“Justification by faith” may not mean what we are probably used to thinking it means. We may need to start rethinking the possibilities this week, as we are studying Romans 4:1-12 for Sunday, July 18. We will be in the middle of the problem next week, when we come to Romans 5:1-11. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on Romans 4:1-12:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We began looking at Romans last week, with the introduction to the themes of this long Pauline letter. The letter itself is addressed to the young-ish church in Rome, we think in the late 50s CE. At this point in the life of this church, it presumably has a significant history. We think the church would have begun as a mostly Jewish group, into which gentiles were incorporated. When Jews were expelled from Rome for about 10 years, the Jewish members would have left. Now, returning Jewish Christians are being reincorporated into “their” church. As we recognized last week, we ought not to imagine “nothing has changed” in 10 years’ time. We can probably almost imagine the “issues” facing that church.
Based on the evidence of chapter 16, we believe Paul is known to the members of the church – personally to some, by reputation to many more. How popular he is – well, how popular are controversial theologians and preachers in some particular church today? How different do we suppose that would have been in the 1st century?
Our text for this week follows and builds on the argument that’s been developed since 1:16-17. Everyone can know what God requires – it’s plain to everyone living – but people “suppress the truth” and go wrong. Judging others, for that matter, is an admission by the judges that they know what’s right, and simultaneously a self-accusation – because none of us does what we [know we] should. This is as true for Jews, who have the benefit of having received special instruction direct from God, as it is for everyone else, alas.
When God judges the world, God is going to look for right action, not right knowledge, and not group membership (Romans 2:9-11). This doesn’t mean that there’s no advantage in being Jewish and having the signs of belonging to that group. It’s a wonderful thing to have the “oracles of God” (Romans 3:2) and even to have the ability to enlighten other people. But it doesn’t make any difference as far as what’s going to count “in the end.”
But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ / faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all believing / having faith. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now being justified / made righteous by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement / place of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.Romans 3:21-25
This will no doubt sound familiar to most Christians.
There are translation issues that lead us into significant theological issues. All of which have been discussed at such great length elsewhere by so many other people that it seems pointlessly redundant to get into them here. Not trying to be flippant, just weary. How Christians have managed to interpret Paul as meaning something in 3:21-25 that’s diametrically opposed to what he means in 2:9-11 is a wonder.
The main point here is that our text is the next step in Paul’s long demonstration. This next step is a demonstration that Abraham’s example supports his position. In Romans 4:1-12 he builds the case that Abraham’s standing with God is a consequence of Abraham’s faith [he “believed God”], rather than his participation in the activity of circumcision. And this is a big deal, presumably, because whether or not Christians [men, of course] “had to be circumcised” was apparently a hot argument in the 1st century church. At a minimum, it seems to have been a hot argument whenever Paul was around.
Paul will continue the argument about Abraham in verses 13-25. Then he will draw out the implications of his position – that faith or faithfulness is essential, and physical circumcision is not essential – in chapters 5-8.
Romans 4:1-5 is part of the lectionary’s epistle reading for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A, along with verses 13-25. They are in the mix along with Genesis 12:1-4, and John 3:1-17. Or, Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration; there’s a choice when it comes to the gospel. Verses 13-25 alone come around again in Year A, 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, in case we missed them earlier in the year; also Second Sunday in Lent Year B, paired up with a bit of Genesis 17. In other words: Romans 4:6-12 drops out, as one of those things you wouldn’t know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary.
CLOSER READING: In verse 1, Paul refers to Abraham as “our father according to the flesh.” That “our” sounds like it’s addressed to a Jewish audience.
In v2, the question may be whether Abraham was “justified” (NRSV) by works. Alternatively, it may be whether he was “made righteous” or “shown to be righteous” by works.
It would have been all the same to Paul, and to his Greek-speaking audience. For us, however, it depends on how we translate the Greek verb dikaioō, related to the Greek dikaiosunē, related to the Greek dikē and other Greek dik- words. (See this article by the late Rev. Robert Brow) The same translation question comes up again in v5.
