Monday, March 29, 2010

My Approach to the Old Testament

I have been teaching the Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at a couple of theological colleges in Sydney, Australia, for the last nine years. Perhaps some of you might be interested in my approach to teaching the Old Testament, so here goes:

I strongly advocate that we need to respect the exegetical details of each particular text (even when it challenges our preconceived ideas), but at the same time we always need to place the exegetical details of each particular passage in the context of the bigger picture of the book in which it is found, and indeed the Old Testament as a whole. My general approach to the teaching of individual books of the Old Testament involves considering the historical background of the book in question, summarizing its structure and content, and identifying its major themes. My experience is that students are generally cognizant of the details of many of the more familiar stories of the Old Testament, but where they need to be challenged to think further is in considering the bigger picture of the Old Testament, how the parts fit into the whole.

In terms of the bigger picture, I link the purpose of creation and the outworking of history with God’s desire to reveal himself to humanity through the building of the kingdom of God on earth. Within this overarching purpose, the Old Testament is primarily a story of rebellion and the promise of restoration and realization in the context of God’s relationship with Israel.

The Pentateuch is primarily concerned with the historical background to and the establishment of the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants, which were covenants made exclusively between Yahweh and Israel. Given this covenantal emphasis in the Pentateuch, the key to understanding God’s relationship with old covenant Israel is understanding the nature and function of the Mosaic covenants. Israel’s obligation (both corporate and individual) under these covenants was faith expressed in a holistic way. This was typically talked about in terms of obedience, which was to be pursued in the context of the grace of redemption and atonement. The Mosaic call to obedience was a call for Israel to be loyal to God and his covenant.

If the Pentateuch explains the background to and the nature of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, then the Prophets (i.e., the Former and Latter Prophets) are primarily concerned to trace the historical failure of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. As covenant spokesmen for Yahweh, one of the major functions of the Old Testament prophets was to remind Israel of the nature of the relationship that she was in with God. The four main kinds of prophetic oracle (i.e., indictment, judgment, instruction, and restoration) all presuppose the operation of the Mosaic covenant, and reflect the relational dynamics spelled out in the Pentateuch.

But the message of the Old Testament prophets is quite clear. The Old Testament as a whole is concerned to show that the nation of Israel did not stay loyal to God and his covenant. This covenant disobedience was problematic as, according to the way in which God had structured the covenant with Israel, the efficacy of the system of atonement, and the realization of the blessings of the covenant, were conditional upon Israel’s continuing covenant loyalty.

The consequence of Israel’s covenant rebellion was that the curses of the covenant came down upon the nation, the climax being the military defeat and exile of Israel and Judah. But in a wonderful way, at the lowest ebb of God’s relationship with Israel, God spoke graciously through his prophets of how he would one day act to rectify the situation. According to the Old Testament prophets, the solution to the problem of the covenant disobedience of Israel would be the new covenant, which would involve God sending his Suffering Spirit-filled Servant to Israel, to make full atonement for sin, and to bring Israel and the nations back in faith and obedience to Yahweh, in order that the fullness of the covenant blessings might be realized:

“And now Yahweh says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him … he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’” (Isa 49:5–6).

In this way, the restoration oracles of the Old Testament prophets are prophecies of the gospel, which is the proclamation of the establishment of the new covenant in Christ, the royal announcement of the realization and consummation of the kingdom of God on earth and the fulfillment of God’s promises of blessing.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Is Jesus God? The Significance of the Shema of Jesus in John 10:30

Is Jesus God? The Shema of Jesus in John 10:30 tells us what Jesus himself thought, assuming of course that this verse is an accurate record of what Jesus himself said.

The divinity of Jesus is one of the key themes of the Gospel of John. In a debate with some of his Jewish opponents about whether he was the Christ, Jesus responded with the statement I and the Father are one (John 10:30). Jesus’ opponents obviously understood that he was claiming to be equal with God, because they picked up stones to stone him (in accordance with Lev 24:16) for the sin of blasphemy (John 10:31). This is confirmed in their explanation in John 10:33. In their opinion, Jesus could not be God, because he was a human being.

