The Righteousness of God by Charles Lee Irons (review)

Review by Matthew Monkemeier

Irons, Charles Lee. The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation. WUNT 2.386. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015.

Very few word-groups are as consequential for how we understand Paul as the “righteousness” (δικ-) word-group, and very few phrases are as consequential for how we understand Paul as the phrase “righteousness of God” (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ). Wildly-divergent interpretations of Paul turn on subtle differences in our understanding of that phrase. It is surprising, therefore, that until recently the latest book-length investigation of “righteousness” language in Paul was J. A. Ziesler’s 1972 monograph. There have been some significant developments in scholarship on Paul since then, some significant new questions about Paul’s world and his writings, and some significant new meanings attributed to the phrase “righteousness of God.” In light of this, there has for some time now been a need for a comprehensive survey of this language that would put some of these claims to the test.

Charles Lee Irons’s recently-published revision of his Fuller dissertation, The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation, more than fills that need. It is essentially a monograph-length word-study, albeit of a very important word. And its purpose is to subject the “Hebraic, relational” understanding of “righteousness,” which Irons traces back to Hermann Cremer’s 1899 German monograph and argues is one of the three “pillars” of the New Perspective, to critical lexical scrutiny.

In chapter 1, Irons traces the history of interpretation of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Paul, arguing that pre-modern interpreters both before and after the Reformation were in general agreement that the “righteousness of God” in Paul is the righteous status that comes from and counts before God. It was not until the nineteenth century that scholars such as Diestel and Ritschl, who sought to eliminate any notions of God’s punitive or judicial actions, suggested meanings such as God’s “gracious purpose toward his chosen people” for “righteousness of God.” But it was through the work of Cremer, who argued for such a meaning on the basis of the claim that “righteousness” was a Hebrew concept that was distinctly relational, that this view entered the mainstream of biblical scholarship. The remainder of the chapter traces Cremer’s influence through several streams of twentieth-century interpretation. This chapter alone is quite an achievement, and I found myself very grateful for this comprehensive and yet manageable summary of such a long and complex discussion.

In chapter 2, Irons sets out his methodological considerations. He first draws a distinction between a lexical concept (the sense that a word has apart from its use in context) and a discourse concept (the more specific referent of a word used in context), suggesting that to read discourse concepts back into lexical concepts is to commit James Barr’s “illegitimate totality transfer.” Next, he critiques the use of Hebrew parallelism as source of lexical study, drawing on recent work to suggest that words are rarely fully synonymous with their parallels: hyponyms (one word is an example or type of another word) are just as likely to be used in parallel as synonyms. He then engages recent discussion about the potential of the Septuagint to mediate the transfer senses of Hebrew words to Greek words that consistently translate those Hebrew words, suggesting that the test for such a transfer (a calque) is the use of a Greek word with such a “Hebrew” meaning in Jewish literature originally composed in Greek.

Chapters 3–5 are the core of the study, as Irons surveys “righteousness” language in extra-biblical Greek (chapter 3), in the Old Testament (chapter 4), and in Second-Temple Jewish literature (chapter 5). Chapter 3 is particularly helpful, as Irons finds many motifs commonly associated with Old Testament “righteousness” (righteousness as demonstrated through law-observance, as referring to judicial action, as given from the gods, as expressed in relationships, as expressed through fulfillment of contractual or covenantal obligations, etc.) in extra-biblical Greek texts. This decisively undermines any notion of a contrast between “Greek” and “Hebrew” thought; but it also provides warrant for understanding how “discourse concepts” expressed in the Hebrew text would remain comprehensible—and therefore expressible—in Greek. Chapter 4 is remarkable for its comprehensiveness: every use of “righteousness” is catalogued, and a representative sample are discussed. Irons argues that “righteousness of God” in the Old Testament is always God’s distributive justice (meaning his fairness in rewarding good and punishing evil), even in those instances where this “righteousness” results in salvation for God’s people: in those instances God is exercising his distributive justice against Israel’s oppressors or saving / justifying Israel in a “righteous” way by making atonement for sins. Chapter 5 then surveys “righteousness” language in post-biblical Jewish writings, whether written in Hebrew (the Dead Sea Scrolls and Apocrypha and OT Pseudepigrapha composed in Hebrew) or Greek (Apocrypha, OT Pseudepigrapha, and Other Hellenistic Jewish Writings, as well as the New Testament other than Paul). He finds that the Dead Sea Scrolls have the greatest degree of continuity with OT usage, but that most other Jewish writings use “righteousness” to mean ordinary ethical righteousness that counts before God. He does find limited use of “God’s righteousness” to refer to God’s saving justice, but he argues that here (as in the OT) it is nevertheless a subset of God’s distributive justice.

Chapter 6 turns to “righteousness” language in Paul. Irons first critiques the “covenant faithfulness” view and then the “saving activity or power” view before positively arguing that all occurrences of “righteousness of God” in Paul that do not refer to God’s distributive justice (Rom 3:5, 25, 26) refer to the gift of righteousness from God. He suggests that the lexeme δικαιοσύνη has the sense of “righteousness before God” on its own, and that the genitive θεοῦ therefore indicates the source of that righteousness. This means that the “righteousness from God” is also the “righteousness from faith,” as the consistent use of “faith” language indicates (Rom 1:17; 3:21, 22; 10:3–4; 2 Cor 5:21 [implied]; Phil 3:9—see p. 321). In other words, for Paul God’s own righteousness is always his justice that punishes sin and rewards righteousness. But he also freely gives the status of “righteous” to those who put their faith in Jesus (as he understands πίστις Χριστοῦ). Finally, the parallels between Phil 3:9 (where “righteousness” is clearly from God, ἐκ θεοῦ) and Rom 10:3 indicate that the same referent is in view, and therefore this is the referent for that language in Rom 3:21 and 1:17.

