Love and Justice in Scripture
Nicholas Wolterstorff explains how the relation between love and justice is to be understood in Scripture. In particular, we will look at what Jesus meant by agape when he said that we are to love (agape) our neighbors as ourselves; and we will look at what the NT writers meant by dikaiosune, often translated as “righteousness,” sometimes as “justice.”
For the past 12 years or so, I’ve been writing and lecturing about justice, often about the relation between justice and love. And what I’ve usually had in mind by justice and will today, what I’ve had in mind by justice is not criminal justice or, yeah, not criminal justice, but what I call first order of justice or primary justice, the sort of justice such that when there’s a breakdown in it then criminal justice, corrective justice becomes relevant.
What I call here first order of justice is sometimes called social justice and that’s not inappropriate, but I avoid that term because I’ve discovered that when people hear the term social justice, some people in the Christian tradition identify it with liberal Christianity in the early part of the 20th century or they identify it with socialism or with big government and so forth. And first order of justice, as I understand it, has nothing to do with any, well not quite nothing to do, but nothing directly to do with any of those.
Now, almost always when I’ve talked about justice to audiences of Christians, almost always, somebody will get up in the question period afterwards and declare, I remember some occasions declare with deep, deep emotion that we who are Christians should not be talking about justice, but we should instead be talking about love. I remember a friend getting up and just quaking. He didn’t really want to disagree with me, but he wanted to disagree with me. We should not be talking about what justice requires of us, but talking about loving each other.
And the assumption behind that comment, obviously, is that justice and love are pitted against each other and that we have to choose. And the idea is that Christians faced with that choice will choose love. Love supersedes justice. Now I’ve come to think that that’s a deep mistake. I hold that when love and justice are rightly understood, love incorporates justice.
So in this brief talk, I’d like to suggest two reasons why, in my experience, Christians so often hold that love and justice are pitted against each other, and then in each case, I’d like to offer my response. Ideally, you would all be sitting here with Bibles in hand. Everybody here is familiar with the episode reported in all three synoptic gospels in which Jesus, in response to a hostile interrogator, issues, an interrogator who says, Master, what is the greatest commands in the Torah? And reading behind the lines, the interrogator assumed that Jesus would give a bad answer and one could say, aha, that’s not the greatest of the Torah and so forth. Okay.
So in all three synoptic gospels, Jesus issues the two love commands. The episode is described a little bit differently in the three cases, but in the report of the two commands, there’s virtual identity between the three reports. Matthew, in distinction from the other two, reports Jesus as saying that the second command is like the first. The other two don’t say that. And Mark reports Jesus is introducing the first command with the Shema. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
But apart from those minor contextual differences, the commands are the same. Now it’s been my experience that one of the reasons so many Christians think that for Christians at least, love has superseded justice, is that they understand the love in these two commands, especially the love in the second command. They understood love in these two commands as conflicting with doing justice. Why? Why? How do they understand love in the second command, neighbor love? Here’s how they typically understand it.
They understand it as Jesus is enjoining sheer gratuitous benevolence. Paying no attention to what’s required of you, but just out of sheer generosity, promoting the flourishing, the wellbeing, the good of the other. Now the Greek word that is translated here into English, Jesus spoke Aramaic but the gospel writers put it into Greek. The Greek word that Jesus used that is translated into English as love is agape. A-G-A-P-E.
And there was a powerful movement in 20th century Protestant ethics especially, to some extent Catholic, but especially Protestant ethics, a powerful movement whose members argued emphatically that agape is indeed to be understood as sheer gratuitous benevolence that pays no attention to what justice or anything else might require.
To my mind, the two most powerful representatives of that movement are the Swedish Bishop Anders Nygren in his book published in the early ’30s, “Agape and Eros,” and Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian writing in the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s and so forth. And a big part of their argument for interpreting agape in the second love command as sheer gratuitous benevolence, a big part of their argument was this: that we should understand the human love that’s enjoined here is modeled on God’s love for us. That should be the model.
The model should be God’s forgiveness of the sinner. If we want to know how to think about love, they said, think about, when Jesus says love the neighbor, think of it on the model of God’s forgiving love of the sinner. And, they said, forgiveness is always an act of grace. It’s not something required. So that’s the model. Now I think that part of what’s happened, I mean these responses that I get in audiences, I think that part of what’s happened is that that line of thought has filtered down to lay people.