In the context, the word theon in v. 33 should be translated as God rather than as a god. The sin of blasphemy was (and is) considered in Judaism as being a sin against the name of YHWH. By saying I and the Father are one, Jesus was actually alluding to the Shema, the basic Jewish confession of faith: “Hear [shema in Hebrew], O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one” (Deut 6:4). The Shema clearly teaches that Yahweh is one. But notice how Jesus changes it. In place of Yahweh, he has I and the Father. From the orthodox Jewish perspective, this is gross blasphemy. Jesus was saying that the Shema applied to him! He actually mentions himself before the Father. He was claiming to be Yahweh! This is why his Jewish opponents wanted to stone him. In their opinion, he had blasphemed the divine name.

Jesus’ christological transformation of the Shema is one of the reasons why the orthodox Christian position has been that Jesus is God’s anthropological self-revelation. Christianity teaches in effect that God created a physical universe with the plan of entering the universe himself in a personal way in human form, in the person of Jesus, the image of God, for the purpose of self-revelation.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The New World Translation of John 1:1 and Colwell's Rule

I have been asked to comment of the interpretation of the third clause of John 1:1 in the light of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation and the Word was a god. To insist that John 1:1c should be translated and the Word was a god on the basis of Greek grammar is incorrect. Likewise, some people, seeking to defend the orthodox Christian translation of the clause, have misguidedly appealed to a grammatical rule called Colwell’s Rule.

Colwell stated that “definite predicate nouns [i.e., definite noun complements] which precede the verb usually lack the article” (E. C. Colwell, “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament,” JBL 52 [1933]: 20), approximately 87% of the time (David Alan Black, It’s Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998], 79). That may be true for pre-verbal definite noun complements, but others have pointed out that anarthrous (i.e., non-articular) pre-verbal noun complements are usually qualitative.

In the end, the proper translation of such clauses is dependent on the context, but the balance of probability strongly favors the pre-verbal definite noun complement as being qualitative, hence the suggestion by some that John 1:1c is best translated as and the Word was divine. Given the broader context that Jesus and his disciples accepted the Jewish monotheistic idea that God is one, the New World Translation is clearly a case of eisegesis dictating translation. The idea of the Word being divine is that he shares in the divine nature of the one true God.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What the Gentiles Do by Nature: How to Translate Romans 2:14

It has been traditional for our English versions of Rom 2:14 to translate this verse something like what occurs in the ESV: “For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” Significantly the phrase translated as by nature is taken as qualifying the verb that follows it. Following this translation, the idea is that Gentiles can naturally do some of the things that the law of God requires. From this has developed the idea that Paul is talking here about moral pagans.

But the phrase by nature can also be taken as qualifying the verb that precedes. In this case it should be translated as: “For when the Gentiles, who by nature do not have the law, do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” The idea in this case is not the idea that Gentiles can naturally do morally good things, but rather that Gentiles naturally do not have the law, i.e., the Gentiles, because they are Gentiles and not Jews, do not possess the law of Moses.

Which translation is better?

There are three reasons why the second option is the one to choose. Firstly, the phrase by nature immediately follows the verb that precedes it, whereas it is separated from the verb that follows it by another phrase. The proximity of the phrase by nature to the first verb means that these two syntactical elements have a higher probability of going together.

Secondly, Paul’s usage of the phrase by nature in connection with human beings elsewhere in his letters is consistently used to indicate the nature that a person has by virtue of birth. In Rom 2:27, Paul speaks of Gentiles as “the uncircumcision by nature.” In Gal 2:15: “we are by nature Jews and not sinners of the Gentiles.” And in Eph 2:3: “we were by nature children of wrath.”

