Can Forgiveness Mute Justice?

How, wonders Nicholas Wolterstorff, have vengeance and "the reciprocity code" survived the crystal clear teaching of Jesus?

Appears in Spring 2013 Issue: Persuasion
March 1st, 2013
Justice in Loveby Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011. 306pp.

This is a philosophical book, but the relationship between justice and love is not an academic question.

On November 8, 1987, a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded at a Remembrance Sunday service in the town of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, killing eleven and injuring sixty-three. One of the dead was Marie Wilson, a twenty-year-old nursing student. Her father Gordon was buried next to her under six feet of rubble and held her hand as she slipped away. A devout Christian, he told a reporter upon his release from hospital hours later: "I have no desire for revenge or retaliation. Killing the people who killed my daughter will not bring her back. So I forgive the bombers and I leave everything to God and I believe someday, I will see my daughter again." Alongside the many messages of appreciation he received came others that were critical: his "loving" offer of forgiveness, they charged, muted the siren call of justice and diminished the worth of the victims.

In Justice in Love, Nicholas Wolterstorff offers a lucid, stirring, and provocative answer to the barrage of highly charged questions that incidents like this evoke. A sequel to Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Justice in Love completes the account by confronting the question of how precisely justice relates to love. The book offers a feast of insight, wisdom, and clarification, even for those who can't endorse all its conclusions.

Wolterstorff begins by taking to task what he calls (idiosyncratically) "benevolence-agapism," the view that "agapic love" not only exceeds the demands of justice, but operates in a different moral space entirely. There must be no obligation in agapic love, for such love "casts out all thought of justice and injustice. . . . [It] is blind and deaf to justice and injustice." Benevolence-agapists think that love is utterly gratuitous because it is modelled on the boundless, spontaneous benevolence displayed in God's forgiveness of us. The conclusion is that "where agapic love and justice conflict, God chooses love over justice; we are to do likewise."

For Wolterstorff, this view is ultimately incoherent. Consider, again, the case of forgiveness: "if we look closely at the nature of forgiveness, we will see that the person who thinks entirely in terms of love and takes no note of injustice cannot forgive." While to forgive does require that we forego our "corrective rights," the act of forgiveness presupposes that we have actually been wronged—namely, that our rights have been violated. For Wolterstorff, the term "rights" captures the essence of what "justice" amounts to, and "wrongs," the core of what injustice means. This decisive claim then follows: "not only can one not understand oneself as forgiving someone without employing the concepts of rights and wrongs, justice and injustice. One cannot even perform the act of forgiving someone without employing those concepts."

The case of forgiveness is just one particularly telling example of Wolterstorff's claim that the wider norm of agapic love cannot but presuppose some concept of justice. I think he successfully vindicates that claim in the book, and I think that the claim stands even if one is not finally persuaded (as I am not) of his specific definition of justice as "respect for rights."

The supposed tension between justice and love is, he holds, simply foreign to the plain teaching of Jesus. For Jesus, notably in the Sermon on the Mount, the "various ways of treating the neighbour justly are cited as examples of loving one's neighbour. . . . Treating the neighbour justly is an example of loving him, a way of loving him. Love is not justice-indifferent benevolence."

On this biblical foundation, Wolterstorff builds his constructive account of "care-agapism." His formal definition of "care" is "seeking to promote what one believes to be [a] person's good or right." That is, not only their "good," but their "right"—what is due them in justice. Care thus "combines seeking to enhance someone's flourishing with seeking to secure their just treatment." This core proposition is spelled out extensively in the book.

But questions pile in, and Wolterstorff tackles many of them head-on. For example, for whom should we care? Wolterstorff takes on what he sees as an idealizing tendency within benevolence-agapism and responds with a welcome note of what one might call "creational realism." Because of the specificity and diversity of our locations, situations, and callings, we cannot meaningfully set ourselves to promote the "good or right" of everyone in the world. But, some might retort, does this not compromise the universal thrust of Christian agape? Wolterstorff's answer is that, while our care is inevitably limited and preferential, our respecting of the rights of all must not be. We cannot be universal dispensers of agapic love, but we are nevertheless bound by the universal rule that we may never seek the good of some by treating another unjustly. Justice ensures that our care of some is respectful of all.

Another key question is what forgiveness actually consists in. His wonderfully succinct answer is that forgiveness is "the enacted resolution no longer to hold against the wrongdoer what he did to one. . . no longer to count the sin against him." To forgive someone is "to engage him as I would if I regarded that deed as not belonging to his moral history"—like a department of justice deciding not to press charges against someone even though they thought he had broken the law. Forgiveness is not a binding moral obligation, such that we would be wronging a wrongdoer if we did not forgive him (and this is so even if the wrongdoer repents). It is not a duty of justice but "an act of supererogatory grace."

