Righteousness: neither substance nor status

I’ve noticed what I reckon is a false dilemma which has appeared over the meaning of the word “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη). The false dilemma is pretty widespread, but here’s one example. I’ve been following Mike Bird’s excellent, informative and industriously updated blog for a while. Recently, Mike spoke about the meaning of “righteousness” as if there were only two options for understanding its meaning in Paul: righteousness is either a “substance” (i.e. “merits” that can be built up by Christ and infused or imputed to believers) or a “status” (i.e. a verdict of righteous).

But I don’t think either of these options makes sense of the word “righteousness” in its biblical usage. Both a “substance” and a “status” are things that are external to the subject. A substance is a thing that I own and can dispense; a status exists in the mind of a third party (in this case, God). But according to lexica such as BDAG, and according to my reading of the LXX (and the NT), “righteousness” is neither a substance nor a status, but a quality of the individual him/herself. In normal usage, it is a word which refers to the quality of a person; if a person is in line with a certain standard (often, in the Bible, a moral or legal standard), (s)he is said to be “righteous”, i.e. to have the quality of “righteousness”. (S)he doesn’t merely have a substance called “righteousness” which (s)he can own and dispense, nor is (s)he simply considered by a third party to be something; the word means that (s)he can be properly described as inherently having a certain quality. The quality of “righteousness” can be the basis for a status–i.e. if a person is righteous, then they can be examined by a judge and declared righteous and so receive the status of “justified” in the eyes of the judge and anyone who believes the judge (see, e.g., 2 Chron 6:23 LXX). “Justified” is a status, and “justification” is the conferral of a status, but “righteousness” is properly a quality of a person upon which the status of “justification” is based.

I think this is very important to get right when we come to understanding the debates about imputation.

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