As Iron Sharpens Iron

An ongoing and online discussion between: an Orthodox informed Ecumaniac without a denominational home, an ordained Baptist youth pastor with an open mind, a Calvinist worship leader/seminarian with a staggering vocabulary and ability to make a point, and a cradle Catholic with a love/hate relationship to Rome.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Theodicy vis: the Justice of God

Dear PF,

It is an interesting opinion you have posted, and all the more interesting because it does not seem to come from someone who hates, but one who loves, God. All the same, the sense of the comments has the smell of foolishness.
The parable of the workers is an interesting case in point to argue for God's injustice (in our favor). However, the master's response is telling: "is your eye evil, because I am good?"

The evil eye, in 1st century Jewish culture, is not an idiom expressing demon-possession, etc, but one which countenances greed. An evil, or bad eye (kakos) is a greedy, or stingy eye. The master reproves the malcontented worker for his greed, which has entered into him because he perceived the goodness (here, generosity) of the master. The first lesson to be learned from this curt response is this:
God is Good. He is the standard. He is not another character on the stage whose actions may be evaluated, but the Absolute against which all other actions are evaluated. He is Truth, and there is no reason, no righteousness, and no justice apart from Him. It is a common sickness of the modern mind to imagine that these elements in society are derived from conceptual forms or even common consent. Yet the Biblical authors did not believe anything of the kind. To question God's justice is like questioning whether a meter is really 100 cm long, or whether 1 = 1. God is the standard, and what he does is just. It remains to the wise to seek to understand Him, since his ways are far from self-explanatory.

In fact, it is the perplexing of God's actions in the world that gives rise to this parable. Jesus is speaking, of course, against the indignation of Jews that the Gentiles, who have not "known God's name" are being included in God's covenant promises in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. The problem is not that the Jews are receiving less than they deserve (the worker in the story is paid a day's wage), but that the Gentiles are receiving more than they deserve. And here is the core of the author's contention, in claiming that, in being merciful to us through Jesus Christ, God is unjust.

The Old Testament vocabulary of justice is one of even measures, and honest scales. It is a justice, receiving what is due to one. However, when it is a question of whether one should receiving more blessing than is one's due, there is never any thought that justice is repressed by liberality- those are the ravings of a mind infected with late 20th-century bureacratic thinking- in a word- with an evil eye.

To receive more than one's due of punishment is cruel. God will mete out the "full measure" of his wrath. To receive less than one's due of reward is cruel. God despises "unjust scales." To receive less than one's due of punishment is unjust. God always punishes sin, and never fails to do so. (Of course, the punishment has fallen on Christ for those that trust Him). But to receive more than one's due of reward is mercy, kindness, liberality, grace- but never injustice. The only reason to imply injustice in a case of generosity is to suppose that others had received less to provide the extra measure- and can we accuse God of stealing salvation from the Jews in order to give it to the Gentiles? No. Romans argues out what the parable states succinctly- the worker who works is paid.

With generosity,
Sir R.F. Burton

16 Comments:

Blogger fra edwin said...

I have heard asked, "If God has perfect justice, how can he be merciful." Since we have all sinned and the "wage" or sentence is death, how can God forgive anyone justly?

First, Jesus who did not deserve to die, died as a sinless offering so that sins may be forgiven. This is the first part of God's justice. There is a second part, however. In order to show perfect mercy to us, we must be willing to show mercy ourselves. God can justly show us mercy perfectly if we, the unjust, can show mercy imperfecty.

Lord, forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others.

8:26 PM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

Dear Haj (I always think "Haliburton" when I read your posts),

Your response highlights one of the differences in Western and Eastern theology. The problem, as I see it, is that you attribute human definitions of justice to God. IE. IF this is what justice is, AND God is just, THEN God must act in such a way. But God is not bound by our definitions of justice.

Another difference is that Western theology (at least that which I experienced) sees the OT as the foundation on which the NT is built. But Eastern theology starts with the Incarnation, with the Gospels, and interprets the rest of Scripture in the light of Christ "slain from th foundation of the world." Using that method, the OT shows an unfolding knowledge of God which they saw "in a glass darkly" as it were. They understood Him as they were able, with the full Revelation coming in Christ.

God could have forgiven us without the sacrifice of Christ. It's not just about Christ allowing Him to see past our sins. It's about healing, about washing, about becoming One with Him (not in the sense that we become part of the Godhead). It's about becoming something More than just human. It's about ending the curse by destroying death.

DISCLAIMER: It is wrong to sequester theology in Western and Eastern camps. I do it for ease, not because it should be done.

8:56 AM  
Anonymous G.Vos said...

I throw in my lot with Sir Burton. Incidentally, I also think Holy Scripture is pretty clear that without the sacrifice of Christ, God could not have forgiven our sins. In Gethsemane Christ prayed, "Father, everything is possible for you..." (Mark 14:35-36) and yet the hour did not pass, and the cup was not taken away. If another way existed, then in that moment the Father was not honest with the Son, for He still sent the Son to the cross.
Jesus Christ dying was the only way for God to forgive our sins.

5:58 PM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

But that verse doesn't say that Christ died so that God could forgive us. It doesn't say why He died. AND the same councils that chose that book to be in the Canon of Scripture had a very different understanding than what you are relating.

