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The “Righteousness” of Romans and Galatians, and the Gospel of Christ

romans and galatians

This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright. Written by Edward L. Hamilton.

When comparing the message of Jesus in the gospels with that of Paul in Romans or Galatians, one (sooner or later) cannot help but be struck by the apparent disparity in attention given to the subjects of “righteousness” (dikaiosune) and “justification” (dikaiosis). In Romans, these words recur repeatedly, as centerpieces for an elaborate theological project developed over the entire course of that particular epistle. To Paul, the theoretical question of how one acquires dikaiosunefor oneself (and recognizes it in others) is an all-consuming priority, a point to which he returns again and again.

For Jesus, by contrast, the nature of righteousness is tacitly assumed to be a point of general consensus, a premise raised only occasionally as a prerequisite for other questions. Jesus never shows any interest in challenging someone’s interpretation of “where righteousness comes from,” defining different types of righteousness, or connecting it explicitly with his (quite common) references to the role of faith in healing and salvation. In fact, aside from a bit of foreshadowing about the role of the Spirit in John, Jesus never mentions righteousness outside of the gospel of Matthew, and even there he never uses it in the precise technical sense beloved by Paul.

To most orthodox Christians, who would demand that Paul be found a faithful steward of Christ’s teaching, this presents a challenge. Paul cannot be inventing a “new gospel” — the Lord forbid that he should fall under his own curse! (Gal 1:6-8) — so one of two possibilities must be true. Either the difference is purely a matter of vocabulary, and Paul is repackaging the teachings of Christ into new language, or the difference reflects Paul’s need to address some novel problem that has arisen since the resurrection. In the evangelical tradition, it has been most common to suggest the first option, and declare that the detailed theological constructs of Romans and Galatians are themselves “the gospel” of Christ — often with the implication that they are a substantially less opaque and more kerymatically pure presentation of “the gospel” than Jesus managed to provide himself! Martin Luther’s attitude, if perhaps extreme, is a usefully exaggerated example of the sort of gentle (?) deuterocanonization of the Synoptics that can result:

Now John writes very little about the works of Christ, but very much about His preaching. But the other Evangelists write much of His works and little of His preaching. Therefore John’s Gospel is the one, tender, true chief Gospel, far, far to be preferred to the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke. In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and good for you to know, even though you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. (Preface to the New Testament)

The more regular, and more sophisticated, synthesis follows this line: Jesus, at least in the Synoptics, is mostly interested in challenging the Pharisees, since they thought that they could follow a Pelagian “works-gospel” that would allow them to be viewed by God as good enough to be worthy of entry into heaven. Jesus, who for much of his ministry was primarily interested in defeating their system of distorted Judaism, taught a gospel that amounted to a deliberate reductio ad absurdum of this system, presenting God as an infinitely demanding judge whose perfectionism could never possibly be satisfied by any human being.

The primary function of the “New Law” section of the Sermon of the Mount, for example, was to set the bar so high that even the Pharisees couldn’t clear it: “Be as holy as God is.” He didn’t honestly expect for any of his listeners to be able to satisfy the high standards he was setting, he just wanted them to sink into a state of total hopelessness concerning their own ethical capabilities, as an inspired act of “creative destruction.” Once everyone was uniformly leveled to a state of mutual despair, he could sacrifice himself to accomplish the real solution, and leave behind his disciples to explain what it all meant! Thus, both Jesus’ (superficially) positive moral teaching and his aggressive anti-Pharisee polemics are to be identified with the “negative” half of Paul’s gospel, clever indictments against the same false theory of righteousness that Paul is purportedly trying to refute.

