As I've been preparing my series of posts about Paul, I've found myself having to provide a lot of background information that isn't specifically about Paul. I've decided to dedicate this post to the necessary background information, and will get to Paul after that.


One problem with reading the Bible in translation is that the connections between words in the original languages can be lost. This is true of a particular group of words that are very important in the letters of Paul. So while it is not clear in English translations that the words "righteousness" and "justification" have much of a connection at all, it is quite clear in the original Greek words, dikaiosynē and dikaiōsis, respectively. I will eventually want to say something about Paul's doctrine of justification, so it is necessary to understand the meaning of the word "righteousness."

So what is "righteousness" (dikaiosynē)? It's not a word we often use in everyday speech, and for a lot of people it has a somewhat negative connotation, probably because of the more commonly used term, "self-righteousness."1

In Greek secular usage, the term "righteousness" was primarily a legal term. The righteousness of a judge, for example, would consist in the justness of his decisions. So, in a legal context, dikaiosynē would be understood as having something to do with justice. Paul's use of the term has often been understood in this sense. But scholars have become increasingly aware that Greek-speaking Jews would also have understood the term as having a religious meaning which was rather different from the secular one. For Greek-speaking Jews, the term "righteousness" would also be understood as a relational concept. "Righteousness," as James Dunn explains, pertains to "the meeting of obligations laid upon the individual by the relationship of which he or she is a part."2

The Righteousness of God

There is some debate over the meaning of Paul's phrase "the righteousness of God" (dikaiosynē theou). Some scholars interpret this to mean "righteousness bestowed on others by God," which would refer to the justification (dikaiōsis) of individuals. But more and more scholars have begun to interpret this differently, as a characteristic or activity of God.3

The phrase "righteousness of God" can be understood in both the legal and the relational sense. In the legal sense, it would refer to God as a fair judge, which is a common enough way of understanding God. But, understood in the relational sense, it would refer to God's faithfulness to the relationships in which he plays a part. For Jews, this would most obviously be the covenant between God and Israel. But, more broadly, it would also refer to God's relationship with all of creation. In this case, the righteousness of God would be understood as God's faithfulness to his plan for the universe. Both of these ways of understanding the "righteousness of God" will be important when we get to Paul.

God's Plan for Creation

Virginia Wiles, in her book Making Sense of Paul, explains this part very nicely. She writes,
God's goal for the cosmos is shalom—peace. Peace can be described as the absence of enmity: The lion and the lamb lie down together (Isa 11:6); warring humans "beat their swords into ploughshares" (Isa 2:4). Stated positively, shalom is that existence in which everything fits together—a good place for everything, and everything in its place. Shalom is order; it is right-relatedness; it is wholeness. Shalom is the integrity of the whole—of the whole created cosmos, of everything that is.4
[One meaning of] God's righteousness is God's active bringing together of the whole of the created order. God's righteousness is God's shalom-making activity. This assumes that the world is not in peace, is not at peace. And God intends to put the world at peace, to "peace" the world together.5
Wiles notes that, upon hearing this way of describing God's righteousness, we are confronted with a bit of a problem: namely, that God does not appear to be doing this very well. This, she says, is something with which Paul and other first century Jews would have agreed.6 This brings us to the next meaning of the "righteousness of God."

God's Covenant with Israel

The first eleven chapters of Genesis describe first the creation of the universe, followed by a story of things falling apart. Clearly humans are making a mess of things, but God does not give up. He decides to do something unprecedented in the hope that things can get back on track. He tells Abraham (then Abram),
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12.1-3)
So God's promise is made to Abraham and his descendents, but it ultimately includes "all the families of the earth"; indeed, God will later tell Abraham, "by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves" (Gen 22.18). From this, as well as various promises made by God throughout the Bible (particularly the Psalms and the prophets, like Isaiah), we can see that God's promise includes far more than just the people of Israel. It includes all people, and, for that matter, the entire cosmos.


James Dunn, in his book The Theology of Paul the Apostle, describes the relational (or "covenantal") understanding of righteousness as "through and through Hebraic/biblical/Jewish in character," and understanding it this way "is a key factor in gaining a secure hold on Paul's teaching on justification." In light of the historic tendency among Christians to see Paul as a Christian in opposition to Judaism, it is not surprising that Paul's use of the term "righteousness" has not been understood this way until relatively recently. However, although many scholars have come to acknowledge this sense of the term, "the ramifications of the insight have been too little appreciated in much discussion of Paul's theology."7 I'll discuss this some more when I get to Paul's doctrine of justification.

Before I do that, though, I need to say a few more things about the covenant, and specifically the Law. That will be my next post.


[1] Virginia Wiles makes this point in Making Sense of Paul, 24.

[2] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 341.

[3] Dunn, Theology, 337.

[4] Wiles, Making, 24-25.

[5] Wiles, Making, 25.

[6] Wiles, Making, 25.

[7] Dunn, Theology, 342.

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