God’s Righteousness As God’s Fairness In Romans 1:17: An Ancient Perspective On A Significant Phrase -- By: Frank Thielman
Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 54:1 (Mar 2011)
Article: God’s Righteousness As God’s Fairness In Romans 1:17: An Ancient Perspective On A Significant Phrase
Author: Frank Thielman
JETS 54:1 (March 2011) p. 35
God’s Righteousness As God’s Fairness In Romans 1:17: An Ancient Perspective On A Significant Phrase1
* Frank Thielman is Presbyterian professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, 800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, AL 35229. He originally delivered this paper at the annual meeting of the ETS in Atlanta, GA, on November 18, 2010.
It would be hard to think of a text more important for understanding Paul’s concept of justification than the sentence that makes up Rom 1:17. It is part of the pithy, programmatic two-sentence statement of the letter’s theme and contains the letter’s first use of righteousness language. Moreover, it connects this language with the gospel, salvation, faith, and life, all terms of critical importance as the argument of the letter unfolds. If we are to understand how justification functions within Paul’s gospel, we need to understand how righteousness language functions in this verse.
The interpretation of this language in the critical phrase “the righteousness of God,” however, is hotly contested, and a variety of explanations for it have been advanced over the nearly eighteen centuries of extant commentary on Romans.2 In what follows, I would like to argue that part of the reason for this volatile interpretive history is that the phrase is polyvalent. Paul intended its meaning to be dense, and probably did not think it would be fully understood on a first hearing. I would like to argue further that the most obvious meaning of the phrase to its first hearers, a meaning that Paul probably knew it would have to them and therefore intended, is a meaning that has often been dismissed in recent interpretive disputes as surely incorrect. To put my thesis in a nutshell, “the righteousness of God” has three meanings in Rom 1:17. It not only refers to God’s saving activity and to the gift of acquittal from sin before God on the basis of faith, but, from the perspective of its first readers and hearers in Rome, δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ would have referred most obviously to a property of God’s character, that he is fair, even-handed, and equitable in the way he distributes salvation.
The idea that “the righteousness of God” in Rom 1:17 referred to an aspect of God’s character was common in the Middle Ages, particularly the view that it referred to God’s strict justice in punishing The guilty and rewarding
JETS 54:1 (March 2011) p. 36
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