Research Paper On The Righteousness Of God Debate
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It has been said that a key distinction between Christianity and other major world religions is the love of God. No other faith has a deity that lovingly and unselfishly sacrifices Himself for the salvation of His subjects. Since the fall of Adam (Genesis 3) mankind’s sin has separated humanity from God. (Isaiah 59:2). Christ’s self-sacrifice allowed the righteous of God to be available to all who accept the redemption Christ provided, as noted in Romans 3: 19 - 31. Christian theologians generally do not debate the role of Christ in redemption and salvation, yet they tend to debate everything else. Since the time of the Apostle Paul, and even today in our post-modern world, theologians and church historians have been debating over the meaning of the much-used Biblical phrase “the righteousness of God” and what significance that phrase has on modern Christian theology as it relates to the attributes and essence of the Divine, and how believers relate to and emulate His attributes and essence in our modern world.
According to Marion Soards’ book The Apostle Paul: An Introduction To His Writings And Teachings the debate falls into two major camps: the first believing that “the righteousness of God” is solely reserved as a description of God’s actual act of salvation and a divine attribute reserved for God Almighty alone, while the second prevailing school of thought is that the phrase references the divine attributes imputed on a believer who has been redeemed by Christ. Those in the first camp generally believe there is a greater chasm between the Divine and the profane mankind, whereas their opponents believe that God’s essence of his righteousness permeates both his acts and his will, so that believers too also can partake of the righteousness of God and transform their individual nature. The eminent Biblical Greek Scholar W.E. Vine supports the second position of this debate, based on his definition of “righteousness” as stated in his work An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Vine 298, 299). To better understand the origins and significance of this debate we must look at the life and times of the Apostle Paul, the controversies surrounding him as the infant religion Christianity took root and flourished, subsequent church history, and the relevant theological debates that have evolved over these periods. .
One purpose of Jesus Christ’s incarnation on earth was to be the Door (John 10:7-9) that transitioned the world from an epoch dominated by sin and the continual need for blood sacrifices into an era where mankind is justified by faith in Christ through grace, with no need for the continual sacrifices of blood of animals through man’s works. If Jesus was the Door, the Apostle Paul served a pivotal role as the main announcer/debater/greeter to herald the existence of the Door and to show others the path to enter through it.
Paul’s efforts were not without great controversy. Initially the theology and teaching which we now know as Christianity was originally thought by many to be a maverick sect of the Jewish religion which the members thereof often referred to themselves as members of “the Way.” In Paul’s time they initially did not refer to themselves as Christians, although the Bible documents that believers were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:26) Efforts to reach converts were originally focused and entrenched on reaching only the Jews. Subsequently little thought was given to reaching gentiles by the early church. It took a supernatural divine intervention for the Apostle Peter to even be open to the possibility that the gentiles could partake in the redemption of Christ! (Acts 10). Peter then abdicated on the position of sharing of the Gospel beyond Jews, but initially many in “the way” felt their role was to enlarge Judaism and its traditions while spreading the Gospel to the world.
Much of the turmoil surrounding Paul, and ultimately the application of the phrase “the righteousness of God,” centered in this ongoing heated conflict between the factions wanting to spread the message of Christ while imputing Jewish traditions and practices on new believers, and those like Paul who realized that Jewish traditions were unnecessary for salvation and righteousness since the price paid by Christ for redemption from sin was enough to cloak the believer with a robe of righteousness. (Isaiah 61:10). Grasping the concept that man could have or even become the “righteousness of God” was unfathomable for most traditional Jewish believers in Paul’s era.
Culturally nearly all religions in Paul’s era, including the state religion of Rome, were polytheistic. The masses identified and chose deities to serve and worship based on their attributes as described mostly in the oral tradition of that day. Judaism and later Christianity were unique monotheistic religion for that period of history with written documentation and guidelines for their faith. Those theologians and religious leaders that took the more traditional belief that the “righteousness of God” described an act of the Divine (ergo not an attribute imputed on believers) were fiercely at odds with the second group as they thought the second group was diminishing the stance and role of God, the creator and Almighty. Essentially they felt that anyone who proclaimed to be able to achieve the “righteous of God” was cheapening the Almighty God and was committing an act akin to heresy.