There is a certain element of truth to some aspects of this picture. The gospel was, indeed, understood in part as a “mystery” before the resurrection. And it is impossible to escape the Synoptics without a deep impression that there was something catastrophically wrong about how the Pharisees were functioning as spiritual custodians of the Torah. But there are too many problems with this theory to allow it to be accepted uncritically in all its particulars. The suggestion that Jesus was deliberately insincere about aspects of his instruction, in even the most limited respect, is almost entirely unevidenced by any apostolic teaching in Acts or the Epistles. Too many elements of those extended teachings fall alarmingly close to exactly the sort of Pelagianism that Paul is supposedly critiquing. The alms-prayer-fasting praxis triad of Matthew 6, for example, doesn’t seem to attack the idea of “practicing righteousness to gain reward” so much as it emphasizes doing this discretely, to ensure that the reward comes from God and not men. The “cup of cold water” exhortation in Matthew 10 (and Mark 9) again straightforwardly makes this connection between doing good deeds and gaining eternal reward, with no reason to suspect any implicit irony. This point is driven home even more forcefully in contexts like Matthew 7:21-23 and the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25.

Now, none of this is to suggest that Jesus really means to preach a “works-gospel” himself! The heavy focus on forgiveness, constantly reinforced in Jesus’ encounters with various ostracized and marginalized “sinners,” makes it quite clear that apart from God’s mercy the human condition will remain deeply flawed. We cannot avoid noting, however, that every time Jesus does venture to discuss concepts like “works,” “reward,” and “salvation,” he seems unconcerned about affirming their interconnectedness, without ever qualifying his remarks: “Now don’t go taking these ideas too far like the Pharisees, or you won’t be emphasizing faith heavily enough.” The Pharisees are never criticized for teaching others to follow the Law — in fact, they are obliquely commended as authorities in Matthew 23:2 — but only for failing to follow it adequately themselves.

The problem with the Pharisees was not fundamentally that they were seeking to establish themselves as righteous according to their own works; they would surely have defended themselves by noting that the Torah was itself a gift from God. Rather, they were being condemned for overly scrupulous adherence to some portions of the Law to the neglect of others that were more important, and for doing this with the intent of earning the praise of men rather than God. This is certainly one way that one might choose to define “legalism,” but if so, it is not precisely the same as what we usually mean by “works-righteousness,” at least not since letting that category fall under the defining influence of Pelagius and Augustine.

Again, at the risk of redundancy, I must repeat that none of this means that Pelagius was right. What it really means is that Jesus and Paul, and the Pharisees, and whomever Paul was criticizing in Galatians, all would probably have agreed that Pelagius was dead wrong: We have no power to do good apart from God, period, and when we (inevitably) fail, we have no recourse but to supplicate God for unmerited forgiveness. But if “works-righteousness” is not really the locus of Jesus’ clash with the Jewish teachers of the Law, then we need to find a new approach to reconciling the apparent discontinuity of interest level in righteousness/justification between the gospels and the Pauline epistles.

The Alternative of the New Perspective

The so-called “new perspective on Paul” offers at least one possible alternative. Contra the traditional approach, commentators from the new perspective prefer to read the Pauline epistles as addressing more particular questions, uniquely relevant to circumstances in those ecclesial communities to which they were written. Specifically, the letters to Galatia and Rome were written to address questions of “community boundary” and “covenantal membership.” The “novel problem” that Paul needed to address was the sudden influx of non-proselyte Gentile converts that began during Paul’s first missionary journey (starting from the end of Acts 13). How were these Christians to be received? The consensus view of the Jerusalem council was that they be received as Gentiles, without embracing the purity code, and without circumcision. This decision, as presented by the brief synopsis of Luke, seems to have been embraced as a leap of faith by the apostolic community. The Spirit, so far as anyone could tell, was indwelling Gentiles in the same way as Jews, and since the Spirit was sent to lead the Church into “all truth,” there was little point in arguing. It’s not even entirely clear that the elders of Jerusalem realized, at the time, the extent to which this necessitated a radical restructuring of communal identity for “the people of God,” but eventually the ecclesiological implications needed to be hashed out in detail, and that task quite naturally fell to the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul.

