Herbert McCabe and the Unfathomable Mystery of Divine Forgiveness

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Consider the following scenario:

  • We sin and God gets angry.
  • We repent and plead for mercy.
  • God forgives.

Crudely put, I admit. Eastern readers will likely protest that the scenario is alien to the Orthodox understanding of God; Protestants and Catholics may issue a similar protest—but bear with me. Isn’t this what we learned in Sunday School? Who can read the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32 and not come away with the conviction that when we act immor­ally, God’s attitude towards us changes. The scenario can be made less offensive to modern sensibilities, but the basic structure remains: sin brings upon us divine judgment and wrath. It is now up to us to do something to abate the divine anger. Strategies have historically included repentance, confession of faith in Jesus, almsgiving, reparations, pilgrimages. Inherent to this structure are two elements: (1) a change in God’s attitude and (2) a penitential transaction that placates God and repairs the relationship.

Why do we think that the above scenario accurately reflects the way of things? Because this is how it works between human beings. I injure you—not incidentally, not acciden­tally, but deliberately, degradingly, maliciously, gravely. Your heart cries out for ven­geance. What must happen for the relationship to be restored? I must accept responsibility for my actions, express genuine contrition, ask for forgiveness, and offer restitution. By so doing I disown the evil I have done. But there is still one thing left. You must forgive me. Only then will my guilt be removed and relationship restored; only then do we cease to be enemies.

Note that it is possible for the injured party to forgive the offender before he has apolo­gized and made atonement. Philosophers and moral theologians debate whether this is a good or bad thing to do. Richard Swinburne, for example, suggests that forgiveness before repen­tance and reparation trivializes the evil that has been committed: “It is both bad and inef­fective for a victim of at any rate a serious hurt to disown the hurt when no atonement has been made” (Responsibility and Atonement, p. 86; also see Charles Griswold, Forgive­ness). In Swinburne’s eyes forgiving a wrongdoer before he has repented amounts to condonation of his crime. On the other hand, many victims have found that forgiveness of the wrongdoer, even absent their repentance, can be spiritually and psychologically beneficial.

But what about God? Many biblical texts can be cited to support the belief that divine forgiveness is contingent upon the sinner’s repentance and change of heart. David Konstan believes that a conditionalist interpretation is supported by both the Old and New Testaments:

Consider King Solomon’s prayer to God in 1 Kings 8:33-34: “When thy people Israel are defeated before the enemy because they have sinned against thee, if they turn again to thee, and acknowledge thy name, and pray and make supplication to thee in this house; then hear thou in heaven, and forgive [or be propitious toward: cf. the Greek ἵλεως] the sin of thy people Israel, and bring them again to the land which thou gavest to their fathers.” In the hymn that concludes the book of Isaiah, we again find an emphasis on returning to the path of God (55:7) “let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” So too in Jeremiah, the Lord will accept the just and honest man (5:1), and reject the wicked, above all, those who have forsaken him (5:7); but those who return will find redemp­tion. This idea found deep resonance in the later scriptural interpretation….

This concern with confession and remorse as the conditions for God’s forgiveness is continued in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark reveals a particular interest in the role of repentance (μετάνοια). Thus John the Baptist is described as having appeared in the wilderness, κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν (“preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” 1:4; cf. Luke 3:3). Luke too affirms that repentance is essential for forgiveness: ἐὰν ἁμάρτῃ ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἐπιτίμησον αὐτῷ, καὶ ἐὰν μετανοήσῃ ἄφες αὐτῷ (“if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,” 17:3). Repentance is a crucial condition for forgiveness: there is no evidence in the New Testament that forgiveness is understood to be unconditional, although this is not always stated explicitly. (“Before Forgiveness,” pp. 101- 102; emphasis mine; also see his book of the same title)

Many preachers, biblical scholars, and theologians agree with Konstan, as do many of the Church Fathers. Thus St Mark the Ascetic: “No one is as good and merciful as the Lord. But even He does not forgive the unrepentant.” One might also invoke the penitential practices of the Church to support a conditionalist interpretation of divine forgiveness. After all, absolution always comes after the confession of sin, not before.

