Old and New Perspectives on Romans 3:22 image

Old and New Perspectives on Romans 3:22

You can tell a lot about someone’s reading of Paul by the way they translate Romans 3:22. Not only is it a wonderfully dense expression of a crucial part of Paul’s theology, but it also contains arguably the two most debated phrases in his writings: dikaiosunē theou and pistis Iesou Christou. For those new to the discussion, the former could be translated “the righteousness of God” or “a righteousness from God”, and the latter could be translated “faith in Jesus Christ” or “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”. Put these together, and you have some interestingly different ways of reading this particular verse. For instance:

(1) “A righteousness from God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” This is the classic “old perspective” view, which so changed Martin Luther’s perception of God and the gospel. Here, the dikaiosunē theou is something we are given (made explicit in the NIV’s insertion of “given through”), usually understood in the sense of being imputed, on the grounds of our pistis Iesou Christou, or “faith in Jesus Christ”.

(2) “The righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.” This would be a classic “new perspective” translation (even though the man to coin the term “new perspective” wouldn’t actually read it this way). In this view, dikaiosunē theou must have the same sense as it does in 3:25, referring to God’s own righteousness which has been shown, and the way in which it is demonstrated is through the pistis Iesou Christou: the faithful obedience of Jesus the Messiah, in contrast to the unfaithfulness of Israel (3:3).

(3) “The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” This hybrid view, represented in the ESV, takes dikaiosunē theou as referring to God’s own righteousness, but pistis Iesou Christou as an objective (rather than subjective) genitive. In other words, the saving righteousness of God has become available to us through belief in Jesus.

We should point out that there is no reason that all three cannot be theologically correct, even if we have to make a choice about which one best represents Paul’s thought in this text. There is nothing incoherent about believing that God’s saving righteousness comes about through the faithful obedience of Jesus the Messiah, by reckoning righteousness to believers on the basis of faith (and in fact, a great many interpreters believe all of these things). But there are good reasons for thinking that (1), whatever its merits theologically, is not what Paul meant here – and the primary one is that it requires changing the meaning of the word dikaiosunē between 3:21-22 and 3:25-26, from something God gives us to something God has in himself, as per the 1984 NIV: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ… He did this to demonstrate his justice.” A reading which does not require Paul to use the same word in such different ways within a short paragraph, even if it is less familiar, should win out over a reading that does.

Personally, I’m unpersuaded that there is definitive evidence either way on pistis Iesou Christou, and am happy to admit (with many on both sides) that both are true theologically anyway; I tend to read Romans 3:22 in sense (3) rather than (2), but I know that habit is probably a factor there. When it comes to the righteousness of God, however, I’m a bit more confident. Whatever else we may believe about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness – and I’ve written on this subject elsewhere, both in articles and in books – it’s highly unlikely that this is what Paul is talking about here. Rather: “But now, apart from Torah, the righteousness of God (witnessed to by the Torah and the prophets) has been displayed: the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe.”

← Prev article
Next article →