The Righteousness of God…Three Views

Last week I posted some concluding thoughts from my summer research on ‘in Christ’ in Paul.  I wrote,

“…Paul incorporated three central realities into those found ‘in Christ’: righteousness, baptism into death, and an exalted newness of life.”

As I was writing these, I had to chuckle because each of these three ‘realities’ reside in infested waters in Pauline scholarship. For example, Douglas Campbell writes, “The current debate concerning the meaning of dikaiosune theou in Paul is immense.” Nevertheless, I am going to swim with the sharks to highlight three views on what the righteousness of God means.

The debate concerning dikaiosune theou predominantly centers on whether the ‘righteousness’ of God is retributive/punitive and/or gracious/benevolent in nature. Additionally, scholars dispute as to whether dikaiosune theou describes an attribute of God, the activity of God, or relational aspects of God. The complexity of the issues surrounding the translation and interpretation of dikaiosune theon make it impossible to offer a detailed account of the whole debate, but Douglas Moo, N.T. Wright, and Douglas Campbell’s respective depictions serve as a suitable introduction.

First, Moo represents a conventional interpretation of the phrase. Next, Wright’s reading offers a reframing of the conventional reading, often referred to as a “new perspective.” Finally, Campbell’s apocalyptic reading of the passage demonstrates a “new paradigm” not reframed within the traditional understanding. Each perspective will be evaluated according to three categories – character, activity, and product – to allow for a consistent comparison.*

Douglas Moo defines God’s character, in regards to dikaiosune theou, as one who will always do what is right according to the divine nature. At first glance, this is seemingly a common understanding among the three viewpoints until the term ‘right’ is defined in any particularity. For Moo, ‘what is right’ entails God “always acting in accordance with the norm of his own person and promises.” God’s activity of doing ‘right,’ however, is not limited to saving work, instead it includes both God’s saving actions and God’s justice. Thus, God’s activity is to establish the ‘right’ by vindicating some and judging others based upon a determined standard, which according to Moo is justification by faith in Jesus Christ. Consequently, the product of God’s ‘right’ activity is that those who have been justified by faith receive God’s character; in other words, they attain the moral righteousness required by God.

N.T. Wright works chiefly within these same categories, except he places them within a predominantly covenantal framework.  Simply stated, dikaiosune theou is God’s sure and steadfast love of Israel, which Wright deduces from tying together the interrelated dimensions of covenant, lawcourt, and apocalyptic. The covenantal aspect is that God designed a once for all plan for salvation through Israel to bless the world and God remains exceedingly faithful to this plan. Wright states, “The point of the covenant always was that God would bless the whole world through Abraham’s family.” The lawcourt dimension displays the character of God as that of an impartial judge, who as the creator of the world must rule and judge all creation justly. Thus, God’s activity is focused on a single plan to put the world right, which God established through the covenant with Israel. For Wright, the decisive, apocalyptic act was that God dealt with sin and rebellion through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, through Jesus Christ, as a faithful representative of Israel, God’s covenant with Israel has been fulfilled and the world has been declared ‘right’ and granted access to the blessings of the covenant. The product of God’s saving action is not, however, that one’s character is changed into the character of God, rather, her status is changed before God. In other words, she is vindicated by the judge, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and brought into the family of God.

Douglas Campbell’s understanding of dikaiosune theou draws specifically from Paul’s understanding of Christ as the definitive display of God’s righteousness. He states, “If we know what Christ is, we can infer immediately the content of dikaiosune theou.” Thus, he concludes that the definitive character of God is benevolent because Christ exhibits no retributive characteristics in Paul’s writing. Furthermore, drawing from the Old Testament’s picture of divine kingship, Campbell determines God’s character to be a compassionate king whose sole concern is to act to save an oppressed humanity. God’s kingly activity then is a “saving, liberating, life-giving, eschatological act of God,” which delivers his oppressed people. Campbell defines this activity in the singular work of Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection liberates a captive humanity. The product is “fundamentally liberative” and humanity is ontologically transformed, receiving a new flesh – free from the powers of death and sin.


*Campbell’s methodology for defining dikaiosune theon differs considerably from the other two views. Campbell’s method starts with Christ as the definitive disclosure of dikaiosune theon and from this extrapolates its meaning by referring to how Christ is described in Paul.  he other views draw on the phrases textual history to elucidate Paul’s meaning.  Thus, is a little tenuous to fit Campbell’s definition into these three categories.

**Primary sources for this post: Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans; N.T. Wright, “Romans” New Interpreters Bible; Douglas Campbell; The Deliverance of God.

2 thoughts on “The Righteousness of God…Three Views

  1. Well, it is shark week, so I guess it is appropriate to “swim with the sharks.”

    Would you be willing to “side” more or less with either of these three scholars? I’ve largely assumed Wright’s position on the issue, but as I’m recently being exposed more and more to Campbell’s work I have to admit that I find it very attractive. I would wonder if one could arrive at his same conclusion for dikaiosune theou without his rendering of passages such as Romans 1:18-32… Thoughts?

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  2. Mike,

    I find bits of each that I agree with (how’s that for a non-answer). I explain dikaiosune theou using three main dimensions – lawcourt, prophets, and kingly. The lawcourt is very similar to both Moo and Wright, prophets has a little bit in common with Wright but much more apocalyptic/cosmic, and the kingly is very influenced by Campbell.

    Yes you can make case of Campbell without his reading of Rom 1, his overall case is very Barthian. My biggest issue with Campbell is the complete neglect (perhaps even rejection) of retributive characteristics. Maybe you can make that case using only small sample(even of Paul), but canonically I do not see how it stands up.

    I hope to write up my view soon.

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