The problem arises because we 21st century English-speakers think of “just” and “justice” and “justification” differently from the way we think about “right” and “righteous” and “righteousness” and “being made right and righteous.” We have a tendency to think of just/justice as part of a set of ideas that has to do with courtrooms and judges, while we think of right/upright/righteousness as having something to do with exemplary standards of integrity and good behavior.
We probably don’t think of either of those things as having to do with proper worship rites, or fulfilling one’s familial obligations, or showing proper deference to one’s social superiors and proper kindness and firmness towards one’s servants and dependents and clients. But if we were ancient, even as ancient as Paul and his friends, we probably would think all that. Especially if we were Greek. And we might think of all of that as being ideally aligned with the ultimate cosmic order of things. Which humans are supposed to observe and respect, but which they often fail to observe and respect. We would think of all of that as having something to do with piety. (Greek eusebeia, opposite of asebeia, “ungodliness, impiety,” another idea that shows up in this chapter, v5.)
Maybe because I have just wound up a couple of weeks of teaching Hinduism, it struck me with great force, at long last, that the reason dikaiosunē means “BOTH righteousness AND justice” is because the Greeks are Indo-Europeans. Hello! The idea has evidently come down from the same conceptual area, more or less, as the one marked out by the Sanskrit rta and dharma. We get our words “right” and “rite” from that Sanskrit word rta, which means “cosmic order” and “truth” and all, more or less. A reasonable translation of dharma is probably “sacred duty.” Someone who acts in accordance with dharma – like Rama in the Ramayana – will simultaneously be righteous and just. Righteous, in the sense of doing what’s right, and just, in the sense of treating everyone with whom they interact as they ought to be treated. Because those “two” things are basically all one thing in that world. Rama makes it look easy; it’s harder if you’re Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita.
Back to v2, why does Paul add “but not towards God” to the claim that Abraham would have had grounds for boasting? What makes that addition necessary?
In v3, Paul is quoting Genesis 15:6. God has promised Abram [his name at that time] numerous descendents, which seems farfetched under the circumstances. This is what Abram believes, that is counted as righteousness.
In v4, Paul’s argument has to do with the world of labor and wages. If someone did work for us, we don’t think of their wages as a gift, but as a debt – a liability. [And these days, if we did treat their earned compensation as a gift, we would get charged with multiple counts of tax fraud in federal court. Even if we were very rich and famous.]
So back to the complex of righteousness / justice, in v5, the one who isn’t working or practicing, but who is believing in / having faith in the one who is making just / righteous the impious, that faith is counted as righteousness.
It’s a nice trick. It does sound a lot like the Bhagavad-Gita, too. But I think we have to assume that Paul was not trying to sound like Krishna here.
In v7 Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2, which in our Bibles reads “Happy are those …”
Verses 9-12, the technical issue: was Abraham circumcised or uncircumcised when he was counted “righteous”? According to Paul here, this is hugely important. Since Abraham wasn’t circumcised until Genesis 17, he can be considered the father of everyone who is having faith, whether uncircumcised or circumcised (and having faith, obviously).
So the uncircumcised members of the audience, as well as the circumcised, all presumably having faith, can all also have the same father. Not according to “the flesh” (recall v1) but according to this faith that Abraham had, and that was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”
So: Abraham is the father of the people of God, not according to what divides the members of Paul’s audience, but according to what unites them.
Alternatively: Not according to a ritual practice that is owed by the pious to God, but according to a right reliance on God’s word. That is ultimately what is owed by everyone, everywhere to the God who established the universal cosmic order in the first place. [Everyone knows that. Right?]
Some resources on the relationship of Greek dikaiosunē to Sanskrit rta and dharma:
__________, “Maya and Dike and the Principles of Eco-Justice,” in Hoppe, Elizabeth and Weed, Ronald, eds., From Ancient Greek to Asian Philosophy, Athens Institute for Education and Research, 2007,157-168.
Images: “Saint Paul mosaic,” by Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “An Adventure with a Lion,” from University of North Carolina Department of Classical Studies website; “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,” Valentin de Boulogne, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons