Saturday, June 20, 2020

Romans (6) Dik- Words

In the book of Romans, three words based on the same root are common (adjective: dikaios, noun: dikaiosune, verb dikaio). These words link to a similar word in the Hebrew Old Testament (tsedk). The dik- words can be made negative by adding a suffix “a-“; righteous becomes unrighteous.

The dik- words are hard to translate because they do not have obvious English counterparts. Many translations of Romans use justice-based words for the dik- words, ie justify, justification, justice, just. There are several problems with this approach.

  • Using justice-related words adds a judicial/forensic emphasis to Romans that is not fully justified by the text. This makes English translations of Paul’s message misleading.

  • The dik- words are used ten times in Romans 4. This passage describes Abraham’s relationship with God, four hundred years before the law was given. In this context, a judicial/forensic translation makes no sense, because there was no law for him to be judged against. Translation of the dik- words based on the word “right” makes more sense, because Abraham was right with God. He was right in God’s eyes.

    If justice-based words do not fit in chapter 4, they probably do not belong in the earlier chapters of Romans either.

  • The meaning of the word justify has changed over time. In the modern world, a justification is an excuse for doing something we should not have done. A driver caught speeding will try to justify himself by claiming that all the other travellers on the road were going the same speed. Or he will just his speeding by saying that he was late for dinner. However, making excuses was not what Paul had in mind he used the dik- words.

    These days, being justified means that I have an excuse for what I did, even if other people consider it to be unacceptable. If tell say to a person who is not religious that we are justified by faith, they could assume that faith provides an excuse for bad behaviour; but that is not the message of gospel.

  • In a law court, a judge has two options when a person is charged with committing a crime.
    • Acquit the person, if the judge considers that they are innocent.
    • Convict the person of a crime, if the judge considers them to be guilty.
    Paul did not have either of these options in mind in his letter to the Romans. He was not saying that humans are innocent, so “acquit” is not the right word. Paul was actually saying that humans are guilty of sin, but that does not matter, because God is not surprised by this outcome. He wants to rescue his people, rather than punish them, so no penalty has to be paid. Translating the dik- words with words from the law court distorts Paul’s meaning.

  • Satan is an accuser, who loves to accuse humans of crimes and demand that they are punished. He likes a forensic approach to the problems of life because it allows him to make accusations. He likes a courtroom situation because he is an expert prosecutor. Using justice words for the dik- works in Romans plays into his hand because it enables him to make accusations and demand that humans pay a penalty for sin. Choosing a translation of the dik- words that work in his favour is unwise.

  • The Jewish Judger that Paul is challenging is the one who is obsessed with judgment and accusing people. The summary of ranting in Romans 1:18-32 portrays the way that he sees the world. Paul does not just accept his view, but challenges it because it is wrong. The Jewish Judger believes that God is angry with humans because they have rejected his ways and deserve death. If this were true, all humans would need to be justified before God; but that is not true. God still loves the people of the world and wants to rescue them. That means they need to be put right with God, not released from condemnation.

    Judgement and accusation have come against humans, but it is the accuser who brings it not God. Paul is trying to correct this false understanding, so we should not put the Jewish Judger’s spin on the translation of Paul’s words, because it will undermine his message. Therefore, when translating the dik- words, we should avoid judgment/justification related translations and instead focus on our being “put right” by God.

  • I think we should keep our translation of the dik- words simple. Some translators try an insert a whole lot of theology into their translation of the dik- words, eg “covenantal faithfulness”. This might be technically correct, but it goes beyond what Paul was saying, by adding a theological slant to it.

  • Some of the words frequently used to translate the dik- words are religious words that are not used in everyday life. For example, words like justification, justify, righteous, righteousness are words that religious people use, but if they are used by ordinary people, they tend to have a negative meaning, like “self-righteous”. They are not helpful for explaining the gospel, which is what Paul is doing in the first few chapters of Romans.

The core meaning of the dik- words refers to being “right” or “correct”. The adjective means being “right” or doing things correctly. With regard to us, it means having done God’s will. It can be translated “just”, but that is a special narrow sense, and is not the basic meaning. The noun refers to the status of having done things right or done things correctly. For us, it means we have done things the way God wants them to be done, ie, correctly. The verb means to be considered “right”. In contract law, it means having access to a property that is unassailable. In the passive form of the verb, which Paul uses frequently, it means “being put right” or “being made right”.

When I edited a document in which I had inserted Romans 1-4, replacing the existing translations with these words, it made a whole lot more sense.

When Paul says that the “righteousness of God” has been revealed, he was saying that God has been correct in everything he has done. He has always done things right. The “rightness of God” has been revealed.

When Paul says that we have been “put right”, he means that God any barrier between us and him is gone. His Holy Spirit is content to come and live in us.

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