The Righteousness of God in Romans 1:17 | A Very Short Analysis

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the most influential and theologically rich Epistles given from God to His Church. Since that is the case, Romans 1:16 and 17- as they set up the theme of the entire Epistle- are two of the most important verses to understand if we want to rightly interpret one of the most important books of the Bible. Given the importance of these verses, their meaning should be pretty straight forward, right? Well, whether they should be straight forward or not, ambiguity rears its indecisive head in verse 17. In this paper, I will present various commentators’ treatments of the ambiguous phrase δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ (righteousness of God) found in Romans 1:17 and then present and analyze six modern English translations of verse 17.

The “righteousness of God” in verse 17 is ambiguous because it is open to more than one interpretation. According to C.E.B. Cranfield, this phrase, δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, can either be taken as a genitive of origin or a subjective genitive. If it is understood as a genitive of origin then it would describe “a status of man resulting from God’s action, righteousness as a gift from God”.[1] However, if the phrase is taken as a subjective genitive then it “refers to an activity of God”.[2] As Cranfield notes, this interpretational divide is evident in Protestant and Roman Catholic theology. Many Protestant theologians, following Luther, have argued for a genitive of origin; a declarative or “forensic” view where the righteousness of God is a gift to man through faith in Jesus. While Roman Catholic theologians have argued for a subjective genitive view where God makes some one righteous in an ethical, moral-regenerative sense.[3]  While Cranfield acknowledges that there is more to be said on the matter, he ultimately finds the arguments for the subjective genitive argument to be less than cogent and sides with the genitive of origin interpretation.[4]

Robert Jewett, takes the opposite position as Cranfield, stating that “the righteousness of God” in verse 17 ought to be understood in light of the sixteen prior verses in which Paul sets up the “missional context” for the letter. Concerning the denominational divisions over this phrase in verse 17, Jewett says, “these partisan controversies shared a mistaken premise that Paul’s letter was a theological treatise aimed at refuting inadequate understandings of the doctrine of “justification by faith”’.[5] Instead of treating Paul as a theologian in an ivory tower, argues Jewett, we ought to treat him as he was, a missionary in the field writing to a church. Thus It is from this missional context that we see God’s restoration of people, communities, and all of creation. This context coupled with a subjective genitive in verse 16, God’s power, and a subjective genitive in verse 18, God’s wrath, leads Jewett to think that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ought to be understood as a subjective genitive instead of an objective genitive (genitive of origin).[6]

James Dunn, in contradistinction to the conclusions of both Cranfield and Jewett, does not adhere to this rigid bifurcation between genitive of origin (also called objective genitive) and subjective genitive. In reacting specifically against Cranfield, Dunn writes, “…Cranfield’s insistence on the either-or of “a gift bestowed by God” (objective genitive), as against “an activity of God” (subjective genitive)… allows nothing for the dynamism of relationship which can embrace both senses- God’s activity in drawing into and sustaining within covenant relationship”.[7] Dunn’s solution to this ambiguity, as well as to the classical debate between justification as making righteous vs. counting righteous, is to answer “both” instead of assuming the either-or paradigm by choosing one or the other.[8]

But while Dunn wants to affirm both of the possible answers to the ambiguity in Romans 1:17, Douglas Moo adds yet another possible interpretation. Like the other commentators we have surveyed, Moo acknowledges that the righteousness of God might refer to a status given by God (genitive of origin/objective genitive) or it might refer to an activity of God (subjective genitive) but he goes further in stating that “The expression might refer to an attribute of God”.[9] In adjudicating between our three choices of genitive origin, subjective genitive, and an attribute of God, Moo cites three criteria: I. the OT background, II. the use of “righteousness” words in the rest of Romans, III. the immediate context of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ.[10] He then explains that each of the three criteria point in a different direction and that most commentators simply choose between our first two options, leaving off the attribute option.

Moo, in a similar vein as Dunn, suggests that we might consider abstaining from the choice between “theology (God acting)” and “anthropology (the human being who receives)”, and instead “bringing together the aspects of activity and status, we can define [the righteousness of God] as the act by which God brings people into right relationship with himself”.[11] However, while Moo is comfortable with affirming both options in his stipulative definition to the ambiguous problem of the righteousness of God, he still, contra Roman Catholicism, wants to affirm the imagery of a judge in a court of law pronouncing righteousness in order to preserve a distinction between sanctification and justification.[12] So for Moo, δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, is both a genitive of origin and a subjective genitive, and its genitive of origin aspect is forensic and not transformative. Thomas Schreiner, on the other hand, has argued that “it is a mistake to opt for an either-or here”[13] and has gone on to say, “thus I conclude that the term “righteousness of God” is both forensic and transformative.”[14] Schreiner further states that “the forensic is the basis for the transformative, but the one cannot be sundered from the other.”[15]

