ETS Atlanta – Frank Theilman

Frank Theilman focused on a single issue which is important to the Justification debate without taking on Wright or Schreiner directly.  He was wholly concerned with the phrase “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17.  This is a well known debate, but Theilman resurrected a third option for the meaning of the phrase, which he called the “oldest perspective” on the righteousness of God.

Since the Reformation, the phrase “righteousness of God” was thought to refer to God’s gift of salvation, while in the 20th century several scholars (including Dodd and Käsemann) suggested that the phrase refers to the saving activity of God.  This is the well-known objective versus subjective genitive debate which dominates most commentaries on this verse.  Theilman’s way out of this dilemma is two-fold.  First, he re-introduces the view of Origen, the earliest known commentary on the book of Romans.  According to Origen, the phrase tells us something about God’s character.  God is ultimately fair / just / righteous in his dealings with humans.  In support of this, Theilman pointed out that the other two similar phrases in the immediate context (power of God and wrath of God) tell us something about God’s character.  “Righteousness of God” is positioned between these two genitives, so it is plausible that they all should be read in the same way, as describing something about God’s character.

In support of this point, Theilman points to the contemporary usage of the δικαιοσύνη on coins minted near the time of the writing of the letter to the Romans.  The rationale for this is that the people in Rome would have understood the term consistent with their culture, not the as the Hebrew term is used in the Hebrew Bible.  The word is used on tetradrachma minted in Alexandria from the fourth year of Nero’s reign along with an image of the goddess δικαιοσύνη holding a pair of even scales and a cornucopia.  The point of the propaganda here is that Nero will distribute the produce of Alexandria fairly and impartially.  Of course, in the context of the Roman Empire, this means that people will be treated fairly with respect to their social position.  Paul’s radical idea here is that God treats people fairly without respect to their social position, so that a Greek and a Barbarian will receive equal treatment before a just, impartial (δικαιοσύνη) God.

I was particularly interested in this argument and found it persuasive, although there is no certain evidence that the people who received the letter to the Romans had these coins or knew of this sort of propaganda from the Empire.  It seems likely, but ultimately impossible to prove.  On the other hand, it is possible that Paul’s letter to Rome was intended first and foremost to the elders of the (Christian) synagogues of Rome, people who were aware of the more forensic use of righteousness in the Hebrew Bible and LXX.

Theilman’s second way out of the debate over the meaning of “righteousness of God” was initially less satisfying to me, although it is anticipated by my brief critique of his first point.  He argues that the phrase is intentionally polyvalent.  Paul is fully aware that the phrase could be taken in several different ways and he makes no effort to clarify it since he will unpack several of the ways the phrase can be used in the rest of the letter.  It does refer to God’s gift of salvation as well as God’s saving power, but also his essentially fair character in rendering justice to all impartially. In his view, words like δικαιοσύνη would not have been as precisely defined as they are in modern scholarship, and an ancient reader would have not only understood the polyvalent nature of the phrase, but expected it in a programmatic statement like Rom 1:17.

At the end of his paper, I suppose I felt a little like the people in the crowd after Jesus said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, unto God, what is God’s.”  Both sides can find comfort and satisfaction with Theilman’s view of the righteousness of God, and both sides probably think this suggestion strengthens their case.