The Father, Justice, and the Hermeneutic of Love

When we confess that God is just, what is it that we mean? Perhaps we mean that God rewards good acts and punishes evil acts, either in this life or the next, in the exact propor­tion they deserve. Let us call this the view of the man on the street. God is likened to a magistrate. Knowing all motivations, particulars, contingencies, and consequences, God’s retributive judgments are always true and accurate. He dispenses perfect justice, universally and comprehensively. No one can complain that they have been treated unfairly; no one can protest that God has not set things right. Human judges may issue defective, even unjust, verdicts, but the LORD never can.

Yet if we define the divine justice as the rewarding of good and the punishing of sin, God would seem to be committed to punish every bad act according to the degree of its badness. Not to do so would seem to imply an abdication of duty. But what then of the divine mercy, which Christians also affirm? Has it not been excluded? It is precisely this question that compelled St Isaac the Syrian to provocatively assert that “mercy belongs to the portion of righteous­ness” and “justice to the portion of wickedness.” Yet as rhetorically powerful as the opposing of mercy and justice may be (we preachers love antinomies), most Christian theologians will not be satisfied to give Isaac the last word. The biblical attribution of justice to the Creator is too strong and pervasive. As YHWH declares through his prophet: “I am the LORD, exercis­ing lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight” (Jer 9:24). Yet equally clearly we cannot allow the divine justice to be reduced to retribution, for that only establishes the very conflict against which Isaac protested. For the way forward, we turn to the prophet of Scotland, George MacDonald.

In his famous sermon “Justice,” MacDonald rejects the identification of justice and retributive punishment. Let us think of justice, rather, as fair play:

Human justice may be a poor distortion of justice, a mere shadow of it; but the justice of God must be perfect. We cannot frustrate it in its working; are we just to it in our idea of it? If you ask any ordinary Sunday congregation in England, what is meant by the justice of God, would not nineteen out of twenty answer, that it means his punishing of sin? Think for a moment what degree of justice it would indicate in a man—that he punished every wrong. A Roman emperor, a Turkish cadi, might do that, and be the most unjust both of men and judges. Ahab might be just on the throne of punishment, and in his garden the murderer of Naboth. In God shall we imagine a distinction of office and character? God is one; and the depth of foolishness is reached by that theology which talks of God as if he held different offices, and differed in each. It sets a contradiction in the very nature of God himself. It represents him, for instance, as having to do that as a magistrate which as a father he would not do! The love of the father makes him desire to be unjust as a magistrate! … God is no magistrate; but, if he were, it would be a position to which his fatherhood alone gave him the right; his rights as a father cover every right he can be analytically supposed to possess. The justice of God is this, that—to use a boyish phrase, the best the language will now afford me because of misuse—he gives every man, woman, child, and beast, everything that has being, fair play; he renders to every man according to his work; and therein lies his perfect mercy; for nothing else could be merciful to the man, and nothing but mercy could be fair to him. God does nothing of which any just man, the thing set fairly and fully before him so that he understood, would not say, ‘That is fair.’

Instead of imaginng God as a courtroom judge, imagine him as a father. How does a good father treat his children? Is he principally concerned to punish in fulfillment of the letter of the law? Of course not. All of his acts toward his children are motivated by love, by the desire to advance their long-term good. When they act wrongly toward another, he will insist that they make apology and restitution. He may even punish (my father typically used a yardstick), but always the good of the child is uppermost in his mind. His goal is to set him or her on the right path. This is the fair play which constitutes genuine justice and best accords with the merciful character of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. God is just because he always acts for the good.

But, the retributivist replies, the Bible tells us that God punishes sin; and if he does so, it must be right and fair. MacDonald, however, rejects every reading of Scripture, no matter how literal and plain, that attributes evil to God:

But you say he does so and so, and is just; I say, he does not do so and so, and is just. You say he does, for the Bible says so. I say, if the Bible said so, the Bible would lie; but the Bible does not say so. The lord of life complains of men for not judging right. To say on the authority of the Bible that God does a thing no honourable man would do, is to lie against God; to say that it is therefore right, is to lie against the very spirit of God.