And yet …

Let’s return to the popular scenario with which I opened this article: we sin, God gets angry; we repent, God forgives. This is a perfectly acceptable image of God, says Fr Herbert McCabe. Wickedness is serious business, and it is appropriate for us to think of God as becoming angry when we break his holy commandments. God does not condone evil. He opposes it with all of his might. But this is only one image and needs to be set alongside the equally biblical image of “the God who endlessly accepts us, the God who endures our sins and forgives us all the same” (God, Christ and Us, pp. 15-16). God is the husband who forgives his wifely harlot over and over again. God is the shepherd who abandons his flock to rescue the one lost lamb. God is the woman who turns her house upside down to find a lost coin. God is the Crucified who cries out from the tree: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Yet even the image of the absolving God does not tell us the whole truth. “The fact is,” explains McCabe, “that the God of wrath and the God who relents are both good but inadequate images, merely pictures of the unfathomable, incomprehen­sible love which is God” (p. 16). Neither image is literally true. Both portray God as anthro­pomorphically changing his mind about us: when we sin, God becomes angry and punishes; when we repent, God puts aside his wrath and re-friends us. But the reality is that God never changes his mind. He is always and eternally in love with us. McCabe puts it bluntly: “In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns” (Faith Within Reason, p. 157). We do not need to win his forgiveness, for in Christ he has already embraced us in grace and mercy.

If we are going to understand anything about the forgiveness of sin we cannot just be content with pictures; we have to think as clearly as we can…. The initiative is always literally with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of sin is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgive­ness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom again. (God, Christ and Us, pp. 16-17; emphasis mine)

McCabe invites us to contextualize the inter-personal model of forgiveness within a proper construal of divine transcendence and the Creator/creature relationship. When we tell a story of two or more persons, we of course must present them as acting and reacting: I do something, and you respond; I respond to your response, and you do something. That is what happens between persons who live in time. Hence it is not surprising that when the biblical writers sought to tell the story of the God who had entered into covenant with Israel and the Church, they portrayed him as one person among a universe of persons, a person who believes and feels and acts and reacts, who gets angry when his creatures rebel against his just rule and who puts aside his anger when they repent. But it cannot be literally true. The literal truth is something infinitely more marvelous:

God does not respond to his world. He does not adjust his reaction to suit good people or bad. You do not have to be good before God will love you; you do not have to try to be good before God will forgive you; you do not have to repent before you will be absolved by God. It is all the other way round. If you are good, it is because God’s love has already made you so; if you want to try to be good, that is because God is loving you; if you want to be for­given, that is because God is forgiving you. You do not have to do anything, or pay anything, in exchange for God’s love. God does not demand anything of you. Nothing whatsoever. (p. 27)

The literal truth is Love—absolute, unconditional, infinite, unrelenting Love.

(10 April 2016; rev.)

(Go to “Scandalous Prodigality”)

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15 Responses to Herbert McCabe and the Unfathomable Mystery of Divine Forgiveness

  1. It seems more likely that-

    1. We sin and incur guilt (the objective historical fact of our having introduced disorder into God’s creation that warrants a debt of punishment).

    2. Knowing the wages of sin, we repent.

    3. We experience the remission of our guilt.

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    • I like that. It is a good description, yet it too is an image which does not fully capture the reality – the active presence of the immutable God in our repentance and healing.

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  2. Dee of St Hermans says:

    A beautiful article, Fr Aidan.

    I’m not familiar with McCabe’s writing but your selections encourages me to read his work. BTW he apparently wrote a critique on Charles Davis’ leaving the Catholic Church. I met and knew Dr Davis when I was a young woman living in Montreal at the time. His lectures were powerful.

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  3. In response to Swinburne, Robin Collins’ articles on the atonement are excellent. Let me share the beginning of one of his papers:

    “There was a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So the father divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son went off to a distant country, squandered all he had in wild living, and ended up feeding pigs in order to survive. Eventually he returned to his father, saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me one of your hired servants.” But his father responded: “I cannot simply forgive you for what you have done, not even so much as to make you one of my hired men. You have insulted my honor by your wild living. Simply to forgive you would be to trivialize sin; it would be against the moral order of the entire universe. For ‘nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a son to take away the honor due to his father and not make recompense for what he takes away. ‘(2) Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath– my avenging justice–must be placated.'”(3)
    “But father, please…” the son began to plead.
    “No,” the father said, “either you must be punished or you must pay back, through hard labor for as long as you shall live, the honor you stole from me.”
    Then the elder brother spoke up. “Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him. Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath.” And it came to pass that the elder brother took on the garb of a servant and labored hard year after year, often long into the night, on behalf of his younger brother. And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father’s wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.(4)

