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Book Review – The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation (Charles Lee Irons)

Charles Lee Irons. The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015. 540 pp. $135.00.

righteousness-of-godThe Righteousness of God is the published form of Irons’s 2011 dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary under Donald Hagner, with Seyoon Kim as second reader and Mark Seifrid as external reader. It’s an exhaustive lexical analysis of righteousness language in the Old and New Testaments that also takes into consideration Second Temple Jewish and contemporaneous extra-biblical Greek usage. More specifically, this monograph focuses on δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ and subjects Cremer’s Hebraic/relational theory to robust lexical scrutiny, strengthening the philological case for a traditional Lutheran understanding of justification by undermining the NPP (New Perspective on Paul) claim that Paul’s δικ-language is sociological rather than soteriological.

Irons begins in Chapter 1 by providing a history of interpretation of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Paul that demonstrates that despite variations in some details, Patristic, medieval, and Reformation interpreters all understood it soteriologically. He also provides a detailed sketch of the interpreters and ideas that led to the NPP understanding of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ as God’s saving activity in keeping with his covenant faithfulness. Then, in Chapter 2, he lays out the methodological assumptions and considerations of the study, dealing with lexical semantics, Septuagint studies, and Jewish literature composed in Greek. As pertaining to lexical semantics, Irons argues that NPP scholars and their predecessors have been guilty of a subtle form of illegitimate totality transfer in which concepts derived from some contexts are read into the lexical sense of the word as well as reading hyponyms as synonyms where “faithfulness” and “righteousness” are in parallel. In regards to Septuagint studies, Irons shows the Achilles’ heel of the Cremer theory to be the fact that not all stereotyped equivalents (a word consistently employed in the target language as the translational equivalent for a word in the source language) are calques (a stereotyped equivalent that has become fixed in the target language).

The next four chapters are the heart of the study, as Irons investigates righteousness in different corpora of relevant literature. He sets the baseline in Chapter 3 by examining righteousness in extra-biblical Greek, surveying a representative sample from the first occurrence of δικαιοσύνη in the 6th century BCE to the 2nd century CE. Irons’s contention in this chapter is that “the Hebraic/relational theory of righteousness operates with a false contrast between Greek and Hebrew thought. Even extra-biblical Greek recognizes that keeping one’s promise is a subset of ‘righteousness.’ Coversely, Hebrew usage is just as judicialy stamped by the concept of iustitia distributiva as extra-biblical Greek, if not more so” (84).

In Chapter 4 Irons surveys the semantic range of צֶ֫דֶק/צְדָקָה in the Hebrew Bible and δικαιοσύνη in the LXX excluding the apocrypha to test the validity of Cremer’s relational theory with respect to the OT. He then weighs what he sees as the seven primary arguments for Cremer’s relational interpretation: righteousness as “thoroughly positive” (never negative); appeal to Hebrew parallelism to negate the judicial element of righteousness; arguing from the LXX’s use of dικαιοσύνη to render חֶסֶד that righteousness is exclusively positive and that dικαιοσύνη has taken on the covenantal overtones of חֶסֶד; that righteousness involves conformity to a norm; the antithesis between “the righteous” and “the wicked”; Psalm 69:27; and Genesis 38:26. Against Cremer’s argument that the Hebrew usage of “my/his/your righteousness” in reference to God’s judicial activity should be classified as iustitia salutifera rather than the Greek/Latin iustitia distributiva, Irons demonstrates that the righteousness of God in both the Hebrew Bible and the LXX (excluding apocrypha) is precisely iustitia distributiva. Finally, Irons briefly examines a representative sample of OT texts that refer to God’s righteousness and shows that fundamentally, this phrase in the OT “refers to God’s justice in executing judgment on the enemies of his people and thereby vindicating his people in the face of their oppressors” (178).

Next, Chapter 5 provides an overview of the righteousness of God in Second Temple literature to see whether the relational theory of righteousness is a semantic possibility for Paul, surveying the DSS, Apocrypha and OT Pseudepigrapha composed in Hebrew, Apocrypha, OT Pseudepigrapha, and other Hellenistic Jewish literature composed in Greek, and NT literature outside of Paul. Irons finds the Qumran writings to demonstrate the highest degree of continuity with OT usage while demonstrating a development and spiritualization of salvific/delivering usage. This spiritualization is not found in Jewish literature composed in Hebrew, Jewish literature composed in Greek, or the NT outside of Paul. Additionally, “righteousness” in the sense of doing something correctly is seen in a very limited fashion in these texts, dealing a decisive blow to the NPP view that δικαιοσύνη has a Hebraic, relational, and covenantal meaning in Paul. Lastly, iustitia salutifera language is found to be quite limited in the Jewish literature composed in Greek and seems to only occur in messianic contexts.

Finally, having thoroughly examined Paul’s linguistic context for δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, Irons turns to Paul himself. He critiquing the view that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Paul is a cipher for God’s covenant faithfulness, critically examines the arguments for the claim that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Paul means God’s saving activity or power, and then positively argues for the traditional Reformation sense of “the gift of righteousness from God.”

The Righteousness of God is a must-read for anyone interested in Pauline soteriology, and especially NPP and specifically δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ. Irons’s exhaustive lexical analysis of all the literature that formed Paul’s context not only strengthens the traditional view of this phrase but is a formidable force that must be dealt with by all future studies arguing for Cremer’s relational view. Regardless of where one stands on the NPP/OPP debate, The Righteousness of God is a significant contribution to Pauline soteriology with which all future conversation must engage.

Many thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy! 

Purchase: Amazon

Leave a comment


  1. Looks interesting. I had figured that by now it was just accepted that Paul means something like, “the righteous character of God” is revealed in the story of Jesus in Romans 1:16-17 and that because the story was about Jesus it had the power to save. I’ll have to think more on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, every time I think there’s nothing left to say on the NPP/OPP debate a new book comes out that makes a valuable contribution.

      Liked by 1 person

        • well, the “New Perspective” is middle-aged now…there have been a lot of responses, and people have largely moved on. in some ways it seems that this debate is over and there’s nothing new to say. But of course, books continue to be written. Since this is a topic I’m interested in, I continue to read what comes out.


  2. Thank you for this review of an incredible book

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jamesbradfordpate

     /  July 29, 2017

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I wish that I had a library close to me that would have this book. Sounds like a fantastic resource!


  5. David Vinson

     /  February 1, 2018

    Hey Jennifer, I just started a Jesus reading blog, and I’m reaching out for feeback, advice, book suggestions, anything. if you have any spare time could you check it out? thanks for the work and writing you do! dbvinson.blogspot.com
    peace! -david vinson


  1. Book Review – The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation (Charles Lee Irons) — @jenniferguo | Talmidimblogging
  2. Biblical Studies Carnival, July 2017 | Ayuda Ministerial/Resources for Ministry

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