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When words mean more than they seem, or not

I like those optical illusions that are really two pictures in one. Some people see a saxophone player, others a woman’s face. But, the truth is that the picture contains both. It has semantic “depth,” containing multiple legitimate meanings at the same time.

Words function much the same way. Rarely does any particular term support only a single meaning. Instead, words are “polyvalent,” rich with multiple possible meanings, simply waiting for an author to select one of those many meanings in any particular act of communication.

But, that depth of meaning also contributes to significant ambiguity if it’s unclear which of these several meanings the author intends. And, at times, the difficulty of choosing between multiple possible meanings leaves the reader wondering if the author may actually be playing with more than one meaning at once. Is it possible, that rather than choosing between A, B, and C, I’m supposed to see all three in the same text? If so, how would I know?

These are the questions that James DeYoung addressed in the paper that he presented at the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, “Origen’s “Beautiful Captive Woman,” Polyvalence, and the Meaning of the “Righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17“. (Dr. DeYoung is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary.)

The specific focus of the paper is the paper that Frank Thielman presented at last year’s national ETS conference. Thus, DeYoung begins his paper by summarizing Thielman’s two key arguments and the main lines of evidence used to support them. First, Thielman contended that “righteousness of God” in Romans is polyvalent, including at least three basic ideas: (1) the saving activity of God, (2) the gift of acquittal, and (3) an attribute of God. All three of these are in play throughout Romans, so we shouldn’t try to limit Paul’s meaning to any one of them. Second, Thielman argued that analysis of both biblical and extrabiblical information suggests that the specific attribute in view is God’s fairness and equity in how he distributes salvation.

What follows this summary is really a series of thoughts sparked by this way of understanding Paul. DeYoung is particularly concerned about the implications of finding such polyvalence in the text. Although he affirms that texts may have a surprising depth of meaning, and he’s cautious about identifying the meaning of the text directly with any particular interpretation of that meaning, he rejects the idea that an author (in normal discourse) intends more than one meaning at the same time. And, he suggests that such moves toward polyvalence are implicitly attempts to move away from authorial intent as a guiding hermeneutical objective.

DeYoung is also troubled by the emphasis that Thielman places on extrabiblical literature in the discussion. Although DeYoung recognizes the importance of such secondary literature, he thinks that the biblical context, particularly the OT background and worldview, of NT terms/phrases should have preeminence.

So when does the interpreter appeal to secular usage to interpret a biblical text? It should be done to confirm a biblical definition, or to explain a term that is a hapax legomenon (occurring only once in the literature), or when it adds meaning that the Bible would also support.

Several of DeYoung’s arguments relate to the fact that he remains ultimately unconvinced by Thielman’s argument for “equity” as the attribute under consideration. DeYoung thinks that Thielman mishandles some of the evidence and overemphasizes others.

So, to conclude, DeYoung offers his own understand of the phrase in question.

So what is the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17? It seems best to define it as follows. In the gospel, proclaiming the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God is revealing his nature as upright. He is upright or just because the gospel is God’s power to save everyone (v. 16) who believes it. Or, because the gospel (proclaiming the atoning, substitutionary death of Christ and his resurrection) is God’s power to save everyone (v. 16) who believes (v. 17b), God reveals that he himself is just or upright regarding the need to punish sin by what he has done right in the work of Christ at the cross and in the resurrection. He vindicates himself as just by  what he did at the cross and by how he can accept the guilty.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

Frank Thielman on the “Righteousness of God” (ETS plenary)

Following Tom Schreiner’s critical interaction with N.T. Wright, Frank Thielman offered his own contribution to the justification discussion, “God’s Righteousness as God’s Fairness in Romans: The Oldest Perspective on Paul.” And, Thielman’s paper focused almost exclusively on the question of what the “righteousness of God” means in Romans 1:17. According to Thielman, we need to take another look at one of the oldest interpretations around – the idea that God’s “righteousness” refers to the fact that he offers salvation to everyone without impartiality.

Thielman began by arguing that “righteousness of God” (RoG through the rest of this post) is a polyvalent phrase – a phrase that is intended to be dense and not fully understood on a first hearing. Instead polyvalent phrases are loaded with meaning that the author unpacks through subsequent analysis. The rest of his argument unfolds as an attempt to defend this thesis and to contend that “impartiality” deserves an important place in the polyvalent meaning of the “righteousness of God.”

Thielman notes that RoG has historically been understood in three main ways:

  1. An attribute of God
  2. Gods saving activity
  3. the gift of God’s righteousness

Thielman spent a fair amount of time explaining the historical interpretation of RoG.

