The error started with the fifth-century theologian Augustine. The Hebrew Scriptures were written in Hebrew. Later they were translated into Greek. Augustine knew only a little Greek, and he worked primarily in Latin. It was Augustine’s misunderstanding of a Hebrew (Old Testament) concept that led to 1000 years of medieval speculation, and finally the codification of Augustine’s mistake at the Council of Trent.
The following article goes into some detail on this entire process.
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Historically, according to Alister McGrath (professor of Historical Theology at Oxford), “it will be clear that he medieval period was astonishingly faithful to the teaching of Augustine on the question of the nature of justification, where the Reformers departed from it” (“Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification ”, Third edition, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, ©2005, pg 216). However, the key to this was that Augustine's understanding/translation of iustitificare, a Latin term which he held to mean “to make righteous” was “a permissible interpretation of the Latin word”, it was “unacceptable as an interpretation of the Hebrew concept which underlies it.”
As McGrath (“Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” Oxford, UK: and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, ©1985, 1990) pointed out elsewhere:
There are two aspects to Luther’s discovery of ‘the righteousness of God’. The first relates to the nature of this righteousness: Luther discovered a ‘wonderful new definition of righteousness’ which stood in diametrical opposition to human understandings of iustitia. The second relates to the mode by which this righteousness comes to the individual: man cannot perform good works which are capable of earning justification on a quid pro quo basis, but he can totally abase himself, and cry out to God for grace.
This is one of those McGrath statements that has been picked out of his various works and used by Roman Catholics with some glee, noting that, “the Protestant understanding of the nature of justification thus represents a theological novum.” It is a novum because, after Augustine got it wrong, Luther was the first one to get it right. The “infallible” Roman church had gotten it wrong for a thousand years and counting.
One Roman Catholic blogger specifically asked, “How do Protestant apologists deal with the embarrassing absence of their chief article from the earliest years of the Christian tradition?” If he had bothered to read McGrath more thoroughly, he would have seen some of what follows. In fact, “justification” was a hallmark of Jewish understanding of their relationship with God. Beginning with some of the earliest use of the Hebrew root phrase, sdq, McGrath goes on to say:
The oldest meaning of sedaqa, as judged by its use in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1-31), appears to be ‘victory’. This meaning appears to be retained in some later texts, such as 1 Samuel 12:7 and Micah 6:5, although it is clear that the nuances associated with the term have altered. In this early passage, which contains many unusual grammatical forms and rare words, God is understood to have acted in ‘righteousness’ by defending Israel when its existence was threatened by an outside agency. This use of the term allows us to appreciate that the term ‘righteousness’ can possess both retributive and salvific aspects, without being reduced to, or exclusively identified with, either concept. Thus God’s act of judgement is retributive with regard to Israel’s enemies, but salvific with regard to God’s covenant people.
Underlying this understanding of iustitia Dei (“the righteousness of God”) is the conceptual framework of the covenant: when God and Israel mutually fulfil their covenant obligations to each other, a state of righteousness can be said to exist – that is, things are saddiq, ‘as they should be’. There is no doubt that much of the Old Testament thinking about righteousness is linked with the notion of a covenant between God and Israel, demanding fidelity on the part of both parties of a state of ‘righteousness’ is to pertain. The close connection between the themes of creation and covenant in the Old Testament points to a linking of the moral and salvific orders.
Similar understandings of ‘righteousness’ were common elsewhere in the ancient world…. Thus Israel’s triumphant victories over her enemies were seen as proofs of the sidqot ’adonay Judges 5:11) – the iustitia Dei of the [Latin] Vulgate. Even where the specific term ‘righteousness’ is not found, it seems that a clear connection is understood to exist between God’s activity as a judge and Israel’s victory over its neighbours (as at Judges 11:27, and possibly also 2 Samuel 18:31).
At this stage in the history of Israel, the ‘righteousness’ of the covenant does not appear to have been considered to have been under threat from within Israel itself, but merely from external agencies….
A particularly significant illustration of this may be found in the Old Testament attitude to the poor, needy and destitute. As we have noted sedaqa refers to the ‘right order of affairs’ which is violated, at least in part, by the very existence of such unfortunates. God’s sedaqa is such that God must deliver them from their plight – and it is this aspect of the Hebrew concept of sedaqa which has proved so intractable to those who attempted to interpret it solely as iustitia distributiva [‘giving persons their due’] – recall the comparative Latin concept of quod in se est that Luther struggled with, the purely medieval conception of humans being rewarded with grace for “doing what is in themselves”. It is clear that this aspect of the Hebraic understanding of ‘righteousness’ cannot be understood in terms of an impartial judge who administers justice according to whichever party has broken a universally accepted law (10-12).