What, then, is the point of forgiveness, and of the repentance that may evoke it? Wolterstorff offers this disarmingly obvious answer: they make reconciliation possible. "Repentance and forgiveness bear the potential of liberating both victim and malefactor from the on-going morally destructive effects of the wrongdoing and of giving to each a new insight into the moral character of the other; thereby they open up the possibility of a renewed relationship." (He adds soberly: "Forgiveness as a mode of caring about the other is hard to bring off. It does not come naturally. What comes naturally is nursing one's anger and lusting for revenge.")

How, then, are we to understand the exact relationship between forgiveness and repentance—the specific question evoked by the case of Gordon Wilson? Wolterstorff's answer is a robust version of the "conditional" theory of forgiveness: forgiveness is only possible if the wrongdoer repents. This is because "in the absence of repentance, to enact the resolution not to hold the deed against the wrongdoer is to insult him and demean oneself, thereby wronging both alike." To enact such a resolution toward someone who "continues to stand behind the deed" is to fail to treat both deed and doer with moral seriousness—"to downplay rather than forgive." The injustice must first be named as an injustice if it is to be jettisoned by the victim from his view of the wrongdoer's moral history. So understood, forgiveness affirms the claims of justice in the very act of forgiving.

That is one of many assertions in the book that is bound to evoke debate. Let me dwell further on a particularly far-reaching one. Wolterstorff argues that Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, comprehensively repudiates "the reciprocity code"—any "paying back [of] evil with proportionate evil." That, I suspect, will be accepted by most readers—it's difficult to read the Sermon on the Mount as saying anything else. But Wolterstorff will run into opposition when he goes on to argue that renouncing the reciprocity code necessarily means rejecting the very idea of retribution.

On the one hand, rejecting reciprocity and retribution doesn't mean passivity in the face of injustice. For there are circumstances where "imposing injury" on the evildoer turns out to be necessary, such as in order to protect third parties. But since agapic care is to be the controlling norm in any response to injustice, any such injury must be "justified by some greater good that it brings about, not by the fact that the wrongdoer imposed an injury." Wolterstorff claims to find beneath the idea of retribution a deeply rooted but problematic assumption: that there is, programmed into the moral ontology of the world, an imperative to restore the equilibrium of the moral order when it is disturbed by some violation, and to do so by an equal and opposite reaction. He categorically, and in my view rightly, rejects this essentially pagan idea. He adds, moreover, that "if redressing injury has any place at all in the moral order, God will do it. Leave it to God"—here, the sentiments of Gordon Wilson entirely, it would seem.

But, Wolterstorff thinks, much Christian thought has been thrust into needless perplexity on the question as a result of a mistaken conception of punishment. It has, fatally, been viewed through the lens of the reciprocity code. The assumption—held by Anselm among others—is that "what's due the wrongdoer is punishment. Hence to forgive him is to violate justice." He confesses to being "confounded" by this widely held Christian view, given Jesus's unambiguous rejection of the reciprocity code. But here I must admit to being confounded by Wolterstorff's confoundment. In answer to the question why such a view has been so pervasively endorsed by Christians down the ages, he simply says, "I don't know." All he can come up with by way of explanation is that the reciprocity code has had "such a tight grip on human thought and imagination" that it could not even be dislodged by Jesus's crystal clear teaching. "All about us people talk about getting even, giving malefactors what they have coming to them; it's hard to resist thinking the same way."

But this social-psychological interpretation of the dominance of the idea of retribution won't do. Where a doctrine proves both pervasive and enduring across many historical epochs of the church, it is a good hermeneutical principal to presume that, while it may have been formulated badly, it is an attempt to get a handle on some genuine truth. So whatever the deficiencies of the classical retributive theory, I think it merits more patient treatment than Wolterstorff gives it here. He too quickly concludes that the notion of strict moral equivalence—the idea the punishment must exactly match the offence so that "the moral order is thereby vindicated"—has been essential to Christian accounts of retribution.

In any event, the alternative theory of punishment Wolterstorff proposes turns out to be very appealing, although perhaps not as radically different from the retributive theory as he assumes.

Drawing on the work of Joel Feinberg, he proposes that the real purpose of punishment is not "payback" but "moral disapproval." In punishment, society publicly reproves the wrong done. What is more, punishment backed by such a "reprobative rationale" can actually be a manifestation of care, because it promotes the good of punisher, wrongdoer, and society. And, finally, this is precisely what Paul has in mind when he asserts that government must "execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13). "Nowhere does [Paul] suggest that retributive punishment is a legitimate function of government. . . . If there is to be vengeance, evil repaid by evil, it's up to God to do it. The God-given task of government is reprobative punishment, not retributive punishment"—a claim all the more striking since it exactly reverses a view he published in 2005.

