09 July 2009

N. T. Wright and Jonathan Edwards: Justification

I'm struck by the similarities between N. T. Wright on justification/righteousness and Jonathan Edwards' main opponent in more than one treatise, John Taylor. Such comparisons tend toward anachronism, requiring caution. But it is striking how JE's criticisms of Taylor land equally squarely on Wright today.

For instance, both Wright and Taylor speak of "works" as in some sense the basis or ground of final justification; both create an unhelpful bifurcation between an initial justification and the eschatological justification (a bifurcation that goes beyond, in my opinion, a healthy distinction between the two aspects of justification); and both describe God's righteousness as being his salvific activity, his faithfulness to the covenant.

Here's what Edwards said in response to the last point, which I find curiously relevant and helpful regarding today's swirling discussions about justification (these statements do not come from Edwards' most well-known treatment of justification, the 1734 sermon series that sparked the first local revival, but from a collection of notes JE kept throughout the 1740s and 50s entitled simply "Controversies"; the former is in vol 19 of the Yale works, the latter vol 21).

'Tis true, the mercy God extends towards people is often in Scripture called his righteousness, on several accounts. . . . In [some] places where God's mercy is called his righteousness, there is plainly a reference to God's covenant, and his acting a just and faithful part in fulfilling his covenant obligations and gracious promises. 'Tis a part of justice or righteousness in two parties in covenant to be faithful to their covenant, and if either party is deceived by the treachery of the other, and so fails of that which he had a right to by covenant, he is unrighteously dealt with. . . .

Yet Edwards then goes on to fill out the "righteousness of God" by placing it in a larger semantic context which is, I believe, more accurate of what we find in Romans.

There are many things make it exceeding plain that the Apostle don't, by the terms righteousness and justification, intend merely God's mercy and grant of favor and deliverance from a great calamity, and bringing into a state of great privilege. The Apostle in these places sets righteousness expressly in opposition to condemnation, sin, disobedience. He speaks of the justification of sinners. . . . The Apostle speaks of imputing righteousness without works (Rom 4:6)--how absurd is the expression 'imputes salvation,' 'reckons deliverance.'

"Righteousness" in Romans, Edwards concludes, is used "in its most proper sense, or to signify proper righteousness, or a standing morally right." ("'Controversies': Justification," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Yale ed., vol 21, pp 335-38; emphasis original)

Edwards later examines instances of the Hebrew words of 'righteous' and 'righteousness' in the OT and argues that the most common denotation has to do with the juridical or forensic setting or the lawcourt. He then returns to the question of whether God's righteousness is his "covenant faithfulness" with a penetrating observation.

These words ['righteous' and 'righteousness' in the OT] seem oftentimes to be putting much of the same signification as mercy and goodness, favor, etc. [list of texts] . . . But then, if we carefully observe the places, the words have respect to such mercy or goodness as is exercised in protecting the innocent and righteous, and appearing to defend and save them from those that unjustly accused, condemned and oppressed them. (ibid, 347)

In other words, even when the righteousness of God denotes God's faithfulness to the covenant, there is an even deeper reason this is called righteousness--namely, the vindication of that which is right and just.


Andrew said...

Separating initial and final justification, with works the basis of the final one was Augustine's position. Given Augustine was a little bit influential, and not entirely stupid, it doesn't seem very surprising that more than one person in the last three centuries have held that view or found it plausible.

I am curious about your account of Edwards studying righteousness in the Old Testament and concluding it was forensic. I have personally done that study, and it seemed to me that the conclusion was obvious: that righteousness was an ethical term meaning "correct conduct according to a norm"... there are just hundreds of instances where it clearly seems to have such a meaning and where there is not the slightest mention of any law court. I saw no reason to consider it a forensic term... of the hundreds of instances only a handful have to do with law courts. Other scholars I have read who have done the same exercise have come to the same conclusion as me. Similarly, when we read Plato's Republic - a 300 page work all about 'dikaiosune' it is clearly an ethical term not a forensic one. (The translator of my copy decided to translate dikaiosune as "morality" throughout the work for consistency)

From my readings of Alister McGrath's history of the doctrine of justification, and other sources, I understand that Christians throughout held that justification meant a real ethical and moral change in the believer, until the Reformation where the Reformers introduced the idea of imputed forensic righteousness. From my readings about them, I understand that their training in Latin law led them to think some of the terms used by their Latin Vulgate bibles were more forensic than the underlying Greek really was.