    The above parable will strike many of you as a perverted version of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. And, I believe, it should. Yet it essentially embodies the most widely accepted story of the Atonement that has been told in Western Christianity since the time of Anselm in the eleventh century, and as George Foley notes (232), has been the basis ever since the Protestant Reformation for what has been called Evangelical Theology. As we shall see, this story is actually a mixture of two theories of the Atonement– Anselm’s Debt or Satisfaction theory, and the Penal theory of the Reformers–theories which essentially say that Christ’s death satisfied the debt demanded by the moral order, or paid the penalty demanded by divine justice, for our sins. Many Christians have read and heard these ideas countless times in books and sermons, and such teachings probably have seemed perfectly acceptable, sensible, and biblical. We might ask, however: if these theories (which are closely related) are really quite unbiblical when their claims are transposed into the concrete situation of Jesus’ parable, why have they been accepted by so many Christians? And are they really the only alternatives available?”

    http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/38692/208738/1263475937360/Understanding+Atonement+-+A+New+and+Orthodox+Theory.pdf?token=65NPVjq7bsxgcZmef0UBS5KTbX8%3D

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  4. ‘Yet even the image of the absolving God does not tell us the whole truth. “The fact is,” explains McCabe, “that the God of wrath and the God who relents are both good but inadequate images, merely pictures of the unfathomable, incomprehen­sible love which is God” (p. 16).Yet even the image of the absolving God does not tell us the whole truth. “The fact is,” explains McCabe, “that the God of wrath and the God who relents are both good but inadequate images, merely pictures of the unfathomable, incomprehen­sible love which is God”

    Beautiful! True.

    ‘In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns.’

    I tend to think that sin unrepented or sin committed to is the “damn.”

    ‘Our sorrow for sin just is the forgive­ness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us.’

    This explains how the debate between “Saved by grace alone” and “Saved by grace and works” is based on a false dichotomy. (It’s always nice to see other people who are saying the same thing oneself has been trying to say; possibly who have been saying far before oneself started to do so.)

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  5. I love McCabe’s essays on forgiveness. It’s so refreshing, especially considering that he is a Catholic Dominican (who usually confine themselves to abstract metaphysical concerns don’t generally have a reputation for this level of pastoral insight). Thanks a million for reposting this father.

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  6. oliver elkington says:

    I enjoyed reading this a lot but isn’t the danger that we could end up taking Gods forgiveness for granted if we think he will forgive us even if we are unrepentant and die unrepentant? I believe it was Aquinas who said that presumption is nearly as grave a sin as despair.

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    • Grant says:

      This isn’t really being presumptive at all but rather trusting God than ourselves or our own capacities (or lack thereof) and trust when Christ says it is finished, when says that now when He is raised up the hour of judgement has come, that now shall the ruler of this world be be cast out and He shall draw (or drag) all men to Himself, that in Christ God is reconciling all the world to Himself and so and so on.

      Rather than God letting some arbitrary point being set up that can happen randomly to any of us at any time, with all our complex and complicated situations leading to whether we have repented or even realized areas that need repenting before suddenly the random roulette wheel of chance shuffles us off this mortal coil and it’s suddenly over, and God shrugs His shoulders and says, well times up it’s done, of to the fires for you, God has not let this reality take charge. Instead, as St Paul says, death is defeated, death has no sting, it has no victory, Hades has been harrowed, despoiled and can claim nor hold no one nor anything. In Christ God has wholly overthrown it, that is the Good News of the Gospel, there isn’t some arbitrary cut off time that someone needs to have repented before it;s all over. There is all the time and beyond for all people and all conscious agents for God in His grace and creatively to freely bring them all to freedom and repentance and embrace the life before them. He has already ransomed all from death.

