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.


MP said...

You might say it also hangs on the meaning of "as," since in Romans that same Greek word is often translated "for" (which would make sense here in light of Romans 4:10-25). Then we still have to answer whose righteousness this is - ours or God's or neither. What was Abraham's believing counted for? It was counted for righteousness. Whose/what righteousness? Whose/what righteousness is reckoned in Romans 4:11? Those are all great questions that we all wrestle with. Press on brother! Surely the answer is not that our faith is our righteousness - that just seems fatuous considering the great weight of the holiness of God.

Another question (though silly) would be, "what is the meaning of 'it' in Romans 4:21"? Surely it doesn't mean Abraham's believing there. Does it mean our believing in line with the type of believing of Abraham? Or does it mean the righteousness apart from law? (And are these last two questions asking the same thing in different language - i.e., does "believing" = "righteousness apart from law") I know, it's a silly question - but it's how my mind works.

Sorry I don't comment much. I haven't looked at a blog since May - I just don't have time anymore. I also spend all my extra time reading about the Trinity. Grace be with you.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Thanks for your comment. If you're interested in reading on the Trinity, may I recommend Allan Coppedge's "The God Who is Triune." It's an outstanding book. See the link on the main page of the blog.