St Isaac the Syrian: The Scandalous Injustice of God

Workers in the Vineyard by Nelly Bube

That God is just is a truism of Christian faith. The Old and New Testament texts that speak of divine justice are innumerable. Theologians have unanimously claimed that justice is a relative divine attribute (Western tradition) or a divine energy (Eastern tradition). All have agreed that the God of the Bible is just … all, that is, except one. All have agreed that justice should characterize the Christian life … all, that is, except one.

“Mercy is opposed to justice,” declares St Isaac of Nineveh.

Mercy and justice in one soul is like a man who worships God and the idols in one house. Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is the equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves; and when it makes recompense, it does not incline to one side or show respect of persons. Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot co-exist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul. As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. (Ascetical Homilies I.51. p. 379)

A little later in the same homily, Isaac provocatively states, “Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life, and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching” (I.51, p. 382). The disciple of Christ seeks to emulate in his life the mercy of God, for it this mercy that God has so graciously showered upon us. Hence the holy mystic instructs his readers, “Do not hate the sinner; for we are all laden with guilt. … Why do you hate him? Hate his sins and pray for him, that you may imitate Christ Who was not wroth with sinners, but interceded for them. Do you not see how he wept over Jerusalem” (I.51, p. 387). What do we know of the justice of God, when all we know is his unmerited grace and forgiveness? The disciples of Jesus seek to become like their Lord and thus to become like God. As a counselor of souls, Isaac knows that when a person turns his heart toward justice, he inevitably becomes consumed with vengeance and the desire for requital. But this is not who God is.

St Isaac then makes his famous pronouncement: “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you” (I.51, p. 387). Surely this must be one of the most revolutionary statements in all of patristic literature. Are you tempted to dismiss it as hyperbole? Know that you are not alone. Moral theologians and philosophers will immediately begin their disquisitions on the virtues and the significance of justice in the good life. Biblical scholars will immediately begin to compile all the texts in Scripture that speak of the justice of God, perhaps with reference to the atoning death of Christ and the Pauline doctrine of justification. Parish pastors and preachers will feel uncomfortable. But virtually everyone will agree that Isaac has crossed over into rhetorical excess. But it is precisely at this point of excess, Isaac would tell us, that the gospel begins:

How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice?—for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (I.51, p. 387)

If you hear in these words echoes of Martin Luther, you would not be wrong; but St Isaac the Syrian is no sola fide Protestant. Luther would find the way that Isaac combines his understanding of the unconditionality of the divine love with a rigorous asceticism quite unacceptable—and he would be the poorer for that. Yet I think Luther would rejoice in this powerful proclamation of the gospel that triumphs over every legalism, every justice.

A special word to preachers: Do not be reluctant to proclaim the gospel of God’s love in its full radicality. Yes, I know all the conundrums it poses. I have wrestled with them the past 35 years. But be assured that it is precisely the scandal of grace that opens the hearts of our people to faith and repentance.

(Go to “Love and the Punishment of Evil”)

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18 Responses to St Isaac the Syrian: The Scandalous Injustice of God

  1. mary benton says:

    “…it is precisely the scandal of grace that opens the hearts of our people to faith and repentance.” Amen. And we are called to live this same radical love (though, of course, we fall short). Thank you for giving me much to reflect on.

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  2. I’m all for the scandal of grace. I sometimes can’t helping thinking God is a fool for loving us so much; that’s when I make my act of trust in that infinite wisdom which reduces me to foolishness. But I still believe that divine justice and divine mercy are ultimately compatible. Thus divine justice is the inevitable outworking of how we respond to his mercy. If we acknowledge our need for God’s mercy and throw ourselves on it, it is just that we receive is and are transformed by it. If we refuse, it is just that our hearts are hardened and we travel to wide, easy path to perdition.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Actually, Michael, I think you have just eliminated the scandal.

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      • I don’t think so. What scandalizes so many is that mercy is unconditionally offered in the first place, when it is so richly undeserved. But the scandal of it will persist in the life to come only for those who reject mercy.

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  3. maryeholste says:

    This makes a lot of sense to me. The justice references in the OT so often refer to the widows and orphans, the ones who would ordinarily get less than justice. “An eye for an eye” was an improvement on what came before: death for an eye. But when Christ comes, he does away with an eye for an eye and commands us to go even farther, to love our enemies. Justice is replaced by love. This is not so much a contradiction as a step forward, but in the same direction, following the trajectory that was begun in the law of Moses. Thank you for your article, Fr. Aidan.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Mary. If justice is understood as restorative, as God restoring that which was lost and the healing the injury that was received, perhaps Isaac would not object to the language of justice as much as he does. But given his understanding of justice as the balancing of the scales, which certainly can be found in the Old Testament, he has no choice but to pit love versus justice. As you note, justice is both fulfilled and surpassed in the eschatological consummation of love.

