Righteousness and Justification in the Book of Galatians: Debating Justification with N.T. Wright and NPP. Part 4

N.T. Wright asserted in his debate with Richard Gaffin at the Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference in 2005, and elsewhere in his numerous writings that the debate on justification in Gal 3:14 is not about the gift of righteousness as it is about determining the grounds for inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant. As Wright writes,

“Justification” in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about “getting in,” or indeed about “staying in,” as about “how you could tell who was in.” In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church. [What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 119]

Gaffin who seems to be a far better scholar than a debater failed to challenge Wright understanding of righteousness and justification with evidence based on biblical linguistic-theology or to question the coherence of Wright’s view from the logic of systematic theology.

Given below are excerpts taken from Douglas Moo’s excellent commentary on Galatians which offers a more plausible reading than Wright on the linguistic meaning of righteousness and justification in Gal. 3:14.

NPP Reading No. 3

Excerpts taken from Douglas Moo, Galatians:  Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker, 2013. pp. 48-56.

The word δικαιόω and its cognates was used widely in secular Greek…Paul’s frequent appeal to the OT in discussing the word, shows that the OT/Jewish background is decisive.

[49]Older scholarship debated whether the root idea of צדק language was conformity to a norm or “mutual fulfillment of claims arising from a particular relationship.”

More recently, scholars have debated how closely righteousness language in the OT is tied to the covenant, some arguing that צדק words almost always assume the covenantal structure (see esp. N. Wright 2009: 55–78), while others think the language is set in a wider context. But we are not faced here with an either/or proposition. Many instances of צדק language reveal that the norm or relationship that lies behind צדק is God’s own character or his commitment to do “right” to his creation. Indeed, the idea of “right order” or “rightness,” stemming from the way that God has created the world we live in, seems to be a very common nuance in the language (see esp. Seifrid 2001; Westerholm 2004: 267–78). At the same time, then, God’s decision to bind himself and Israel in a covenant relationship means that many instances of the צדק root assume that this “rightness” is defned (though certainly not exhausted) in terms of this covenantal structure.

[50] A. Δικαιόω. The verb δικαιόω occurs forty-four times in the LXX, and in all but six occurrences where there is a Hebrew original, it translates a form of צדק In the Qal stem this verb means “to be righteous,” in the Piel “to be demonstrated as righteous,” and in the Hiphil “to declare righteous” (see Ziesler 1972: 18–22). The nine times δικαιόω translates the Hiphil of צדק are particularly significant for Paul’s usage. This form of the verb almost always has a judicial or forensic flavor. Sometimes the “judge” who “pronounces righteous,” or acquits, is human (Deut. 25:1; Isa. 5:23), and at other times divine (Exod. 23:7; 1 Kings 8:32; 2 Chron. 6:23; Ps. 82:3; Isa. 50:8). Even when the term is not used with explicit reference to the lawcourt, the forensic connotations remain (cf. Gen. 38:26; 44:16; Jer. 3:11; Ezek. 16:51–52). This legal justification is a recognition of the reality that the person being “justifed” is, in fact, “just”: Israelite judges are to “justify the just and condemn the ungodly [LXX: : δικαιώσωσιν τὸν δίκαιον και καταγνῶσιν του ἀσεβους, , dikaiososin ton dikaion kai katagnosin tou asebous]” (Deut. 25:1 AT; cf. 1 Kings 8:32; 2 Chron. 6:23). A key symptom of injustice is the “justifying” of the guilty (Isa. 5:23), in contrast to the strict and accurate judicial assessment of the Lord, who “will not justify the guilty” (Exod. 23:7 AT). Thus OT “justification” takes the form of a legal recognition of an already-existing “righteousness” (see, e.g., Westerholm 2004: 263–64).

