Old Testament Background to Biblical Righteousness and Justice

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A little over a month ago I wrote a thread on Twitter that argued that you can’t bifurcate the ideas of “righteousness” and “justice” in the New Testament. Here’s the first tweet, which served as an introduction to the (short) discussion:

I won’t reproduce the entire argument here, but to summarize: where in English justice and righteousness are two distinct concepts, Koine Greek has one word that can be used for both: δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune).

English translates dikaiosune as both righteousness and justice. However, Latin, Spanish, and German (for starters) translate dikaiosune as iustitia, justicia, and Gerechtigkeit, respectively. Look up each of these words and what is the primary definition? Justice.

You simply cannot read Luther’s translation of the New Testament, the Vulgate, or any other version in these languages and be led to the conclusion, “I should separate the categories of righteousness and justice in my head.”

My big takeaways for the thread were 1) When you see ‘righteousness’ in an English Bible, that doesn’t automatically exclude the idea of ‘justice’ and 2) reading Scripture in more than one language can help us avoid blind spots in our understanding of the text.

Now why do I bring this up? Because an aspect of this conversation that I neglected to address in the Twitter thread is the relationship between righteousness and justice in the Old Testament. Paul, Matthew, James, Luke and the other authors of the New Testament were intimately familiar with the language of the Old Testament and it deeply formed the ways they thought about concepts like righteousness and justice as well as the ways they wrote about them and even the vocabulary that they used to do it.

I was finishing Jonathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage a few days ago and came across a discussion of this very issue that I want to quote and briefly discuss in order to give further context to this idea:

Almost half the time you see the word justice in the Old Testament the word righteousness is next to it, as when the psalmist said to God, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne” (Ps. 89:14). The two words together are what grammarians call a hendiadystwo words connected by an “and” that explain each other and together mean something bigger, like nice and cozy. The biblical ideas of justice and righteousness are locked together and are mutually defining, even when they don’t appear together.

How The Nations Rage, 211-212

It’s not just a New Testament phenomenon: throughout the entirety of the Bible, we are meant to have mentions of ‘righteousness’ lead us to think immediately of ‘justice’ and to be unable to envision an instance of justice that is not rooted in God’s righteousness. This is the way that the Old Testament treated the concepts and it’s the foundation that the authors of the New Testament drew on when theyunder the divine inspiration of the Spiritauthored the books of the New Testament.

If it is truly biblical, our righteousness should not and cannot be divorced from doing justice in this world. And we as believers should find it impossible to act justly without the righteousness that comes from God in Christ. May our righteousness lead to our lights shining before others so they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16) and may our good works flow from the saving and transforming grace that is the free, unmerited gift of a righteous God (Ephesians 2:8-10).

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