But I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to think that influence has also gone in the other direction. That there is, in fact, a long, maybe inarticulate tradition in Christianity which believes exactly this, that love and justice are conflictual, that we should love the neighbor out of sheer gratuitous generosity, modeling our love on God’s forgiveness of the sinner. So I think both the scholars were shaping my audiences and that the scholars were being shaped by a sort of implicit line of thought. Okay, so what to think about it.
How should we understand agape. Should we understand it as sheer gratuitous benevolence that pays no attention to what justice requires? I think we should not understand it that way. And here’s why. The two love commands that we find in the three synoptic gospels are presented as Jesus capturing the greatest commands in the essence of the Torah, but in fact, they are quotations from the Torah. They’re not just capturing the essence, but they’re quotations. The first of the two, love God above all, is a quotation from Deuteronomy 6, and the second is a quotation from Leviticus 19:18. Oh, as these two commands occur in the New Testament, Jesus, there’s really no context. There’s nothing in the context that helps you understand what Jesus would have had in mind by agape.
So a relevant consideration is maybe the context in Leviticus helps. Context doesn’t always help. And it’s thinkable that the contextual interpretation that we arrive at by looking at Leviticus was no longer the interpretation of Jesus and his interrogators, but you’d have to argue that point. So seems to me a plausible assumption is that if there is a helpful context, that’s probably the context that Jesus and his interrogators had in mind.
Okay. So love your neighbor as yourself occurs in Leviticus 19:18 at the end of a long list of you shalls and you shall nots, covering about three chapters. I haven’t actually bothered to count the number of shalls and shall nots, but I guess it’s maybe in the 40s. In fact, I think I’ll, when I get home, I’m going to count them so I don’t just have to say thereabouts, but I can say 49, 63 or whatever. The situation is that Moses is delivering the divine law code to Israel. So let me quote a few of them. You know, I’m not going to quote all three chapters to you. Let me quote a few of the you shalls and you shall nots that precede the you shall love your neighbor. You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him.
The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until morning. You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but with rectitude, you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go up and down as a slanderer against your people, and you shall not stand forth against the life of your neighbor. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reprove your neighbor lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord, your God.
So what we have here is a list of more detailed you shalls, you shall nots, culminating in you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Abstractly speaking, it would be possible to think of you shall love your neighbor as yourself as just one more in the list. But clearly, that’s not how the rabbis understood it, that’s clearly not how Jesus understood it, and it winds up, this is the culminating. So I think we have to, it’s a general, love your neighbor as yourself is a generalized statement of all the you shalls and you shall nots that precede it. You should read it like this. In short, in summary, love your neighbor as yourself.
And now for the point that’s relevant to our topic. Did you notice some of the you shalls and you shall nots are you shall treat your neighbor with justice? Loving your neighbor’s not pitted against treating your neighbor justly. Treating your neighbor justly is among the examples given of loving the neighbor. So I think we’ve got to come to this conclusion. Justice is an example of the sort of love that Jesus had in mind. The love that Jesus had in mind is not sheer gratuitous benevolence that pays no attention to justice. We have to think of both love and justice in such a way that, to say it again, treating your neighbor justly is one among other ways of loving your neighbor. Agape often goes beyond what justice requires, but I think what we learned from this is it never does less than what justice requires.
It always sees to it that the neighbor is treated justly. And from here, we could go on to talk about how love should articulate more carefully, how love should be understood when it’s not understood as sheer gratuitous benevolence, but in such a way that incorporates justice. If you want to ask questions about that, I’m happy to answer them. But now for the second reason why, in my experience, many Christians hold that we who are Christians are called to love the neighbor and to forget what justice requires. In my audiences, the first language and usually the only language of the people in the audience is English.
And in almost all English translations of the New Testament, the word justice occurs very seldom. It occurs a lot in English translations of the Old Testament Hebrew Bible, but it’s almost entirely absent from English translations of the New Testament. Not entirely absent. Matthew, for example, after reporting some of the things that Jesus did early in his career, says that this was to fulfill what had been spoken through the Prophet Isaiah, namely, now Matthew quotes, I will put my spirit upon him and he will proclaim justice to the gentiles. To the best of my knowledge, every English translation translates the word [speaking in Greek language], which is the Greek there as justice. But apart from that, the word justice seldom occurs in the New Testament.