In other words, God has bound himself by covenant to ‘make things right’ for his people, and to do so by acting unilaterally on their behalf. It’s true, the “range of meaning” of the word sedaqa incorporates other meanings, but this meaning is particularly stressed in the Old Testament.
The strongly soteriological overtones of the term sedaqa can be illustrated from a number of passages in which ‘righteousness’ and ‘salvation’ are practically equated, particularly in many passages within [Isaiah]:Look at that Latin phrase iustitia distributiva. It means ‘giving persons their due’ – and this is not the meaning that the Old Testament understood when it said sedaqa.A similar theme recurs throughout many Psalms, which stress and proclaim ‘the reliable, foundational event of the covenant and the continuous salvific faithfulness of Yahweh in history and worship’. This is not, it must be emphasized, to say that ‘righteousness’ and ‘salvation’ are treated as being synonymous; rather, they are being inextricably linked on account of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. Semantic and theological considerations combine to give the Old Testament concept of ‘the righteousness of God’ such strongly soteriological overtones, which the western concept of iustitia distributive cannot convey (12).
I will bring my sedaqa near, it is not far away, And my salvation will not be delayed. (Isaiah 46:13)
Where Augustine failed specifically was in the “translation” issues – over time, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (in the form of the Septuagint, or the LXX), which was later translated into Latin. And here is where Augustine confused the issue, and where Roman Catholics miss the boat. McGrath studies the tracking of two related Hebrew words through these translations:
‘righteousness’: sedaqa --> dikaiosyne --> iustitia
‘to justify’: hasdiq --> dikaioun --> iustificare
McGrath goes on to note that, in the majority of cases, “the soteriological connotations of sedaqa were so strong that it could not be translated by dikaiosyne, the translators being forced to use eleemosyne – in other words, ‘mercy’. This would be expected to have at l east one very significant consequence for Greek readers of the Old Testament, unfamiliar with its Hebrew original; here they might incounter a reference to God’s dikaiosyne, there to God’s eleemosyne – yet the same Hebrew word, sedaqa, lies behind both. A reader who was unaware that the same Hebrew word was being ‘translated’ in each case might thus conceivably set God’s ‘righteousness’ and ‘mercy’ in opposition, where no such tension is warranted on the basis of the text itself” (16). Similarly:
The considerable influence of Greek philosophy and culture upon Christian thought in its formative period has been well documented. This influence is also mediated through the LXX, whose origins date from the beginning o the third century BC. The term dikaiosyne had by then acquired a generally Aristotelian sense, so that by dikaiosyne we may understand something very similar to iustitia distributive – the notion of ‘giving persons their due’…. It is evident that Aristotle’s understanding of ‘righteousness’ is quite different from that signified by the Hebrew word sedaqa. In particular, dikaiosyne is now a fundamentally secular concept incapable of assuming the soteriological overtones associated with the Hebrew term. While the translators of the LXX appear to have attempted consistency in this translation of Hebrew terms, they were unable to accommodate the meaning of sedaqa by the simple substation of dikaiosyne in every case (14-15)
So that describes the interplay of the “different semantic fields” of the Hebrew and Greek terms that become translated “righteousness” and “to justify”. To be understood properly, the Greek translations of the LXX had to reflect the Hebrew words they were translating. If you retain the Hebrew understanding of the terms, things are understood properly. But it was possible, as well, to read “classical” Greek meanings into the terms. In that case, the result was a misunderstanding. But that is only one part of the equation.
In turning to consider the Hebrew term hasdiq, usually translated ‘to justify’, it is essential to note that it never, at any point in the canonical books of the Old Testament, bears the negative sense ‘to condemn’ or ‘to punish’, its primary sense apparently being ‘to vindicate’, ‘to acquit’, or ‘to declare to be in the right’. The difficulty faced by the LXX translators was that the corresponding Greek verb dikaioun differed from hasdiq in two important respects.
1. In its classical usage, dikaioun with a personal object almost invariably seems to be applied to someone whose cause is unjust, and thus bears the meaning of ‘to do justice to’ – that is, ‘to punish’…. It is therefore clear that the Septuagintal usage of the term represents a significant shift away from the classical meaning of the term towards that of the corresponding Hebrew term – a shift which might prove stultifying to a Greek reader of the Old Testament, not familiar with the Hebrew original….