Thirdly, in Old Testament and Pauline thinking it is not possible for the natural person to keep the law. In Old Testament thinking, the law must be written on the heart in order for a person to be able to keep it. But the writing of the law on the heart is not a natural phenomenon; it is a work of the Spirit of God. It is inconceivable from an Old Testament perspective for Gentiles naturally to be able to keep torah. And likewise, I suggest, from Paul’s perspective. Gentiles, are clearly born as children of wrath (Eph 2:3) and of the flesh. But “the mindset of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom 8:7). Gentiles cannot by their natural selves keep the law. Neither can Jews for that matter. Only a work of the Spirit of God writing the law on the heart can bring about such a result (Ezek 36:26-27).

All of this confirms, therefore, that the second translation for Rom 2:14 is the way to go. Gentiles are born outside of the Mosaic covenant. By nature they do not have the law.

But as Paul will argue in Rom 8:1-17, thanks be to God for the new covenant in Christ (Rom 7:25)! With the Spirit poured out upon all flesh, and the law written on the heart, God’s people (including Gentiles) are now able to fulfill the requirement of the law (Rom 8:4). It is true to say, therefore, that Christ has come to bring about the obedience of Israel and the nations to torah. What was once unnatural for Gentiles has become natural in Christ.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Law Is Not of Faith: A Salvation-Historical Interpretation

I’ve been asked to explain (in the light of my previous post) what Paul meant when he said that “the law is not of faith” (Gal 3:12). To do that I need to offer an explanation for Gal 3:11: “But it is clear that by the law no one is justified before God, because the righteous will live by faith.”

The law in question in Gal 3:11 is not law in general but specifically the law of Moses. When Paul says by the law no one is justified before God, I do not take this as being a temporally universal statement. The timeframe of the present tense of the verb translated as is justified must be determined from the context in which it is found; and in this particular context the timeframe of the verbal action is delimited by Paul’s eschatological understanding of Hab 2:4, which is quoted at the end of the verse.

Paul’s use of Hab 2:4 in Gal 3:11 is the same as in Rom 1:17. I have argued previously (see “Paul's Use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17: The Righteous Will Live by Faith”) that Paul understood Hab 2:4 as being a prophecy of the new covenant, which would be a time when righteousness would be defined in terms of a positive response to the eschatological revelation of the gospel instead of by means of a positive response to the Mosaic revelation (which is how righteousness was defined under the Mosaic covenant).

In other words, Paul is saying in Gal 3:11 that it is clear from Hab 2:4, which prophesied that covenant righteousness in the eschatological age would be defined in terms of faith, that in the new covenant age no one is able to be justified by a covenantal commitment or adherence to the law of Moses. In other words, Hab 2:4 effectively prophesied that a doctrine of justification by faith would apply in the new covenant age (on analogy with how righteousness was defined for Gentile Abraham).

This then leads us to Gal 3:12: “But the law is not of faith, but the one who has done these things will live by them.” Both clauses of this verse contrast with the content of Hab 2:4. Paul wants to contrast the eschatological faith spoken of in Hab 2:4 with the holistic faith response (i.e., the works of the law) required under the Mosaic covenant.

Now we need to say at this point that there is evidence that the law of Moses did require faith (see my previous post “The Paradox of Faith and Law: Is the Law of Faith or Not?”), but we also need to say that the faith that applied with respect to Mosaic torah was a Mosaic type of faith. The faith that Paul has in mind in Gal 3:12 is the faith that is defined in Hab 2:4, i.e., an eschatological type of faith. By saying that the law is not of faith, Paul is saying that the positive response to God’s revelation that was required under the Mosaic covenant was the response of saying amen to the whole of Mosaic torah, and this contrasts with the new covenant response of saying amen to eschatological, Messianic revelation, which is the gospel. As noted above, saying amen to the law of Moses is faith (in terms of how the ancient Hebrews thought of it); but being a holistic idea, this faith was characteristically talked about using the language of obedience. Paul’s quotation of Lev 18:5 shows this. Leviticus 18:5, properly understood, is simply saying that a commitment to obeying Mosaic torah was the way of blessing and eternal life for Israel according to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant. The typical orthodox (Old Testament) Hebrew way of thinking was that Israel’s covenant obligation was that of obedience to the law, which was an obedience that could be performed if the law was written on the heart. This Mosaic way of thinking is encapsulated in Lev 18:5. Paul is quoting Lev 18:5 in a perfectly valid Jewish manner. Both he and his Jewish opponents accepted that covenantal obedience to torah was the way of righteousness and life under the Mosaic covenant (see also Rom 10:5).