And so readers of English translations of the New Testament quite understandably, oh, well, whereas the word love occurs often in English translations of the New Testament. So it’s understandable that readers of English translations would come to the impression that justice is Hebrew Bible, Old Testament stuff. It’s been superseded. Jesus doesn’t say treat your neighbor justly. Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself. So let’s get into it.
When I was a college student, I studied classical Greek before I studied New Testament Greek. We read Plato’s Republic and everybody knows it, Plato’s Republicans about justice. The word used for justice, Greek word used for justice in Plato’s Republic is dikaiosune. D-I-K-A-I-O-S-U-N-E. Dikaiosune.
When I was translating in class, translating The Republic, we translated dikaiosune, the noun and the adjective, dikaios, D-I, as automatically as justice, and the adjective, D-K-A-I-O-S, as just. I don’t recall any question being asked. You just automatically translated it that way, which is how the standard translations translate it.
Then I took New Testament Greek and I found out that the Greek noun dikaiosune and the Greek adjective, dikaios, occur often in the New Testament and that they’re almost always translated as righteousness and righteous. So I asked my professor, having come from classical Greek, why are they translated as righteousness and righteous? And he gave me some, I don’t know, some non-memorable answer. [audience laughing] Just sort of, this is how it is. So start here. Righteous, I submit that righteousness and justice are not the same. I take righteousness to be a character trait.
Specifically the character trait of being upright, in religious contexts, of being right with God. Righteousness is acquired, or righteous at least, both of them have acquired a negative connotation. Right? If somebody said to me, Wolterstorff, I find you a very righteous person, I would say, oh, what are they driving at? Whereas justice is a social relationship. It pertains to how we treat each other. So character trait versus social relationship.
So it makes a difference how you translate the Greek. And the English translators of the New Testament have decided that the Christian gospel is mainly about a certain character trait, that of being upright and right with God, and not primarily about a certain social relationship. That of treating each other justly. So what’s the right translation? Dikaiosune in the New Testament, in English translations of the New Testament, is sometimes translated as justice. Not often, usually as righteousness, but sometimes as justice. And dikaios is sometimes translated as just. Usually as righteous, but sometimes as just.
And these translations are made by skilled linguists, so the conclusion you come to is that probably in the time of the New Testament, dikaiosune, the noun, and dikaios, the adjective, were somewhat ambiguous. They could mean what we mean by justice or mean what we mean by righteousness and maybe neither English word maps precisely onto them. So you’ve got to go by context. No choice but to go by context.
And my view has come to be that though sometimes context in the New Testament requires that dikaiosune be translated as righteousness and dikaios as righteous, most of the time, I think, it requires that they be translated as justice and just. And there are some occasions in which neither word seems to fit precisely what the context requires. So I want to give you four examples of, in which dikaiosune, dikaios are used. I want to give you the context and you don’t have to know Greek. You can decide for yourself what context requires. So here goes. In Matthew 5, we find the beatitudes that Jesus spoke on the mountain.
The fourth of the beatitudes reads like this: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosune, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosune, for they shall be satisfied. Almost all English translations translate that as righteousness. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. So put your head to it. Justice is a social relationship.
Whether there’s justices in good measure, out of one’s control. Righteousness is this personal character trait. One can’t just automatically require personal character traits, but they’re in good measure within one’s control. So blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the character trait of righteousness? That seems to me weird. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst that their society may exhibit, may be just.
You hunger and thirst for it. If somebody said, I hunger and thirst to be a righteous person, I say, well, don’t just hunger and thirst for it, do something about it. Be one. [audience laughing] The second to last beatitude is this. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of dikaiosune, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of dikaiosune, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The usual translation is, blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Put your head to it. Remove the negative connotations. Let’s talk about upright rather than righteous, okay? We all know some upright people. How many upright people in your acquaintance are persecuted? In my acquaintance, they’re usually ignored or admired. They’re not by and large persecuted. It’s the people who struggle for justice, who get under the skin of other people and get persecuted and killed. I’m a supporter, friend and so forth, of a wonderful justice organization in Honduras, Association for a More Just Society.
