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.