The English words “justice” and “righteousness” are translations of a single Greek word, δικαιοσύνη, transliterated as dikaiosúne (dik-ah-yos-oo’-nay). I always thought this strange, as the concept of legal justice and righteousness seemed so different to me than the idea of spiritual justice and righteousness. Well, guess what? They are!
It appears that the word dikaiosúne can convey both a sense of forensic human justice/righteousness (as a legal declaration) and divine justice/righteousness, depending on context.
The basis for understanding justice/righteousness from a legal, forensic standpoint rests on the concept of justice as understood in the pagan Greek culture of the time – dikaiosis. The ancient, pagan Greeks, Thucydides for one, adhered to a juridical understanding of this concept as punishment.
So, the translation of the Greek word dikaiosúne, as a word of the pagan, humanistic, Greek civilization, carried with it human notions of equal distribution. This is why Justice is represented by a balance scale. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished by human society in a fair way. But, this is human justice.
Does this human concept of justice/righteousness correlate to the divine justice/righteousness that God revealed to us in Holy Scripture? Do they have the same meaning in the Old and New Testaments?
Let’s look at the question from the context of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros, in The River of Fire, proposes that the traditional Eastern Christian and patristic view of justification is more compatible with the nature of the Christian God in both the Old and New Testaments. He explains:
“The word dikaiosúne, ‘justice,’ is a translation [in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible, ca. 300 BC] of the Hebraic word tsedaka. This Hebrew word means ‘the divine energy which accomplishes man’s salvation.’ It is often translated as ‘charity’. It is parallel and almost synonymous to the other Hebraic word, hesed, which means ‘mercy,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘love,’ and to the word emeth which means ‘fidelity,’ ‘truth.’ This gives a completely different dimension to what we usually conceive as justice. This is how the [early] Church understood God’s justice. This is what the Fathers of the Church taught of it – God is not just, with the human meaning of this word, but we see that His justice means His goodness and love, which are given in an unjust manner, that is, God always gives without taking anything in return, and He gives to persons like us who are not worthy of receiving. “How can you call God just”, writes Saint Isaac the Syrian [7th century Bishop and Theologian], “when you read the passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong; I will give unto this last even as unto thee who worked for me from the first hour. Is thine eye evil, because I am good?'” “How can a man call God just”, continues Saint Isaac, “when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son, who wasted his wealth in riotous living, and yet only for the contrition which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck, and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him lest we doubt it, and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for “whilst we were sinners, Christ died for us!”
The approach employed by many Western Roman Catholic/Protestant scholars (inherited from the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Calvin) uses the human interpretation of dikaiosúne as justice in a form resembling Imperial Roman juridical “Iustitia”, or Roman Law. This is at odds with Eastern Christian interpretation of dikaiosúne as the divine justice of Old Testament tsedaka and as God’s justice exemplified in the New Testament parables of the Workers in the Vineyard and the Prodigal Son. The traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades particularly of the Western Latin forensic notion of justice/righteousness, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works.