New Perspective interpretations of Paul's "righteousness" language

Enter the New Perspective, which has served to expand the conceptual boundaries of what Paul had in mind when using the δικ- word group. Put simply, the traditional interpretation of Paul on this matter has focused on the legal and forensic meanings of the terms; put another way, justification (the English term most often associated with the δικ- word group) has been discussed as a forensic matter regarding God’s declaration regarding the individual’s standing before him. Two contemporary scholars have changed the discussion by forcing exegetes to see the broader nuances associated with the terms. James D. G. Dunn has emphasized the social and cultural issues in play with the concept, and N. T. Wright has explained justification as not just a present, individual matter but as a holistic way of understand God’s past, present, and future work in the world. Dunn has written extensively on this issue, but an easy way to access his thought is through his book The Theology of Paul the Apostle.[1] Here he devotes chapter 14 to the topic of “Justification by Faith” and addresses not only Paul’s use of these important terms but related issues of history and theology. His argument can be encapsulated thusly: Paul’s use of the δικ- word group cannot be understood apart from the Hebrew background of covenant faith associated with the צדק root nor apart from the intense nationalism which developed within Judaism during the Second Temple period. As a Pharisee Paul measured righteousness in the currency of covenant distinctiveness, both against fellow Jews and against Gentiles. The “badges” prescribed by the Law—circumcision, Sabbath, food regulations—which Judaism had followed in obedience to God were also used as “boundaries,” marking clearly who was in the covenant and thus accepted by God and who was outside the covenant and under his judgment. After Christ revealed himself to Paul, Paul realized that it was only faith in Christ, the Messiah, which marked covenant distinctiveness; the badges and boundaries of the Law no longer held. Thus justification through faith was the only marker which mattered and the only way to distinguish between who was in and who was out. Gentiles thus could have full acceptance into the church, the new community of the covenant, on that basis alone without any need to follow the works of the Law. N. T. Wright has also written extensively on this issue.[2] One way to access his thought on this matter is through a section in his recent work Paul and the Faithfulness of God, where he discusses the issue of “Faith, Justification, and the People of God” by first discussing “The Shape of Justification,” a theological overview of how justification worked in Paul’s thought, and then by working through particular passages.[3] The extent and depth of Wright’s argument belies simple summary, but suffice it to say for present purposes that Wright argues quite ably that justification should not simply be understood as the end goal of Paul’s theology, as if he was only concerned only with the individual’s legal standing before God. Rather, justification is part of a much larger complex of thought which concerns God’s remaking of this present world by finally putting humanity right, that is, dealing with their sin, through covenant in the person of the Messiah. Thus, as Wright says in multiple places in this work and elsewhere, justification is eschatological, forensic, participatory, and covenantal. Thus Paul’s terminology serves multiple purposes and connects to several theological assertions all at once. What is helpful in these examples of New Perspective thought, particularly in Wright, is the expansion of the idea of justification into broader, decidedly biblical areas of meaning without a denial of the traditional emphasis upon the forensic connotations. Based upon these works, it is appropriate to argue that when Paul used the δικ- word group he was certainly interested in an individual’s legal standing before God, but he was also interested in much more, including the individual’s connection to God’s covenant community, a community now delineated by faith in his Messiah, not in observance of works of the Law.

  1. James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).  ↩

  2. In all honesty, this is certainly the epitome of understatement.  ↩

  3. N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 925–1037.  ↩