to come to the nations.” The nation of Israel was never the means of blessing, or salvation, that they failed at, it was always only Christ that was the promise and the saviour (Galatians 3.16-19).

      And, strangely, in the working out of his story, Wright says Israel is a redeemed nation doing the law from gratitude. Whereas Paul says only those who have faith are Israel (eg Romans 4.12), and law operates by works not grace (eg Romans 4.16, Galatians 3.12).

      1. Davey, I think that you are overlooking several important streams of OT expectation: Abe as a blessing to the nations; the Davidic king as the one who would reign over the entire earth; Israel as the beacon that would draw the nations to worship YHWH in Isaiah.

        Yes, Christ fulfills that promise, but the Christ-fulfillment is a genuine surprise.

        You’re reading Paul well, in general, but I think underplaying how much the Christ event has caused Paul to go back and reread the story and give interpretations that non-Christian Jews would not find compelling.

        1. I can’t actually make out what you are saying in the third paragraph.
          But, in saying the kind of thing I quote from yourself, Wright is not rehearsing what Jews would think about themselves as Israel, but what Christians should think of Jewish Israel as being. So, if Jews thought Israel was to be a light of the nations, and could be said to have failed, Wright is wrong that this is how Christians should understand things.

  9. Piper’s theology is so odd sometimes. I do not have an exact quote, but I have gathered from him that we should be worshipping God primarily for “who He is”, and not so much for “what He does”.

    It seems like this idea is really foundational for him, but how do we know who God is apart from what God does? Is this even possible or logical? I hope this is not to off topic…

    I see the relation with the post :)

  10. Daniel,

    I’m not very educated on the whole “righteousness of God” or justification debate throughout history. I personally wouldn’t mind seeing a post discussing this through a historical lens. When did Piper’s view start? Have Christians believed what Wright says throughout history? Is Piper’s just a post-Reformational construct? Is this really as important as Piper claims it to be? Is the “gospel” at stake?

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