Chapter 7 summarizes the argument and its conclusions: Cremer is “decisively disproven” (339); the OT saving righteousness is “judicial activity with saving results” (340); Paul’s teaching on justification is therefore a polemic against “the nomistic theology of Judaism” (340); the relationship between God and humans is established by and therefore follows God’s judicial act of justification (341–42); and justification itself is how humans get “righteous before the divine tribunal” (342–43). Recent currents in Pauline studies are therefore misguided, and we may return to the traditional Protestant interpretation of Paul.

This is an essential study that all subsequent work on “righteousness” in Paul will have to take into account. At the very least, Irons takes to task many who have argued for an “Old Testament” or “Biblical” or “Jewish” meaning for “righteousness” without explaining how such a transfer of meaning could occur. Even more than that, he succeeds in adding considerable lexical support to the traditional Protestant interpretation of “righteousness” in Paul. This work is a strong challenge to those who continue to see “God’s righteousness” as God’s faithfulness or God’s salvation-creating power.

It is a challenge that could be answered, though, since I do not think that Irons disproves Cremer and those who followed in his wake as “decisively” as he claims.

First, I think Irons overstates the importance of the “lexical sense” of this word for understanding its use. It is true that many arguments for understanding Paul’s use of “righteousness” language in light of its use in the OT do not adequately distinguish between sense and referent, between lexical concepts and discourse concepts. But, if they had made this distinction, are we sure they would have argued for a modification of the lexical sense of the word? Is a calque the only way for OT “meaning” to transfer to NT usage? Is it possible for words to retain their lexical senses and yet refer to discourse concepts from other texts? This is especially the case once we talk about the righteousness of God, since this is not merely a lexeme with a particular sense but a phrase that refers to a particular attribute of a particular being. Put another way, if the OT seems to say something unique about God’s righteousness, is it altering the lexical sense of “righteousness” or saying something unique about Israel’s God? If the latter, why would later texts need words with altered lexical senses in order to refer to that unique attribute of God?

Second, Irons’s claim that all occurrences of “God’s righteousness” in the OT must refer to God’s distributive-judicial righteousness results in some implausible interpretations of key OT texts. For example, Irons claims that the revelation of God’s righteousness in Ps 98:2 must refer to the fact that “God will reveal his righteousness and his salvation by judging the Babylonians who took his people into exile” (187). But then it is odd that this aspect of God’s saving action is never elsewhere mentioned in Psalm 98: the psalm focuses exclusively on the salvation of Israel and does not mention Israel’s enemies at all. Moreover, insisting that these judgments that result in Israel’s salvation are a subset of God’s distributive justice suggests that Israel as a whole is somehow deserving of such a verdict. If that is the case, what do we do with appeals to God’s righteousness that explicitly deny such prior human righteousness? Irons sees the cry of Ps 143:1 that God would answer the psalmist “in your righteousness” even though “no one living is righteous before you” (v. 2) as a cry for God “to deliver him from his foes by a judicial act of righteousness, that is, by vindicating him against his enemies” (188, cf. 307). But what exactly is being vindicated? The psalmist’s own righteousness? He has just denied that he (or anyone) is righteous. Or is it his identity as God’s servant who trusts in the God who is committed to him? This is more likely (hence the appeal for God to act “on behalf of your name” in v. 11), but then we are deep into the “covenantal” territory that Irons insists is foreign to God’s righteousness. Ultimately, Irons succeeds in showing that many instances of “righteousness” language in the OT can be understood in a judicial or ethical sense without appealing to a “relational” or “covenantal” meaning (even many, such as Gen 38:26, that have often been cited as evidence to the contrary). But the handful of instances in which such an understanding of “God’s righteousness” results in a rather implausible interpretation of the text call into question the claim that “God’s righteousness” always refers to some aspect of God’s distributive justice.

Finally, we should point out that Irons’s methodology does not leave much room for the possibility of OT texts influencing the meaning of Paul’s writings. Reacting against a possible over-estimation of such influence among those (such as Hays and Wagner) who find OT allusions exerting strong hermeneutic pressure on Paul (301–306), Irons suggests rather that this influence goes the other way, that we should interpret “righteousness of God” in the OT in light of its usage in Paul (308). Paul must be interpreted independently, and only then can we move to the question of how this agrees with or does not agree with the OT (311). But, while we agree that Paul re-reads the OT in light of the Christ-event and therefore must be allowed his own hermeneutic creativity and originality, he nevertheless claims that the OT is where this same gospel is “promised beforehand” (1:2) and where the “righteousness of God” receives its witness (3:21). The OT is thus to some extent partially constitutive of the Christ-event, and therefore to some extent constitutive of Paul’s gospel. Does it determine the meaning of “righteousness of God” in Paul? Certainly not lexically, as many have seemingly claimed and as Irons has decisively disproven. But conceptually? That possibility should at least remain open.

Thanks to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review copy of this book.

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