And it really is a justice organization, it’s not a relief or development organization. It aims at getting the government to do what the government is supposed to do in protecting citizenships, citizens and so forth. And about two years ago, their head lawyer was shot at point blank range on a main street in Tegucigalpa. It’s dangerous work. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of seeking justice. Here’s a third example. In Jesus’ story of the parable story of the what was traditionally called the greatest eyes, the great judgment, in Matthew 25, the word, Greek word, adjective dikaios occurs two times.
After the son of man seated on the throne of his glory has spoken to the people on his right, saying that they gave him food when he was hungry and so forth, Jesus, who is telling the story, says, then the dikaios will answer him, the people on his right. The dikaios will answer him, Lord, when was it we saw that you were hungry and gave you food, and so forth. And Jesus telling of the story concludes with these words. Those on the king’s left hand will go away into eternal punishment, but the dikaios will have eternal life.
Almost all English translations translate both occurrences of dikaios as the people on the right, as righteous. The righteous will answer him. The righteous will go away into eternal life. Is that the right translation? Well, recall the episode reported by Luke of Jesus’ inaugural sermon, brief sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. Luke reports Jesus as reading a passage from Isaiah and what Luke reports Jesus is reading is a near quotation of Isaiah 61:1-2, into which has been inserted a line from Isaiah 58. Let me read for you the relevant part of Isaiah 58. Is not this, so Jesus is echoing this, okay, and saying that he is the anointed one.
Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin. Suppose you’ve just read that. You’ve just heard me read it. And then suppose with it still fresh in your mind, you read Matthew 25. Quote, I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me. I would say that the similarity is so striking between the Matthew passage and the Isaiah passage that it’s a mistake to translate dikaios in the Matthew passage as righteous instead of just. To translate it as righteous is to break the bond of continuity between Isaiah and what Jesus is saying in Matthew.
That was my third example. You can all consider context along with me. Now, the last one. Romans. It’s typical of, I’m was going to say Evangelicals, but it’s typical of Protestants and, for all I know, of Catholics as well. It’s typical of Protestants at least when reading Romans to leap into the book and start reading seriously around the middle of chapter two where Paul begins to talk about justification. To just forget about the introductory material. But in Romans 1:17, Paul states the theme of the letter. Here’s what he says. I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, for in it, the dikaiosune of God is revealed through faith, for faith. As it is written, the one who’s dikaios will live by faith.
You can predict what I’m going to say. In almost all English translations, dikaios in this passage is translated as righteousness, and dikaios as righteous. In it, the righteousness of God is revealed, the righteous will live by faith. Is that the correct translation? Well, suppose you don’t just leap into the book of Romans around the middle of the second chapter or the end of the second chapter, but you start at the beginning.
Then what you’re going to find is that over and over, Paul makes the point that God treats it, in God’s offer of justification and sanctification, God treats Jews and gentiles alike. Six times over, Paul says, no partiality in describing God’s offer of justification. There’s no partiality. Jews and gentiles are treated alike. There’s a subtext. Paul imagines a Jewish person complaining that this breaks the covenant, but the overall theme is no partiality. How do you understand no partiality? I understand it as fairness, as justice, as equity. It’s not righteousness. So I think Romans 1:17 should read, for in it the justice of God is revealed.
As it is written, the one who is just will live by faith. So that the book of Romans is a continuation of the dominant Old Testament Hebrew Bible theme of God is just. Well, let me leave it there with these closing comments. In Latin-based languages, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and so forth, I’ve learned that the word dikaiosune is almost always translated with the language’s variation on the Latin word justice. [Speaking in foreign language], justicio, and so forth.
I’ve been told, I don’t know Spanish, I’ve been told that Spanish does have an equivalent of our word righteous and righteousness. I’ve been told it’s not used very often, but it’s not used in translating, typically used in translating the passages of the New Testament that I’ve called your attention to. Why the word, their word righteousness was not used and why they stick with justicio and so forth, I don’t know, accept it’s maybe the tug of Latin Vulgate, which is justicia. But to someone who reads the New Testament in Spanish, you see the point.
To someone who reads the New Testament in Spanish or Portuguese or French, Italian, Romanian, the thought that the New Testament is not about justice will have no plausibility. Whereas to somebody who reads the New Testament in English, it is plausible. When I was talking about this once with somebody from South America a couple years ago, he said to me, oh, that’s very interesting.