The epistle to the Galatians represents a fairly practical response to the external symptoms of Judaizing tendencies, in this case, a sundered fellowship between those who demanded circumcision (along with Sabbath-keeping and some other non-ethical componenents of the Torah) and those who did not. Paul’s answer is vigorous and forceful, and relies more heavily on his own apostolic authority as an inspired minister of the gospel than on any detailed argument. The Law, while formerly useful for the purpose for which it was intended, must yield to the transformed reality of the resurrected Christ. Everything about the new “way” of Jesus, the conversions, the miracles, the ekklesia, the Spirit, and the promise of righteousness, all of that came as a result of “hearing with faith,” quite apart from any invocation of the Law. Paul seems almost stunned that his new church, after hearing the gospel, could return to behaving as though this was just the latest retooling of proselyte Judaism.

In this short correspondence, Paul isn’t trying to carefully elucidate a robust ecclesiology for the ages, he just wants to keep his new church from collapsing within a few months of underwriting its charter. That doesn’t make his dialectic any less brilliant and energetic, but it does suggest a certain degree of caution should be taken before universalizing his fleshy prose to function as prooftexts for other controversies — whether for the relationship between Jews and Christians (as per Nicene patristic thought, which discovered a more sweeping polemic against Judaism as a whole), or for foundational questions of soteriology (as per Luther, who discovered a supernaturally prescient critique of the Catholicism of his era). Paul just doesn’t have questions nearly that broad in his viewscope, and reading him as if he does may come at our peril.

Before turning to Romans, as Paul’s mature tour de force evaluation of the difficulties that first arose in Galatia, it would be prudent to review the elements of the new perspective most germane to this study. The new perspective, to begin with, insists that “righteousness” for Paul and his Jewish contemporaries never means an abstract moral state or disposition, but is intimately connected with the outcome of the eschatological project of Israel’s God. The coming of the Messiah, as commonly affirmed by every sect of Second Temple Judaism, was expected to concretely vindicate the faithfulness of Israel in the presence of all other nations. Being “found righteous” meant that one would be included in that group of devout Jews who had avoided falling into apostasy and departed from the proper worship of the true God.

The Law, among other functions, provided a sort of spiritual barometer for how well that fidelity was being maintained. If sacrifices continued to be offered, if unclean meats and abhorrent sexual immoralities were eschewed, if the feasts and Sabbaths were steadfastly observed, then Israel’s people could take comfort that they were “ready” for final judgment and subsequent redemption, the Messianic age promised by the prophets, to arrive as the culmination of history. If these elements were being neglected, it was a sign that Israel was being lax and careless about the maintenance of its covenants, and that the God who had vowed to eternally abide by them might ignore Israel, or even permit another extended period of persecution and geographical exile.

Righteousness, thus, could only be understood within the context of that series of distinctive convenants that had been established between God and Israel’s patriarchs, priests, and kings.Israel’s “righteousness” was guaranteed by fidelity to those covenantal obligations, and God similarly demonstrated His “righteousness” by serving as their guarantor in perpetuity. In order to properly appreciate the complexity of the problem addressed by Romans, we need to recognize that Christianity was being attacked as deficient on both sides of that relation. Paul refers frequently to not only our righteousness, but also “the righteousness of God.” The traditional Reformed reading takes these two phrases to define the opposite ends of a common axis. We either have a “righteousness centered on (or originating from) ourselves,” or its antithesis, a “righteousness centered on (or originating from) God.” Obviously, the former is designated as the object of criticism, and the latter commended as what we should seek instead.

But Romans is not simply about our righteousness, and where it comes from, and thus this conclusion begins from a false premise. It is also providing a theodicy. Paul is genuinely concerned that Christianity is vulnerable to the charge that it literally describes a God who is “unrighteous” by Jewish standards. He takes this charge quite seriously, for its own sake. Of course, in order to have a proper understanding as to why God has in fact remained righteous, all appearances to the contrary, we also need a proper perspective on how human righteousness is to be recognized. The questions are intricately linked and cannot be disentangled, so Paul needs to constantly refer back and forth between them in a way that can easily blur them together unless we pay careful attention to the flow of thought. But God’s righteousness will, at the end of the day, still be God’s righteousness, and human righteousness will, at the end of the day, still be human righteousness — because we are different parties operating under a common covenantal framework with different responsibilities.