While Moo seems to drop his third option, righteousness as an attribute of God, out of consideration, John Stott picks it right back up in affirming all three options. Stott says, “Thus ‘the righteousness of God’ can be thought of as a divine attribute (our God is a righteous God), or activity (he comes to our rescue), or achievement (he bestows on us a righteous status)”.[16] He then goes on to say, “All three are true…I have never been able to see why we have to choose, and why all three should not be combined… In other words, [the righteousness of God] is at one and the same time a quality, an activity and a gift.”[17]

So, who has got it right? How are we to think of this ambiguous phrase? Who can guide us to the correct answer? Well, I am but a humble first year Greek student, so it shan’t be me. I am here to merely lay out the best arguments and perhaps the reader can make up their own mind as we move now to six modern translations of Romans 1:17.

As we move to our translations, it is interesting to note that the six modern versions we will be considering mostly translate δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in the same way but the prepositional phrases ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν is where we find discrepancies. The reason for the various translations comes from the many possible translations of ἐκ and εἰς. Frederick William Danker notes that ἐκ can be glossed as “from” or “out of” and functions to introduce “various aspects of separation or derivation”[18] and is often used as “relating in general to a matter of origin”.[19] Εἰς on the other hand, is a “marker of extension relating to a goal or place”[20] and can be glossed as “into”, “to”, “toward”, “for/with a view to”, “about”, “in reference to” amongst others.

The full Nestle-Aland Greek text of verse 17 is as follows: δικαιοσύνη γὰρ Θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται.[21] The ESV translates this verse as: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”’ The translators have chosen to translate ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν as “from faith for faith” and have chosen to translate ζήσεται, a future middle indicative third person singular verb as “shall live”. The NRSV translates ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν as “through faith for faith” and translates the future notion of  ζήσεται as “will live” rather than “shall live”. The NASB translates ἐκ as “from” like the ESV but takes εἰς to mean “to” rather than “for” and chooses to use all capital letters, except for the assumed “man”, for Paul’s reference to Habakkuk 2:4, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”’ The NKJV translators also take ἐκ to mean “from” and εἰς to mean “to” but they translate δίκαιος as “the just” rather than “the righteous”.

The NIV translates verse 17 as “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” The translators distinguish themselves from the other versions mentioned so far in that they translate ἐν αὐτῷ as “in the gospel” instead of “in it”. By translating the personal pronoun αὐτῷ, which in this case is a neuter dative singular, by its referent, “the gospel” in verse 16, the NIV translators are able to emphatically remind the reader that it is in this gospel that the righteousness of God, whatever that means, is revealed. Also in distinction from the other translators, they translate ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν in a unique and more dynamic way: “by faith from first to last”.

While all of the translations surveyed so far have translated δικαιοσύνη Θεοῦ as “the righteousness of God” which leaves open the ambiguities mentioned in the first part of this paper, The Message translates the expression as “God’s way of putting people right” which seems to be taking the side of the subjective genitive as it focuses on God’s action. It then translates ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν as “in the acts of faith”, conjoining the two forms of πίστις.

So once again you might be asking, who is correct? Which translation really gets it right? Which then ought I to read? But once again I can only respond, “I am a humble first year Greek student, the answers you seek can’t be found here. I am not the droid you are looking for.” Rather than making a judgment on the commentators, their arguments, or the various translations we have surveyed and analyzed, I’ve sought merely to lay out the information for you the best that I can in order for you to be more fully informed and for you to make your own decision. Is the righteousness of God describing an attribute, an action, or a gift? If it is a gift, is that gift forensic or is it transformative or both? How should ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν be translated? Which translation gets the Greek syntax right and which one gets the semantics right? These questions are left for the reader to decide. God’s speed and may His righteousness be with you.

[1] C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8 (London: T&T Clark Ltd, 1975) 96.

[2] Cranfield, Romans 1-8, 96.

[3] Cranfield, Romans 1-8, 95.

[4] Cranfield, Romans 1-8, 98.

[5] Robert Jewett, Eldon Jay Epp, Romans: A Commentary (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2006) Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/. 141.

[6] Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, 142.

[7] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (Word Biblical Commentary: vol. 38a: Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 41.

[8] Dunn, Romans 1-8, 41.

[9] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996) 70.

[10] Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 72.

[11] Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 74.

[12] Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 75.

[13] Thomas Schreiner, Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998) 66.

[14] Schreiner, Romans, 66.

[15] Schreiner, Romans, 67.

[16] John Stott, The Message of Romans (The Bible Speaks Today: Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1994) 63.

[17] Stott, The Message of Romans, 63.

[18] Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2009) 114.

[19] Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 114.

[20] Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 112.

[21] Novum Testamentum Graece 28th Revised edition, ed.: Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012) 482.

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