A few years back, an American missionary came to Brazil, as I recall. No, Argentina, came to Argentina. Looked at the Spanish translation of the New Testament and said, Spanish is not a very adequate language for translating the New Testament. It doesn’t have a word righteousness. It did in fact, does in fact, have the word righteousness, but he wasn’t aware of that. So it’s not an adequate. You guys are translating it as justice when you should be translating it as righteousness. Yeah. [audience laughing]
So that’s my second explanation and response to why it is that a lot of my fellow Christians think that justice has been superseded in the New Testament by a love that pays no attention to justice. A little bit of Greek Bible study. Thanks. [audience applauding]
Man: I was wondering how you, do you do the same process in Romans 4, where righteousness is credited to David and Abraham? Is it justice that’s accredited to them by faith?
Yes. The fact that Paul says that righteousness was ascribed to Abraham. Then he talks about justification. The word for justification there is dikaioo, the verb. The word for righteousness there is dikaiosune and so forth. So what you’re asking is what the translators do is they go back and forth between righteous.
When it comes to dikaioo, the verb, they use justification, a word taken from justice, obviously. When they have the noun and the adjective, dikaiosune and dikaios, it’s righteousness. So the pattern of Paul’s thought is completely disrupted. I think Paul is saying Abraham was declared just, he was a just person. So if I were translating, I’d try consistently to justification, justice, just and so forth, to keep the pattern of Paul’s thought, which is completely disrupted by the translators.
If you’re reading an English translation you’d, the fact that there’s justification, you would not think of the righteousness and so forth as having much to do with justification. So it’s a mess. Translators have to put it into good English. I understand that. But I think they could do a better job and sometimes for the sake of the sense of the text, you got to put up, when you’re translating, you got to put up with a little bit of awkwardness.
Man: Doctor Wolterstorff, thank you so much for coming and teaching us. My question is about the practicality of dikaiosune. You have mentioned that in the Old Testament, Jesus cited Shema and at the same time, he talked about love. And now when you talked about a New Testament, how is it, dikaiosune portrayed but in a practical way?
You talked about that in the Spanish term, the term dikaiosune has not been cleared, and that’s true. For us who are bilingual and preach it theologically to our brothers and sisters in our churches, we have a great dilemma. And the dilemma is that rectitude is, which is the word that you were saying for dikaiosune. And the other one is justice. So for us, it’s even a broader theological dilemma, but at the same time, I would like to see how can we interpret the practicality of dikaiosune, and now that you have moved from the beatitudes to the Romans passage.
So let me first ask you a question. Am I right in saying that in most Spanish translations, for example, in the beatitudes, blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of dikaiosune, it’s justicio, not rectitudo. That’s correct. Do you know why? Do you know why rectitudo is not used?
Man: We receive that. [laughing] Now that we study the Greek, we have a dilemma. We need to use the right term to interpret. So we have to reinterpret theologically.
Yeah, so that’s really interesting. So I’ve talked to Spanish speaking people who also speak English and ask them why, if they understand why justicio was used rather than rectitudo, and none of them has an explanation other than, I speculate maybe it’s the tug of the Latin Vulgate. I don’t know. Yeah.
Man: It is probably the theologically, theologically the word rectitudo comes from the word recto, which means right.
Man: Maybe there might be some type of influences, right?
But that’s what our English word righteousness comes from, too, recht, the old German recht, right, law and so forth.
Man: Vulgate says justice.
Man: In Latin.
It says justice, right?
Yeah, iustitia, yeah. So it may be the tug of the Vulgate given that these languages are derived from Latin. Well, this is just an aside. A few years ago I decided to look up the old 19th century translation by Allen of Calvin’s Commentary on Romans. Calvin was writing in French and Latin and he used iustitia all over the place in commenting on Romans, and the English translator put it all into righteousness. Some people have said, suggested to me, do I dare say it?
That there’s a, that what’s going on here is an incipient Lutheranism. [audience laughing] I could, yeah. Possibly. I don’t know. So what’s the import of it? So the import is that, well, let me start a little bit further back. So I mentioned Anders Nygren, the Swedish bishop who wrote what became the famous “Agape and Eros.” Nygren emphasizes, hammers home what he sees as the contrast between justice in the Hebrew Bible Old Testament, and agape, love, in the New Testament.
And he basically, Nygren basically says that the Old Testament has been superseded. Love is, New Testament agape has superseded Hebrew Bible Old Testament justice. But if we say that that’s a mistake, then you and I understand Jesus as saying, when he says, love your neighbor, seek justice. Love often goes beyond justice, but it does not go below justice. Seek a love that includes justice, is what Jesus is saying. And I think that that’s got profound implications for how we live our lives. Right?
