Part I of this interview can be read here and part II here. Many thanks are in order to Lee for the privilege of this interview and for his contribution of The Righteousness of God, what I hope will be a game-changing book in the often hostile world of Pauline studies.
8. When you focus on δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Paul (pp. 272-336), you determine that in 7 out of 10 occurrences (Rom 1:17; 3:21-22; 10:3 [2x]; 2 Cor 5:21; and Phil 3:9) denote a righteousness received from God as a gift. The other 3 occurrences (Rom 3:5, 25-26) signify God’s distributive justice. Would you walk us through one example of each and how this overturns Cremer’s and the New Perspective’s insistence on the interpretation of “covenant faithfulness”?
Irons: One of the things that has caused some trouble for Pauline scholars is the assumption—mistaken, in my opinion—that “the righteousness of God” in Paul must have a uniform meaning that applies in each and every one of its occurrences in Paul’s epistles. This is to assume that the phrase is a terminus technicus (technical term) functioning as a cipher for a highly specific Pauline theological concept. But Paul’s use of theological vocabulary is not so rigid. He uses a variety of terms to express the same or similar concepts, and he sometimes uses the same term with a variety of meanings and applications. It is better, in my opinion, to take each instance of “the righteousness of God” on its own and see what he means by it. When you do that, I believe a good argument can be made for taking the phrase in two related but distinct ways: (1) the righteousness that comes to believers as a gift from God (7x), and (2) God’s own attribute of justice (3x). Now it may fairly be asked, “How do you know which is which?” I argue in my book that the key to sorting out the two usages is the presence or absence of the terminology of appropriating or receiving righteousness “by faith” or similar language. To provide a more rigorous basis for this procedure, I appeal to the linguistic concept referred to in German as Näherbestimmungen. (I got this from Ulrich Wilckens in his EKK commentary on Romans published in 1978.) It’s a compound word built out of the words näher (“near, nearby”) and Bestimmungen (“definers, delimiters,” from the verb bestimmen “to define, delimit”). So Näherbestimmungen could be translated literally as “nearby definers or delimiters,” but English-speaking linguists are probably more familiar with the term “syntagmatic constraints.” A key characteristic of Näherbestimmungen is that they disambiguate polysemous terms. The example I use in my book is the polysemous word “glasses.” Depending on the context, the term can refer to eyeglasses to correct vision or to drinking glasses. It is a polysemous term, a term with more than one meaning, although clearly both usages derive from the fact that eyeglasses and drinking glasses are made of the same material (“glass”). In any given case, how do we know which meaning is in view? We know it from the context, of course. But we can be more specific. It isn’t just that the general topic being discussed that brings clarity. There are specific verbal cues—Näherbestimmungen
Applying this to “the righteousness of God,” we can look for similar syntagmatic constraints to determine which meaning Paul has in mind in any given instance. I argue that the various terms Paul uses for appropriating or receiving righteousness (“by faith,” “through faith,” “to all who believe,” etc.) function as Näherbestimmungen that deactivate the potential meaning “God’s own attribute of justice” and activate the meaning “the gift of righteousness from God.”
You asked me to give an example of each. I’ll start out with the verses that everyone acknowledges are Paul’s thesis statement for his epistle, Romans 1:16-17:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘He who is righteous by faith shall live.’” (ESV modified)
Because of the appropriating Näherbestimmungen (“by faith, to faith,” “through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe”), we are pretty much forced to take “the righteousness of God” not as an attribute or activity of God but as the status of righteousness given to all who believe. It is hard to make sense of the notion that God’s covenant faithfulness is revealed “by/through faith” or “to faith.” But it is easy to see how it is that a righteousness that comes from God can be revealed “by/through faith.”
With regard to the other meaning, “God’s own justice,” I’ll simply point out that there are no appropriating Näherbestimmungen in these three instances (Rom 3:5, 25-26). For example, the two instances in Rom 3:25-26 are in nearly identical prepositional phrases, “for the demonstration of his justice.” In the context, Paul is saying that God set forth Christ as the propitiatory sacrifice after he had passed over the sins committed in the previous Mosaic era, “in order to demonstrate that he is just.” The sacrifice of Christ shows that, in forgiving the sins of believers, God is not violating his justice but is doing so in a way that is consistent with his justice. The syntagmatic constraints here (e.g., the phrase “for the demonstration of”) point in a different direction. There is no language of “the righteousness of God” being received or appropriated “by faith.”
I know you wanted me to pick only one example of each usage, but I can’t help but bring up another example of gift-of-God usage. I’m referring to Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:9. In context, he is explaining how he has set aside all of his fleshly privileges (Jewish heritage, circumcision, being a strict Pharisee, righteousness under the law) in view of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. He says he counts all those fleshly things as rubbish, so that he might gain Christ ...
“and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (ESV).
It is crucial to see how Paul explicitly contrasts the two kinds of righteousness: the righteousness “of my own, which comes from the law” versus the righteousness “which comes through faith in Christ” and which is “from God.” Paul makes the very same contrast in Romans 10:3-6. Naturally, then, we should assume that “the righteousness of God” has the same meaning in both passages.