Why was the Christian God potentially open to an accusation of unrighteousness? For two reasons. First, Paul’s position on the function of the Law (as first presented in Galatians and reiterated in Romans 2 and 8) is that it brings only condemnation, in fact, exactly the same condemnation that would occur apart from the Law. The Law is useful, but only as a sort of communication from God concerning our fallen state that forces us to face hard facts. (Ironically, this is exactly the interpretation of Jesus’ “New Law” that the evangelical Protestant tradition provides!)

But surely some of the Jews, the ones commended for their righteousness in the Hebrew Scriptures, were genuinely righteous, were they not? Does Paul’s revisionism amount to a retroactive claim that no one in Israel was ever truly righteous? Any God who would authorize changing the rules halfway through the game is guilty of appalling trickery, especially if the rules are changed in a such a way that those who thought they might have a chance at “winning” are really losing just as badly as everyone else. Paul’s formidable challenge is to demonstrate that the rules really haven’t changed. Those who were found righteous before Christ, and those who are found righteous after Christ, must be “found righteous” (i.e., identified as members of the community that will be eschatologically vindicated) for identical reasons.

Second, over the first few decades of Church expansion, the geographical center of the Christian movement had swung inexorably away from Palestine and Jerusalem, and the ethnic core of converts was increasingly non-Jewish. As far as virtually all evidence in the prophets was concerned, this was exactly the opposite of what any good Jew would have anticipated. If the Messianic age was really at hand, the wealth of the Gentile nations should have been flowing intoIsrael (Isa 45:14; 60:5-16; Micah 4:13; Zeph 2:9). The kings of the Gentiles should recognize Israel’s sovereignty, and their defiant peoples reduced to servitors (Isa 49:23; 45:14,23; Micah 7:17). The Gentiles should have been facing destruction at the hand of Israel and Israel’s God (Isa 54:3; Micah 5:10-15; Zeph 2:11). The only option for salvation of the Gentiles would be to gather them together with the remnant of Israel, the exclusive vessel of redemption (Isa 56:6-8, cf. the “diaspora witness” passage in Isa 66:18-24). Contrary to all of this prophetic witness, it was increasingly obvious that the epicenters of Christian expansion, the bases for future missionary activity, would be Gentile cities like Syrian Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome.

The last of these was particularly scandalous from a Jewish perspective. Rome was the mystical continuation of Nineveh and Babylon, and its deified Caesar was heir to the impiety of Antiochus Epiphanes. For God to reject the cities of Israel (“Woe to you Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum”) and relocate His base of redemptive operation to somewhere like Rome was an act of pure treachery. Paul’s job here is, if anything, even harder. He needs to explain why a body of recent converts who bear no outward resemblence to Jews are nonetheless the true heirs to the promises made to Israel, and why this cannot simply be fairly caricatured as “God just got sick of His old chosen people and had them replaced by a new batch.” (Initially, of course, this accusation would be expected from the Jews, but as we have seen historically, it has been all the more problematic a form of reductionism in the hands of Christians….)

Resolving the Tensions

A wonderful feature of the new perspective is that, despite radically redefining the questions involved, the answer is pretty much the same one we’ve been using all along: “The just shall live by faith.” Faith, then, is the distinguishing feature of those who will be ultimately vindicated by the work of God that unfolds throughout history and is consummated in the eschaton. This resolves (though far from trivially, and with much necessary intermediate exposition) the threat on both fronts. The righteous have always been justified by faith all along, and to the extent that they have been under the Law, the Law has functioned quite properly to point them towards the need for that faith.

