October 25, 2008
Justification and Hebrew Syntax
Genesis 15:6 is a central text for the Christian doctrine of Justification. When Paul developed his understanding of Justification in Romans 4 and Galatians 3, he appealed to Genesis 15:6, "Then he (Abraham) believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness." This verse seems straight forward enough. However, the proper interpretation of this verse and Paul's use of it have been hotly debated. An important element of the debate lies in the meaning of "it," which in the Hebrew is attached to the verb as a third feminine singular suffix. John Piper has argued in detail that in Paul's use of this verse in Romans 4 the "it" refers to God's own righteousness which is external to the individual and which is received by faith (Counted Righteous in Christ, 69). Piper's exegesis is nuanced and is worth considering. He does deal primarily with Paul only mentioning Genesis 15:6 in passing. The other side of the debate suggests that the "it" refers to Abraham's act of believing. Abraham believed God and God credited that act of believing as righteousness. This seems like the most natural way to read Genesis 15:6 to me. The nearest antecedent to "it" in the text certainly appears to be Abraham's act of believing. Genesis 15 is not really concerned with God's righteousness. Rather, Genesis 15 seems concerned with finding a righteous person. Regardless of one's conclusions though, it is the case that the doctrine of Justification turns on the meaning of a third feminine singular Hebrew pronomial suffix. I have a professor who says that preaching is in the syntax. Genesis 15:6 demonstrates that doctrine is in the syntax also.