MacDonald is not afraid to appeal to a basic sense of right and wrong in his interpretation of the Scriptures. “I acknowledge no authority calling upon me to believe a thing of God,” he says, “which I could not be a man and believe right in my fellow-man.” This may sound like mere humanism, but that would misread the Scotsman’s intent. He is appealing to a con­science that has been fully informed by God’s self-manifestation in Jesus Christ. He reads the Scriptures in Christ and through Christ. Like St Isaac, he will not entertain any construal of the Bible that contradicts the character of the Father made known in the incarnate Son. Against the literalism of fundamentalist biblicism, MacDonald proposes a hermeneu­tic of love. When we are confronted with difficult texts, we must either await further enlight­enment and spiritual growth or bring our interpretation in line with the Christological revelation. What we must not do is justify evil in the name of God:

If you say, That may be right of God to do which it would not be right of man to do, I answer, Yes, because the relation of the maker to his creatures is very different from the relation of one of those creatures to another, and he has therefore duties toward his creatures requiring of him what no man would have the right to do to his fellow-man; but he can have no duty that is not both just and merciful. More is required of the maker, by his own act of creation, than can be required of men. More and higher justice and righteousness is required of him by himself, the Truth;—greater nobleness, more penetrating sympathy; and nothing but what, if an honest man understood it, he would say was right. If it be a thing man cannot under­stand, then man can say nothing as to whether it is right or wrong. He cannot even know that God does it, when the it is unintelligible to him. What he calls it may be but the smallest facet of a composite action. His part is silence. If it be said by any that God does a thing, and the thing seems to me unjust, then either I do not know what the thing is, or God does not do it. The saying cannot mean what it seems to mean, or the saying is not true. If, for instance, it be said that God visits the sins of the fathers on the children, a man who takes visits upon to mean punishes, and the children to mean the innocent children, ought to say, ‘Either I do not under­stand the statement, or the thing is not true, whoever says it.’ God may do what seems to a man not right, but it must so seem to him because God works on higher, on divine, on perfect principles, too right for a selfish, unfair, or unloving man to under­stand. But least of all must we accept some low notion of justice in a man, and argue that God is just in doing after that notion.

Of particular interest here is MacDonald’s statement that by his act of creation God has assumed moral obligations toward his creatures. MacDonald seems to be departing from the classical teaching that the Creator is the transcendent source of morality and therefore has no obligations toward the world. Perhaps there is a real disagreement here, or perhaps he is simply saying that God, as Love, always acts in accord with his character. In his unspoken sermon “The Voice of Job,” MacDonald writes:

‘Ah, but,’ says the partisan of God, ‘the Almighty stands in a relation very different from that of an earthly father: there is no parallel.’ I grant it: there is no parallel. The man did not create the child, he only yielded to an impulse created in himself: God is infinitely more bound to provide for his child than any man is to provide for his. The relation is infinitely, divinely closer. It is God to whom every hunger, every aspiration, every desire, every longing of our nature is to be referred; he made all our needs—made us the creatures of a thousand necessities—and have we no claim on him? Nay, we have claims innumerable, infinite; and his one great claim on us is that we should claim our claims of him.

We are made by the Good for the Good. Will God be satisfied with anything less than our fulfillment in him? Is this not his justice? I am reminded of St Thomas Aquinas’s assertion that God eternally wills himself as the Good. I have to mull this over a bit more.

(Go to “The True Grit of God’s Justice”)

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10 Responses to The Father, Justice, and the Hermeneutic of Love

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I asked Jordan Wood to comment on MacDonald’s claim that God has duties toward his creatures:

    “One might object that God’s being the “prior” source of all morality, of all that we call Good, means he stands complete, utterly perfected, self-diffused in Himself–in a word, unbounded to His creatures lately come. Doesn’t the classical view entail that God is free of obligations to His creatures, especially fallen creatures? I answer: the contrary follows. If God is the sole source of all we know and call good, how could He prove less than infinitely Good? God owes us nothing but the debt of love (cp. Rom 13.8), which is no external constraint because He is what He owes (cf. 1 Jn 4.7-21).”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Here I think we gaze into the ineffable and eternally perfect coincidence of need and possession within the Divine. God possesses what he needs, has what he desires, and so, I suppose, he is what he gives.


  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    To have an obligation is to be morally or legally required to do something one hasn’t yet. It is impossible that God should have obligations to his creation because God is pure act and unfettered and for that reason acts out of pure love to do all that love requires with an immediacy that makes the concept of “obligation” meaningless: before one can even formulate the thought “God ought to do X” God is already doing it. Obligation is irrelevant.

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  3. Grant says:

    God is completely free to be Himself and His nature always without restraint or condition, but HIs nature is revealed to be Love, the Good, and His nature is to be Creator. Does God’s nature as Love compel Him, I think it does, just as love compels us, and while admittedly we are creatures and contingent to His uncontingent, infinity Being, pure act as Iain says, where He is the act of existence itself, Being itself and thus there is a infinity gulf between creation and Creator.

