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 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, his 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 and unjust verdicts, but the perfectly righteous Creator never can. St Paul states the popular maxim:

For God will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wicked­ness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. (Rom 1:6-10)1

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 imply an abdication of duty. But what then of the divine bene­vo­lence and clemency, which Christians also affirm? Have they 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.”2 Isaac famously asserts:

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ 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.3

Yet as rhetorically powerful as the opposing of retribution and mercy may be (we preach­ers love our paradoxes), many 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 the psalm­ist declares: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of thy throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before thee” (Ps 89:14). The God of the Scriptures is characterized by both requital and forgiveness. St Augustine of Hippo acknowledges the duality, though he did not think it a problem: “God will repay evil with evil because he is just; he will repay evil with good because he is good; and he will repay good with good because he is good and just.”4 Justice recompenses with suffering (or reward); goodness with blessing and boon. Clearly, though, 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 imagining 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. “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matt 7:9). When his children act wrongly toward another, a good father 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. In his justice, God always acts for the good of the sinner.

But, the retributivist replies, the Bible teaches us that God punishes sinners because they deserve the infliction of pain and suffering. If God 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 the Father of Jesus:

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 informed by God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. MacDonald 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 a thoughtless 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: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). What we must not do is justify evil in the name of the just 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 because the Creator is the transcendent source of morality he as 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 as infinite and absolute Love God always acts in accord with his eternal character. Surely the latter must be the case. In creating mankind, God assumes the “obligation” to be true to himself. 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, if we redefine it according to the gospel. “God is bound by his love,” MacDonald avers, “to punish sin in order to deliver his creature; he is bound by his justice to destroy sin in his creation. Love is justice—is the fulfilling of the law, for God as well as for his children” (“Justice”).

I am reminded of St Thomas Aquinas’s twin assertions that (1) God eternally wills himself as the Good and (2) God wills himself as the end of his creatures: “Now, God Himself is the ultimate end of things, as appears somewhat from what has been said. Hence, because He wills Himself to be, He likewise wills other things, which are ordered to Him as to the end.”5 God destines humanity to everlasting joy in his eternal life. God the Holy Trinity is our end and consummation. He will not be satisfied until his deifying love is accomplished in us. Divine justice “demands,” therefore, that the Father perfect his love in the lives of his sons and daughters—the same love in which he beholds his Son Jesus Christ. Glory to God!

(3 April 2019; rev.)


[1] Paul refutes the maxim of requital later in Romans with his teaching on the unconditionality of divine grace.

[2] Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian I.51.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Augustine, Grace and Free Choice 45.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles I.75.2.

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

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

  1. Tom says:

    Paul struggles with this very idea too, no? Rom 3.26, “…so that he [God] may be ‘just’ and ‘justify’ him who has faith in Christ,” i.e., so that God may be seen to be ‘just’ in forgiving and redeeming sinners. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this. The whole idea of ‘justice,’ is so tinged with fear. Dad was so angry and unfair and then the god I was taught was so angry and legalistic! I think God does not punish – our own choices do. I have no idea how good fathers act. I never had one. So I find posts like this interesting, but I do know, for me, discipline of any kind cannot be heavy. I just do not respond. The heavier it is the more likely I will rebel. (Either inside or outside!) Sadly I still have so much male done damage I find most men I just do not trust. And viewing God as male is also a very painful issue. Which is why God suggested I call Him Buttercup. Thankyou though, I find George Macdonald to be a gentle man, who I can learn to trust.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robert F says:

    God is just because he is fair. That is, he will save all of us, without exception, from our sins and fallenness. Anything else is nothing more than eye-for-eye human justice on cosmic and metaphysical scale.


  4. John burnett says:

    Hey Fr. Aidan. I’m really thinking you need to read James Alison, _Living in the End Times: The Last Things Re-Imagined_ (SPCK, 1996), out of print but you can find it. Alison has meditated very deeply on Girard, and I think he tops MacDonald, though I’ll admit i haven’t wrestled with MacDonald like you have. But here—

    “Jesus’ resurrection did not only reveal that this man was, in fact, innocent; it did not only reveal that Jesus was right about God. It did much more: it revealed the whole mechanism by which innocent victims are created by people who think that by creating such victims they are working God’s most holy will. That is to say, it left wide open the murderous and mendacious nature of all human religion . . . . It was this perception which permitted the apostolic witnesses to apply to Jesus the verse which is found in Psalms 35 and 69: ‘They hated me without a cause’ (John 15.25), and also the quotation from Isaiah 53: ‘He was reckoned among the transgressors’ (Luke 22.37). The application of these verses to a man killed as a criminal can be understood only if the whole nature of the mechanism which led to his death has been unveiled, exposed for what it really is. It has become possible to imagine the complete innocence of the victim, which means, of course, the complete complicity in violence of the lynchers.”