So, by saying that the law is not of faith Paul is really trying to distinguish the required response to old covenant revelation from the required response to new covenant revelation. Old covenant revelation was the law of Moses; new covenant revelation is the gospel. The law of Moses is not the gospel. The law of Moses testifies to the gospel (Rom 3:21); but the gospel per se, and faith in this gospel, could only be proclaimed once the Messiah had been revealed to Israel (hence Paul’s reasoning in Gal 3:23-25). The gospel as the revelation of the righteousness of God is apart from the law (Rom 3:21). The law and the gospel are two interrelated, mutually consistent, but distinct revelations. Strictly speaking, the gospel could not be proclaimed until the Son of God had been revealed (Heb 1:1-2), and the Messianic victory won.

In other words, Paul’s point in Gal 3:12 is that the law of Moses and its required response of obedience is not the eschatological revelation that requires faith, about which Habakkuk prophesied. The law of Moses required obedience (a Mosaic type faith). It did not require an eschatological (Abrahamic) type faith. In effect, in Gal 3:12 Paul proves from the Hebrew Scriptures that his Jewish opponents’ teaching that the Mosaic covenant and its stipulations were still normative for salvation (even after the resurrection of Christ) is out of step with the teaching of the Old Testament prophets, who foresaw, upon the coming of Christ, a new covenant based on a new revelation, which necessarily requires a new definition of what constitutes faith or covenant obedience. The law of Moses prophesied about the Messiah, but it did not proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, for in the Mosaic age Jesus of Nazareth had not yet been born or revealed to Israel. The law of Moses is not eschatological revelation. The law of Moses is not the (eschatological) gospel. In this sense, therefore, the law is not of faith.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Paradox of Faith and Law: Is the Law of Faith or Not?

There are some who, following Gal 3:12, say that the law was not of faith. I can say that too, but the question is what do we all mean when we say that. Some scholars understand the idea that the law is not of faith to mean that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant that operated on the basis of works, which determined solely the temporal blessing of Israel in the land; eternal blessing was to be found in the Abrahamic covenant, and was to be inherited by faith alone. There are yet other scholars who take the Mosaic covenant to be a covenant of works that demanded perfect obedience from Israel, which means that Israel inevitably could not keep the covenant with God.

I agree that the language of obedience and doing dominates in the section of the Pentateuch that deals with the Mosaic covenants (i.e., Exod 19–Deut 34). I think that we must say that the Mosaic covenant demanded the works of the law (Deut 6:25; Ezek 18:5-9; Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12). But it is not as if the language of faith is not employed at all in relation to the Mosaic covenants in the Old Testament. A classic case in point is the author of Ps 119 calling obedience to the Mosaic law the way of faith (Ps 119:30). He also identifies the law of Moses as the object of his faith: “I believe in your commandments” (Ps 119:66).

The key to sorting out this issue, I believe, lies in understanding that faith was typically viewed in a holistic way by Moses and the prophets. The consequence of this is that, under the Mosaic covenants, faith and obedience end up being co-relative concepts. Paying attention to Old Testament anthropology, in particular the role of the heart as the integrating center of the human psyche, is important for understanding why a holistic concept of faith was employed by Moses and the prophets.

So, the law is not of faith, but in another sense it is. It is interesting that when Jesus forcefully critiqued the scribes and Pharisees in Matt 23, he accused them of hypocrisy for being particular about the law of tithing but neglecting the weightier matters of the law: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23).

