dikaiosynē theou has been a contested phrase,1 and the word dikaiosynē has multiple resonances of meaning. The commentary focuses on two meanings in particular, “God’s own ‘righteousness’” and “Covenant membership: the particular person and his people.”
God’s own ‘righteousness’
Within the context Paul and the Faithfulness of God, NTW provides a summary statement of the meaning of dikaiosynē theou, often translated ‘the righteousness of God’ (Wright, 2013, p. 841). See the Appendix, NTW’s definition of dikaiosynē theou.
NTW emphasizes God’s own ‘righteousness’, God’s own covenant faithfulness, God’s faithfulness to the covenant promise to bless the nations through Israel, and God’s faithfulness to creation.
I consider NTW’s definition to be critical for understanding what it means to say that Jesus is the embodiment of dikaiosynē theou.
Covenant membership: the particular person and his people
dikaiosynē also means ‘covenant membership.’ In his New Dictionary of Theology entry on “Righteousness”, NTW discusses dikaiosynē (but not dikaiosynē theou in particular): “According to the NT, the people of God do indeed have ‘righteousness’. This is not, strictly speaking, God’s own righteousness (though cf. 2 Cor. 5:21), but that which is proper to the person in whose favour the court has found; within the covenant context, it is the right standing of a member of the people of God. ‘Righteousness’ thus comes to mean, more or less, ‘covenant membership’, with all the overtones of appropriate behaviour (e.g. Phil. 1:11).” (Wright, 1988).
I think Paul’s use of dikaiosynē theou – of God – emphasizes the particular person and his people, of Jesus and the church (comprising believing Jews and Greeks…) as dikaiosynē – as covenant members, and thus the people of God. And, post Jesus’ cross and resurrection, the Jewish people apart from Christ are not dikaiosynē. So, “of God,” has the effect of designation of one group of people and not the other.
Within the wider context of his tome Paul and the Faithfulness of God, theologian N.T. Wright provides a summary statement of the meaning of dikaiosynē theou, often translated ‘the righteousness of God’:
“I suggest that we are bound, in the light of all that has gone before, in the light of all the biblical texts which Paul is implicitly evoking (which I explored in chapter 2 above), and in the light of the climax and conclusion of Paul’s present argument (4.1-25), to understand dikaiosynē theou:
- as God’s own ‘righteousness’ (rather than a status of ‘righteousness’ granted, imputed or otherwise given to humans);
- as God’s own ‘righteousness’ with the focus, very specifically, on his covenant faithfulness in the sense of ‘doing what he promised to Abraham, in Deuteronomy, in the Psalms, and through Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel’;
- as God’s own ‘righteousness’ in the sense of his faithfulness to the covenant promise to bless the nations through Israel. Out beyond this again – though without skipping stages, still less cancelling them out! – there is the sense
- that the divine faithfulness to the covenant is the appointed means of the divine faithfulness to the creation.”
(Wright, N.T., 2013, p. 841)
- See for example, the introduction to James Hardy Ropes 1903 article, “Righteousness” and “The Righteousness of God” in the Old Testament and in St. Paul: “Of all the chief theological terms used by the Apostle Paul the one in regard to the meaning of which there is least agreement among competent scholars is perhaps ‘the righteousness of God.’” (Ropes, J., 1903).
Wright, N. T. (Nicholas Thomas) (2013). Paul and the faithfulness of God. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London