Romans, the terminology, and the single word group of justificaiton and righteousness: A Journey Towards True Justice

Getting back into Romans with Michael Gorman in my endeavor to parse out what it means to seek a “just” world (excellent so far by the way) with conversation partners in Scott McKnights Reading Romans Backwards, the Voxology Podcast’s present series on imaging in Romans, Faith Improvised’s recent series on Romans, and Beverly Gaventa’s When in Romans among others.

I’m reminded of just how much is packed in to the opening 17 verses of Romans alone; including a reconstituting of the familiar structure of the ancient letter in order to establish it as a narrative. Here we find the establishing of a thesis (the Gospel of God concerning his Son), the inclusion of key terms that will carry through into the unpacking of this theme (obedience, righteousness, peace, justice or justification, faith, unity, belief, imaging, idolatry)

So what are the implications of this when it comes to our understanding of justice, which was seen as the foundation of virtues in Rome and fundamental to Pauls “Gospel” of Christ? First, if we see righteousness in tandem with its Greek word family then we can see the emphasis if these “words” placed on the notion of making what is wrong right rather than placing the emphasis on matters of moral “righteousness”, which is often what happens when the two words are separated in English. As in common in Reformed understandings of Romans, the Gospel is made out to be a matter of works-righteousness, meaning that it sees in the life of Israel a dependence on works as that which saves and sees in Christ a perfect moral righteousness that is given (imparted) to us through the cross as satisfying the necessary punishment for our moral failure. This is then married back into the word justify, or just/justification as the thing that is being made right by way of this necessary punishment that God endures on our behalf, meriting undeserved grace and freeing us from a law (works based righteousness) that we cannot keep satisfactorily.

And already, at the heart of the tendency towards division over how to best interpret these different terms stands the most contentious element of Paul’s letter, that of the ideas of righteousness and justification, two words that, as Gorman astutely draws out, share one word family in Greek but which have cometo get expressed in modern translation through two word families. This has led to the confusing of terms, or the disconnecting of related terms, over the years, including, problematic moves to seperate justification and sanctification as two seperate parts of the same coin. The problem is that the two words in English translation are forced to operate separately given the two word families, leading to theologies that use the word righteousness as on outcome of justification when the two words should be functioning together. What makes this equally difficult is that “just” has the ability to translate to just and justify and justification, whereas righteous cannot (righteousify or righteousification simply doesn’t work), so one is limited in its usage, the other is not, leading to very intentional renderings in later translations that try and make two different words with two different theological defintions fit together in a singular thought or theology.

What happens when we see the words justice and righteous together as part of the same family is that it then broadens the narrative and thus our perspective on the Gospel Paul is presenting, reframing our focus on what it is precisely that Paul sees the Gospel of God concerning His son to be all about. It allows us to contend for the very real realities apparent in Pauls letter(s) in ways that make more narrative sense (moral righteousness simply cannot translate across central themes; instead it makes itself the Gospel while rendering everything else as subtext). This includes, in the first 17 verses, a critique (or reform) of honor-shame systems, the intentional contrasting or the Gospels concern for peace with Rome’s equal concern for peace, and his concern for unity that comes through a unity of faith and obedience that open us up to notions of restoration and transformation as participatory realities.

One of the sad outcomes that I can note from an emphasis on moral righteousness is that it tends to prop up views or forms of justice that is forced to rest on God’s election of some at the exclusion of others. Further, it “justifies” views of justice that then see the Gospel all about this exclusive community being properly transformed through Christ’s propitiated gift of salvation, thus making it the duty of the chosen few to proclaim gods judgement of the world while laying claim to grace as the great gift of salvation. This is justified in a theological and a practical sense because gods choosing to salvation and to death is considered “just” by measure of God’s grace. This is how Gods grace is upheld as being something that is “freely given” and not in any way earned. Thus justice becomes and can only ever be about the necessary punishment that then frees some in God’s gracious move to pour out his wrath on His Son in our place to move towards full transformation of the spirit in moral terms while others are condemned (elected) to the death that our depravity deserves.

And yet, as this commentary uncovers and as I tend to believe, this way of thinking misses and miscontrues so much of the Gospel. Coming to see these two words in relationship as part of the same family can help move our readings of Romans, and thus our ideas of justice, towards a greater vision of the Gospels work and movement in the world Paul sees and describes. It can move us from ideas of moral righteousness, which has far more in common with Rome than Christ, to covenental nomism, where we see righteousness associated with God’s promise and faithfulness to the promise rather than Jesus’ moral perfection. And we can see justice then associated with peace rather than necessary punishment, a positive and forward movement towards making what is wrong in this world right. And we can make room for the world and also communal restoration rather than being forced to mine the Gospel through individual satisfaction and salvation, moving with the letter of Romans towards the clash of kingdoms that it ultimately imagines. It can see in the activity of God the function of who God is rather than the function of what God does. This gets us closer then to a better way of dialouguing about the kind of moral understanding that fits with a faith paired with obedience or allegiance, two ideas that speak to the Gospel’s interest in tansformation, which reflects much differently than the moral systems we see in the world that reflect a sin-guilt-punishment framework (such as the American justice system). That system leaves us enslaved to the very cycles God declares liberation from.

Some thoughts anyways

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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