I believe that is the position that Soards takes in his book The Apostle Paul: An Introduction to His Writings and Teachings. Based on the verses I previously cite in Romans chapter three, I firmly believe the Apostle Paul takes the position that the “righteous of God” is available to mankind through the redemptive which directly opposes popular culture. Since the culture in Paul’s was accustomed to worship deities based on their attributes, this treatment of the “righteous of God” became more and accepted by church leaders and society alike.
About 300 years after the lives of the Apostles, the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire through Constantine’s conversion to and adoption of Christianity as the official state religion. This act effectively made the State inseparable from the Church. The Dark Ages were ushered in during which the state/church imposed brutal control over the will and acts of the people. During the Dark Ages the interpretation and application of “the righteousness of God” was primarily reserved just for the Almighty and for his select few representatives on earth who through after great effort and personal sacrifice have access to the Divine. God forbid that common folk could ever have access to God, independently and without a church leader to allow access!
The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences that Martin Luther nailed to the wall of his church in Wittenberg, Saxony, in 1517 ushered in many revolutionary and controversial reforms that most regard as the singular event that was the beginning of the end of the Dark Ages. Luther’s most controversial beliefs centered around his interpretation and application of the new testament scriptures relating to grace, salvation, and how man can simply receive the righteousness of God as a free loving gift from God. This enraged the church/state who viewed Luther’s beliefs, not only as heretical but also as subversive to the State. After the 1500’s with the impact of Luther’s teaching, the Renaissance, and colonial expansionism, the power of the State church in Europe was greatly diminished.
Although the debate is not as heated today as it was 500 years ago, the same debate over the extent, interpretation, and application of the phrase “the righteousness of God” rages on to this day. I question whether man can limit the Almighty God’s attributes and/or manifestations to just two, or even, any choices. That’s not to say that we cannot strive to learn more about Him, nor am I saying we cannot take positions about our beliefs in and of Him. I caution anyone though who would limit the power and scope of God through their attempts to define Him.
Realizing the God is powerful enough and great enough to not be limited by man’s interpretations and confines really does distinguish Him as the Divine Almighty. Truly, His “ways are higher” than our ways. (Isaiah 55:9). As such I personally believe both opposing positions on “the righteousness of God” are partially correct or even correct, but not exclusively or fully correct. Only our omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent Almighty God can successfully be fully represented on both sides of the argument, and completely correct, at the same time. Just as a train has two tracks, and coins have two sides, I believe that the righteousness of God has two primary non-exclusive means of manifestation, both the Divine and the manifestation of the Divine in the individual who is made righteous, receiving and becoming “the righteous of God” through the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.
Thank God for his distinguishing love. It was God’s love that made him make the ultimate act of mercy to sacrifice his son which paid the price for our redemption from the sin that separated us from God. God’ love manifests itself in his grace, which opens the door for us and our lives to be carnate and spiritual representations of his righteousness on earth.
Valea, Ernest. A Comparative Analysis of the Major World Religions from a Christian
Perspective. Comparative Religion, web, n.d., web, 22 January, 2015.
King James Version of the Holy Bible, You Version Online Bible, web, 23 January, 2015.
Soards, Marion. The Apostle Paul: An Introduction to His Writings and Teachings. Mahwaw:
Paulist Press, 1987. Print.
Vine, William. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Seventeeth Impression).
Old Tappan: Fleming R. Revell Company, 1966. Print.
Hurlbut, Jesse. The History of the Christian Church – Latest Revised Edition. Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 1970. Print.
Tenney, Merrill. New Testament Survey, Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans, 1985.
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