    It seems to me that we simply can’t imagine a god who isn’t violent to the core. Even Jesus— sure, he died on the cross for the life of the world, but when he comes back, he’ll show what business he _really_ means! —And if he doesn’t mean that, then nothing matters, just go and do whatever you want, there will be no retribution. That’s what we really believe.

    But when he comes, he will come as the risen Lord, who “didn’t appear to his disciples just as someone who had been dead, but was now ‘better’ and risen. That would be a pretty story, but a somewhat cheap one, and it would fit in with stories which we know how to tell about people who were ill, and then get better, or people who disappear and then reappear. In contrast to this, the risen Jesus was dead. I’m not talking about some horror-film mummy wandering about: it clearly wasn’t like that. When Luke and John tell us that the risen Lord appeared with the visible wounds of his death, it wasn’t merely a way of identifying him as the same person, but a way of affirming that he was so much the same person, that, in the same way as that person was dead, so was he. But that death is nothing but a vacant form for God, something whose reality has been utterly emptied out, which can only be detected in the form of its traces in the human life story of someone who has overcome death.

    The marks, then, of Jesus’ death were something like trophies: it was his whole human life, including his death, which was made alive and presented before the disciples as a sign that he had in fact conquered death. This not only meant that he had personally conquered death, which he had manifestly done, but that, in addition, the whole mechanism by which death retains people in its thrall had been shown to be unnecessary. Whatever death is, it is not something which has to structure every human life from within (as in fact it does) [—nor that should structure our theology—], but rather it is an empty shell, a bark without a bite. none of us has any reason to fear being dead, something which will unquestionably happen to all of us, since that state cannot separate us effectively from the real source of life. . . .”

    We imagine the resurrection to be the overcoming of death, but not its _assumption._ “The risen Christ is merely at another level, strange and mysterious, and death has simply been abolished by God. According to this vision, so great is human violence that it is just not possible for us to speak of, or imagine, the risen life in which there is no violence at all. However, in fact, one of the principal senses of the presence of the crucified and risen victim is to show that it is all of human history, _including its murderous vanity_, that has been taken up into the resurrection life.”

    And since all the murderous vanity of human history, including personal sins, has not been taken up, it has to be “punished”, somehow; there has to be “retribution”, because otherwise we’d be “getting away with” something and that would be “unjust”.

    But when Jesus said to the Sadducees that they didn’t understand the power of God and quoted Exodus 3.6, 15, 16 to them— ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Lk 20.37), his reply had—

    “no apparent bearing on the resurrection of the dead [about which they were challenging him], but rather is about who God is. God has nothing to do with death nor with the dead, but instead declares to Moses that he is the God of three people who were apparently [well and truly] dead at the time.

    So when, earlier, Jesus had said to the Sadducees that they didn’t understand the power of God, now we begin to understand what this power might consist in. Jesus isn’t talking about some special power to do something miraculous, like raising someone from the dead. Rather he’s giving an indication of the sort of power which characterizes God, something of the quality of who God is. This ‘power,’ this quality which God always is, is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this another way: for us ‘being alive’ means ‘not being dead’; it’s a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death and cannot even be contrasted with death.”

    “God has nothing to do with death.”

    Elsewhere he says that God is not in _competition_ with sin, with death, or with _us._

    I honestly think this is what the struggle over “universalism” is really about. We just can’t imagine a God who doesn’t have to kill!


    • Robert F says:

      But death is not just a human phenomenon. It existed long before human beings arrived on the scene, with all its attendant suffering for prehuman sentient beings involved in the ageless phenomena of predation, of eating and being eaten, and natural death in all its horrific and fearful variety. I would like to think that God does not have to kill (or cause to suffer); but then I continue to wonder why the creation he created has so far seemed like it had and has to, quite apart from human beings. “Tyger, Tyger burning bright/In the forests of the night;/ What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy FEARFUL symmetry?……. Did he who made the Lamb make thee?…”

      Do Alison or Girard speak to this issue?


      • Robert F says:

        It’s nearly enough to turn one into a Gnostic (how easy it is to fall into thinking that this world of suffering and death must’ve been created by a lesser divinity, not the true God!), if not for the impossibility of that, since it actually only deflects the theodicy issues with religious sleight of hand.


  5. pleppan says:

    Thank you so much , My great aunt used to say .. A smack without a squeeze is like apple without cheese.

    Liked by 1 person

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