Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Covenantal Concepts of Justice and Righteousness, and Catholic-Protestant Reconciliation: Theological Implications and Explorations *

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Covenantal Concepts of Justice and Righteousness, and Catholic-Protestant Reconciliation: Theological Implications and Explorations *

Article excerpt

The interpretation of perhaps no other phrase has had a greater influence on the trajectory of church history and theology than that of the "righteousness of God" by Martin Luther. For good or ill, neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic can ignore this legacy, and the future relationship between these two traditions depends in part on how this phrase and its related theological postulates are understood. In light of the ongoing efforts between Catholics and Protestants to proclaim a common understanding of the doctrine of justification, (1) there is perhaps no better time than now to revisit the issue critically in the hope of constructing theological bridges intended to foster greater unity of the body of Christ and provide to our culture a concerted understanding of the gospel. In the spirit of this task, I will argue that a rich understanding of the covenantal concepts of righteousness (2) that form the categories within which the language of justification (3) in the Christian scriptures operates can ease s ome of the traditional tensions resulting from overly forensic interpretations employing predominantly Western, classical notions of justice. Furthermore, I will attempt to demonstrate that the relational core of the covenantal concepts better accommodates postmodern critiques and yearnings, providing fertile ground for the nexus of Christ and culture.

Justice (mispat) and Righteousness (tsedeq/tsedaka) in the Biblical Literature

By way of contrast, it is perhaps helpful to look first at the predominant concept that has shaped our understanding of justice in the West. Classically represented, justice in the Western tradition is symbolized by the impartial goddess Iustitia, the impersonal adjudicator who completes her task blind-folded, scales in one hand and sword in the other, resolutely unbiased in every decision. This notion of an abstract standard of justice that is applied equally to all, free of procedural partiality, shapes the entire framework of our modern court system. Additionally, it is quite frequently the unconscious or semiconscious grid through which biblical discussions of justice and righteousness are filtered.

This fact becomes most perspicuous in the difficulty people have in clearly reconciling notions of divine love with the dramatically depicted examples of God's righteous judgments found throughout the Bible. In part, this trouble seems to arise from the often unrecognized distinctives of covenantal concepts of justice vis-a-vis Western models. Hans Boecker's statement regarding the impartial, abstract model of Roman law is telling: "[Sluch concepts are as foreign to the Hebrew mind as it is possible to be." (4) Understanding how and to what extent this is true will help attenuate some of the tensions that have played out historically in the Catholic-Protestant split.

Obviously, to some degree the Western and covenantal models do overlap. The fact that we are able to read much of the Bible without having our basic presuppositions about justice thoroughly challenged points to that fact. Before launching into a thorough discussion, it is important to note that, though two different terms (mispat and the synonyms of tsedeq/tsedaka) are included in this discussion, these terms are often interchangeable (most notably in Amos 5:24) and are frequently combined for emphatic usage (Gen. 18:19; 1 Kgs. 10:9; 2 Chr. 9:8; Ps. 89:14, 119:121; Prov. 2:9; Is. 9:7, 56:1, 59:9, 14; Jer. 22:15, 23:5; Ez. 45:9). (5) When linked together, these terms form a single idea (hendiadys), together representing the ideals of social justice, focusing on the aspects of mercy and kindness. As such, these ideals are also bound up with personal freedom and liberation from that which binds or oppresses. (6) In general, these terms often encompass the entire judicial procedure in it widest sense, as illustra ted by Ps. 1:5-6: (7)

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment [mispat],
   nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous [tsadiqim];
for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous [tsadiqim],
   but the way of the wicked will perish. … 
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