Man: Hello, my name is Stuart Davenport and I teach at Pepperdine University. So I’m not a pastor. My question has to do with, what does love and justice look like for the person who either is or feels, or both, wronged? We can see injustice happening, whether we’re pastors or lay people want to do something about it. But in the case of, to use an extreme example, someone in the Catholic Church who was abused. What does that person, how does that person then live out love and justice in seeking to forgive those who’ve wronged him but also wanting redress and systemic change?
So I want, in such a situation, I want first to talk about what shape does agape have for those who abuse the person. I remember the first time I went to South Africa and heard arguments about apartheid in 1975. And there were Dutch there and they knew about apartheid and they were very hostile to the Afrikaners. When they were finished talking, the so-called blacks and coloreds got up and made a plaintiff plea for justice.
And then the Afrikaners got up and said, well, then the Afrikaners represented themselves as beneficence, a benevolent people. Apartheid itself was a visionary beneficence program for every nation to find its own identity. And if that was to happen, they had to be pulled apart and so forth. And they recited tales of benevolence to children in the backyard and so forth. And then the Afrikaners got up and said, and why do you only criticize us? Why don’t, why can’t we just love each other? So that was my first vivid experience of oppressive love.
So the first thing I want to say is, it’s those who victimize these young kids, boys and girls, especially boys, about whom we have to talk about what now. But for the victims. So I think that, so in the verses leading up, in Leviticus and the verses leading up to love your neighbor as yourself, one of them says, you shall reprove your neighbor lest his guilt be on you. Now that’s really interesting. So I take it what’s being said there is that we human beings have a moral responsibility for the moral character of our fellows just to walk away.
And so I think hard treatment should be understood as reproof, and those who perpetrated the deed should be reproved. When I say this, I’m thinking of that 17-year-old in Texas who made, who asked to be excused from killing somebody while he was driving drunk, and said that he was afflicted with affluenza. [laughing]
Now first, I’m astonished that a court would give any hearing to this whatsoever. But you know, it might be true. It’s possible that his parents gave him no guidance whatsoever. And if that’s true, those parents are deeply culpable. They did not reprove their son. So reproof is an act of love. So I think it’s appropriate for those victims to ask that those who victimize them be reproved, be publicly reproved for what they did.
Man: Hello. Hi.
Man: I’m puzzling over how an unjust person could be considered righteous. How do we have to understand the terminology here for those who would use the notion of some kind of tension between agape and dikaiosune and so forth? What thinking is it that gives excuse for injustice to those who are claiming to be righteous?
Yeah. Well, you mustn’t ask me that question, of course. So if the person has acted unjustly, they are so far forth, not upright. That’s an example of failure of rectitude. So you can’t perpetrate injustice and be righteous, so far forth. Now.
Man: I had one question and I wanted to ask if you could possibly clarify your position or your perspective on justice because I think one of the issues that comes up, particularly for lay folks, is that as you talked about, the Old Testament versus New Testament, God is seen as exercising justice in a punitive way. And so I think that when we think about justice, it’s thought of as punitive as opposed to balanced. How would you address that?
Excellent question. So I’ve been talking today so far about what I call first order of justice or primary justice, the justice such that when it breaks down, when it’s violated, then punitive justice chips in. When the Old Testament says God is just over and over, when Paul in Romans says God is just, it seems to me it does not primarily have in mind God as punisher.
It has in mind how the widows, the orphans, the aliens and the impoverished were treated. Of course, the Old Testament praises law courts, good law courts, but when it talks repetitively about this quartet of the vulnerable, the widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the impoverished, it’s not talking about punishment, it’s talking about how we, how in ordinary affairs, we treat them. And I think it seems to me that it’s singles those out because they are the most vulnerable in society. If when you struggle for justice you have to set priorities.
And well-to-do wealthy, powerful people can get mugged in Central Park. I know that. But the widows, the orphans, and the aliens and the impoverished, their daily condition is a condition of oppression and injustice. So you start with them. So yes, we can talk about God as punisher, but I’m deeply persuaded that that’s not where we should begin.