B. Δικαιοσύνη The noun δικιαιοσύνη, which occurs more than three hundred times in the LXX, is applied both to God and to human beings…

It is therefore frequently said that “righteousness” is an ethical idea in the OT. This is not wrong, but it is somewhat inadequate.  For “righteousness” is also more broadly a description of the “rightness” that is incumbent upon human beings by virtue of the divinely created world in which they live. “Righteousness” in this sense can describe the state of persons who have fulfilled the expectations placed upon them by their divinely created status and/or their covenant relation—including behavior but also penetrating to the heart attitude.

[51] On Isaiah 46:12-13
Motyer comments: “They are far from righteousness, from conformity to the will, character, and purposes of the Lord, and he will implement his righteousness, all that accords with his will, character and purposes, everything that is ‘right’ with God” (1993: 370).64 In this sense, “righteousness” often serves as a summary term, describing the “state of rightness before God.”

[51-52] The noun δικαιοσύνη also occurs almost a hundred times in the OT (LXX) with reference to God…
There is considerable debate, as we note above, over whether this norm is an absolute (residing in God or as an aspect of God’s person) or whether the norm is relational (existing because of the covenant to which God
has bound himself). In the second sense, God’s “righteousness” can sometimes come to refer to the norms of the covenant. Many contemporary scholars therefore think “God’s righteousness” in Paul is basically God’s “covenant faithfulness” (Hill 1967: 156; esp. N. Wright 2009: 55–78). In some contexts this is undoubtedly the case, but it would be wrong to establish this as the all-embracing meaning of God’s righteousness. First, righteousness language and covenant language are rarely found together (Seifrid 2001: 423–24; although, in fairness, if covenant is a basic-enough category, this is not altogether surprising). And, as we noted above, there are many contexts in which the “standard” by which God is judged to do “right” goes beyond (and behind) the terms of the covenant. God’s righteousness, then, while finding particular historical expression in his faithfulness in maintaining the “right” of his covenant people, is finally rooted more deeply in his own character as God. Second, reference to “covenant faithfulness” begs a crucial question: what “covenant” are we talking about? N. T. Wright, one of the most important defenders of the “covenant-faithfulness” interpretation, refers repeatedly to God’s fulfillment of his promises made to Abraham in this regard (e.g., 2009: 57). The “covenant” involved, then, is not the Sinai covenant narrowly construed, but the promises that God first made to Abraham and the patriarchs and which he renewed in the Sinai covenant (see esp. Deut. 27–30). What, then, is the status of this language in Paul, who importantly distinguishes the Abrahamic covenant from the Mosaic (e.g., Gal. 3:15–18)?


[53] Both δικαιόω (dikaioō, justify) and δικαιοσύνη have to do with the conveying of (in the case of the verb), or possession of (the noun), right standing with God. In using the language in this way, Paul follows one significant strand of usage in the OT. As we have noted, both words are used in the OT to refer to
the establishment of legal right, or vindication…

[53-54] – [In discussing the Servant in Isaiah in Isa. 49:1-7; 52:13-53:12]
This use of “righteousness” was common ground among Paul, the agitators, and the Galatians. In his first use of the language, Paul’s claim that he and his fellow Jews “know” about the manner of justification (2:15–16) certainly suggests that the language was common currency in the early church (or at least the Pauline-infuenced early church) before Paul wrote Galatians. Another source for Paul’s use of this language is, of course, Gen. 15:6, where God considers Abraham’s faith to be equivalent to his discharge of all the obligations incumbent upon him (for this meaning of Gen. 15:6, see the additional note on 3:6).

