John Piper speaks on behalf of a myriad of traditionalists when he defines the biblical concept of “the righteousness of God” in terms of God’s general character or goodness. Thus when he writes against N.T. Wrights teaching that, for Paul and the other biblical writers, the phrase “the righteousness of God” has the specialized meaning of “God’s covenant faithfulness”, Piper says:
“There is something far deeper in God than covenant faithfulness. God was not unrighteous before there was a covenant. He was righteous before there was any covenant to keep. ‘The LORD is righteous in all his ways’ (Ps. 145:17), not just in keeping the covenant.”
But what Piper fails to take into account is that words don’t just float about detached from their context so that all that really matters is that one keep a dictionary of it’s basic meaning on hand.
Yes righteousness means “the quality of being morally right” in the dictionary. Yes if we speak of the “righteousness of God” as a standalone phrase it would mean “God’s quality of being morally right”. But when words and phrases are not plucked from their context to float about in an abstract manner, in other words when their context is allowed to help determine their meaning, an element of precision becomes important for understanding the message which is being communicated. And the phrase “the righteousness of God” (and it’s variations) is a case in point.
Throughout the scriptures the Hebrew word “tsedaqah” and its Greek equivalent “dikaiosyne” have specialized meaning important for the “exegesis” of a text. Regarding its Old Testament usage, J.I. Packer writes:
“The reason why these texts call God’s vindication of his oppressed people his ‘righteousness’ is that it is an act of faithfulness to his covenant promise to them.”
Here Packer confesses – in the Old Testament at least – that God’s ‘righteousness’ (in particular in the Psalms and Isaiah, but elsewhere too) is a specific reference to God’s covenant faithfulness, not an abstract reference to God’s general moral character.
When we come to Paul it is patently obvious to anyone who attempts an exegesis of the text even on a surface level, that his discussion of the righteousness of God in Romans (and elsewhere) is rooted repeatedly and at almost every point in Old Testament passages. Then, for the astute reader in search of Paul’s own message, and not a message deduced from sixteenth century polemics, they will quickly discover that in every case where the phrase and it’s variants are employed Paul is talking in covenant terms, covenant contexts, covenant promises and covenant faithfulness even where the word “covenant” is not employed (not least by quoting or alluding to Genesis 15, Deuteronomy 27-30, the Psalms and so on).
God is a good God, yes! He is righteous in the general sense that he is morally right, yes! But the question Paul is addressing in Romans is very specialized: will God be faithful to his covenant promise to Abraham that through him and his descendants all of the nations of the earth will be blessed? It had looked to the Jews in Rome as if God had abandoned his covenant people and had begun a new project without them (i.e. they were a precursory variation to modern Dispensationalism.) . In other words, God’s commitment or faithfulness to his covenant was being called into question. So Paul begins his letter with a declaration that God’s faithfulness to his covenant, God’s righteousness in other words, has been revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16-17).
He spends the next eight chapters unpacking that passage – note all of the talk of Abraham and so on – and then concludes his argument in Romans 9-11, particularly with phrases like “not all Israel are Israel” and “all Israel will be saved.”
So while yes, Piper is right in a minimalist sense that to speak of God’s righteousness in a detached, abstract way is to speak of God’s moral rightness, his holiness and goodness, in doing so he commits the uber exegetical fallacy of actually committing eisegesis. When Paul says something very specific in a context that determines it’s meaning and which has serious repercussions for understanding everything that follows, and then when what Paul means is blissfully overlooked or ignored and replaced with something else more general and abstract, all of Romans becomes lost.
Is it any wonder that a friend of mine, of Calvinist leanings no less, was reading a recent commentary on Romans by R.C. Sproul when he quipped in disappointment that “it seems every passage is about predestination.” That is what we call an exercise in missing the point, and for a book as important as Romans, that is a terrible mistake for someone as influential as Sproul or Piper.
The irony here is that Piper claims that his interpretation of the righteousness of God is “remarkably illuminating exegetically.” It is exactly the opposite of that. Few things can darken Paul’s letter to the Romans more than Piper’s attempt to exegesis “the righteousness of God.”