Saturday, January 23, 2016

Paul’s Theology on Justice, Righteousness and Reconciliation (A Primer on Justice and Missions, Part 2)

In my last post (Framing Justice Theologically), I posited the following thesis:

 “Justice–fairness, though important to God and to God’s people, is nevertheless incomplete. God’s justice is larger than simply fairness or equity. God’s justice is inseparable from his saving activity for a fallen world. In the grander scheme of God’s economy of salvation, distributive justice acts as one component to a much larger process called reconciliation.”

Here in this post, I give the exegetical basis for making this claim.

Paul’s Theology on Justice, Righteousness and Reconciliation (A Primer on Justice and Missions, Part 2) *

            To a certain degree, the principle of justice as fairness (or “distributive justice” as some call it)1 is affirmed by both the Old and New Testaments. The psalmist, for example, recognizes God’s role as an impartial judge and executor of justice over the affairs of Israel when he says of God:

“Mighty king, lover of justice (םשׁפט mishpat), you have established equity, you have executed justice (םשׁפט mishpat) and righteousness (צדקה tsedeqah) in Jacob. Praise the Lord our God! Worship at his feet! Holy is he!” (Ps. 99:4-5; cf. Pss. 9:1–20; 89:5–14; 97:1–12; 103:6; Jer. 9:23–24).2 

Jim Bruckner has called God’s mishpat and tsedeqah a “ferocious justice” whose goal is restoration but nevertheless confronts the oppressor, the arrogant, and evil-doers with the demand of repentance.3
            Not only does God judge impartially, God expects his covenant people to act justly as well and be executors of his justice:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you? But to do justice (םשׁפט mishpat), and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God!” (Micah 6:8; cf. Ps. 72:1–3; Jer. 22:3).4

[Hang onto your linguistic seatbelts, folks, we are about to go from 0 to 60 mph in one paragraph!]
            As we look at how the New Testament quotes Old Testament verses in Greek (e.g., Hab. 2:4 in Rom. 1:17), or how the Greek Septuagint translates Hebrew passages on justice such as Ps. 99:4–5 and Micah 6:8 above, we observe that the Hebrew word mishpat (sometimes translated as “justice” but more often meaning a strict “judgment” where each person is given his or her due) is precisely rendered in Greek as κρίμα krima or κρίσις krisis (that is, “judgment” as in legal proceedings). The term tsedeq (“righteousness” or “uprightness” that defends, rescues, and delivers both communities and individuals) or tsedeqah (“righteous act”) is translated as δικαιοσύνη dikaiosynē, that is, “righteousness” as in one’s intrinsic just character or how one relates rightly with others. But dikaiosynē is also used singly to translate both mishpat (“judging–justice”) and tsedeq (“restorative–righteousness”). In this case, δικαιοσύνη means mainly “righteousness,” or God’s saving righteousness but depending on the context can also denote distributive justice (see, e.g., Ps. 72:1–3; 98:1–3).5
            If you got lost in the above discussion, here’s a chart mapping simply (but not comprehensively) how some Hebrew words for justice and righteousness are translated into Greek by the Septuagint and New Testament:

Fig. 1: How the LXX and NT translates םשׁפט and צדק

Main Point: If the Old Testament concepts of mishpat and tsedeq bear any influence on the New Testament understanding of dikaiosynē (and the consensus is that they do!), then I argue here that dikaiosynē mainly means “righteousness,” or God’s saving righteousness but at times can be translated as distributive justice, or even denote righteousness with some sense of distributive justice subsumed within it (see, e.g., Ps. 72:1–3; 98:1–3 par. Rom. 1.16–17).6
            Paul can even set up both senses of dikaiosynē – i.e., God’s saving righteousness and God’s distributive justice – in tandem with each other in the same passage. Let’s look at Romans 3:21–26 as an example and observe that the same word dikaiosynē and its cognates have been translated more than one way (in bold):

But now the saving (cosmic) righteousness of God (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ; or God’s saving activity), apart from the Torah, has been made known, to which the Torah and the Prophets testify. 22 that is, the righteousness that comes from God (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ) through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified as a gift (δικαιούμενοι δωρεὰν) by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as an atonement (ἱλαστήριον) through faith in his blood. He did this as a demonstration of his distributive justice (εἰς ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ) because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteous character (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ; that is, to be true to himself) at the present time, so as to be just (δίκαιον; in character) and the one who justifies (δικαιοῦντα; forensically and actually) those who have faith in Jesus.