It is significant that Jesus views faith/faithfulness as being one of the important ethical truths prescribed by the law. It is also important to note in this regard that Jesus’ language does not allow the law to be bifurcated, enabling us to single out faith as operating on a level of its own, separate from the law or the commandments. Faith is spoken of here by Jesus on a par with justice and mercy as the human response required as Israel’s covenant obligation—the parallels with Mic 6:8 are intriguing. And faith, along with justice and mercy, and tithing, are equally (according to Jesus’ teaching in this verse) what the law commanded Israel to do. Jesus clearly says that faith is one of the weightier matters of the law that Israel was to do: “these it is necessary to do, while not leaving aside those.” In other words, Jesus is saying that faith was commanded as part of the law of Moses.

The law is not of faith, but … it is!

The paradox of continuity and discontinuity strikes again.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Significance of Paul's Diatribe in Romans 2

In Rom 2 Paul is not primarily concerned to establish the equality of Jews and Gentiles as sinners, but to challenge the covenantal exclusivism of the Judaizers by opening up the door of Jewish privilege to Gentiles. Paul engages his Jewish opponents in a virtual way through the use of diatribe, which involves him taking on the persona of a debater conducting an argument against an opponent. It is clear from Rom 2:17–20 that Paul was conducting this diatribe with a Jew of orthodox views regarding the chosen status of Israel under the Mosaic covenant. Paul’s diatribal opponent calls himself a Jew, builds his life on the law of Moses, and boasts in God (v. 17). He reckons that he knows God’s will and what is morally right, because he possesses the law of Moses (v. 18). He considers himself to be “a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (vv. 19–20).

Versus 19–20 are significant in suggesting that Paul’s Jewish opponents viewed the law of Moses as having an educational purpose, bringing the knowledge of God’s truth to the blind and those living in darkness, i.e., to the Gentiles. Of course, in the historical context of Paul’s day, this attitude resulted in a significant number of Christian Jews denying the saved status of Gentile Christians unless the latter came under the framework of the Mosaic covenant by undergoing circumcision (if male) and by living in accordance with the teaching of the law of Moses. This issue is clearly portrayed in Acts 15:1–5, and this issue (which led to the calling of the Jerusalem Council) was being replayed among the Christian churches in Rome after the Jews were allowed back into the imperial capital following Nero’s ascension to the throne in A.D. 54.

The rhetorical form of diatribe in Rom 2 means that to understand clearly Paul’s argument in Rom 2 we need to approach it via an orthodox Jewish mindset. This can be done by studying first century Judaism, but in my opinion a familiarity with Old Testament theology is just as sufficient to illuminate the situation. Such a familiarity will help us to see the key allusions to the Old Testament that Paul makes in this chapter.

For example, one of the key eschatological prophecies of the Old Testament is the promise concerning the new covenant in Jer 31:31–24. This passage of Scripture prophesies that God would eventually write his law in the hearts of the people of Israel in a comprehensive way. So when Paul writes in Rom 2:14–15 that “when Gentiles, who by nature do not have the law, do what the law requires, they are the law to themselves, even though they do not have the law, in that they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts,” a Jewish mindset would see a clear allusion to Jer 31:33: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” They would also understand the import of Paul’s argument: Are you saying, Paul, that Gentiles can participate in the blessing of Jer 31:33? Are you saying that Gentiles can keep the law, without having the law? “Then what advantage has the Jew?” (Rom 3:1). You are giving to the Gentiles the privileges that have exclusively been given to us. You are going against the teaching of Moses.

Another key example is the eschatological prophecy of Deut 30:1–14, and Deut 30:6 in particular. Moses prophesied that after Israel’s covenantal failure, symbolized by exile (Deut 30:1, 3–4), God would circumcise the hearts of the people of Israel, so that they might be able to “love the Lord [their] God with all [their] heart and with all [their] soul, that [they] might live” (Deut 30:6). So when Paul writes in Rom 2:26 of a law-keeping Gentile’s uncircumcision being regarded as circumcision, and in Rom 2:29 that true circumcision “is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter,” a Jewish mindset would understand Paul as clearly alluding to Deut 30:6. They would also understand the import of Paul’s argument: Are you saying, Paul, that Gentiles can participate in the blessing of the circumcision of the heart promised in Deut 30:6, without undergoing physical circumcision? “What [then] is the value of circumcision?” (Rom 3:1).