If one might describe the material in the last paragraph as a matter of general scholarly consensus, the same cannot be said of another matter: the degree to which, in Galatians, Paul “redefines” justification language to mean “to be declared to be members of God’s people.” N. T. Wright (2009: 116), while acknowledging that justification language functions in the metaphorical sphere of the lawcourt, insists that Paul reflects the strongly covenantal context of the language in the OT, and in light of the immediate context (where the issue is “Who can eat at the same table together?”; 2:11–14), uses δικαιόω in its first programmatic occurrence in Galatians to mean “to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship,” thereby putting particular emphasis on the inclusion of Gentiles (2:15–16). This initial usage sets the tone for the letter as a whole, with δικαιοσύνη thus meaning, in turn, “membership in God’s true family” (2009: 121). In typical Wrightian fashion, however, these apparently “either/or” propositions—forensic verdict of acquittal or membership in God’s family—are later (in his latest book on the matter) relativized with “both/and” language—forensic acquittal and membership in God’s family (see esp. 2009: 133–34). So the real question is not whether, as Wright himself (too strongly) puts it, “The lawcourt metaphor behind the language of justification, and of the status ‘righteous’ which someone has when the court has found in their favor, has given way to [emphasis added] the clear sense of ‘membership in God’s people’” (2009: 121); the question is, rather, whether the notion of membership in the people of God should be added to the notion of forensic acquittal, and indeed added to such extent that the latter becomes the dominant idea in the letter. N. T. Wright (and others who follow a similar interpretation) is correct, of course, that Paul’s first announcement of “justification by faith” comes in a dual context, both contexts being dominated by the issue of Gentile inclusion: the dispute at Antioch (2:11–14) and the crisis in Galatia. However, more precisely, the issue in both situations was not the inclusion of Gentiles in the new messianic community per se (which, as far as we can tell, no one was disputing) but the terms on which they should be included. More important, Wright’s claim that δικαιόω in 2:16 sheds some of its forensic connotation because “Paul is not in a lawcourt, he is at a dinner table” (2009: 116) illegitimately privileges context over semantics. Only a few pages later, Wright claims that lawcourt imagery is “always there by implication in the language of ‘justification’” (128), and he should observe this sound semantic observation in his interpretation

[55] [Interpretation of Gal. 2:16]. In this text, and the paragraph of which it is a part, Paul is using the Antioch incident as a jumping-off place to address the central theological issue that lies behind that incident and the situation in Galatia as well. And in both situations, this issue is the terms on which people can expect to find
right standing with God. The focus is on Gentile inclusion; but Paul stresses that Jews also “know” that this right standing comes by christologically oriented faith and not by “works of the law” (2:16); if right standing with God could come by means of the torah, Christ need not have died at all (v. 21). This fundamental theological fact—“the truth of the gospel” for which Paul fought in Jerusalem (2:5) and which Peter has called into question by his conduct at Antioch (2:14)—makes clear that it is wrong for Peter, by his withdrawal from
table fellowship in Antioch, to force Gentiles to “Judaize” (2:14)—and equally wrong for the agitators to insist that the Gentile Galatians succumb to circumcision and a torah lifestyle (3:1–5; 5:2–6). There is no good contextual reason to insist that “justify” in 2:16 must be redefined to mean, or to include, the notion of membership in God’s people. There is no need to collapse the two concepts into one. As Simon Gathercole (2004a: 156) insists, “The content of the doctrine of justification by faith should be distinguished from its scope.” The fow of the text makes perfect sense if Paul in 2:16 is using the δικαιόω language in its well-attested sense “declare righteous.”

Membership in God’s people and justification are closely related, but they are not identical. One entails the other, but they are not the same. Paul argues both points in Galatians: people by their faith in Christ are established as “righteous” in God’s sight; and by that faith they are brought into the people of God. But in Galatians, as in Paul’s Letters in general, justification does not in itself refer to belonging to God’s people; still less does justification include how one knows a person belongs to God’s people.

[55-56] Some recent interpreters (echoing, to be sure, a minor strand in the Reformation theological heritage), out of an express concern to counteract the ethical indifference that they think tends to follow from a strictly forensic view of justification, want to expand the scope of justification to include a transformative element. Paul can certainly use the word δικαιοσύνη, in continuation with the OT and other NT authors, to refer to appropriate ethical behavior (e.g., Rom. 6:13, 16, 18, 19, 20; Eph. 5:9; 1 Tim. 6:11; cf. Matt. 5:20; Luke 1:75; Acts 10:35; James 1:20). But these occurrences should not be incorporated into the concept of Pauline “justification.” Here we face a fundamental methodological issue: which occurrences of δικ- language in Paul should be the building blocks in our construction of the concept of justification in Paul? Paul operates with two semantic categories of δικ- (dik-) language—for the sake of brevity, the “moral” and the “forensic”—which can be distinguished on the basis of sound syntagmatic considerations. Most of Paul’s uses of δικαιοσύνη echo the basic semantic force of the verb, referring to the status of righteousness that the action, or verdict, of “justify” confers. It is a mistake to merge these categories. Every occurrence of δικ- language in Galatians (with the possible exception of δικαιος in 3:11) relates to the doctrine of justification; and in Galatians, justification is forensic. The issue in the letter is all about status before God.