So when I looked up some of the great classic theologians on this, Karl Barton and so forth, I was deeply disappointed to discover that almost all of them, when the topic of God’s justice comes up, they focus on punitive justice. I think that’s a profound mistake. My view is we’ll get to that, okay. But we start with first order of justice. God loves it when we treat each other as justice requires and go beyond it in love. Now Harry Frankfurt’s got a question here. Yeah.
Harry: Thank you. My name is Harry Frankfurt. I have two small points to make. One is I don’t know where the idea comes from that God chose Abraham because Abraham was just. There’s no evidence of Abraham being particularly just, certainly not before God makes a covenant with him. And that leads me to the second half of this. God loves Israel, but not because Israel is just.
Harry: In fact, it isn’t.
Harry: He continues to love Israel despite the fact that Israelites are behaving very, very badly.
Harry: The other point has to do with your observation about persecution and social justice or righteousness. It’s true that people get into a lot of trouble if they work for social justice in a society that’s not really ready for it or interested in it, but they also get into a lot of trouble by being righteous. All the persecutions of religious bodies are persecutions of people for following their idea of righteousness and rejecting the idea of the persecutor.
So I don’t see why you want to say that persecution is not a matter of being persecuted for being righteous. The Islamists who are cutting off the heads of Christians are doing it because Christians are not righteous, they’re heretics. But I don’t know what they call them. But anyway, they don’t accept the conception of righteousness that is current among the persecutors. Anyway, that’s what I have to say.
Good point. Good point. Which I have not thought sufficiently about so I can’t give you a good answer. Sorry Harry. [man speaking unintelligibly] Does it say that God chose Abraham because he was just? Does the text say that?
Man: No, but you said it earlier.
No, no, no, no. No. In both cases in was sort of gratuity, both Abraham and Israel, gratuitous. [man speaking unintelligibly]
Yes. My view too.
Man: The idea that God loves Israel. He loves Israel in–
Man: Well, there’s no good reason for it.
Often in spite of. [man speaking unintelligibly]
Yes. God didn’t look around and say, hmm, of all the peoples on the earth, these are the finest, this is the finest. Yeah, that’s my view too. About the other one… But the radical Islamists don’t chop off the heads of Christians and Zaidis and Jews because in their view they’re righteous. In the view of the Islamists, they are unrighteous.
Man: So they’re being persecuted in the name of righteousness or… [man speaking unintelligibly]
Yeah. I’ll have to think about that.
Robert: Yeah, I’m Robert Jacobson. I’m a pastor of Trabuco Canyon Community Church. Just thinking through the theological and practical application of some of the insights you’ve shared with us, I’m not going to put words in your mouth, but I don’t think you want us to go change our hymnals to sing “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” than Jesus’ blood and justice, right?
I mean, we still have the theological frameworks for justification by faith alone through grace alone, declaration of right standing before God, not based on any intrinsic works or practical righteousness, but rather the declaration of Christ’s righteousness in us. Now, I understand the influence of this concept of justice that you’re bringing in that seems to be somewhat hidden, but I don’t think, and correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t think you’re suggesting that this idea, the theological constructs of righteousness, that we’re supposed to somehow set those aside. Am I correct?
Correct. Not set aside all of them, but what Paul says there in that thematic opening of Romans is that it was Christ’s fidelity. Saved by Christ’s fidelity, not as righteousness. So I’m not sure that that hymn gets it quite right. Of course, I’m not for running through all the hymns and sending off to some hymn organization that proposes. [laughing]
Because look, understand me. Sometimes when dikaiosune and dikaios occur in the New Testament, I think the correct translation, you know, I don’t like righteousness very well because, but rectitude, uprightness, something like that is, and sometimes mysteriously, it’s not really justice or rectitude, but it’s more like piety. One of the verses in Matthew. So it’s a somewhat elusive word. Words: dikaiosune, dikaios, somewhat elusive. In the region of justice, uprightness. So you really have to go by context.
Man: But that that nuance is still there, it’s not–
Yes. Oh yeah, oh yeah. It’s not as if I think the New Testament has nothing to say about the person and only about the social relationships. Absolutely not. In answer to one of the questions, the two are obviously connected. It’s just that when you consistently translate dikaiosune and dikaios, righteousness and righteous, a picture emerges that the New Testament is all about personal piety.