    However I think there is still an analogue truth in love as we know it, love is freedom even as it compels us to act, in spontaneous love for another, whether erotic love and desire, a parent’s love of child, a child for parent, sibling deep comradeship and friendship, love compels us. The Gospel’s describe a sense where Jesus own compassion compels Him, His own nature compels compassion, mercy and love, to assume responsibility, care, solidarity and healing for all, love at seeing people coming to Him hurting compels Him to act, and to use an earlier example in the last post to call out Zacchaeus and go to His house. Nothing outside Him forces or necessitates Our Lord doing this, but His own nature and His love for His own creatures and the other because it is a unique other, and a reflection of His own nature, a part of the Triune dance of love, compels Him forward. And although we could say this is Jesus in His humanity we are seeing, we are at the same in the Gospel seeing the Person of the Son, who has both the natures of humanity and the Divine nature present. And it is that same love that the Word choose to take on our nature and join it to Himself and dwell among us, and bring us to Him, to become as a servant because again that is His nature, and therefore the Father’s nature, and the nature of the Holy Spirit.

    The fact we are ever here, and never simply disappear and fall into nothingness is a demonstration of God’s constant and everlasting love towards us, and His commitment to us. Whether you wish to call that an obligation or duty or not, God’s own nature compels Him in being Who He is in complete freedom, and in freely choosing out of love to create us who are completely unnecessary to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But His nature as Love and as Creator perhaps does compel creation, and in creation His Love for all things equally compels an obligation to the other which is at the same time completely freely taken, just as love is both a compelling power and brings a duty and obligation to the other to us, and yet it is freely accepted and is also freeing at the same time, and can think to any we love to know this is true.

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  4. Tom Talbott says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Iain Lovejoy, Grant, and also Jay Wood on two of the questions being discussed here: (a) whether God has any moral obligations at all and (b) whether God acts freely even as his own loving nature compels him to pursue our ultimate good.

    We humans have obligations precisely in those contexts where a failure to meet an obligation is a genuine possibility. But if there was never any possibility that God would fail to love us, given his decision to create us in the first place, or fail to keep a promise, given that he makes one, what sense are we to make of the idea that he is obligated to love us or is obligated to keep his promises to us? As Iain Lovejoy points out, the whole idea of an obligation in such a context seems superfluous or irrelevant. It does not follow, however, that God has no responsibility for our eternal welfare or that we can make “no claim on him” for it. For as George MacDonald in effect pointed out, we are not only entitled to claim our rights as a child of God; our Father in heaven also expects us to claim those very rights.

    Accordingly, God’s eternal nature itself compels him to pursue our ultimate good in this sense: because his love, like his justice, is to be numbered among his essential properties, it is logically impossible that he should fail to pursue our ultimate good. But he nonetheless acts freely in this matter, as Grant argues, in part because nothing external to his own eternal nature causally determines any of these actions on our behalf.

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  5. helix1977 says:

    This is a subject that I am really interested in as well. I have been writing a series of articles on it, and am working on one now that will have a lot of the ideas from MacDonald in it. Here is a very simple expert that I wrote, riffing on MacDonald’s watch illustration. Any comments or suggestions are welcome!

    Here is what I am working on:

    I find in thinking through ideas like this that unless we have concrete examples in our minds we can get off track quickly and accept things that are quite obviously wrong. Any theology we do must be grounded in our day to day life. It has to mean something real. It must correspond to reality in some way. In view of this, let’s imagine a few scenarios and see what justice means in each of them. Once we do this, we’ll look at the Biblical definition of justice and see how it relates.

    For our first example, let’s imagine a simple theft. Let’s imagine that a friend of mine has stolen my car. Clearly, wrong has been done to me. One thing that is important to identify here is that the wrong committed has multiple levels to it. First, there is the obvious: I owned the car, and it has been taken from me. It is easy to see here that the way to bring justice is for the car to be restored to me. However, is that the only thing that needs to happen? Is that the only harm that has been done? Obviously, even if I am able to get my car back, there is still a wrong between myself and the criminal. There is also a wrong done to society in general. By stealing my car, the criminal has affected any number of others besides myself. My family, my colleagues at work, even people I don’t know. Many others are affected by this crime indirectly, even if they don’t know about it yet. This sort of crime damages our ability to operate in society, because we may be robbed again, and we lose trust. So then what is justice in this situation?

