Habakkuk, one of the minor prophets, has a major message in the Bible. Tucked away in a rather forgotten part of the Bible, the Apostle Paul uses Habakkuk to provide the central theme to his arguably greatest work in the New Testament, the Book of Romans. (credit: Wikipedia – 18 century icon painter – Iconostasis of Transfiguration church, Kizhi monastery, Karelia, north Russia.)
Paul’s most “theological” book in the New Testament, the Book of Romans, is in many ways an extended commentary on one single verse from the Old Testament, Habakkuk 2:4:
Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith (ESV).
That last phrase, “the righteous shall live by (his) faith,” stands in the main thesis statement of Paul’s letter, at the end of Romans 1:16-17. The problem is that this brief little phrase is not entirely self-explanatory.
My late pastor emeritus, Dick Woodward, would teach that the Book of Romans at a high level could be broken down into the different themes emphasized in different parts of the book (Note: “righteous” can also be translated as “just“, from Woodward’s MiniBible College, New Testament Handbook, p. 268):
The just shall live by faith (Romans 1-4).
The just shall live by faith (Romans 5-8).
The just shall live by faith (Romans 12-16).
So, how does one go about unpacking this verse? The great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, puzzled over how to understand this Bible verse, as quoted by the Apostle Paul in the Book of Romans, for at least two years, as a young teacher of theology in the early sixteenth century. Luther’s main problem, at first, was that he considered the idea of righteous as being something that one had to work for, a type of status that one would have to earn before a Holy God. As a person of faith, Luther was convinced that he had to modify his own behavior, such that if he were to become truly righteous, only then could he truly live. But his quest to live a righteous life led him into depression. No matter how righteous he tried to be, he never felt like he was ever good enough to meet God’s rigorous demands. In his own understanding at the time, he actually hated the Gospel message:
I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God (Luther’s account of his own conversion).
Eventually, Martin Luther came to see that he had the logic of the verse all wrong. Instead, he finally learned that a person becomes righteous only by having faith, an implicit trust in God. It was through this faith, and through faith alone, that Luther learned that he was “declared” to be righteous by God, and that, as a result, enabled him to live, to live an eternal life. In a total reversal of thought, Luther had now become born again, loving that which he had hated before:
I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.
Luther’s personal, theological breakthrough kickstarted the whole Protestant Reformation. The stumbling block of trying to understand Habakkuk 2:4 as presented in the Book of Romans was not unique to Luther. In fact, the debate over how the New Testament uses Habakkuk 2:4 for the sake of the Gospel remains a topic of considerable theological debate.