      Basically we can put away the neurosis that has claimed the majority of Christian piety, it’s fear that either God is out to get them, or that death is more powerful than God and Christ never truly defeated it. It cannot claim us, it has defanged, it’s chains broken, it has been cast out and will be destroyed through all of creation. And this is good, because the truth is none of us will ever truly repent fully for many of fallen states and areas before death, not fully and truly. But thankfully we aren’t screwed, instead we are all saved, life has claimed us and triumphed over death, and we need fear not as neither death nor life, heaven nor hell, angel nor demon can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (and that includes the sin afflicting us and our clouding our judgements).

      As St Paul says, O Death where is your sting? Oh grave, where is your victory? It has all been overthrown, Christ is victorious, life has claimed us. That is the Good News, and that means this neurosis can be left behind as the aspect of a fallen deception that it is, a powerless voice trying to get it’s last confused jib in, it is done. Be not afraid, Christ is King and Lord, not death.

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  7. oliver elkington says:

    Thanks, i really appreciate your comment but what you are trying to say is basically that God will give us endless chances to forgive us with an unlimited time of trial as opposed to the typical human life span of 80 off years, is that not presumptuous to basically take Gods forgiveness so much for granted that whatever we do, however we live our life he will say “carry on sinning if you want, there are no consequences you can treat my mercy as a joke if you want, there is no justice, i am not concerned about that” I am sorry but there is nothing in the Bible or the church teaching that allows us to believe that God has given us an unlimited time of repentance, that is presumptuous i think.

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    • Grant says:

      Firstly I think you are misunderstanding or misconstruing my reply with “carry on sinning if you want, there are no consequences you can treat my mercy as a joke if you want, there is no justice, i am not concerned about that” as you might on that basis say that God says this in relation to our life here prior to death or His appearing just with His setting of an arbitrary and random point in which He’ll say to some ;well you lucked out boy, time for eternal torture for you’. So that part is a little silly, as just as God remains concerned for justice and hates evil now so will it be over time, but love and justice are one and same. God’s justice is His love that hates evil and death for what it does to creation, how it traps and mars and wishes it freed, healed reconciled and restored, with all things paid back and heal which is the only full and true justice. As St Issac says, His justice has nothing to do with our fallen concept of justice with it’s retribution, rather as Christ said, the judgement of God was Him raised on the Cross asking for the forgiveness of all, which as He is the exact Image of the Father is God’s will and justice revealed, which is nothing like the justice of the fallen powers and authorities He cast out.

      Secondly I presume nothing other than what is revealed in Christ, is that is presumptuous then being a Christian at all, or asserting anything about God is presumptuous which would make both of us my friend 😉 . I simply trust the very things from the Bible and church teaching I already related in my post, and elsewhere, I trust absolutely when He says in the Cross the judgement of God is revealed and the prince of the world has been cast out, that He will draw all men to Him, I trust nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, I trust that death is defeated, so it can hold no one. Therefore there is no point where death claims us or God abandons us sinners to it’s hold, that Hades has been ravaged and despoiled, it can hold no one, and so death is no cut off point since it has no more power on us. I trust that death will be destroyed and found nowhere in creation and God will be all in all. I trust that Christ has the keys of death and Hades.

      It’s not presumption my friend, I trust Christ is who He says He is, and He has achieved what He and apostles say He has achieved and that the Father is who Christ reveals Him to be.

      If that is presumptuous, then I’m proud to be called so, as it me, it is simply having faith in Christ.

      Hope that helps 🙂 .

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Oliver, may I recommend George MacDonald’s homily “The Consuming Fire for a different perspective. And after that, then take a look at his homily “Justice.”

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  8. oliver elkington says:

    Again i appreciate your answer but the problem with presumption and you mentioned at the end of your answer that you would be quite happy to be called presumptuous if it means believing that God will always forgive us indefinitely is that It is not the sort of attitude God is looking for, you see would God be able to have someone enter heaven saying “you would always forgive me no matter how rotten my life is as a person” Don’t you think someone with that mindset would find living in Heaven very uncomfortable as finally perfection would be demanded of them? There is to be no half hearted attitude in Heaven, we will have to be for God and his will completely so i cannot see how someone who thinks they can sin indefinitely being comfortable in Heaven, perhaps you will be able to explain how it can be well!

