Thursday, February 11, 2010

Righteousness, Matthew & Reformed

The term righteousness in Matthew and Paul are not used the same way. Obviously, it is the same word. Righteousness in Pauline theology and in Matthew share a common background in the OT and it's concept. But righteousness in Matthew focuses on the ethical, while the phrase 'righteousness of God' in Paul focuses on the forensic and the saving activity of God. Most New Testament scholars recognize this today, including those within Reformed theology.

Every now and then, you run into a bit of bashing that suggests that the Reformed camps have not figured this out. Since Reformation theology is passionate about justification by faith, it is assumed by critiques that every mention of the world "righteousness" is interpreted by the Reformed as a discourse on justification by faith. In other words, a common charge is that we read the Gospels through the lens of Paul. Of course, there are probably more than a view who have not made the distinction--but this is probably not limited to the Reformed camp.

It is ironic that the best and brightest in the Reformed heritage have long avoided this charge.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes on Matthew 5:6:
Much more important and much more serious from the truly Christian standpoint is, I think, the fact that it is not right to define righteousness in this connection even as justification. There are those who turn up their concordance and look at this word 'righteousness' (and of course you will find it in many places) and say it stands for justification. The apostle Paul uses it like that in the Epistle to the Romans, where he writes about 'the righteousness of God which is by faith'. There, he is talking about justification, and in such cases the context will generally make it perfectly plain to us. Very often it does mean justification; but here, I suggest it means more. The very context we find (and especially its relation to the three Beatitudes that have gone before) insists, it seems to me, that righteousness here includes not only justification but sanctification also. In other words, the desire for righteousness, the act of hungering and thirsting for it, means ultimately the desire to be free from sin in all its forms and in every manifestation. (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 65)
While I do not think exegetically the desire for righteousness includes justification, Lloyd-Jones is careful not to collapse righteousness down to justification. In fact his last line makes it clear it is a desire to be free from sin. Of course, the Christian does desire to be free from the guilt of sin and this is an aspect of justification.

Lloyd-Jones is not the only Reformed writer who understands Matthew's use of righteousness. Consider Gerhardus Vos:
"It would be historically unwarranted to read into these utterances [Matthew 5:6,10; 6:33] the whole doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ." (The Teaching of Jesus, 116).

"Our Lord's doctrine is the bud in which the two conceptions of a righteousness imputed and a righteousness embodied in the sanctified life of the believer still lie enclosed together. Still it should not be overlooked, that in more than one respect Jesus prepared the way for Paul by enunciating principles to which the latter's teaching could attach itself. He emphasized the in the pursuit of righteousness the satisfaction of God should be man's supreme concern." (117)
Vos is clear that the Lord's teaching do natural lead to the unfolding of the doctrine of justification but he understands that you cannot interpret Matthew by the Pauline usage. His discussion does an excellent job of linking kingdom and righteousness and connecting it to the OT background. Referencing the OT background he writes:
"To Jesus righteousness meant all this and much more than this. It meant such moral conduct and such a moral state as are right when measured by the supreme norm of the nature and will of God, so that they form a reproduction of the latter, a revelation, as it were, of the moral glory of God." (Teaching, 105)
Lastly, we turn our attention to Herman Ridderbos. Commenting specifically on Matthew 5:6 he writes:
"The Greek definite article already suggests that the expression refers to something supra-personal, to righteousness "in the full sense of the word," divine righteousness. And it is precisely this divine righteousness which is again and again represented in the Old Testament as the hope and the consolation of the poor and oppressed. It must not be understood in the Pauline sense of imputed forensic righteousness, but as the kingly justice which will be brought to light one day for the salvation of the oppressed and the outcasts, which will be executed especially by the Messiah." (The Coming Kingdom, 190).

Ridderbos goes, commenting on Matthew 6:33: "It may rightly be said, therefore, that kingdom and righteousness are synonymous concepts in Jesus' preaching. " (286)

This brings into question the relationship of eschatology (the kingdom of God) and ethics (righteousness). Ridderbos writes later:
"The norms of the righteousness demanded by Jesus are not founded in an earthly ideal of God's kingdom, nor in the future and transcendent character of the kingdom... It rests solely on God's own communication. Jesus' "ethics" does not consist in some doctrine concerning "goods," nor asceticism. It is the "ethics" of obedience in the full sense of the word. That which is "righteousness," and may be taught as such, is always to be traced back to God's own words." (290).
Our point here has been to spot check a couple Reformed writers on their understanding of righteousness in Matthew. There views are more nuanced and refined then our brief overview. Suffice it to say that they were well aware that we should not collapse Jesus, or Matthew's account of Jesus, into the Pauline concept of righteousness. This is of course a danger that we too should avoid because it such avoidance it the right exegetically step to avoid crashing on the rocky shoals of eisegesis.

The bottom line: the best Reformed scholars the tradition has to offer have been excellent exegetes. The caricatures of reading the word "righteousness" in Matthew and imputing (pun intended) all the Pauline meaning of the term into Matthew have sufficiently been avoided by better exegetes. One cannot help but wonder if sometimes the rhetoric is driven not so much by a desire to see Matthew rightly read but a personal uncomfortableness with any doctrine of imputed righteousness.

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