I do not understand how Edwards could have studied the OT and concluded righteousness was forensic... having done that study myself I cannot understand how anyone could come to that conclusion (nor can I understand how anyone could come to Wright's view in this way... but Wright doesn't claim he came to it by studying all the instances of righteousness in the OT, he instead points to a tiny handful of verses). Could you give me a reference to the part of Edwards work where he says this? I would be fascinated to see why he thought that. If you know of any other word studies which conclude that dikaiosune was a forensic term or had a forensic meaning, I would be interested in reading them. I would like to try to understand why the view of justification as a forensic term is so widely held given the apparent total lack of supporting evidence.

Eric said...

Not to butt in here, but I think the answer to the questions in Andrew's last paragraph are given in the last two paragraphs of the original blog post.

Andrew said...

Thanks Eric! Yes you're right. My RSS reader had truncated the crucial piece of information.

Gavin Ortlund said...

Great post Dane!

Dane Ortlund said...

Andrew - thanks for the very thoughtful reflections. I encourage you to read for yourself the 8 or 10 pp from JE from which I'm quoting and see what you think.

Andrew said...

I have had a read of that section in Edwards, and found it quite fascinating that Edward's view not really what I expected.

On page 335 he writes:
"’Tis apparent without looking in any concordance, that the words "righteous," "righteousness," etc. ordinarily signify virtue or moral rectitude; and perhaps is never used otherwise but as signifying moral rectitude, or with reference to it."
And again on page 336 he repeats:
"the word righteousness in Scripture is used not only to signify justice, as we understand the word in the strict sense, but for all moral perfection or virtue whatsoever – and so the righteousness of God is the same with the moral perfection of his virtue"

Like, me, Edwards seems to have concluded that it is absolutely self-evident from even a casual survey of the instances that dikaiosune means moral virtue.

On page 345ff he launches into a survey of several OT Hebrew words, which shocked me. When I studied all the instances and variants of dikaiosune in the OT, I used the LXX of course, because I was studying the meaning of a Greek word. So he draws various conclusions on the meanings of various Hebrew words, about which I am not qualified to comment on and do not much care about since the meaning of those words is not relevant. He seems to make the severe methodological mistake in believing that these Hebrew word studies tell him something about the Greek word dikaiosune.

On page 351 he theorizes that primitive cultures such as Israel probably developed the idea of law before they developed the idea of morality, so as their ideas of morality evolved they took words that were originally forensic and expanded their meaning to speak of morality. That seems a reasonable theory, and one I have no problem with. However, he seems to make a etymological mistake in asserting that even after a word has changed its meaning its original meaning is somehow still the most primary, and authentic one. Thus while I have no issue with his theory that moral righteousness evolved out of forensic righteousness, I take issue with his implications that the forensic meaning is somehow still truer...
pg 353-4 "though the word righteousness be in its original and principal signification a forensic term, yet as moral terms in general were taken from courts of judgment, so the word righteousness came to express moral good in general"

I was surprised that in a couple of passages he said things which reminded me of NT Wright's view (a view I do not agree with). I would have expected to find the following quotes in a work by NT Wright, not Edwards:
353. "God’s vindicating and saving his people is called his righteousness"
354. "God’s faithfulness is often called his righteousness. And it is often found that when the Scripture speaks of God’s mercy and favour and saving goodness by the name of God’s righteousness, his covenant faithfulness is what is intended"
348. "we find the words righteousness, righteous, etc. are joined with salvation, redemption, deliverance, etc. as signifying the moral perfection of God manifested in saving his people from their oppressors and enemies, or the act of saving, or the liberty, victory, rest and happiness that is the fruit of it."