I was recently on the Knowing Faith podcast with Jen Wilkin, J.T. English, and Kyle Worley. We had a great time focusing on some of my favorite verses in the Bible, Romans 3:21-26. Martin Luther called those verses, “The chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible.”
This wonderful passage begins with a key line, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law” (v.21). As I noted in the podcast, this phrase “righteousness of God” has occasioned much debate in the modern day. Is this a reference to God’s righteousness (subjective genitive)? Or a reference to righteousness from God (genitive of source)?
Put differently, does this phrase refer to God’s action or activity, or a righteous status bestowed upon humans as a gift from God?
To be sure, Romans uses the term in both ways at different points. But, generally speaking, a case can be made that genitive of source fits Paul’s argument rather well. Just a few quick considerations:
1. This righteousness is something that comes by faith: “the righteousness of God through faith.” Indeed, this is a repeated concept throughout the epistle (cf. 1:17). If this righteousness comes by faith, then it is more naturally taken as something humans receive from God.
2. This righteousness comes apart from law-keeping. Paul starts this section by making it clear that the righteousness he is describing “has been manifested apart from the law” (v.21). If so, then this suggests again that the righteous status of humans is in view, rather than the actions/activity of God.
3. Romans 10:3 contrasts the “righteousness of God” with a person’s attempt to establish “their own [righteousness].” Again, this most naturally suggests that this righteousness of God is a righteous status received from God, apart from works. Moreover, this fits with Paul’s statements elsewhere; e.g., in Phil 3:9, Paul contrasts the “righteousness of my own” with the “righteousness from God that depends of faith.” The latter, therefore, must be something humans receive from God.
To be clear again, I recognize that not every instance of “righteousness of God” in Romans should be taken as a genitive of source. In fact, just a few verses later, I think Paul uses the subjective genitive: “To show God’s righteousness” (v. 25). So, the two work in tandem.
But, the core of Paul’s argument, that we are reckoned righteous because of our faith, suggests genitive of source is the dominant way to take the term “righteousness of God.”
For this reason, I was reminded on the podcast why I liked the 1984 New International Version (NIV). I grew up in the 1980’s when this was the dominant translation, so I already have fond memories of it. But, when it comes to the book of Romans, it translates the phrase “righteousness of God” as “righteousness from God.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean translations that use “righteousness of God” are in error. Those translations have chosen to leave the phrase in the generic form and let the reader figure out what it means. Fair enough.
But the NIV’s dynamic equivalence philosophy led them to make the phrase more plain for the reader. And, in this case, I think they got it right.
As a final thought: I wish Zondervan would bring back the 1984 NIV!
[Note: the picture in this post is my own worn-out 1984 NIV. It has lost so many pages that (sadly) it’s even lost the entire book of Romans!]