God's Alien Justice (redux)

Friday, December 25, 2009

This is a redux of an earlier post. I added a lot more detail, and refined some of the arguments. So I thought I would re-post this rather than just editing the old one.

Romans 3:21-26 is a key text for proponents of penal substitution. I want to look here at a key term that Paul uses in this passage: the Greek word δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē) which can be translated as either "justice" or "righteousness".

Dikaiosynē is the same word the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the authors of the New Testament) uses to translate the Hebrew צְדָקָה (tsedaqah) in the Old Testament, which likewise can be rendered in English either as righteousness or justice. It stands to reason that Paul, being a Hebrew, has the conceptual idea of the Hebrew tsedaqah in mind when he speaks of dikaiosynē in Greek. In other words, his concept of justice/righteousness is based on a conception of justice based on the Bible rather than on a pagan Greek or Roman understanding. In Hebrew, the central word for “justice” is משׁפט (mishpat). Our term tsedaqah in contrast is almost always translated as “righteousness” in the OT. That’s because the connotation of tsedaqah is not justice in the sense of deciding, or in the sense of consequence, but in the sense of goodness. In the OT, tsedaqah justice is an idea rooted in the Character of God, like when we say that a king is “just,” and mean that he is good and fair. In the Old Testament, the concept of tsedaqah has to do with balancing things out again, making things right, in particular with caring for the poor and oppressed. Today, the word tsedaqah justice/righteousness is associated in Judaism with acts of charity, and many Jewish charities are often named “tsedaqah(modern Hebrew would transliterate this as tzedakah, whereas I’m using the SBL standard for biblical Hebrew here for my transliterations) So tsedaqah justice means restorative justice rather than retributive justice.

This understanding of restorative social justice was key to Martin Luther's breakthrough where he rediscovered the Gospel in Romans. Like everyone else at the time, 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 iustitia which is the word our own “justice” derives from. In Latin, because of the focus on Roman law, the word iustitia had come to refer to a quid-pro-quo payback justice. So Luther, reading his Bible in Latin had assumed that the passage in Romans 3 was about retributive justice. Today when we read the word Justice often have a similar connotation because of how our society defines justice in this same Jack Bauer payback type of way. A big thing Luther did was to emphasize the importance of reading the Bible in its original languages, an idea he called ad fontes which is Latin for back to the sources. Getting back to the orginal Greek and Hebrew allowed Luther to figure out that the righteousness that Paul was speaking of was so different from the one from his own German-Roman legal based one that he called it an “alien righteousness” (iustitia aliena). It was an idea that turned his world on his head, and led him to re-discover grace. We also need to get back to source of the original terms: the Greek dikaiosynē standing for the Hebrew idea of tsedaqah justice.

With that background in mind, let’s take a look at the passage from Romans 3, keeping in mind the meaning of dikaiosynē as restorative making-things-right justice, and of the related verb dikaios as “making right” as in the idea of righting a wrong.

"But now a loving restoration (dikaiosynē) from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify . This loving restoration (dikaiosynē) 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 set right (dikaioō) 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 loving restoration (dikaiosynē) because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his loving restoration (dikaiosynē) at the present time, so as to be righteously loving (dikaios) and the one who lovingly sets right (dikaioō) those who have faith in Jesus (Rom 3:21-26).

Or how about this rendering:

"But now a goodness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify . This goodness 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 made good 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 goodness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his goodness at the present time, so as to be good and the one who makes good those who have faith in Jesus.

In that context, the idea of Christ here “turning away wrath” is not because he is punished, but because he makes us (dikaios) good/righteous. Because Jesus “takes away sin by faith in his blood” we are made good. We are made right again. As a result, God’s wrath is “turned away” because the cause of that wrath was sin, and since sin has been removed, so has the cause of wrath.

In contrast, if the above is read (as it had been by Anselm and so many others in the Latin church who did not have access to the original Greek) as iustitia retributive justice, that one can easily read into the above text the idea of penal substitution. Like this:

But now a righteousness (dikaiosynē) from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness (dikaiosynē) 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 justified (dikaioō) freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice (dikaiosynē), because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice (dikaiosynē) at the present time, so as to be just (dikaios) and the one who justifies (dikaioō) those who have faith in Jesus”

This is how the NIV translates the passage. Did you notice that they switch terms? Check out the highlighted words: They begin by translating dikaiosynē as “righteousness” and then switch to translating it as “justice”. Even through the Greek word group dikaiosynē, dikaioō, dikaios is the same throughout (all coming form the root word dikē ), they translate the verb dikaioō as justify, and the adjective dikaios as just. This changes how this passage sounds to us. Now it reads as if we are made righteous by God’s demonstration of (retributive) justice which turns aside his wrath. But if we are really paying attention, that is not what is being said.

Really, its not so much a problem with a translation (I usually like the NIV), but much more about ur own concept of what justice is about. In America, with our politicians and TV shows always talking about “bringing someone to justice” in the sense of hurting them, we really need to re-think the alien justice found in the New Testament.



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7 Comments:

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Bones said...

Thank you! An excellent post!

 
At 9:31 AM, Blogger Kansas Bob said...

Thanks much! I passed this along to a good friend.. we have been having an ongoing discussion of penal substitution and that passage in Romans.

 
At 1:29 PM, Blogger Rick Gibson said...

Thanks for this post, very insightful. I do have one question, do you think paresin in 3:25 should be properly translated as 'unpunished' as the NIV translates it? Personally I like 'passed over' better, it seems to fit better in the context of a Hebrew understanding of Justice.

 
At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thayers lists "passing over" as one of the definitions for paresin, so yes I think that would clearly be a legitimate translation here.

 
At 9:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's still this element of punishment, as the verse states: 'because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.'

Is that not penal? Jesus took on the punishment of our sins so that He can be shown to be righteous/fair/just?

I still need clarification. my email is jpmoon82@gmail.com

 
At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, they are left unpunished because God is now through Christ doing something different INSTEAD of punishment. Punishment is not redemptive. It is only about punishing. So the idea is that the cross turns away wrath not that it fulfills wrath.

Paul's argument here is that his Jewish audience had been hoping for wrath, they wanted to have God judge pagan Rome. But Paul says that since are all under sin, desiring wrath as they do is a bad idea since it will mean we all get wrath. Instead he says we need grace and redemption, and that comes through what God has done in Jesus.

Think of it this way: a patient with a terminal illness is kept on life support until the doctor can provide a cure showing that they are a good doctor. Or paramedics do CPR until they can get the patient into the hospital for surgery. That's how I would read "because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished he did it to demonstrate his loving restoration (dikaiosynē) at the present time." Paul is explaining here why God DID NOT punish and how this was not unjust, and his answer is that God had a better plan to heal bad people us instead of just to hurt us.

 
At 11:28 PM, Anonymous rea said...

Nice post.I would rather say that translation plays a significant role in our christian life.Since translation is to understand the exact meaning of a text in one language and convey it accurately in another. The result will be genuine content, not the mere shadow of an original one.This is how the translation company comes to play,to bring a greater ideas that convey the most significant and similar meaning from other languages without creating confusions to its readers.

 

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