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.).

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