Similarly, “faith” as a common feature to the righteous allows for a redefinition of Israel in response to the proclamation of Christ’s gospel. Abraham is truly “the father of us all,” that is, all those who are found to live by faith, and the new ekklesia is grafted smoothly onto the old Israel, pruned of dead branches but still rooted in the same fertile soil (and, Paul broadly hints, this is exactly the surgical operation that needs to be performed to ensure a return to full health at some distant point in the future, after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”). Even more impressively, we find in Romans 6 that our own “righteousness by faith” exists in elegant symmetry to God’s “righteousness revealed through faithfulness,” in particular, God’s faithfulness in providing a Savior who could satisfy the debt of the Law, conquer death and end the reign of sin. Freed from sin, we have the opportunity to pursue sanctification by submitting our lives to the model of Christ’s perfect obedience, even the demanding program of sanctification prescribed by Christ, and thereby obtain eternal life.

On one “axis” of controversy, we find that the just are to be identified as righteous on account of their faith in Christ, not on the basis of works of the Law. This means that Gentiles can be invited into the ekklesia as Gentiles, and Jews as Jews, without any need to transform one into the other. On the other axis, we discover that this resolves the ostensible threats that were causing God to appear “unrighteous” rather than “righteous,” and thus the righteousness of God is consistently demonstrated before, during, and after the advent of Christ’s gospel.

The debate was never really a matter of whether our righteousness came “from ourselves” or “from God.” I suspect that if you asked Paul, he would heartily endorse the latter, but that simply isn’t what he’s devoting a lengthy and complex letter to establishing. The debate was over on what basis our righteousness (status as members of the true people of God) comes — “faith,” versus “the Law” — and whether or not the answer to this question is consonant with God’s (covenantal) faithfulness, and we should read and apply it with this in mind.

As an application of this interpretation to a specific test case, let’s look at the beginning of Romans 10. Paul is criticizing his fellow Jews; “they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.” The next line reads, “For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own righteousness, did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.”

How do we read the contrast between “God’s righteousness” and “their own righteousness”? In the traditional model, this is a question of origin: Paul wants us to quit trying to find a righteousness from “within ourselves,” and start looking to God. But that really wasn’t a fault that could be fairly ascribed to the Jews, who were under no illusion about Who was ultimately responsible for providing Torah to them. From the new perspective, we instead view the distinction between “God’s righteousness” and “our righteousness” as formally benign. God should have a righteousness proper to Himself, and we are wise to seek to establish a righteousness proper to ourselves (though, to be sure, derived ultimately from God).

The problem, then, is not with the Jews trying to establish “their own righteousness.” The problem is that this must be done in a way that respects the pattern laid down by God’s righteousness, as per Christ’s great act of obedience in Romans 5. (The is the “knowledge” with which the commendable Jewish “zeal” to pursue righteousness fails to be in accordance.) The right approach to establishing one’s righteousness is thus, as we all know, based on faith rather than based on the Law — but we should resist exactly equating “based on faith” with “God’s righteousness,” and “based on Law” with “our own righteousness.” It’s not that we actually receive God’s righteousness as a sort of transferred commodity; it’s that we look upon it, climatically manifested in Christ’s obedience to the point of death, as the prototypical example of how we ought to go about acquiring and preserving our own righteousness.

This is a subtle point, but it is absolutely essential to prevent the collapse of divine and human righteousness, two entirely separate entities, into a single amorphous “pot” of righteousness that God is pooling with us. That loss of distinction muddles the true, more delicate interdependence of the two controversies, and creates all manner of unnecessary anxiety about whether or not baptism, or faith, or repentance, or anything else, might originate partly from within us and thus fail to truly be “righteousness of (i.e., from) God.”

Paul, I’m sure, would quite enthusiastically endorse the sort of language that makes all of these things a manifestation of the Spirit working within us (rather than our own labor), and would also warn just as strongly against boasting on the basis of personal faith just as he does against boasting on the basis of Law. But the hyper-Calvinist paranoia that we might accidentally believe the gospel “in the wrong sort of way,” and fatally taint the ordo salutis with unconscious semi-Pelagianism, is simply an unfortunate side effect of a botched misreading of Romans.

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