In the passage quoted just above, Paul shares how the saving righteousness of God (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ; the subjective genitive; v. 21)7 took a particular form: a righteousness that comes from God (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ; the genitive of origin; v. 22) which can be received through faith in Christ. God could have meted out justice–fairness (δικαιοσύνη) with a vengeance for sins committed beforehand, but God chose not to (v. 25a)! Instead God demonstrated distributed justice (εἰς ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ; v. 25b) and just character (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ / δίκαιον; v. 26) not by condemning sinners but by presenting Christ as an atoning sacrifice. He paved the way for sinful humanity to be declared justified and in right relations with himself (δικαιούμενοι / δικαιοῦντα; 3:24, 26).
            So here is the theological and exegetical punchline: Given Paul’s understanding of how distributive justice relates to the saving righteousness of God, what does Paul mean when he says that God did all of this (= presented Christ Jesus as an atonement) for one reason: that we might become the righteousness of God and preach the message of reconciliation? Here is the full text of 2 Corinthians 5:17-21:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, everything has become new!
18 And all this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ (τοῦ καταλλάξαντος ἡμᾶς ἑαυτῷ διὰ Χριστοῦ) and who gave to us the ministry of reconciliation (καὶ δόντος ἡμῖν τὴν διακονίαν τῆς καταλλαγῆς)
19ab – that is (ὡς ὅτι), God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (θεὸς ἦν ἐν Χριστῷ κόσμον καταλλάσσων ἑαυτῷ), not reckoning their transgressions against them (μὴ λογιζόμενος αὐτοῖς τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν)
19c and [who] placed upon us the message of reconciliation (καὶ θέμενος ἐν ἡμῖν τὸν λόγον τῆς καταλλαγῆς).
20 Therefore, we are ambassadors (πρεσβεύομεν) for Christ, as though God was making his appeal through us (παρακαλοῦντος δι᾽ ἡμῶν). We beseech you on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God! (δεόμεθα ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ, καταλλάγητε τῷ θεῷ)
21 He made the one who knew no sin to be sin for us (τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν) in order that we might become in him the righteousness of God (ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ).

The Greek words “reconcile” (καταλλάσσω) and “reconciliation” (καταλλαγή) find their historical context in the peace-treaty process whereby two parties, who are estranged from another because one has wronged the other, are attempting to re-establish diplomatic and personal relations.8  Whereas in Judaism, God is often described as being reconciled to Israel once he has vented his wrath,9 Paul, on the other hand, never claims that God reconciles himself to the sinner, but rather God reconciled us to himself (ἡμᾶς ἑαυτῷ; 5:18; cf. 5:19ab κόσμον ἑαυτῷ). In sending Christ “who knew no sin to be sin for us” (5:21), God took the initiative to provide atonement and forgiveness for the estranged sinner. Even though it was humanity who wronged God, not God who wronged humanity, through Christ’s death and resurrection God nevertheless opened the way for sinners to have renewed relations with him.
            So themes in Romans 3:21-26 (God demonstrating his justice by the atonement of Christ) are re-presented in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 (God reconciling the world to himself by Christ becoming sin for us) but with an important advancement: the goal of this saving act in Christ is to make us the righteousness of God and to send us as ambassadors of Christ.
            The person who is a new creation in Christ, that is, the believer and the church corporate, becomes “the righteousness of God” (ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ). In other words, the righteousness of God is on display for the outside world to see through us, Christ’s ambassadors, as we participate in the ministry of reconciliation, suffer as Christ did, and appeal to sinners with the message of reconciliation: “Be reconciled to God” (5:20b).
            What is more, God’s modus operandi becomes the method of the church. How did God use distributive justice? To this end: that we might be justified before God (Rom 3) and become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:17). In the grander scheme of God’s economy of salvation, distributive justice acts as one component to a much larger process called reconciliation. Justice serves to make reconciliation complete. The former is the means to the latter as an end.
            What, then, are the ethical implications of Romans 3 and 2 Cor. 5 which define God’s sense of justice in the theological framework of justification and reconciliation? 
            First, we realize that justice–fairness, as important as it is, cannot become an end in itself. Acts of mercy, compassion and justice are only means to a greater work: the reconciliation of the sinner to God and sinners with one another. Therefore, the church participates in the task of justice out of compassion for those who are disenfranchised, but the community of faith does this so that eventually (and here wise discernment has its place) the powerless can feel safe enough to avail themselves of God’s grace. We model God’s compassion so they can feel unafraid of a God whom they might feel has abandoned them.
            In the previous post, I used Weborg’s example of how justice mutes the volume of suffering so the sinner can hear God’s call to reconciliation. So, justice, like evangelism and missions, are means by which human beings can encounter the risen Lord.
            Secondly, if justice as fairness is a subcomponent of the larger task of righteousness as reconciliation, then any brand of justice which hinders a person from becoming reconciled with God, even if that person is our enemy, is no longer truly just and righteous. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, thought that any violent act against a person was evil because violence closed more doors and created more barriers for wounded parties to renew broken relationships.11 If our so called “just” actions creates a situation where it is impossible for persons to heal, forgive, and receive forgiveness, then such actions must be suspended in the interim for the sake of the greater mission of seeing all human beings experience God’s reconciling grace.
            Thus Christians paradoxically have a two-fold ethic: we seek justice as fairness for others so that it creates a safe space for them to meet and be reconciled to God. At the same time, we are willing to suspend justice and vindication for ourselves so that the greater work of reconciling our enemies to Christ can become a reality.
            If it feels like burning the candle at both ends (justice for others, suspension of justice for myself) then yes, burn brightly. We are called to follow Jesus into those dark places where human dignity stands in jeopardy, sin rules, and misery is rampant. We are called to do what it takes to get even our enemies reconciled with God. Let Jesus the Light of the world shine through our ministry and message.