2. In classical Greek, dikaioun with a personal object applied to a person whose cause is unjust invariably assumes the negative meaning ‘to punish’. [But] the Septuagintal use of the verb in an identical context demands that it assume a positive meaning – that is, ‘to justify’, to declare to be in the right’, or ‘to acquit’. For example, Isaiah 5:22-3 (LXX) follows the wording of the Hebrew Massoretic text very closely. The substance of the complaint is that certain people are, for the sake of financial considerations, ‘justifying the wicked’. This complaint does not make sense if the classical sense of dikaioun is presumed to apply; if the unjust are punished – that is, ‘have ‘justice done to them’ – there can be no cause for complaint. The complaint does, however, make sense if the term is presumed to have a Hebraic background, in that the substance of the complaint is then that certain people have been bribed to declare the guilty to be innocent. It is clear that the term dikaioun, although of classical and Greek provenance, has assumed a Hebraic meaning as a consequence of its being used to translate the sdq words. The Greek reader of the Old Testament, unfamiliar with the Hebraic background to such material, would find passages such as the above highly perplexing.
The locus classicus for the secular Greek use of the verb is Book V of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. If the classical Aristotelian understanding of the concept is applied to the Septuagintal translation of Isaiah 43:26, an apparent absurdity results. Israel is there invited to confess her sins, ‘so that she may be justified’. It is not clear why this should move Israel to confess her sins, since, in the classical sense of the verb, her punishment will follow as a matter of course. Of course, if it is assumed that the Greek verb dikaioun has here taken on the meaning of hasdiq, rather than conforming to secular Greek usage, the meaning becomes clear and comprehensible: Israel is invited to confess her sins, in order that she may be acquitted of them. A similar conclusion must be drawn in the case of Micah 6:11 (LXX), in which it is clear that the rhetorical question expects an answer in the negative – in other words, assuming a Hebrew rather than Greek, meaning of the term.
It is therefore clear that, under the influence of the Hebrew original, the Septuagintal verb dikaioun came to assume a meaning quite distinct from its secular Greek origins.
In some cases, Augustine knew some Greek. But he didn’t know any Hebrew. And thus, when it came time to begin to work with some of these terms in Latin, he relied not on the Hebrew concepts underpinning them, but the “classical Greek”. And Augustine’s mistake, given his stature, was destined to affect “the Church’s” understanding (or misunderstanding) of “justification” for 1000 years. And in fact, Rome codified Augustine’s “goof” at Trent, anathematizing the Gospel and forever writing [yet another outright] error into its “infallible” dogmatic understanding.
A difficulty of a quite different nature arose in the translation of terms such as hasdiq or dikaioun into Latin. The verb iustificare (‘to justify’), employed for this purpose, was post-classical, and thus required interpretation. The general tendency among Latin-speaking theologians was to follow Augustine of Hippo in interpreting iustificare (‘to justify’) as iustum facere (‘to make righteous’)….
As we begin our study of the development of the Christian doctrine of justification, it is necessary to observe that the early theologians of the western church were dependent upon Latin versions of the Bible, and approached their texts and their subject with a set of presuppositions which, it could be argued, owe at least as much to the specifics and peculiarities of Latin language and culture as to Christianity itself.
The initial transference of a Hebrew concept to a Greek, and subsequently to a Latin, context points to a fundamental alteration in the concepts of ‘justification’ and ‘righteousness’ as the gospel spread from its Palestinian source to the western world. The most significant such development, as we shall see, was the widespread assumption that the all-important theological notion of the ‘righteousness of God’ – which, for Paul, lay at the heart of the Christian gospel – was about God giving each person their due.
So just to recap: Roman Catholics think that Martin Luther’s “discovery” of “justification” and “the righteousness of God” was a “theological novum”. They take glee in this. But really, Martin Luther’s “discovery” was really a “rediscovery” of the proper, biblical meaning of these terms. Rome had gotten it wrong, had had it wrong for 1000 years, and at Trent, they dogmatized the mistaken view, so that now they are committed to being perpetually wrong about it, for all time.
This is a re-posting, with some minor editing, of a blog post entitled The Righteousness of God, first published October 29, 2011. Given the ongoing discussion of justification at Green Baggins, I wanted to provide some historical background.