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    • Grant says:

      My friend again you aren’t following what we universalists actually assert, I recommend doing some reading of the articles on this site, or reading George MacDonald (or you can go back to St Gregory of Nyssa), or read DBH book or Thomas Talbott or others. You actually need to understand the orthodox universalist position held in the Church before your offer this kind of response which isn’t what any of us here assert. For example read this article on church life journal:

      https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-severity-of-universal-salvation/

      On George MacDonald you could read these:

      https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/03/27/meeting-the-consuming-fire-of-god/

      https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/04/09/the-hell-of-self-and-the-redemption-of-the-outer-darkness/

      https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2020/04/26/george-macdonald-against-hans-urs-von-balthasar-on-universal-salvation/

      Now pretty simply no one is going to come into the fullness of theosis or the beatific vision (depending which confessional side your coming from) as we pass into His light and consuming fire that is God, consuming all fallen works and banishing all illusions with “you would always forgive me no matter how rotten my life is as a person” attitude.

      No more than someone being brought as this article is says to repentance now, when the Light that is Christ shines into the darkness we are in, and reveals even a smallest aspect of our ourselves with our deceptions and allusions removed we feel genuine conviction (I assuming as Christian you know what I’m taking about). We see ourselves for the damaged people were are, good but hurt and broken, seeing our true self in Christ and how far we are fallen from Christ glory. That is God’s forgiveness and healing work in action, through our life as Christians bring us to reconciliation, as we come out of the shadows of our illusions and shadow selves and see it, our state and ourselves as sinners bound and afflicted by death, and changing our hearts, converting and calling to God in mercy. Before His love and clarity of Him who is Truth, to see ourselves and Him and others and creation increasingly in Truth, in that uncreated Light, in that Fire, that fire Our Lord baptizes with, it burns away false works and illusions and we are drawn by our liberated understanding and illumination to Him and too freedom. We feel as St Issac said of Gehenna even now the pain betraying love, which draws repentance.

      We see this clarity in the Gospels, St Peter sees a glimpse of Christ in the miracle of the fishes and sees himself more truly and so says ‘leave me Lord for I am a sinful man’. And even more so St Paul, murderer and torturer, full of anger, hate and self-righteous fury has Christ appear directly to Him, His Light in that moment burning through all illusions St Paul had held as Saul, he saw himself in Chirst in absolute clarity both within and without with now shadows, no deceptions to hid in, he new the Truth, and it see him free, bring him to repentance. It was not easy and that light will be harsh at first to many lost deep in darkness, but as with a surgeon revealing a hurting area it brings clarity, understanding, repentance and treatment.

      And as with St Paul, while Christ will work within the shadows there will come a time His light ahead of time with St Paul, in which see a clear example of person delivered fully from their illusions and so freed, even with the sorrow in gives leading to the freeing of they mind and soul to repent. As the apostle himself would say, some will be saved but as if by fire, the fire that consumes all falsehoods, and does so already, but more gently like a doctor working more softly with a patient until like St Paul, it is too far and stronger approach and a clear clarity dispelling shadows is required.

      To put it simply, nobody will enter into the fullness of union with Christ until they repent (and in truth none of us has really truly done this, none of us yet as truly repented for most of our broken states, and have many that God in His grace and love has not yet revealed to us in the full clarity). As Revelation has it in it’s imagery, there are the nations outside the heavenly City to whom the waters of healing flow and they only enter the City when they wash their robes. But at last it assures us there will be no more sea, nor more choas nor death, and there will be no where in creation where there is any suffering, for all will have tears wiped. And yes God will be all in all, death will be destroyed, this has promised to us, it will happen founded on the Rock of Christ and His Resurrection.

      So all will be well my friend, again not presumption by faith in Christ and what He has revealed and done, and in God’s infinite power to freely bring salvation to all people as death holds them no longer. And salvation is nothing less then to be as God, to be truly that likeness He calls us in Christ to be, so no, none one in the ages of ages is going saying what you are saying. By definition of what salvation is.

      But again, please acquaint yourself with what universalists have actually be asserting for near 2000 years, as your view is not what believe at all, and you attacking a straw-man, whether you agree or now, it is charity to know the actual positions your interlocutors actually hold. As we agree, no one will get into participation with the life of God in Christ, attitude you site, we are in agreement there.

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