δικαιόω: a morphological, lexical and historical analysis

By David Pell

The impetus for this brief post is Bryan’s recent response to Rose in the thread on St. Augustine on Law and Grace. Rose asks about the contention she has heard from Protestants that St. Augustine did not understand the meaning of δικαιόω (dikaiow), which means, according to the Protestants, to count righteous rather than to make righteous. Bryan’s comments on the lexical fallacy and the tradition of interpretation are great, but the Catholic position is also not without its own lexical merit. In this post I will examine the morphology of δικαιόω, show that there is sufficient lexical evidence to support the factitive/causal interpretation and briefly touch on the translation history of the gospels into Latin.

First I’d like to give a real world example of the argument that Rose mentioned, as it is used in contemporary Protestant/Catholic dialogue by a Reformed scholar critiquing the Catholic position on justification. In his article Are We Justified By Faith Alone? – What Still Divides Us: A Protestant & Roman Catholic Debate, Dr. Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, writes:

The verbal ending of dikaiow is declarative; if the biblical writers intended by ‘justification’ a process of moral transformation, there is a perfectly good verbal ending for that sort of thing in Greek: adzo rather than ow. For instance, ‘to make holy’ is translated from the Greek verb, ‘hagiodzo,’ and this word is never rendered ‘to justify.’ When the biblical writers refer to justification, they use the declarative ending; when they refer to sanctification, they use the progressive ending. If it is good enough of a distinction for the biblical writers themselves, surely we should have not trouble with the Bible’s own language.

It’s not my purpose to address the issues of technical terminology and systematic soteriological constructions in the New Testament (justification vs. sanctification, ordo salutis, etc.). That will surely come along when Called to Communion publishes a full article on the doctrine of justification. Here I want to focus, as I stated in my first paragraph, on the verbal structure of the Greek word δικαιόω.  Contrary to Dr. Horton’s contention above, the Greek verb suffix -οω can be, and very often is, factitive, a fancy word for “making/causing something,” from the Latin facere, to make or do.  NB: throughout this article I use the words factitive, transformative and causal almost interchangeably as opposites of declarative.

In Herbert Smyth’s Greek Grammar, perhaps the definitive Greek grammar text, he provides in his section on contract verbs (verbs with an extra vowel in the suffix which cause a vowel contraction) eight examples of verbs ending in the -όω suffix. Of these eight verbs, seven can easily be construed as causative, factitive or transformative. All of these verbs follow the pattern in which the suffix has been added to an adjective or noun, indicating what kind of state the verb is producing in its object.

1) δουλόω, from the noun δολος (slave), means “I enslave.”

2) λευθερόω, from the adjective λεύθερος (free), means “I set free.”

3) ζυγόω, from the noun ζυγόν (yoke), means “I yoke/put under the yoke.”

4) κυρόω, from the noun κρος (authority), means “I make valid.”

5) πολεμόω, from the noun πόλεμος (war), or perhaps from the adjectival noun πολέμιος

(enemy), means “I make an enemy of.”

6) στεφανόω, from the noun στέφανος (crown), means “I crown.”

7) ταπεινόω, from the adjective ταπεινός (low, humble), means “I humiliate.”

These are the examples given in Smyth’s Grammar, and they can be found here. Of course, they are not the only examples. Just off the top of my head I can think of two other examples:

I. πληρόω, from the adjective πληρής (full), means “I fill.”

II. λευκόω, from the adjective λευκός, means “I make white.”

Only one of Smyth’s eight examples of verbs with the -όω suffix has a meaning of “account” or “declare” the object to be the noun/adjective from which the verb is built.

ξιόω, “I think or deem worthy/fit/right,” from the adjective ξιος. It is the way we would say that we deem a person worthy of a thing, or we deem it right to do something. Thus it also comes to take a simple accusative object with the meaning “to honor.”

Lest anyone should assume that I am not accounting for the changes in the Greek language that took place during the Hellenistic period, let me make two further observations. First, Smyth is, I will admit, primarily a grammar of Attic (Classical) usage, but it does from to time include examples from archaic and Hellenistic literature, and it is not as if the words listed above disappeared after the 5th century B.C. Second, Mark Wilson, in his book Mastering New Testament Greek Vocabulary Through Semantic Domains, points out in his short prefatory remarks on Greek word construction, “Verbs expressing causation are formed with -όω, -αίνω, -ύνω, and -ίζω” (Wilson, 15). This has ramifications particularly relevant to Dr. Horton’s statements because it shows that Greek morphology does not prevent the speaker with a clear-cut choice between two options, one being declarative and the other transformational.  Dr. Horton writes that the authors could have simply used the -adzw suffix, but there are multiple suffixes that can perform this task, and -όω is one of them.  Even if we were to grant for the sake of argument that δικαιόω were like ξιόω above, one verb out of eight listed by Smyth, we would not be able to conclude that it does not imply that God declares something about us that is actually the case because of the specific way in which Christ’s work is applied to us. As far as I can tell, the sense of the ξιόω paradigm, if we are to take it as a paradigm rather than an exception to the pattern established by the other verbs, assumes that the object in question is, in the opinion of the verb’s subject, characterized by the adjective from which the verb is constructed. ξιόω means, “I think that the thing is actually worthy.” This is why the verb, as I mentioned above, comes to mean simply “I honor.” In short, at the very least, the lexical evidence does not support the claim that δικαιόω means justification by extra nos imputation rather than justification by infusion. As for the ways in which justification could be described in both transformative and declarative terms, I’ll leave that to the contributors who are better with systematic theology.