To explain Rom 2 as simply condemning Jews of sin by comparing them to hypothetical law-keeping Gentiles, or the noble pagan, is to fail to understand what Paul is doing in this chapter. Such interpretations go against the Jewish nature of Paul’s diatribe in Rom 2. They fail to see the clear allusions to Jer 31:33 and Deut 30:6 in the chapter, and they do not make sense of the riposte of Paul’s diatribal opponent in Rom 3:1, which only makes sense if Paul’s Jewish opponent has understood him as calling into question the natural Jewish covenantal advantage and the value of physical circumcision. Paul’s diatribal opponent has assumed that this must be case on the basis of Paul’s argument in Rom 1:18‒2:29 that (through the gospel) the possibility of keeping the law has been opened up to the Gentiles, and that Gentiles can participate in the blessing of the Spiritual circumcision of the heart.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Definition of Faith in Luther and Calvin

How faith should be defined is an important theological question, and it is interesting in this regard to compare Martin Luther’s view of faith with traditional Reformed views of faith such as John Calvin’s.

Luther’s concept of faith is based on his dualistic anthropology. Just as the human person can be divided into body and soul, God’s word should be divided into commands and promises (Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther: With Introduction and Notes [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982], 2:317). According to Luther, God’s commands demand works, which can only be performed by the outer man or flesh. Contrasting with God’s commands are the promises of God, which demand faith. For Luther, faith is an action of the inner man or soul; therefore faith cannot be a work (Luther, Works, 2:318). Faith operates only in relation to the promises, and consists of trust in the promises of God (Luther, Works, 2:417). This command/flesh/works versus promise/spirit/faith dichotomy is the basic hermeneutical axiom in Lutheran theology. But in terms of faith, the significant thing is that, in Luther’s opinion, the object of faith is the promises of God.

On the Reformed side, the object of faith has traditionally not been limited solely to God’s promises. Faith for Calvin is primarily the knowledge of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, but it also includes an acceptance of the other parts of God’s word. Summarizing Calvin’s discussion in the Institutes 3.2.1-43, faith is defined as “a knowledge of God’s will towards us, perceived from his Word” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [LCC 20-21; ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; 2 vols.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960], 1:549 [3.2.6]). In particular, Calvin identifies God’s “benevolence or … mercy” as being the core epistemological component of faith (Calvin, Institutes, 1:550 [3.2.7]). Faith is ultimately “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Calvin, Institutes, 1:551 [3.2.7]).

But even though the knowledge of God’s mercy or “the freely given promise of God” is the core or “the foundation of faith,” Calvin denies that the knowledge of God’s mercy is the only component of faith (Calvin, Institutes, 1:575 [3.2.29]). “Faith is [also being] certain that God is true in all things whether he command or forbid, whether he promise or threaten; and it also obediently receives his commandments, observes his prohibitions, heeds his threats. Nevertheless, faith properly begins with the promise, rests in it, and ends in it” (Calvin, Institutes, 1:575 [3.2.29]). Thus, for Calvin, the object of faith is the whole word of God (not merely the promises), although the knowledge of God’s mercy in Christ as revealed through the promises is the focal point of the whole word of God, and hence the focal point of faith.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Paul's Use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17: The Righteous Will Live by Faith

Habakkuk 2:4 is a key Old Testament text for understanding Paul’s theology. Paul says in Rom 1:16–17 that the saving righteousness of God is revealed through the gospel “as it is written” in Hab 2:4: “the righteous will live by faith.”