N. T. Wright dismisses Phil 3:9 with a wave of the hand. He writes, “All too often scholars have referred to this passage as though it could be the yardstick for uses of dikaiosune theou; but this is impossible” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 104). He doesn’t say why it is impossible. But to my mind, Phil 3:9 is the clinching piece of evidence that for Paul “the righteousness of God” is a righteousness comes “from God.”
1 9. How is the famed Πίστις Χριστοῦ debate relevant to the one on δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ and what is your conclusion with regards to the former?
Irons: As is well-known, the phrase pistis Christou in Paul’s writings (e.g., Gal 2:16, 20; Rom 3:22; Phil 3:9) is grammatically ambiguous. The genitive Christou could be taken in an objective sense (“faith in Christ”) or a subjective sense (“Christ’s own faith”). Since the Greek word pistis can also mean “faithfulness,” most who hold to the subjective genitive interpretation render the phrase “the faithfulness of Christ.”
Traditionally, translators and commentators have seen the genitive as objective, have taken pistis to mean “faith” rather than “faithfulness,” and have regarded the implied subject as the believer. So, for example, Romans 3:21-22 would read: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (ESV). This has been the traditional interpretation as far back as Augustine and Chrysostom and was the assumed interpretation until fairly recently. Although there was a German scholar who advocated the subjective genitive as early as 1891 (Johannes Haußleiter), it wasn’t until 1981 that the issue became a lively debate among Pauline scholars, sparked by Richard B. Hays’s influential dissertation, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1–4:11.
Why did I address this topic in a book on the righteousness of God? The reason is because of the verses I just quoted—Rom 3:21-22. The pistis Christou phrase occurs in direct conjunction with “the righteousness of God.” One of my arguments for taking it as “the righteousness that comes from God as gift” is the fact that Paul repeatedly states that this righteousness is “by faith” (ek pisteōs) or “through faith” (dia pisteōs), implying that it is “received” by faith, or “comes” to those who have faith. But in Rom 3:22, this only works if the contentious phrase dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou is understood as our faith in Christ (the objective genitive interpretation). If, on the other hand, the phrase is interpreted as Christ’s own faithfulness (the subjective genitive interpretation), a crucial support for my interpretation of the righteousness of God in Rom 3:21-22 is removed. Conversely, some New Perspective scholars, notably N. T. Wright and Richard B. Hays, are attracted to the subjective genitive interpretation of pistis Christou because it comports with their reading of dikaiosynē theou as God’s covenant faithfulness. Romans 3:21-22 has special importance in their construction of Paul’s theology since they would interpret Paul as affirming that God’s faithfulness to his covenant is revealed in the faithful obedience of Christ.
So the two interpretive debates go hand in hand. How you read the one phrase will affect how you read the other. I should point out, however, that James D. G. Dunn is unique among New Perspective scholars since he advocates the “covenant faithfulness” interpretation of dikaiosynē theou, but defends the traditional objective genitive interpretation of pistis Christou.
In any event, in the book (pp. 329-34), I provide a number of arguments in support of the objective genitive interpretation, “faith in Christ,” relying heavily on the arguments of scholars who defend the traditional reading. I am convinced that the traditional reading, “faith in Christ,” is exegetically well grounded and that the arguments against it aren’t compelling.
10. What do you hope your study accomplishes and what kind of feedback have you received from the scholarly community thus far?
Irons: I have received some positive reviews from scholars coming from an “old perspective” interpretation similar to my own, e.g., Thomas Schreiner’s review on The Gospel Coalition websiteI have received some positive reviews from scholars coming from an “old perspective” interpretation similar to my own, e.g., Thomas Schreiner’s review on The Gospel Coalition website, and a few others. What remains to be seen is how those from the New Perspective side will react, particularly those who are committed to the popular view that dikaiosynē theou in Paul means “God’s covenant faithfulness.” On that front, I am excited to report that such a dialogue may occur in the near future. I was contacted by the editor of a new journal that will feature a discussion of my book in its inaugural issue. They are commissioning a piece by someone who is more favorable to the Reformation interpretation, and a piece by someone who studied under N. T. Wright and leans toward a New Perspective interpretation. I will be given a chance to write a response to both articles.
With regard to my aims, I hope the scholarly community will come around to seeing the fundamental weakness, even (dare I say) the error, of Cremer’s relational theory of righteousness and its exegetical offspring, the covenant-faithfulness interpretation of “the righteousness of God” in Paul. Trust me, I’m aware of how brash this must sound! I realize these are widely held views, and that I am going up against some of the titans of biblical scholarship in the 20th century. Almost all of the lexicons of biblical Hebrew and Greek and the major theological dictionaries assume and promote Cremer’s relational theory. It is a deeply entrenched position in both Old and New Testament scholarship. Such a monolithic view will not die out easily or quickly. But my hope is that I have at the very least planted some seeds of doubt.
Paul stated that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation because in it “the righteousness of God” is revealed by faith. For Paul, this teaching of righteousness by faith stands at the heart of the gospel. He believed and taught with all his energy that the only way sinners can have a status of righteousness before God is not by doing what the law requires, since no one does keep the law, but by grace through faith in Christ. Thanks be to God for “the free gift of righteousness” (Rom 5:17)!