  1. The Church started out viewing RoG as an attribute of God (i.e. God’s perfect holiness as the standard against which he judges imperfect humans).
  2. A decided shift took place at the Reformation so that everyone came to see it as the gift of God’s grace to his people (despite continued disagreements as to how/why the gift is given). Luther was key here in recognizing the difficulties in seeing RoG as an attribute of God against which humans necessarily fail to measure up.
  3. Another shift happens in the 20th century with the rise of the idea that RoG refers to the saving power of God. People like Kasemann, Schlatter, and Fitzmeyer argued strongly that RoG needs to be understood against the OT background where God’s righteousness often refers to his faithful response to the needs of his people (e.g. Ps. 98:2-3; Isa 51:5).

So, as we reach the modern era, there are really only two options left for understanding RoG: a gift of God’s grace and the saving action of God, though many argue that we need to affirm both. But, Thielman argues that we need to consider again the first option as a viable aspect of RoG’s meaning for Paul.

Thielman argues that if we want to understand RoG, we need to consider how it would have been heard by the original readers of Paul’s letter. He fully acknowledges that Paul himself would have understood the phrase in its OT context. But, he also contends that Paul would have known his readers and the Greco-Roman background against which they would have heard a phrase like this. So, he argues that we need to pay close attention to this context if we are to hear this phrase properly. And, to set the stage for such a hearing, he points to two sources:

  1. Origen’s commentary on Romans is our oldest extant commentary on Paul’s epistle. So, Thielman contends that it should be an important source for understanding RoG. And, according to Thielman, Origen clearly views RoG in Romans 1:17 as referring to an attribute of God – his impartiality in dealing with humanity.  Looking at the broader context of Romans 1-3, Origen sees RoG as emphasizing that God deals with all people the same, regardless of ethnic or social background. So, according to Origen, righteousness = impartiality (at least in Romans 1:17).
  2. Thielman then provides supporting evidence for the idea that righteousness equals impartiality by showing how the two terms were used in close conjunction in the coinage of the day. Given that such coins would have been used broadly by the common person, they probably reflect the way that the average person would have thought about those terms. So, cultural data also suggests that righteousness = impartiality. And, he also argues that this should not be understood in the sense of “distributive justice” (i.e. everybody gets what they deserve, both positive and negative). Instead, he contends that the idea was primarily positive – i.e. a ruler is “righteous” in the sense that he distributes his gifts fairly to all people.

So, Thielman contends that the popular idiom of the day would have understood “righteousness” to mean the impartial or fair treatment of people. Given that this is how the average person would have naturally heard RoG, Thielman contends that this must serve as part of our interpretive matrix for understanding what Paul meant by it in Rom 1:17.

In the final part of the paper, Thielman returns to the notion that RoG is a polyvalent term. He is not trying to suggest that impartiality is the only appropriate way to understand RoG, only that it is an important part. His real argument is that RoG must be understood through from all three perspectives: an attribute of God (impartiality), a gift of God, and the saving act of God. He thinks that there is good evidence from the text supporting all three perspectives and that Paul could well have expected his readers to elicit all three meanings from this phrase. He recognizes that some will object to the notion that Paul would switch suddenly from one meaning of a term to another in the same context with little or no warning (i.e. righteousness as impartiality in 1:17 and righteousness and gift or saving action in 1:18), but he contends that Paul obviously does this very thing in Romans 3:26. And, he responds to the objection that Paul would not have tried to pack so much meaning into one, short phrase by contending that this was accepted practice in written material at the time. People expected to find polyvalent words and phrases with a depth of meaning that required careful unpacking.

So, at the end of the paper, Thielman argues that RoG in Romans 1:17 essentially means all three things. It is a complex expression that cannot be reduced to any one perspective.

From my perspective, Thielman’s paper was interesting, but not ground-breaking. It was interesting to reflect on the idea that impartiality might be essential to the definition of RoG itself. I have always seen impartiality as an important part of Rom 1-3 (how could you not?), but I had never considered it to be part of RoG’s actual meaning, viewing it instead as a description of how RoG is expressed. So, that aspect of the paper was fascinating.

The most disappointing part of the paper, though, was that I don’t think it is going to add much to the justification debate itself. Thielman’s perspective has the advantage of allowing people to see the sociological aspect of justification (God’s impartiality toward all people regardless of social and/or ethnic distinction has clear sociological implications). So, to that extent his proposal moves toward Wright’s perspective. But, his clear emphasis that justification also refers to a gift given (i.e. imputed) to us through Christ is clearly something that Wright would not affirm. And, Thielman does little to interact with this side of RoG’s meaning.

So, at the end of the paper, I was left with an interesting perspective on RoG I had not considered before, but not one that seemed to shed much new light on the nature of the justification debate itself.