The general claim that punishment is essentially a reprobative act, and the specific claim that Paul's view of government does not imply moral equivalence, are, I think, valid insights. But is the reprobative theory, after all, so different to retributivism? For example, Oliver O'Donovan, author of the highly important The Ways of Judgment (unaccountably unmentioned by Wolterstorff), also rejects what he calls a "moral exchange" view of retribution (roughly, Wolterstorff's "moral equivalence"). Yet he has no difficulty in retaining the concept of retribution, understood less restrictively than in Wolterstorff as the idea that "in punishment something which the offender has put forth comes back" (emphasis mine). But, O'Donovan rightly argues, what the offender "gets back" is not something equivalent but something wholly different: "not an echo but an answer . . . a 'judgment.'" More precisely, it is an "enacted judgment," an "expressive act" by political authority on the malefactor. We seem not a thousand miles from Wolterstorff's reprobative theory, yet without having had to ditch most of the tradition along the way.

The final part of the book explores the momentous theme of "The Justice of God's Love." Here Wolterstorff offers a critical elaboration of the "the new Paul" school of New Testament studies represented by writers such as N. T. Wright. A key claim of this school is that the architectonic idea in Paul's theology of justification is not the forensic justification of the individual sinner but "the justice of God's generosity in offering justification to Jews and Gentiles alike." Wolterstorff wants to push the school yet further. Whereas, for Wright, what is revealed in God's justification of the Gentiles is his "covenant faithfulness," for Wolterstorff it is God's "justice": not the "mere fact" of covenant fidelity but its substantive content. This content is the universal requirements of God's "primary justice," articulated for Jews in the Torah and for Gentiles in nature. Justification presupposes that God holds to account all human beings according to what they know of God's justice. And it makes possible God's pardoning of those who have faith.

But what is this justifying "faith"? Here Wolterstorff boldly sets up camp right in the middle of the minefield of Pauline studies. Justifying faith is the faith of those who acknowledge, honour, and obey God. "Justification on the basis of faith—alternatively expressed, the awarding of eternal life on the basis of having patiently done good, on the basis of honouring and acknowledging God—has always been part of God's way of dealing with wayward humanity." So in offering justification to Gentiles as well as Jews, God is now showing how he has no favourites, how he treats all humans justly. Justification is disclosed in Jesus Christ, and "it is on account of the fidelity of Jesus Christ that God forgives anyone at all." But what Paul teaches, then, is: "Not, you will not be saved if you do not believe in Jesus, but you [especially you Gentiles] will be saved if you do believe in Jesus."

Wolterstorff knows this isn't a complete account of Paul's theology of justification, and admits he hasn't offered an account of how the faithfulness of Jesus in dying for us actually works; he hasn't offered a theology of the cross. But many conservative Protestants will nevertheless regard the suggestion that a justifying faith necessarily includes the "doing of justice" as amounting to a return to "salvation by works." On that specific point I am entirely with Wolterstorff. But here, perhaps, is another occasion where a more patient engagement by Wolterstorff with the very best arguments of his likely critics would have strengthened his case.

To conclude, let us return to the beginning. The figure of Gordon Wilson has been an unsettling presence on our route through Wolterstorff's argument. We can now imagine how Wolterstorff might respond to Wilson's spontaneous offer of forgiveness to the murderers of his daughter. On the one hand, for Wilson to describe his response to such bombers as him having "forgiven" them is, after all, to have inadvertently mischaracterised the very moral structure of his own action. For, Wolterstorff would insist, one cannot forgive a murderer who still "stands behind the deed." (In fact, the Provisional IRA later "apologised" for the bomb, claiming it was intended for security forces not civilians. But that was after Wilson's statement, and in any case such "apologies" were never anything more than crude and wholly disingenuous PR tactics.) Yet, on the other, to renounce personal revenge in such a case—to repudiate the "reciprocity code" and to "leave everything to God"—is supremely to follow the way of Jesus. Whether we find such a response to Gordon Wilson satisfactory or not will be an important indicator of what we are likely to make of the larger argument of this outstanding book.


Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is the first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he took up in September 2006. He is Member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, has served as a faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and as a visiting lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam. He is a specialist in Christian political thought, and has authored or edited several books and many articles in this field. His latest publications are God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Gary Wilton, and Living Lightly, Living Faithfully: Religious faiths and the future of sustainability (Faraday Institute/KLICE, 2013), co-edited with Colin Ball and Robert White.


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