End Notes
* I felt it stylistically cumbersome to include the full and original notes to this article and therefore have reduced them to the bare essentials since the medium for this essay is no longer a published work but this blog. Still the notes are substantial as you see below.
1) Chris Marshall, The Little Book of Biblical Justice (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2005), 6–9.
2) Unless otherwise noted, all OT Scriptural quotations are from the NRSV with some slight modifications. I will offer my own English translation of the Greek text from the NT.
3) James Bruckner, “Justice in Scripture,” Ex Auditu 22 (2006), 22 [17–25].
4) For further discussion on the OT concept of distributive justice, see Bruckner, “Justice in Scripture,” 17–22; Mark A. Seifrid, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism (vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism; ed. by D.A. Carson, et al.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 415–442; Horst Dietrich Preuss, Old Testament Theology (vol. 1 of 2; trans. by Leo G. Perdue; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 171–94.
5) The definitions for the lexemes should not be surprising. Consult the standard lexicons (BDB, BDAG, LSJ or Louw-Nida) and dictionaries (TDOT, TDNT). But if you want something even more technical, I invite you to read my essays "Greek Words and Roman Meanings," parts 1-2 published in the Festschrift for Seyoon Kim.
6) In his discussion of Ps. 98:1-3 as an OT parallel to Rom. 1:16–17a, Laato, while arguing for the forensic character of δικ– word group, nevertheless acknowledges that “the concepts ‘salvation’ and ‘righteousness’ overlap here. They are synonymous.” See Timo Laato, “‘God’s Righteousness’ – Once Again,” in The Nordic Paul: Finnish Approaches to Pauline Theology (ed. by Lars Aejmelaeus and Antti Mustakallio; LNTS 374; New York/London: T&T Clark, 2008), 47 [40–73].
7) By the subjective genitive, I am following more Käsemann’s reading of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ  as the saving activity of God as it relates to the entire creational order including humanity rather than the narrower reading by Wright as God’s covenantal activity; see respectively: Ernst semann, trans. by Wilfred F. Bunge, “God’s Righteousness in Paul,” in The Bultmann School of Biblical Interpretation: New Directions? (ed. by SaJames Robinson, et al.; Journal for Theology and Church 1; New York: Harper&Row, 1965), 100–10; N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 101-103. Some scholars like Moo in his NICNT commentary on Romans translate δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ as the possessive genitive (“God’s righteous character”) but for the purposes of this paper, it makes no real difference in the arguments I am making.
8) Disclaimer: New Testament scholars, since James Barr’s book The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), always get nervous about what Barr calls “illegitimate totality transfer.” I want to assure the reader that this is not what I am doing here. Given the possible options for how to translate dikaiosynē, in the entire discourse unit of Rom. 3:21-26, I have chosen what I think is the best in-context translation for each appearance of the word. I do make the distinction between word and concept, where the former cannot possibly encapsulate all of the latter. Instead, based on reading the entire discourse unit of Rom 3:21-26, I assert the following about Paul’s understanding of God’s righteousness and justice.
8) On the linguistic background to the terms for reconciliation, see Seyoon Kim, “God Reconciled His Enemy to Himself: The Origin of Paul’s Concept of Reconciliation,” in The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul’s Conversion on his Life, Thought, and Ministry (ed. by R.N. Longenecker; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 104-107 [102–24].
9) See 2 Maccabees 1:5; 5:20; 7:32–33; Philo, On the Life of Moses 2.166; Josephus, Antiquities 7.153. For further discussion of these texts, see Kim, “God Reconciled His Enemy to Himself,” 104–105.
10) For more on how justification frames distributive justice, or on how reconciliation structures justice–fairness, see George Hunsinger, “Justification and Justice: Toward an Evangelical Social Ethic,” in What Is Justification About? Reformed Contributions to an Ecumenical Theme (ed. by M. Weinwich and J.P. Burgess; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 207–30; and Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 193–231.
11) On the theology of the cross which drove the ethics of Martin Luther King Jr., see James McClendon, Biography as Theology (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1974; repr. 1990), 50–59.

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