(צְדָקָה / δικαιοσύνη)

James D.G. Dunn on “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17

Excerpt from James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), pp. 40-42.

17 δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ, “for the righteousness of God.” δικαιοσύνη is a good example of the need to penetrate through Paul’s Greek language in order to understand it in the light of his Jewish background and training. The concept which emerged from the Greco-Roman tradition to dominate Western thought was of righteousness/justice as an ideal or absolute ethical norm against which particular claims and duties could be measured (cf. von Rad, 370-71; Stuhlmacher, Gerechtigkeit, 103). But since the fundamental study of H. Cremer * it has been recognized that in Hebrew thought צְדָקָה // צֶדֶק is essentially a concept of relation. Righteousness is not something which an individual has on his own, independently of anyone else; it is something which one has precisely in one’s relationships as a social being. People are righteous when they meet the claims which others have on them by virtue of their relationship (see particularly Cremer, 34-38; hence the possibility of using δικαιοσύνη to translate חֶסֶד “loving-kindness,” in Gen. 19:19; 20:13; 21:23; 24:27; 32:10 [LXX 11]; etc.; see further Hill, Greek Words, 106; Ziesler, 60-61). So too when it is predicated of God—in this case the relationship being the covenant which God entered into with his people (discussion of the background should not be confined to occurrences of the actual phrase δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ—cf. Hultgren, Gospel, 18-21). God is “righteous” when he fulfills the obligations he took upon himself to be Israel’s God, that is, to rescue Israel and punish Israel’s enemies (e.g. Exod 9:27; 1 Sam 12:7; Dan 9:16; Mic 6:5)—“righteousness” as “covenant faithfulness” (3:3-5, 25; 10:3; also 9:6 and 15:8). Particularly in the Psalms and Second Isaiah the logic of covenant grace is followed through with the result that righteousness and salvation become virtually synonymous: the righteousness of God as God’s act to restore his own and to sustain them within the covenant (Ps 31:1; 35:24; 51:14; 65:5; 71:2, 15; 98:2; 143:11; Isa 45:8, 21; 46:13; 51:5, 6, 8; 62:1-2; 63:1, 7; in the DSS see particularly 1QS 11.2-5, 12-15; 1QH 4.37; 11.17-18, 30-31; elsewhere see, e.g., Bar 5:2, 4, 9; 1 Enoch 71:14; Apoc. Mos. 20.1; 4 Ezra 8.36; see further, e.g., Cremer, 11-17; Eichrodt; von Rad; Achtemeier; Stuhlmacher, Gerechtigkeit, 115, 141, 166, 175; Kertelge, Rechtfertigung, 15-24; Ziesler, 38-43, 82, 93-94, 186; on the Qumran texts see particularly Kertelge, 28-33, and Sanders, Paul, 305-310). It is clearly this concept of God’s righteousness which Paul takes over here; the “righteousness of God” being his way of explicating “the power of God for salvation” (v. 16; cf. Gyllenberg, 41; Hill, 156; NEB catches only one side of it with the translation “God’s way of righting wrong”). It is with this sense that the phrase provides a key to his exposition in Romans (3:5, 21-22, 25-26; 10:3), as elsewhere in his theology (2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9). See further on 5:21 and 6:13.

This understanding of Paul’s language largely removes two issues which have troubled Christian theology for centuries. (1) is “the righteousness of God” subjective genitive or objective genitive; is it an attitude of God or something he does? Seen as God’s meeting of the claims of his covenant relationship, the answer is not a strict either-or, but both-and, with the emphasis on the latter. Williams’s attempt to argue that “God’s righteousness” denotes an aspect of the divine nature (261-62) strains against the clear thrust of the evidence. So too Cranfield’s insistence on the either-or of “a gift bestowed by God” (objective genitive), as against “an activity of God” (subjective genitive) (so also Bultmann and Ridderbos, Paul, 163), allows nothing for the dynamism of relationship which can embrace both senses—God’s activity in drawing into and sustaining within covenant relationship (cf., e.g., Apoc. Mos. 20.1, where loss of righteousness = estrangement from the glory of God). See further on 5:17, 6:16, 6:18, and 6:22. (2) δικαιοῦν, “to justify”: does it mean “to make righteous” or “to count righteous?” This is the classic dispute between Catholic and Protestant exegesis (see particularly Ziesler whose whole analysis revolves round this question; and the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue in Reumann). Since the basic idea is of a relationship in which God acts even for the defective partner, an action whereby God sustains the weaker partner of his covenant relationship within the relationship, the answer again is really both (cf. Barrett, 75-76). This is the basis of Käsemann’s quite proper and influential understanding of divine righteousness as a gift which has the character of power, because God is savingly active in it. Note the close parallelism here, “power of God” // “righteousness of God” (“Righteousness,” esp. 170, 172-76; cf., e.g., Althaus; Murray; Bornkamm, Paul, 147; Ziesler, 186-89; Kümmel, Theology, 197-98; Strecker, “Rechtfertigung,” esp. 508; Hübner, Law, 130; Reumann—“righteousness/justice/justification terminology in the Hebrew scriptures is ‘action oriented,’ not just ‘status’ or ‘being’ language” [15-16]; despite Bultmann, “δικαιοσυνη,” and Klein, “Gerechtigkeit”). It is God’s righteousness which enables and in fact achieves man’s righteousness. See also Robinson, Wrestling, 38-44.


*Die paulinische Rechtfertigungslehre im Zusammenhange ihrer geschichtlichen Voraussetzungen, von Hermann Cremer (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1899).