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by David G. Duggan ©
February 27, 2024

Through a dialogue between two characters in "The Brothers Karamazov," Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky proposed that without God all is permitted. Eighteen hundred years earlier, St. Paul addressed almost the same thing: "And where there is no law, there is no transgression" (Romans 4: 15). Paul was not foreshadowing 19th century Russian nihilism, but setting forth the Jewish belief that the law had liberated man, had saved man from himself, but not quite enough. More was needed, but what?

Paul's answer is that faith was the special sauce which freed adherents to the law from sin's bondage. Abraham's faith that God would make him the father of many nations overcame his concern that Eliezer in Damascus would become his heir (Gen. 16:2), and fobbing off his wife as his sister (Gen. 12:13). Neither transgression is criminal, but each shows a focus on the immediate and not the long term.

Faith leads to righteousness Paul said. Without its prefix "self," we don't use the term righteousness any more. There is something smug about the word: lots of add-ons to the old English word "rihte" for "correct" actions or "direct" paths (both correct and direct deriving from the Latin "rectus" for straight). But to Paul, righteousness was the product of faith: because we believe, we act in a way that is "correct" without deviating from the path.

What is more, Abraham's faith was "credited as righteousness" to him, but as Jesus said in the parables of the virgins and their oil lamps (Matt: 25:1-13) and the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31), righteousness isn't transferable. For that we need to look to Jesus and faith in Him.

A utopian socialist in the days before serfdom was abolished, Dostoevsky was saved from the Czar's firing squad at the last second. He went on to write perhaps the first psychological novels, delving into the protagonists' inner life against a backdrop of political repression and moral decay. The nihilist will say that righteousness is the fool's reaction to a world indifferent to his suffering and stupidity. The Christian will say that righteousness, born of a faith in the One who rose from the dead, is the right path to eternal life.

David Duggan is a retired attorney living in Chicago.

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