Postscript: Why the New Perspective claims that “righteousness” means “covenant faithfulness” – and why it’s wrong

Here’s a very insightful post from Lee Irons critiquing the theory that “righteousness” means “covenant faithfulness”. I’ll quote a sizeable chunk of Irons’ conclusions because they’re highly relevant to both of my series on righteousness and covenant:

As you can see, the New Perspective claim that “the righteousness of God” is a cipher denoting “God’s saving faithfulness to his covenant” rests on the outdated Lowthian theory of Hebrew synonymous parallelism. Rather than equating “righteousness” with “faithfulness” (or “salvation”), it is better to see the instances in the Psalms and Isaiah where these terms are used in parallelism as “binoculars” in which these different concepts mutually interpret one another and lead to a picture that is larger than the sum of its parts.

God’s salvation is the result of his faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham. God’s salvation is also an expression of his righteousness, because he executes salvation in a manner that is consistent with his justice and holiness; indeed, salvation itself is an essentially judicial activity, for salvation comes through judgment. For example, at the Exodus, God’s deliverance of his people was accomplished by judgment on the Egyptians. At the cross, salvation was accomplished because the judgment we deserved was borne by Jesus as our substitute.

In other words, when “God’s salvation” or “God’s faithfulness” and “God’s righteousness” are found in parallel, the conclusion we are to draw is not that the word “righteousness” itself means “salvation” or “faithfulness,” but that God’s saving activity comes in fulfillment of his covenant promises and is an expression of his righteousness. Especially in those cases where “salvation” and “righteousness” are parallel (see, e.g., Psalm 98:2; Isaiah 51:5-8; 56:1), the point is that God’s salvation has a strongly judicial dimension.

To conclude, the static Lowthian theory of synonymous parallelism has been superceded in the last 30 years by a more nuanced understanding, and this scholarly shift in the interpretation of Hebrew poetry undermines one of the pillars of the NPP. When properly understood, Hebrew parallelism provides no support for the theory that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is a cipher for God’s faithfulness to his covenant.



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2 responses to “Postscript: Why the New Perspective claims that “righteousness” means “covenant faithfulness” – and why it’s wrong”

  1. Hi Lionel,

    I certainly don’t agree with the way NTW seems to narrow God’s righteousness to covenant faithfulness (at least in interpreting certain passages from Romans). But I think it’s important to note the connection present between God’s righteousness and his covenant faithfulness, i.e., the former does require the latter. A friend recently sent me this from Calvin on Ps 31:1:

    “David desires to be delivered in the righteousness of God, because God displays his righteousness in performing his promise to his servants. It is too much refinement of reasoning to assert that David here betakes himself to the righteousness which God freely bestows on his people, because his own righteousness by works was of no avail. Still more out of place is the opinion of those who think that God preserves the saints according to his righteousness; that is to say, because having acted so meritoriously, justice requires that they should obtain their reward. It is easy to see from the frequent use of the term in the Psalms, that God’s righteousness means his faithfulness, in the exercise of which he defends all his people who commit themselves to his guardianship and protection. David, therefore, confirms his hope from the consideration of the nature of God, who cannot deny himself, and who always continues like himself.”
    John Calvin on Psalm 31:1

    What do you think?

    1. Hi Jason – yes, I think that what you’re saying is pretty much exactly what Lee is saying and what I’m saying – God’s righteousness requires that he be faithful to his covenants, hence the existence of the parallels, but this doesn’t mean that righteousness simply “means” covenant faithfulness in an absolutely synonymous way.

      Calvin is here weighing up three different possibilities for what righteousness means: imputed righteousness, absolute retributive justice, or faithfulness. Calvin opts for the last one. I would agree that if the choice is between these three options, “faithfulness” is the best choice. But I think we can be more precise, because there is another option for the word “righteousness” here, which seems to make the most sense of the Psalm itself. “Righteousness” means justice in a a specific sense. God’s righteousness would mean that God rewards people in line with a particular norm. David calls on God to reward him for his action of calling on God and holding on to God despite all the trouble he’s been facing from his enemies; to give him his due and, by contrast, to punish “the wicked” who clearly don’t hold on to God and act sinfully (verse 17-18). This doesn’t imply that David has acted absolutely meritoriously in his life, just that in this instance he deserves to be delivered and his enemies deserve to be punished. Of course, this kind of righteousness can’t be separated out from God’s faithfulness. But it’s still “righteousness” according to the basic sense of “being in line with a standard”.