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  4. PJ says:

    I really appreciate these meditations, Father Kimel, but I must admit that I’m wary about building an entire theology upon the writing of one man. I don’t doubt that Isaac has much to teach us. But so do the hundreds — nay, thousands — of other prominent Christian sages across time and space and myriad traditions who find sweet harmony between the justice and mercy of God. God’s mercy is just, and His justice is merciful. This is not a reality familiar to man, who is wicked, but for Scripture to make any sense — and for Tradition to have any integrity — it must be the truth, strange though it seems to our fallen hearts.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      PJ, I have two more Isaac articles to compose and publish. Get back to me with your concerns then, if you would. I assure you it gets worse. 🙂

      But let me say this: St Isaac may represent a minority report within the catholic tradition, but he is hardly alone.

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  5. syrian88 says:

    A lot of people base their relationship to God heavily on the promise that certain people are going to get their comeuppance at the Final Judgment. Others would feel like there was no point to living as if the Kingdom of Heaven was a here and now reality if “everybody is saved” in the end. I understand this mentality in the sense that I grew up around it, but it really is a terrible mentality to adopt. It is nothing less than the mentality of the elder son in the parable of the prodigal. St. Isaac disabused me of that view of things. I don’t take St. Isaac to be the soul guide of the Christian life, but rather he was the one that made the nature of God’s love understandable to me.

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I do not know if I have made the important point as clear in my two articles as it should be; but please note how St Isaac weaves together his understanding of God and his understanding of the sanctity into which God brings us. God is love, and so we are to become love. God is merciful, and so we are to become merciful. Isaac will not speak of God being just, because that would limit our emulation of Christ, who surpasses all standards of justice. St Isaac is never just theoretical. His theology is grounded in and flows from his spiritual experience of God.

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  7. PJ says:

    But doesn’t Scripture show the justice of Christ? Does Christ not plainly state that men shall be divided based upon their treatment of the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the imprisoned, etc.? “Then [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Eternal punishment versus eternal life. These are the very words of the Lord. And they are fearsome.

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  9. elijahmaria says:

    Dom Columba Marmion [ 1858-1923] in Union With God: Letters of Spiritual Direction”:

    “I am very glad indeed that you were inspired to take up Saint Gertrude. Her spirit is just the antidote for your spiritual ills. Her view of our faults is absolutely true. Faults arising from weakness and really detested in our hearts do not prevent God from loving us. They excite His compassion: “As a father hath compassion on his children, so hath the Lord compassion on them that fear Him, for He knows how we are formed.” This was St. Paul’s great devotion, to present himself before his Heavenly Father with all his infirmities, and has he looked on himself always as a member of Jesus Christ, these infirmities were Christ’s. “Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Try and fill yourself with that spirit of childlike confidence in God.

    It appears to me that the more closely I become united with our Divine Lord, the more He draws me toward His Father, the more He wills me to be filled with His filial spirit.

    You could not do better than follow out that thought. It is the whole spirit of the New Law: “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: ‘Abba, Father!!'”

    Most of your difficulties come from your not allowing yourself to be guided and inspired by this spirit of love, but listen often to the other spirit of fear, which paralyzes your soul and prevents God’s grace.”

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  10. Father Kimel,

    Let me just say welcome back to the blogosphere. I have been here before but did not know that the owner of the blog was you (until this morning when a friend pointed it out to me).

    God’s blessings to you and yours – may the peace and comfort of Christ be upon you.

    I don’t see a big problem with St. Isaac here. I think Matthew 25 can still make sense so long as we see God’s judgment as His allowing us to have what we ultimately want. The wicked’s judgment – I do not want to be with HIm – is confirmed by God – and hence is God’s judgment.

    “Luther would find the way that Isaac combines his understanding of the unconditionality of the divine love with a rigorous asceticism quite unacceptable—and he would be the poorer for that.”

    I’d like to hear more about why this necessarily must be the case….

    +Nathan

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  11. Rhonda says:

    Fr. Aidan,
    I really like this series on St. Isaac the Syrian. Thank you for your effort & thoughts.

    My husband & I have worked within the criminal justice system for decades so I tend to think & write based on those experiences. I do not view justice & judgment as equivalent or interchangable terms. St. Isaac’s presentation of justice seems to me more akin to judgment & I wonder if the original textual word might been better translated as “judgment” rather than “justice”. Justice requires love & mercy in its very definition & practice that take into account relevant & extenuating circumstances for everyone involved; therefore it cannot conflict with God’s love at any time. Judgment does not as it is purely concerned that good-bad results in reward-punishment no matter what the circumstances are nor the final affects on those involved.
    …just my ramblings…

    Thanks to all for some great comments 🙂

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