God's justice

Monday, July 30, 2007

Last blog I talked about Romans 3 and the pivotal verse of Romans 3:25. This time I want to look at a key term that Paul uses in this passage: the Greek word δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosunē) which is translated as either "justice" or "righteousness".

Dikaiosunē is the same word the LXX uses to translate the Hebrew צדקה(t'sedeka) in the Old Testament which likewise can be translated either as righteousness or justice. Because the LXX was the official translation the New Testament authors used to quote from the Old Testament, it follows that Paul was thinking of t'sedeka justice in Romans when he used the word dikaiosunē . There are many words for justice in Hebrew, and among them t'sedeka justice refers specifically to setting things right. T'sedeka justice/righteousness is associated with acts of charity, and today Jewish charities are often named t'sedeka which has become synonemous with charity.

This understanding of restorative social justice was key to Martin Luther's breakthrough where he rediscovered the Gospel in Romans. Like everyone else he had been reading the Bible in Latin which for several hundred years had been the only translation available. The word for justice in Latin here is iustitio which is the word our own “justice” derives from. In Latin iustitio refers to a quid-pro-quo payback justice, so Luther (as many people today) had assumed that the passage in Romans 3 was about retributive justice. But in the original Greek, and especially considering Paul's own Jewish roots, this was not at all the sense of t'sedeka/dikaiosunē justice. Take a look at the passage, keeping in mind the meaning of dikaiosunē as restorative making-things-right justice.

"But now a dikaiosunē (loving restoration) from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify . This dikaiosunē (loving restoration) from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are dikaioō (set right) freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his dikaiosunē (loving restoration), because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his dikaiosunē (loving restoration) at the present time, so as to be dikaios(righteously loving) and the one who dikaioō (lovingly sets right) those who have faith in Jesus.

We can see that if the above is read (as it had been by Anselm and Aquinas and so many others in the latin church who did not have access to the original Greek) as iustitio retributive justice, that one can easily read into the above text the idea of penal substitution. Which is why Luther's discovery was so earth shaking. It completely revolutionized his understanding of what grace was about: t'sedeka/dikaiosunē justice.

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