Habakkuk 2:4 has often been taken as espousing a pan-historical principle of salvation by faith, but this overlooks the fact that Hab 2:4 is a prophecy of the end times. In order to understand this better, we need to pay attention to the flow of the book of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk can be divided into six sections. After the introduction in 1:1, in we have in 1:2–4 Habakkuk’s complaint about wickedness in Israel. Yahweh’s answer is given in 1:5–11. The Lord says that he will punish wickedness in Israel by sending the Babylonians to punish them. In response to this, in 1:12–2:1 Habakkuk complains a second time. How can God solve the problem of evil in Israel by using a nation of idol worshipers who is more wicked than Israel? How can God solve wickedness by wickedness? In 2:2–20 we are given Yahweh’s answer to Habakkuk’s second complaint, and this is followed by a prayer of Habakkuk in 3:1–19 in which he remembers and rejoices in the saving power of God despite the prospect of calamity.

Habakkuk 2:4 occurs in Yahweh’s answer to Habakkuk as to how he could use wicked Babylon to judge Israel. This answer is actually a vision that is to be written down (2:2). According to 2:3, it is a vision that concerns the time of the end. In other words, Hab 2:2–20 is an eschatological prophecy. The core of the vision is Hab 2:4. At the time of the end, there would be someone whose soul was puffed up and not upright. In the context, this seems to refer to Babylon in its eschatological manifestation. It is interesting in this regard that Babylon becomes a symbol in the New Testament for the enemies of God’s people (Rev 16:19; 17:5; 18:2–24). What is implied in Hab 2:4a, therefore, is that God would deal with the problem of using instruments of wickedness to solve the wickedness of Israel by bringing judgment upon those instruments.

In contrast to the arrogant enemy, at the time of the end there would also be another class of person, namely, the righteous: “the righteous will live by his faith” (2:4b). It is important to understand that the Hebrew word translated as faith in Hab 2:4 ordinarily means faithfulness, as the translators of the TNIV acknowledge. Emunah includes within its semantic domain the idea of constancy and persevering loyalty. Emunah is the idea of faith that exists within a perfect marriage (Hos 2:20). The idea that the righteous would live by his faithfulness is a truth that an orthodox old covenant Israelite would have viewed as applying under the Mosaic covenant. The author of Ps 119, for example, can describe the law of Moses as being the way of emunah (Ps 119:30). But the emunah that is spoken of in Hab 2:4, while retaining its standard meaning of faithfulness, is transformed into an eschatological concept by virtue of the context in which it is found.

Apart from the mention of the end in 2:3, Hab 2:6–19 is a series of five woe oracles that prophesy judgment against the eschatological enemy of God’s people. Associated with this judgment is the idea of the earth being “filled with the knowledge of the glory of Yahweh as the waters cover the sea” (2:14). The connection of the language of Hab 2:14 with Isa 11:9 confirms the eschatological nature of this vision. Habakkuk 2:2–20 is clearly an eschatological prophecy, and this is exactly how Paul understood it.

Paul understood Hab 2:4 as being a prophecy of the new covenant, a prophecy of the time of the end when righteousness would be defined in terms of eschatological faithfulness instead of faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant (as per Deut 6:25), which was impotent to bring about righteousness for the nation of Israel, because of the hardness of the hearts of the spiritually uncircumcised majority in Israel. In Paul’s thinking, the emunah in Hab 2:4 matches with the aman root of the verb translated as believed in Gen 15:6, the implication being that the righteousness of eschatological covenant faithfulness would be something that faithful Gentiles would graciously be able to participate in (hence the idea of both Jew and Greek in Rom 1:16, and the law-keeping of the Gentiles in Rom 2:14–15, 26–27).

In conclusion, the truth of Hab 2:4 is not a general principle in its original context, but an eschatological truth that replicates the pre-Mosaic justification of (Gentile) Abraham by faith. In its original context it speaks of eschatological faithfulness rather than a kind of faith that excludes faithfulness as part of its meaning. It is this which led Paul to understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the eschatological torah or word of God that, written in human hearts, brings the fullness of justification, salvation, and life to Jew as well as Gentile, who, through the presence and power of the Spirit of God, are led in the paths of righteousness and faithfulness. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel that brings the righteousness of faith to the nations, because the gospel functions in this way in complete fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.