The MA students in my Romans class are keeping an "Issues Notebook" from Romans. I did a sample entry for them on the phrase, "the righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17. Thought I'd share.
The Righteousness of God (Romans 1:17)
The phrase, “the righteousness of God,” appears several times in Paul’s letters, not least in Romans (Rom. 1:17; 3:21; cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). It is a key concept that has given rise to a good deal of debate among scholars and was a key factor in the beginning of the Reformation. The position I am taking is that it refers to God’s righteousness, especially his character as someone who longs to save his people and, indeed, the whole world. His righteousness also leads to justice in relation to ungodliness. N. T. Wright captures both dimensions well with the phrase, “covenant justice.”
In the Middle Ages, the expression was understood in reference to the “justice of God.” This interpretation followed easily from the Latin of the verse, which renders the phrase as the iustitia Dei. As Romans 1:18 indicates, this understanding is not entirely wrong. God’s righteousness does imply the visitation of justice on the ungodly. However, the Old Testament uses the phrase much more frequently in relation to God’s propensity to save, not his character in judgment.
Martin Luther noticed another grammatical possibility for the phrase, and in it found the seeds of the Reformation. Elsewhere in Romans, it is clear that justification involves God declaring us right with him on the basis of faith (e.g., Rom. 4:1-8). So Luther concluded that “the righteousness of God” in 1:17 referred to a “righteous status from God,” a declaration of our righteousness by God that does not conform to literal righteousness, but is an “imputed” righteousness. It is a legal fiction. In the eyes of God the judge, we are deemed righteous, even though in reality we are not. Herein we find the basis for Luther’s famous saying, simul iustus et peccator, semper repentans, “at the same time righteous and sinner, if we are always repenting.”
John Wesley of course considered Luther’s theology correct on justification but inadequate when it came to sanctification. God not only imputed righteousness to us on the basis of Christ’s righteousness for Wesley. God actually imparted righteousness to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. However, Wesley agreed with Luther on the interpretation of Romans 1:17, that it referred to a righteous status imputed to us from God at our conversion.
The “genitive of source” interpretation, which understood the phrase “of God” to mean “from God,” prevailed until the mid-twentieth century. Then a closer look at Old Testament precedents for the idea of God’s righteousness, as well as the use of the concept in the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, prompted a re-examination of the phrase. Ernst Käsemann, for example, suggested in a famous article that the “righteousness of God” was God’s power to create salvation. Here is was definitely on the right track, given the way the expression is used in Old Testament passages like Psalm 71:1-2; Isaiah 46:13; 51:6; 54:14; 56:1; 59:15-16; 62:1; 63:1, not to mention Dead Sea Scroll passages like 1QS 11.12 and 1QH 12.37.
What was missing from Käsemann’s approach is that he was still not sensitive to the privileged status of the Jews. N. T. Wright initially tried to capture this distinction with the phrase, “covenant faithfulness.” That is to say, the righteousness of God is his propensity to save, but it is especially directed at his people in faithfulness to his relationship with Israel. So the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 refers, in the first place, to God’s faithful character to reach out to his people with salvation and, indeed, both to the Jew and Gentile who has faith in him.
I am not as convinced as Wright that Paul never blurs into other possible meanings for the phrase "the righteousness of God." Indeed, I would love to write an article titled, "Double Entendres in Romans and Galatians." It is so tempting for me to say that in Romans 3:21, Paul is blurring from what would have been the standard reading of the phrase into what we would now call the Lutheran reading of the phrase.