Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Link between Righteousness and Eschatological Torah in Romans 9:30-33

A friend of mine has recently drawn my attention to Rom 9:30-32. The fact that ἔθνη (Gentiles) is anarthrous suggests to me that Paul has in mind either Gentiles viewed generally or an indefinite group of Gentiles. The characterization of these Gentiles in a classically Jewish “derogatory” way as being those who “do not pursue righteousness” (v. 30) is something that was true from the Jewish perspective of Gentiles generally. At the same time, however, Paul’s interest is mainly upon the subset of all of those ungodly Gentiles who “have attained righteousness” (v. 30). The righteousness that the Gentiles were not pursuing is not moral righteousness in a general sense, but the righteousness of a right standing before God on the basis of a commitment to his word, i.e., a righteousness akin to the righteousness that the orthodox Jews of Paul’s day were zealous to pursue through their commitment to torah. Historically how many Gentiles were keen to study the law of Moses with a view to keeping it? Not many. So this Jewish characterization of the Gentiles was generally true. But, with the coming of the new covenant, things had changed. The new covenant “surprise” (from the Jewish perspective) is that morally-lax torah-non-compliant Gentiles have attained the righteous standing before God which the orthodox Jews of the time were so zealous to attain. This right standing has come, however, not on the basis of torah-keeping but rather gospel-keeping (i.e., through faith in Christ as revealed in the gospel).

In Rom 9:31, Paul describes the flip-side of this new covenant surprise: Israel’s legitimate pursuit of righteousness by way of obedience to Mosaic torah proved in the end to be a failure, not because pursuing righteousness through the law of Moses was misguided, but simply because the people of Israel (considered as a whole) “did not attain to the law.” Israel’s not attaining the law has two elements to it. Historically, as the Old Testament is concerned to prove, Israel (as a nation) did not keep or obey the law. Israel’s lack of covenant obedience meant that justification on the basis of such obedience was non-existent. The phrase νόμον δικαιοσύνης (the law of righteousness) in v. 31 is to be understood through the prism of Deut 6:25. Moses taught Israel that “it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.” In other words, if Israel kept covenant with God, then this would be the right response on the level of her covenant obligations before God, and this right response would result in Israel enjoying the status of covenant righteousness before God. During the old covenant age, following the law (in the context of grace) was the way to be right with God and to experience blessing as a consequence (as per God’s promise to bless the righteous and to punish the wicked; see Exod 19:5; 20:5-6). But Paul has in mind more than this historical failure of Israel to attain covenant righteousness. He primarily has in mind the specific situation of his day, namely, the failure on the part of the majority of the Jews at the time to notice the change in the way in which covenant righteousness was to be defined: the old covenant doctrine of justification by the works of the law was superseded by the new covenant doctrine of justification by faith in Christ. This can be seen from Paul’s reasoning in v. 32.

In Rom 9:32, Paul clearly states the reason why the Jews of his day failed to attain such a righteous status before God. It was because they pursued such righteousness through works (where works is shorthand in the context for the works of the [Mosaic] law), and not through faith in Christ. It is important to note here that the concept of faith in view in Rom 9:30-32 (as is common in Paul) is not historically general but specifically eschatological and thoroughly christological. Faith here is specifically an acceptance of the “offensive” Messianic stone of stumbling (Isa 8:14), Jesus of Nazareth, as being (in reality) the tested, precious cornerstone, the sure foundation of salvation, for anyone who believes (Isa 28:16). In other words, Yahweh’s laying of the Messianic stone in Zion (Rom 9:32) is nothing other than the revelation of eschatological torah in Jesus, and faith (which in general is a submissive acceptance of the word of God) is specifically in this context the proper response to this supreme revelation in Jesus. By submitting to the gospel, the Gentiles had attained covenant righteousness. Submission to the gospel is the right response to eschatological torah. But for the majority of the Jews of Paul’s day, tragically, their devotion to the Mosaic way of righteousness prevented them from accepting the gospel. In sum, their “zeal” for the torah of Moses prevented them from recognizing eschatological Torah when he was revealed to Israel.


sujomo said...

Hi Steven,

Thanks for the interesting post with its stimulating thoughts.

You might like to know that there is an article on Bullinger and Romans in the latest RTR, vol 69 no.1 (2010). The writer cites Peter Opitz who is professor of the Institute for Swiss Reformation History in Zurich and observes that Bullinger linked the gift of righteousness with the presence of Christ in the believer. He further observes that Bullinger saw this in light of the 'spiritual food' referred to in John. ie union with Christ through the Spirit.

ie with respect to your post, Christ is not only the eschatological torah-giver, He is Himself the embodiment of eschatological torah. Thus believers feed on Him or internalize Him through union with Him by the Spirit.

cheers, sujomo

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Sujomo, for those interesting connections with Bullinger.

The idea of feeding on the true manna from heaven is ultimately a picture of receiving and internalizing the heavenly revelation embodied in Christ. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the spiritual sense means that we have the power of his blood (i.e., his resurrection life) running through our veins. Reconciling this with the Old Testament prophecies concerning eschatological torah, I take it that this is the power that enables the elect to walk in the covenant, leading to a status of righteousness on the level of fulfilling covenant obligations in the context of grace.

Yes, Christ is the eschatological lawgiver who gives himself as the supreme expression/embodiment of torah. Well put! To have Christ in our hearts is to have Torah in our hearts, and this internalization of Torah is accomplished by the Spirit.