    So the first thing that can be done is that my car can be returned to me, if that is possible. If that is not possible, than a substitute may be made. Perhaps the criminal can pay me back with something of equal value.

    Now if this isn’t possible, if the criminal doesn’t have the means of restoring the car to me or paying me back with something of equal value, then justice can’t be done. However, most of us would understand that simply shrugging our shoulders and letting the criminal go free wouldn’t be justice either. We understand that some form of retributive punishment is right and good in this situation. However, no matter how much punishment is put on the criminal in this case, I will never get my car back. So we can see that although the retributive punishment is more just than letting the criminal go free, it doesn’t fully bring justice.

    The important thing to recognize here is that because something valuable has been destroyed and a wrong has been done, there isn’t any way to bring perfect justice to the situation, because value has been subtracted. Damage has been done.

    Beyond that, there is also the wrong committed against me. Let’s imagine that I find my car and forcibly take it back. Is justice than served? Is everything fine? No. A wrong has still been done to me, and there is still injustice between myself and the criminal. Now of course in most countries that are laws that state that for a crime of this type there are fixed punishments, and most of us agree that it is “just” for the criminal to be inflicted with these punishments. This, of course, varies from country to country, and we would probably disagree among ourselves about what these punishments should be. In some countries, they cut off your hand. In most, the criminal goes to jail for a period of time. But does this repair the damage between me and the criminal? Just because the criminal has been punished does not mean that there is no problem between myself and him.

    As we will see as we look to the scriptures later on, the definition of righteous is primarily related to “being in right relationship with others”, and justice is primarily about bringing that righteousness about, and very commonly God’s mercy and forgiveness are involved.

    So then how can God’s true justice be brought to the situation? How can true justice be done? I could forgive the criminal, as Jesus commands that I should. Yet still even if I do forgive, there is still the wrong between myself and the criminal.

    I would submit to you that the only way for true justice to come, the only way that the situation can be made right, is by repentance and restoration. I would submit to you that it is only when love from the wronged meets repentance from the criminal that true justice can come. I would submit to you that the “debt” that is built up from wrongdoing can actually be balanced out by love that is given and received. Restoration of relationship is at the core of justice. Self-giving love is the ultimate power in the universe. We overcome evil with good. This reconciliation of relationship is actually the main theme of the entire Bible as well. It is our primary mission as follower’s of Jesus…we are ministers of reconciliation.

    Who hasn’t actually experienced this? Who hasn’t had a relationship restored and realized that after all the pain and difficulty, something new and good has come into existence?

    Cory Ten Boom tells and amazing story about when she met and forgave one of the Nazi guards:

    “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

    For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      The conundrum remains however: there’s no justice in the forgiveness Cory extends to the guard, as there is no justice in God’s mercy.


      • helix1977 says:

        Well, that is actually the point, isn’t it? What is justice? I actually agree with MacDonald on this; simply punishing a wrong does not bring justice. It may be part of it, and it is sometimes more just to punish than to not punish….but true justice comes with repentance and restoration, not simply punishment. I believe as parents we know this as well. So in Cory’s situation, even though from our human point of view justice has not been done, perhaps the restoration and the love the happened actually did bring a deeper form of true justice. Justice is the making right of things. The restoration of relationship. This is the stunning beauty of the heart of God….pure, self-giving love. He is light. In Him there is no darkness at all.


        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Justice is a complex, loaded term, and not conceived univocally. One can understand justice in terms of the law, or from a moral perspective. If justice is the making right of things – how can this ever be achieved for a victim of violence? Sure there can be healing and restoration (presuming the violence was not fatal), but I don’t think we can call it justice in any case. It appears to me that justice is somehow unbefitting, irrelevant, even inappropriate in matters of restoration; I believe this is indicated by Jesus’ affirmation that he didn’t come to judge. Why then do we Christians continue to speak of justice? This seems to me to be the stunning force of St Isaac’s rhetorical question.


  6. helix1977 says:

    I agree, it is complicated. But I do think there is a mystical “making right” that happens with restoration. Our God is the God of the resurrection, after all. I actually think the primary view of Justice in the Bible is restorative. I think that retributive justice is also used, but it is never God’s perfect justice. It is only a stop-gap measure. I have a series of short articles that I wrote as I worked through these ideas. (Not that I am an authority on it at all, but if you are interested in my thoughts, check it out). Any kind of feedback is appreciated! Here is the first one:

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