From this we can conclude that there is no lexical problem with translating δικαιόω causatively. It is built on the same pattern (noun/adjective + the -όω causative/factitive suffix) that governs all of the verbs listed above (its root being the adjective δίκαιος, “just”). If you search for δικαιόω at the Perseus Project’s online version of Liddell & Scott, the premier research dictionary of Ancient Greek, the simplified definition that you get in the search results is “to make just” 1. It gives as its first example a passage from Pindar which reads, νόμος…δικαιν τ βιαιότατον, “law…justifying [reforming, making just] the most violent of men.” Here the context seems to be one of morally reforming the wrong-doer.

Something should also be said about the historical claim that Augustine and the other Latin Fathers misunderstood this biblical concept because the word had been wrongly translated as iustificare. This claim implies that those great saints, many of whom were not only scholars but were immersed in a living Greek-speaking environment, simply fudged this issue, and we now have superior lexical and exegetical tools to prove it. Augustine was admittedly not very good with Greek, if he knew it at all, but the same does not hold for Jerome, much less the Cappadocian Fathers. Let us turn back to Dr. Horton’s article2:

The Latin Vulgate, Jerome’s 4th century translation of the Scriptures, had been the official translation throughout the middle ages, and its integrity was generally assumed. But then came the Renaissance, a recovery of classical learning that included a return to the original Greek text of Scripture. As Oxford theologian Alister McGrath observes, the best example of the errors in the Latin Vulgate, corrected in tail end of the Renaissance, concerns its translation of the Greek word ‘dikaiosune,’ which means ‘to declare righteous.’ It is a legal term, a verdict. But the Latin Vulgate had translated ‘dikaiosune’ with the Latin word iustificare, which means ‘to make righteous.’ Erasmus and a host of classical scholars recognized that the Greek text required an understanding of justification that referred to a change in status rather than to a change in behavior or mode of being.

I do not know the substance of Erasmus’ or McGrath’s arguments but there is at least one very fundamental and objective reason why Dr. Horton’s application of their conclusions should be called into question: although Jerome’s translation was the first officially commissioned translation of the bible into Latin, many Latin translations had been completed, in part or in whole (it’s not quite clear), before he began in 382. The evidence for these translations exists in manuscripts and in quotations from the Church Fathers. The fragments that scholars have been able to collect has been assimilated into what is now known as the Vetus Latina or Old Latin bible, sometimes known as the Itala bible. In the database that I consulted for this post, full access to which is only available through a subscription that I fortunately possess through my university, I compared passages from the Vulgate and the Itala manuscripts. In every manuscript I consulted for various key passages in Romans, both the Itala manuscripts and Jerome used the verb iustificare. The same goes for the noun iustitia/δικαιοσύνη. Thus Jerome’s translation was not an intrusion that obscured the thought of older Greek Christians and threw the trajectory of the development of doctrine off course. On the contrary, it represents the continuation of a tradition of translation and theological reflection that shows us the common Latin understanding of δικαιόω from the earliest periods of Christianity.  Of course, one could certainly argue that every translator of the bible into Latin from the very beginning got this wrong, but if it can be established – and I think I have done so – that the Catholic understanding of δικαιόω is at least a possibility, then we can address the issue from more a more fundamental historical and ecclesiological perspective (see the links below).

I believe I have shown here that linguistics (Greek morphology), the lexicon and church history (all of it prior to the 16th century) do not in any way contradict the Catholic interpretation of δικαιόω. Thus there is no lexical or historical reason to reject iustificare (iustus + facere) as a reasonable Latin rendition. Consequently, the lexical and historical evidence supports the long tradition of Catholic theological use of the term, from the early Patristic period to our own. For more information on the other considerations relevant to this topic, see The Tradition and the Lexicon and St. Augustine on Law and Grace.

  1. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/resolveform?type=exact&lookup=dikaiow=greek []
  2. I only keep drawing from Dr. Horton because he is a high profile Reformed theologian and this article raises all of the issues I wanted to address. Dr. Horton, from all that I know of him, is a great scholar and Christian gentleman. He has been involved in charitable dialogue with Catholics and was one of my favorite authors when I was a Presbyterian. Only with humility and respect do I reference and critique his writing in an article of my own. []