Paul is certainly concerned about the transformation of character in Galatians, as the section 5:13–6:10 reveals most clearly. But to argue that this concern must be part of justification assumes that transformation can become part of what it means to be a Christian only if it is folded into justification. Following the lead of Calvin and many others in the Reformed tradition, we think it does much better justice to Paul if we connect forensic justification with transformation by viewing both as inevitable and necessary products of our being “in Christ.” While certainly not explicitly taught in Galatians, the idea that our union with Christ produces these two inseparable but distinguishable benefits is clearly hinted at. Being “in Christ” is foundational, as the important summarizing paragraph 3:26–29 makes clear. Paul explicitly relates justification to participation in Christ in 2:17—“seeking to be justified in Christ”—and union with Christ appears at key points elsewhere in the letter (1:22; 2:4; 2:19–20; 5:6, 24; 6:14)…

[In association with the promise of the Spirit in 3:14]
[57] It is this transforming work of the Spirit, creating the conformity to God’s will that the law was unable to accomplish, that is the theme of 5:13–6:10. In 3:13–14, then, Paul traces back to our association with Christ in his death—taking our curse on himself—the twin blessings of justification and transformation. Union with Christ, not justification, lies at the heart of Paul’s theology.  But forensic justification is one of the primary
and critical benefits that people who belong to Christ by faith receive. And in Galatians this forensic issue comes to the surface because the letter focuses resolutely on key questions: Who will experience God’s vindicating judgment in their favor? And by what means?

** Exegetical Notes on Galatians 2:16 and 3:6.
Douglas Moo’s comment on Gal. 2:16
One other significant term requires attention before we turn back to our exposition of the verse: δικαιόω (dikaioo, justify). This word occurs as the central element in each of the three parts of this verse and is picked up again at critical points of the following argument (2:17; 3:8, 11, 24; 5:4). The complexity and significance of the debate over this word and the theology it represents make the battles over the meanings of “works of the law” and “faith of Christ” seem like minor skirmishes. Once again, we treat some of the larger issues briefly in the introduction (see “Justification/Righteousness” there). As is almost universally recognized, Paul’s use of this verb reflects the use of the Hebrew verb צדק in the OT, which, in its Hiphil form, refers to a forensic, or judicial, declaration that a person is “just.” There is very good reason to think that Paul consistently uses the verb in this sense. To be sure, N. T. Wright (see esp. 2009: 116–19) has argued that the context of Gal. 2, along with the covenant associations of the word, suggests that Paul has particularly in view here the notion of membership in the people of God. For is this not the issue in Jerusalem (2:1–10), Antioch (2:11–14), and Galatia? Paul is certainly concerned to show that his gospel provides entry for the Gentiles into the people of God, so that they can, for instance, eat with Jews. But Paul’s point in 2:16, while deeply significant for each of these situations, is slightly different and more basic. Here he wants to establish the bedrock principle that all people—with the focus in this verse, as we have seen, on Jewish Christians—can be pronounced “just” before God through faith in Christ alone and not on the basis of “works of the law.” And because this is so, it is wrong for the Jerusalem authorities to impose circumcision on Gentile believers, it is wrong for Peter to refuse to eat with Gentiles, and it is wrong for the agitators to insist that the Galatian Christians submit to the law. Justification, one’s legal standing before God, is fully secured by faith in Christ. Nothing should be added; nothing can be added; nothing must be added (Smiles 1998: 123–28).

