A hermeneutical suggestion about Paul's "righteousness" language

The constant battle when interpreting Paul on this issue is discerning the difference between what should be understood as a timeless principle of his text and what should be taken as something that is culturally bound within his particular situation and thus needs to be translated into a principle valid for the church today. When thinking through Paul’s use of key terms related to justification, especially in light of recent New Perspective discussions, it is fairly easy to see where particular interpretations fall. The traditional interpretation—which broadly speaking sees Paul’s justification language as referring to forensic justification, that is, an individual’s legal standing before God which Paul uses to counter a legalistic righteousness based upon works—regards Paul’s statements as timeless principles. God has always dealt with humanity by justifying on the basis of faith; witness his dealings with Abraham! Paul thus makes general statements that are still directly applicable to humanity today. Interpretations within the New Perspective, even though they cannot be necessarily unified under this rubric, operate somewhat differently. They regard Paul’s particular context as paramount. He spoke from a Jewish background of covenant, and he was in debates which pitted observant Jewish Christians against Gentiles on the matter of obedience to Torah as a stipulation for inclusion in the church. Paul pointed to justification as the defining basis for Gentile inclusion in the nascent Christian community; witness Paul’s dispute with Peter over eating with Gentiles and justification through faith as the answer! Paul thus used justification as an answer for the particular social problem he faced; contemporary believers should think of their relationship to God in different terms since we are in a different cultural moment. I humbly offer here a hermeneutical suggestion which might provide a way for further dialogue on this matter. Christians for centuries have recognized that particular aspects of the biblical text are indeed culturally bound, and those discussions are still with us.[1] But this was never an end in itself. Indeed, a proper hermeneutic examines the cultural context to determine the theological principle operating under the surface which can then be elucidated, discussed, and applied in the contemporary moment. Perhaps this model might prove helpful here. Paul was struggling with a particular cultural context of a Jewish Christian community which needed to figure out the place of Gentiles in its midst. Justification through faith alone, not by works of the Law, was his answer to that problem. But that culturally-bound answer points to a deeper theological principle of how God is at work through Christ to solve the human problem and create his community. Entrance to that community, into relationship with God, is not gained through any thing that the individual does. It rests solely upon God’s gracious acceptance of that individual, one aspect of which is certainly forensic. In my opinion the traditional interpretation and New Perspective interpretations of Paul’s justification language are both right. The former has majored on the timeless principle, and the latter upon the cultural moment in which Paul was situated. They both end up in the same place, however, and they both can aid understanding of Paul’s texts.

  1. Witness William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), who either advanced the discussion or aggravated it, depending on whom you ask.  ↩