Righteous Gentiles and their justification by works

Tue, 27/03/2012 - 16:47

In my post on the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit I made the remark that Cornelius is described as a ‘pious man, who feared God, who prayed continually; a righteous and God-fearing man, who was “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”’ (Acts 10:2, 22). Mike has asked in what version Cornelius is described as being “righteous”. I thought at first that he was being facetious (I get a bit paranoid sometimes), but it looks like a reasonable question.

In Acts 10:22 it is not Luke but two servants and a soldier (10:7) who commend Cornelius as anēr dikaios kai phoboumenos. But the fact that he is said to be “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” suggests that he is being judged “righteous” according to Jewish standards; and in 10:2 Luke himself says that he is a “devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God”. Verse 2 and verse 22 say pretty much the same thing.

The KJV translates dikaios with the less loaded word “just”, and the ESV has “upright”, which is a neutral ethical term, without theological overtones. The Message says, rather ludicrously, that he was “well-known for his fair play”, which evokes the image of a decent English cricketer walking back to the pavilion having admitted that he just nicked the ball that ended up in the wicket-keeper’s gloves. The NIV and ASV, however, have “righteous”, and “righteous” is what it should be.

The only other person in Acts described as dikaios is Jesus, who is the “righteous One” (cf. 3:14; 7:52; 22:14), but in Luke, in addition to Jesus, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon, Joseph of Arimathea are said to be “righteous” (Lk. 1:6; 2:25; 23:50).

It seems to me that Cornelius is one of those Gentiles who does the work of the Law (he is devout, he fears God, gives alms, prays to God), whom Paul will declare “righteous” in Romans 2:13. He is not at this stage a member of the covenant community, but Peter has learned from his vision on the roof that anyone who fears God and “does righteousness” (ergazomenos dikaiosunēn) is acceptable to God. Gentiles such as Cornelius were likely to find themselves excused, justified, on the coming day of judgment (Rom. 2:13-16). Indeed, they might well find themselves in a position to condemn unrighteous Israel (Rom. 2:27).

This is not, I should make clear, a final judgment. It is a judgment on first century Jews and on the world of classical paganism. The people of God will be saved through this eschatological crisis, by grace, through faith, on the basis of the death of Jesus. But Paul is realistic enough to recognize that there are righteous God-fearing Gentiles out there, if only as exceptions to the rule, who may not necessarily be included in the covenant people, but who will not be put to shame when the wrath of God comes upon the empire. They will be justified by their works, by the fact that, against the grain of pagan culture (cf. Rom. 1:19-32), they have worshipped the creator and done righteousness. In the age to come they will receive “glory and honour and peace” (Rom. 2:10).

Comments

Andrew,
You say, “This is not, I should make clear, a final judgment. It is a judgment on first century Jews and on the world of classical paganism.”

So do you see the situation today ever being analogous? Ie., with regard to people in other religions. If you’ve read the Narnia series, I have situations like Emeth (at the end of ‘The Last Battle’) in mind.

I don’t see why situations today should not in principle be regarded as “analogous”. Civilizations, cultures and societies come and go all the time. Whether we have either the rhetoric or the moral authority as a church to articulate such judgments is another matter. Perhaps 1 Peter 4:17 is relevant:

For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

I am glad you picked up on this, Andrew.

I thought about the same issue. Righteousness is essentially a covenantal term, indicating one who’s standing and actions with respect to the other covenant partner are adjudged as faithful to the covenant relationship.

So how does this work with respect to Gentiles, prior to the new covenant? By joining the covenant community and submitting to its charter of faithfulness.

Although technically the new covenant is inaugurated by this point in the narrative, the implication is that this attribution of righteousness to Cornelius precedes the new covenant. My view is that this indicates the breadth of interpretation of faithfulness when we appreciate and approach Torah in covenantal terms, rather than legal ones—as a demand for personal and corporate faithfulness to YWHW, as demanding, but merciful covenant overlord, rather than an unforgiving Law. This approach is then broadened and enhanced in the new covenant, as God’s own faithfulness to the covenant is intentionally and mission ally extended towards the incorporation of all ethnic people’s and nations.

Righteousness is essentially a covenantal term, indicating one who’s standing and actions with respect to the other covenant partner are adjudged as faithful to the covenant relationship.

Is that necessarily the case? Yes, mostly covenantal rather than forensic. But is there any reason why the term should not be used outside the covenantal context? It’s not an exclusively Jewish term.

I don’t think my comments rest on an exclusivity for the terminology, hence my use of essentially – the essence. I would think in the context of the scriptures this is more, rather than less true. My point is that a covenantal rendering or context is informative for the example you’re discussing. The implication is that Cornelius was effectively a covenant partner with YWHW, because of his disposition, faith, actions, even though ostensibly outside of the covenant. Together with your citation from Romans, I think this is an exciting perception. But, yes, I do also think that a covenantal perspective informs other areas of our theological perspectives. But that’s another story, for another day.

The implication is that Cornelius was effectively a covenant partner with YWHW, because of his disposition, faith, actions, even though ostensibly outside of the covenant.

I see what you’re getting at, but that’s not how I understand it. I think the issue is not whether righteous Gentiles like Cornelius before his meeting with Peter are “covenant partners”, but whether they will be justified on the day of God’s wrath against the pagan world.

Sure, Andrew. I understand that’s your historicla, narrative perspective. Aren’t they, then, two ways of saying the same thing, to be used depending upon context?

Care to give us a short summary, from your reading, Doug?

As far as I understand his position, VanLandingham basically says that good works (to be differentiated from works of the Law) are mandatory in order to stay “in.” He goes exhaustively through the OT, apocryphal literature, and the NT to point out how good works are framed as an element of salvation. He directly engages Sanders’ point of covenantal membership being the basis for salvation. He makes some good points but may go too far on some things. I’d like someone from the NPP camp to engage him in detail.

Doug

Thanks, Doug. I find it curious that good works should be differentiated from “the Law,” which is essentially the covenant charter, setting out its terms of blessing (for the faithful) and curses (for the unfaithful).

My perception is that covenant represents a formalised relationship, in which “keeping faith” with a covenant partner is expressed by being faithful to covenant terms, typically set out by the more powerful covenant partner.

The purpose of covenant was mutual, essentially a joining of forces. A weaker party became a servant-community, liable to swear allegiance and to pay tribute taxes; the more powerful party swearing protection and promising ‘deliverance’ (salvation) from other powerful enemies, where needed.

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