Douglas Moo’s Comments on Gal. 3:16
Genesis 15:6 recounts Abraham’s response to the Lord’s promise that Abraham’s “seed,” coming from his own body, would be as numerous as the stars in the heaven (15:4): “Abram believed the Lord.” In turn, the Lord responded to Abraham and “credited it to him as righteousness.” The meaning of this passage is disputed, but it is best taken to mean that God graciously viewed Abraham’s faith as having in itself fulfilled all that God expected of Abraham in order for him to be in the right before God. (This cannot be, it should be emphasized, covenant righteousness: no “covenant” existed yet [Yeung 2002: 264–71; Piper 2007: 40–42].) Paul’s appeal to this verse for the connection between forensic righteousness and faith is, therefore, a fair application of the intention of Gen. 15:6 (see the additional note on 3:6). Just as, then, it was Abraham’s faith that led to his being considered “in the right” before God, so it was the faith of the Galatians that led them to be “declared right” (Gal. 2:16, 21; cf., e.g., Eckstein 1996: 98–99). The particular connection that Paul might have in mind with the previous paragraph is not clear. His implicit comparison between the Galatians’ experience of the Spirit and Abraham’s righteousness reveals that Paul views justification and the Spirit as closely related (e.g., Williams 1987: 95; Byrne 1979: 148). Yet this does not mean (contra, e.g., G. Hansen 1989: 115) that “righteousness” includes the transforming work of God’s Spirit: the Spirit functions in verses 1–5 not as an agent of transformation but as the confirmation that the believers have indeed entered into relationship with God. Further, however, does Paul suggest that Abraham’s attaining righteousness is to be compared to the Galatians’ initial experience (“after beginning,” v. 3) or to their continuing experience (“are you now trying to finish?”)? Perhaps this is not a fair question. As often in Galatians, Paul appears to view “righteousness” as right standing without particular focus on its initiation. His concern is to make clear to the Galatians that, in contrast to the views of the agitators, righteousness is always and at every stage manifested through faith.

[188] “Righteousness” in the OT is oriented more to the idea of standard, to the “right order” that God has built into his creation. “Righteousness” in Gen. 15:6, then, could refer to faith as a particular manifestation of this “right order”: Abraham’s belief in God would be a “right” act, an instance of righteous behavior. But we have seen that “righteousness” in the OT frequently refers more broadly to the total “right” response to God that he demands of his people, a response that involves, as Keil and Delitzsch (1969a: 213) put it, “correspondence to the will of God both in character and conduct”; see again the introduction). We think this definition best explains Gen. 15:6. God considers Abraham’s

[189] Our interpretation is thus similar to Sailhamer’s (2009: 244), who argues that God counted Abraham’s faith as “the keeping of the law” (see also G. Wenham 1987: 330). If we are right about the meaning of Gen. 15:6, the text does not directly refer to what Paul would call “justification by faith.” Justification, for Paul, is forensic status, and this is not what Gen. 15:6 is saying. On the other hand, if, as we think, Gen. 15:6 is referring to the full conformity to the “rightness” that God expects of his people, then Paul’s use of the text is a quite legitimate application. It was Abraham’s faith that God regarded as having met the “standard” that God expected of his people. And it is an obvious inference, justified by the close relationship in the OT between a person’s “righteousness” and their acceptance before God, that Abraham, having by his faith met God’s standard of “rightness,” would be then presumed to be “in the right” with God. The “rightness” that God demands of his people, later encoded in the law, has been fully met by Abraham in his simple yet profound act of faith. Abraham’s “works,” while naturally and inevitably flowing from this faith (cf. James 2:22–23), were not what constituted Abraham’s “rightness” in God’s eyes. And so Paul uses this central OT statement about Abraham to say to the Galatians, in effect: just as Abraham’s full and complete “rightness” before God came by virtue of his faith—and so he was accepted on that basis before God—so your full and complete “rightness” before God (in a distinctively forensic sense) comes by virtue of your faith—“alone.”

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