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A key point at which N.T. Wright is just plain wrong

I’m currently reading through Tom Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. He writes lucidly and engagingly, with a grand vision and a ready wit.

However, it’s been frustrating going. Not only does he appear to be consistently misrepresenting his opponents (which is frustrating enough), he also misrepresents the Bible at a key point.

On page 69, speaking particularly about the Hebrew background to the term ‘righteousness’, Wright says:

‘Righteousness’ within the lawcourt setting [. . .] denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favour. Notice, it does not denote, within that all-important lawcourt context, ‘the moral character they are then assumed to have’, or ‘the moral behaviour they have demonstrated which has earned them the verdict.’

Notice his claim, which is quite central to his entire view of justification. Wright says that when the term ‘righteousness’ (Hebrew root צדק, Greek root δικαιο*) is used in a lawcourt setting in the Old Testament, it doesn’t mean the moral character of the defendant, but it does mean the outcome of the court’s decision, the ‘verdict’.

Now let’s look at a couple of passages in the Old Testament where the lawcourt setting is in view:

If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting (δικαιώσωσιν / הִצדִּיקוּ) the innocent (δικαιον / צַּדִּיק) and condemning the guilty, …

Deuteronomy 25:1

And

If a man sins against his neighbor and is made to take an oath and comes and swears his oath before your altar in this house, then hear from heaven and act and judge your servants, repaying the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating (δικαιῶσαι / הַצדִּיק) the righteous (δικαιον / צַּדִּיק) by rewarding him according to his righteousness (δικαιοσύνη / צְדָקָה).

2 Chronicles 6:22-23

In both of these passages, righteousness within the lawcourt setting most definitely denotes the moral character that a person is assumed to have, i.e. ‘the moral behaviour they have demonstrated which has earned them the verdict.’ In the second passage, the verdict comes from God himself.

In other words, Tom Wright is plain wrong at this point. Justification and righteousness aren’t merely about the verdict. In these passages (and in others), the verdict of ‘righteousness’ is based on the prior fact of ‘righteosness’, which has a moral character to it.

And this isn’t just a minor oversight or a side issue. This point is a key plank in argument for his view of justification (which I don’t have time to go into here). Wright is claiming that his own view of ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’ is properly based in biblical exegesis of the actual terms themselves, whilst his opponents are importing unbiblical views into their theological understanding.

I wrote about N. T. Wright a few years back, and from reading his latest book, so far I’ve seen very little to change my view of where he’s coming from.

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2 Comments

  1. David Reimer

    Hi there, Lionel! Just stopping by for another purpose, but noticed this post and read it.

    You’re making an interesting point, but I think Wright would have a “come back” on those passages: the “moral” quality that you’re pointing to isn’t borne by the verb here, but by the noun. That is, the declaration of innocence (verb, הִצדִּיק) is one thing, the subject (צַּדִּיק) is another. Strictly speaking, I think Wright’s point can stand.

    IIRC, the צּדק article NIDOTTE also touched on this but my memory on that is a bit hazy now.

    FWIW! Shalom! 🙂

  2. Hi David, good to hear from you. It’s nice that you’re willing to give Wright the benefit of the doubt, and your comment is exactly the way I might have defended Wright until I read this book. But in the context of this quote (in fact, from page 65 onwards), Wright is explicitly and unequivocally making sure his readers realise that he is referring to all of the cognates of “righteousness” – noun, verb, adjective, etc., when he makes this comment. And you’ll notice that that is borne out by the quote itself, where he uses the noun, not the verb.

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