Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Righteousness of God: An Interview with Lee Irons Part 1

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Lee Irons about his revised published dissertation, The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015). Irons challenges the relational view of righteousness first advanced by Hermann Cremer in 1899, which has had a profound influence on advocates of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). In my opinion, Irons has done a meticulous and thorough job of reexamining the use of righteousness language in the OT, Second Temple texts, etc., presenting the best defense of righteousness as a gift from God to date.

This interview will be divided up into two to three parts, due to the detailed interaction.

1. First, tell us a bit about your experience at Fuller Theological Seminary and your experience of being a supervisee of Donald Hagner.

Lee Irons
Irons: I did my Ph.D. in New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary under the supervision of Dr. Donald A. Hagner. My very first Ph.D. seminar at Fuller was with Dr. Hagner on “The History of New Testament Research.” That was a fantastic way of getting introduced to the field of New Testament studies. But it wasn’t purely historical, since Don also gave his students his own perspective on employing the historical-critical method from a posture of faith that recognizes the Scriptures as the word of God in the words of men. I also took a Ph.D. seminar with Dr. Seyoon Kim on “Jesus and Paul,” which was wonderful. Dr. Kim was also my secondary advisor. He was very helpful in guiding me during the writing of my dissertation when Dr. Hagner was transitioning into retirement. Both Don and Seyoon had F. F. Bruce as their Doktorvater, so I am blessed to call myself a second generation student of that great evangelical New Testament scholar. Dr. Marianne Meye Thompson’s Ph.D. seminar on “New Testament Research Methods” was also very useful. She taught me not to take secondary sources as gospel truth but to check the primary sources for myself. This is the mark of a good scholar. It is surprising how often the secondary sources (e.g., commentaries, lexicons, etc.) simply quote one another in a long chain of scholarly dependence that is often ultimately built on a shaky foundation. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the doctoral program at Fuller. It was a blessing to be able to study with New Testament scholars of the highest caliber within the context of an evangelical faith community. My mentors modeled for me how to do rigorous scholarship from the standpoint of Christian faith.

2. What were some of the influencing factors that led you to take on the topic of the “Righteousness of God”? 

Irons: I wanted to write a dissertation that would make a significant contribution to NT scholarship and also be relevant to the church. I didn’t want to write on an obscure, dry-as-dust topic that would be relevant only to a tiny group of specialists. That is why I chose to write on one facet of the debate over the New Perspective on Paul. In addition, I have two long-standing scholarly interests that I wanted to be able to incorporate: lexical semantics and Septuagint studies. The result was that I chose to write on “the righteousness of God” in Paul. I knew this was a huge topic of discussion in Pauline studies, and so I would not be at a loss for secondary literature to interact with. Yet I felt that it would be worthwhile to go back and do the lexical spadework of studying “righteousness” terminology in both the Old Testament (in Hebrew) and in the Greek Bible (LXX and NT).

3. Can you discuss the impact of the 19th-century German scholar, Hermann Cremer, and the influence he has had on the relational interpretation of the “Righteousness of God?” (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ)

Irons: Practically all of the lexicons and theological dictionaries published in the 20th century repeat the claim that “righteousness” in Hebrew thought is not a “norm concept” but a “relational concept.” This is one of those cases where the secondary literature needs to be assessed by going back ad fontes. The source of the “relational theory” is the 19th-century German theologian Hermann Cremer, who is probably more well-known for his Biblical-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, which was a precursor of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT). Cremer published a book in 1899 titled Die paulinische Rechtfertigsungslehre im Zusammenhange ihrer geschichtlichen Voraussetzungen (The Pauline Doctrine of Justification in the Context of its Historical Presuppositions). The book was reissued in a revised version in 1900. This book has exercised a profound influence on both Old Testament and New Testament scholarship. Cremer, who was both critical of and influenced by Albrecht Ritschl, argued that the term “righteousness” in the Hebrew Bible is always a positive concept having to do with salvation and never a punitive concept. I argue in my dissertation that this is not true, but he thought it was true and developed his relational theory in order to explain it. The relational theory is that there is no norm outside of the relationship defining what is right; rather, righteousness is faithfulness to the relationship itself. This is the basis for the claim of New Perspective scholars such as N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn that “the righteousness of God” means “God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel.” It is not an exaggeration to say that Cremer has exercised a dominant influence to the point that very few scholars can be found who question it. It is just accepted an assured result of critical scholarship. Yet hardly anyone has gone back to Cremer’s 1899 book to examine his arguments to see if they are valid. (It’s not easy for English-speaking scholars since the book has never been translated into English. Even if one does have the courage to try working one’s way through the original German, the book was printed in the old calligraphic style of German typeface called Fraktur. Incidentally, a PDF scan of the book can be downloaded for free from Google Books.)

4. In your chapter on method, you point to the difference between “lexical concepts” and “discourse concepts.” How does distinguishing these concepts give the interpreter clarity when investigating “Righteousness of God” terminology? 

Irons: The distinction between “lexical concepts” and “discourse concepts” is from Peter Cotterell and Max Turner in their excellent book Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation (IVP, 1989). Lexical concepts, to put it simply, are word meanings, that is, the sense or senses of a word, the mental concepts that a word evokes. Discourse concepts are additional concepts that may be associated with a particular word in the context of a particular discourse, but which are not necessarily part of the lexical concept or meaning of the word itself. Cotterell and Turner illustrate the distinction with the following example:

A speaker may keep referring to his Uncle’s bike, but (having formally introduced it earlier, as it were) now just speaks of it as ‘the bike’. Because the expression ‘the bike’ now still refers to Uncle George’s old red one, this is all included in the concept denoted by the expression ‘the bike’ in the speaker’s discourse, even though it is not properly part of the sense of the expression ‘the bike’ as such .... Oldness, redness, and to-Uncle-George-belongingness would not be part of the lexical concept “bike”, but would belong to the discourse concept “the bike” in this particular situation. (p. 152)

It would obviously be a lexical fallacy for a lexicographer (dictionary maker) to include these additional facts of being old, red, and belonging to Uncle George as part of the definition of the English word “bike.” These are incidental qualities of a particular bike in a particular discourse.

This fallacy is what James Barr famously called “illegitimate totality transfer.” In Chapter 8 of The Semantics of Biblical Language, Barr gave his famous critique of Kittel’s TDNT. His main concern there was with the way in which specific Greek words are used as symbols or placeholders for larger theological concepts. TDNT is organized like a dictionary but (Barr claims) is really a series of articles on various aspects of New Testament theology using the Greek words as the launching pad for each essay. (Personally, I think this is not entirely fair to TDNT, but Barr has a point to the extent that TDNT does not always keep clear when it is doing lexicography and when it is doing theology.)

The example Barr gives to illustrate “illegitimate totality transfer” is the Greek word κκλησία (p. 218). The Kittel approach would be to write a lengthy essay on the theological concept of the church in the New Testament, showing how the church is the first installment of the kingdom of God, the bride of Christ, and so on. The fallacy of “illegitimate totality transfer” happens when the exegete encounters the word κκλησία in a certain passage, say Matt 16:18 or Acts 7:38, and then reads into that one instance the “totality” of the theological concept of “the church” as expounded in TDNT.

In my dissertation, I argue that this happens when scholars such as Ernst Käsemann, Peter Stuhlmacher, and N. T. Wright define “the righteousness of God” in such broad theological terms that the discourse concepts bleed into and greatly enlarge the lexical concept until it has ballooned out of proportion. For example, Stuhlmacher, in his famous dissertation, Gerechtigkeit Gottes bei Paulus (1966), defines “the righteousness of God” as “the age-spanning, creational, in-the-beginning existing, now-as-Word-existing and in-Christ-personified liberating right of the Creator to and over his Creation.” If there was ever a case of totality transfer, this would be it! Even if we grant that all of these grand theological concepts are present in the broader discourse of Paul’s “righteousness of God” language (which I doubt), we shouldn’t import all of that rich theology into the meaning of the word “righteousness.”

(End of Part I)

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