And that’s why some people have said to me, it’s classic Lutheranism. And I’m a little, you know, I don’t want to charge the Lutherans with mistranslating the New Testament. Way back, the early translations of the New Testament, Tyndale uses justicia, justice. The German tends to use recht here. What’s also probably happened is that the word, the German-based word is righteousness and righteous and so forth. They’ve changed meaning over the centuries and that originally they had more of the notion of recht, law, order and so forth, and they become in present day English, more of these personal character traits.
So we’re dealing with changes in language. It’s just that, well, I don’t want my fellow Christians to think that somehow the New Testament abrogates the old, that New Testament is all about love and it supersedes justice. That, it seems to me, is a profound mistake. Yes.
Man: Hello. Yeah, I agree with you and I think you’re right to see a continuity between the old and the new on justice. And I don’t think the two can be split apart, but I’m trying to understand how the two are related such that we don’t fragment them. Love being concerned about justice because of the flourishing, the inherent rights of the other.
I mean, God has created the world such that there is an order there and he needs jealous for that. He doesn’t want people to go astray or to damage each other and so there’s a kind of holy love there. But I was wondering if you think, although love isn’t just sheer gratuitous, blind benevolence, just dispensing things without any knowledge of the creature or what to do, do you think that in Jesus in the New Testament, and you have a modification of justice in the Old Testament? Specifically, I’m thinking of lex talionis, an eye for an eye.
And what I wonder about that is, if that kind of justice undermines what could be flourishing, like you’ve taken my eye or my child, I’m going to take yours, and what happens when that’s really taken to its extreme.
Man: Or yeah.
So let me be more forthcoming than I have been on how I then understand love. One thing that love does is it promotes the wellbeing of the other, the flourishing of the other, how well the person’s life is going. Diminishes the non-goods, seeks to enhance the goods in the person’s life. But I think that in addition to the worth, the value, whatever the estimability of our lives, that we ourselves as persons, human beings, have worth, dignity, estimability, praise-ability, praiseworthiness, and then to render justice to someone is to treat them in a way that befits their dignity, their estimability.
So I think of love as, I think of agape then, what Jesus was talking about, as having two prongs to it. One, when you love the neighbor, you seek to promote the wellbeing of the neighbor, how well the person, the neighbor’s life is going. But secondly, you also see to it that the dignity of the neighbor is treated with appropriate respect. The Afrikaners at that conference were solely concerned with, as I saw, I don’t know, they were partly right, advancing the flourishing of these different nationalities.
They paid no attention to the indignities that they were heaping upon them. So I think agape love has always these two prongs to it. Seek to advance the neighbor’s wellbeing and see to it that you don’t, see to it that you pay due respect to his or her dignity, estimability, whatever you want to call it. And I think there’s, I think that the term in English that comes closest to capturing that is the term care about. When I care about somebody, I seek to promote how their life is going. But I also see too it that they’re not treated with indignity.
I’m angry if they’re treated with indignity. So that’s how I understand love. Then, Jesus rejecting the lex talionis. So I read Jesus there as rejecting what I call the code of reciprocity. The code which says return favors for favors and return harms, usual translation is evil, return harms for harms. Rejecting that code. About the positive side of the code, it seems to me Jesus sort of shrugs his shoulders and says, yes, that’s not a bad idea, not a bad idea to return favors for favors, but no big deal. The gentiles do it also. No big deal.
About the negative side of the reciprocity code, Jesus and Paul and so forth are unrelentingly opposed, never return harm with harm. Return harm with good. Love even the enemy. So it’s a rejection of the lifestyle, the onus of what I call the code of reciprocity code. And we have to think through what that comes to. I don’t think it means the abolition of hard treatment or punishment because there I think again of Leviticus.
Reprove your neighbor out of love for your neighbor when the neighbor has done something wrong. If you are indifferent to the moral character of your neighbor, that’s one way of not loving the neighbor. So I think punishment understood as reproof rather than payback is what we should go for. Does that speak to the issue?
Man: Yeah. [man speaking unintelligibly]
Would I say it as what?
In a way, remedial. So when parents punish their children, unless the relationship between the parent and child is extremely sick and disordered, parents don’t think of paying back. They don’t think of retribution. Johnny, this is for your good. And sometimes they’re not serious about it, but it’s Johnny, you did something really wrong. You’ve got to be reproved for it. I care about your moral character. I cannot just, I cannot let you be afflicted with affluenza. [laughing] [bright music]