The rambling Anglican Ordinand Jon Swales has drawn attention to a Themelios review of N.T. Wright’s Justification: Paul’s Vision and God’s Plan, which was Wright’s response to John Piper’s critique of his attack on the Reformed understanding of justification. It gets more convoluted. The review is written by David Mathis, who turns out to be the Executive Pastoral Assistant to Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church. The fact that this is a less than impartial review is not a problem in itself, but I’m surprised that Mathis’ relation to Piper was not more clearly signalled. Unfortunately, the American edition of Wright’s book appears to be paginated differently to the British edition, which makes it difficult to evaluate his imprecise criticisms. Nevertheless, Mathis’ argument that Wright makes too much of Abraham in his exposition of the ‘righteousness of God’ struck me as curious, so I thought I would take an opportunistic stroll down this incidental path through the forest of the justification debate.
Mathis criticizes Wright for taking ‘dikaiosunē theou as a technical term for God’s covenant faithfulness without providing a convincing rationale’. I suspect that the problem here is that in his concern to differentiate such an understanding from the classic Reformed doctrine Wright has given insufficient attention to narrative context. This is how it seems to me: the ‘righteousness of God’ refers not to an intrinsic abstract quality that God possesses eternally and independently of his engagement with humanity but to the determination of God to act in accordance with contextually appropriate commitments. That context does not need to be covenantally defined: we could perhaps imagine settings in which it is appropriate to speak of the righteousness of God outside of the covenantal framework. But since the entire biblical narrative, apart from the first eleven chapters of Genesis, presupposes, first, the covenant with Abraham, and secondly, the covenant with Israel according to the flesh, God mostly demonstrates his righteousness by acting in accordance with those commitments. In practice, therefore, ‘righteousness of God’ can loosely be defined in terms of ‘covenant faithfulness’, though in any particular context this may cause some obfuscation.
So although I think he is mistaken, I have some sympathy for Mathis’ complaint that ‘In taking dikaiosunē theou as a technical term, Wright seemingly grants himself the freedom to disregard context when it fits his designs.’ But I don’t understand how he misses the ‘convincing rationale’ which is everywhere provided by Old Testament usage. The interpretive background to the phrase ‘righteousness of God’ is clearly to be found in passages such as Isaiah 51:1-8 LXX, which speaks of God’s ‘righteousness’ as his active response to the crisis of Israel’s rebellion and humiliation. Those who seek deliverance for Israel are urged to look to Abraham and remember God’s promise to bless him and make him fruitful and multiply his descendants; God will restore the ‘waste places’ of Jerusalem; they will become like the ‘garden of the Lord’. Israel will be saved from the consequences of judgment, and through that salvation the ‘justice’ of God will be established as a ‘light for the nations’. The ‘righteousness’ of YHWH quickly draws near: ‘my salvation will go out as a light, and on my arm nations will hope’ (51:5; cf. 46:12-13; 59:16-18). So a people that knows the Law of God has no need to fear the reproach and contempt of the nations; their hostility will not last, but the righteousness of God will be forever and his salvation for generations of generations.
Part of Mathis’ criticism is that Wright needs to take the argument back before Abraham – there must be more to God than his covenant relationship to his people. He asks: ‘Was God righteous before he made a covenant with Abraham? Was he righteous before he created the world?’ He presumably thinks the answer is yes, but he gives no example of a biblical text that speaks of the ‘righteousness of God’ prior to, or otherwise independent of, the calling of a people in Abraham. Are we ever told that the creation of the world was an act of righteousness? The problem basically is a categorical one: Mathis and Piper think of God’s righteousness as an inherent and inalienable characteristic of God like goodness or power; Wright understands it as an expression of how God acts under particular circumstances – that is, in relation to covenant. The New Perspective tends to use the ‘vindication’ word-group whenever possible precisely because vindication is narratively rather than ontologically determined: it presupposes a story in which the behaviour of Israel or the circumstances of history cast doubt upon the integrity or power of God, who then acts in history, bringing judgment and deliverance, in order to vindicate himself as the true God. When it comes to the ‘righteousness of God’, we are in the realm of the contingent; there are not ‘ultimate questions’.
But here I think that we do encounter an inconsistency in Wright’s analysis in that he attempts to marry the contingency of the ‘righteousness of God’ with the ultimacy of an end-of-history judgment. My view is that a more coherent understanding of the terminology – and of the particular ambiguities in Romans regarding works, Spirit and faith(fulness) – emerges if we take seriously the contextually supported historical orientation of Paul’s argument about the ‘righteousness of God’. His concerns are much more immediate and pragmatic than the current debate allows – much more in keeping with the language of the Psalms, for example: ‘The Lord remains for ever; he has prepared his throne for judgment, and he will judge the world in righteousness; he will judge peoples in uprightness’ (Ps. 9:8-9 LXX); ‘…he comes to judge the earth; he judges the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth’ (Ps. 95:13 LXX); ‘…he has come to judge the earth; he will judge the world in righteousness and peoples in uprightness’ (Ps. 97:9 LXX). What these texts assert is not a final judgment of all humanity but the continuing sovereignty of YHWH, who is king above all gods and who, therefore, will act whenever necessary in history to defend the needy or deliver his people from their enemies.
This highlights a further aspect of the motif that needs to be kept in view, which is that the righteousness of God must, generally speaking, be demonstrated publicly. Central to Paul’s argument in Romans is the contention, first, that God will act in the foreseeable future to vindicate himself, to establish his righteousness, with respect both to lawless Israel and the idolatrous nations, bringing about manifest change; and secondly, that this future righteous action has been revealed or demonstrated preemptively in the now time through both the death and resurrection of Jesus and the establishment of a justified community consisting of Jews and Gentiles. But if the demonstration of God’s righteousness is genuinely to be ‘public’ and not a mere abstraction, it must be grounded in the experience and fate of a particular community, which brings us back to Wright’s point: the righteousness of God is more or less an expression of his ‘covenant faithfulness’.