Sin isn't breaking the Law, is "missing the mark." It needs to be forgiven, yes. But more than that, one needs to be healed and put back on the right path.

And here's something no "Western" Christian has yet answered satisfatorily for me. Jesus, who is God, forgave several people BEFORE his death. How is that possible, if it was necessary for Him to die before forgiveness was possible?

6:42 PM  
Blogger Josh White said...

What is sin? It is missing the mark. We all know that's what it literally means. It's also breaking the Law, because the whole point of the Law was to demonstrate how we missed the mark.

Could God have chosen another way than the death of Christ? Of course...God can do anything He chooses that isn't contrary to His nature. Why did God choose to do it that way? I don't know. I can point to prophecy, but we all know that Christ chose to die before the world was ever made, so it's like me choosing to go to work tomorrow, telling people I'm going to work, and then going to work. Of course I knew it would happen because I had already decided it would happen.

Col. 2:13-14 (NAS)
13When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,

14having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

This is the most literal translation of the Bible that I know of. The verse, and many others besides, make it clear that one reason Jesus died was to cancel the debt of sin. I think the problem everyone has is that it's not an either/or proposition, but a both/and. Did Jesus die to pay the penalty of our sin? Yes. Did He die to restore our relationship with God? Yes. Should we look at the atonement (and what does that word denote?) in a western way? Yes. In an eastern way? Yes.

And to answer this question..."And here's something no "Western" Christian has yet answered satisfatorily for me. Jesus, who is God, forgave several people BEFORE his death. How is that possible, if it was necessary for Him to die before forgiveness was possible?"

Two possibilities: First, Jesus was forgiving their past sins, but not their future sins. Second, and one I like more, their sins were already forgiven because in the eyes of God, Christ had already died "from the foundation of the the world."

11:47 PM  
Blogger fra edwin said...

Pauper Frater said...
But that verse doesn't say that Christ died so that God could forgive us. It doesn't say why He died. AND the same councils that chose that book to be in the Canon of Scripture had a very different understanding than what you are relating.
Sin isn't breaking the Law, is "missing the mark."


Edwin replies:
Well, would it help if Jesus said it?
"Then he took a cup, gave thanks, 16 and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins." Matt26:27-28

or, how about St. Peter 1:18-19:
:...realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb." or
"By his wounds you have been healed." 1 Peter 2:24

And St. Paul clinches it for me:
"Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life. Not only that, but we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation." Romans 5:10-11

The point is not that God is "hostile" towards us, or that he is at war with us. On the contrary, we are the ones who sinned, rebelled, who chose death. Death is the consequence of sin. Jesus is the Doctor and his sacrifice the cure.

Now about the councils; I quote from Cyrl of Jerusalem:
"But some one will say, What can sin be? Is it a living thing? Is it an angel? Is it a demon? What is this which works within us? It is not an enemy, O man, that assails thee from without, but an evil shoot growing up out of thyself." Lec 2:2 and

"He was truly crucified for our sins. For if thou wouldest deny it, the place refutes thee visibly, this blessed Golgotha, in which we are now assembled for the sake of Him who was here crucified; and the whole world has since been filled with pieces of the wood of the Cross. But He was crucified not for sins of His own, but that we might be delivered from our sins." Lec 4:10

4:12 AM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

I'll respond to the other points soon. First, though, I wanted to point out that Christ was referencing Psalm 22, which points to his crucifixion, with His "Why has Thou forsaken Me" statement.

http://www.blueletterbible.org/kjv/Psa/Psa022.html

11:04 PM  
Blogger Hajiburton said...

To all the lions in the pit,

I have a few points I would like to respond too. First, I think that Fra Edwin's citation of St Paul in Romans 5:10-11, rather than demonstrating the exclusively-substitutionary character of the Atonement (I'm sorry, FE, if that's not what you intended to argue), in fact cinches Josh's point that it is necessary to see the Atonement through both Egyptian and Italian eyes. Reconciliation, of course, does not an exclusively refer to sin, but the restoration to covenant blessing, which is a sweeping Old Testament theme. Of course, sin must be dealt with in order for God to reconcile the world to himself. But so must death, and Christ must also become Pantocrator- the One who possesses all authority in heaven and earth. There is a message of triumph- of life and peace in the Resurrection which is not accessed by simply using the vocabulary of blood for blood.

Also, I wanted to deal with an exegetical fallacy that has reared its ugly head in this discussion. To say that sin is "missing the mark" is not as accurate as it may seem on the surface. The scriptural concept of sin has nothing to do with archery, which forms the term's background. For comparison, we wouldn't want to associate the term "person" with the character an actor assumes when playing a role, would we? Yet that is the term's literal meaning in its earliest usage. It would also be fallacious to attribute to the word "example" the meaning "a clearing in the woods," as medieval dictionaries do. A term has a point of origin, but it is defined according to the usage of the authors. In this case, as Josh eventually said, sin is transgressing God's law.

In reference to that, I believe Josh is a tiny bit mistaken in defining the purpose of the Law. The law does not exist to show us our sin. The law exists because it is the manifestation of God's righteous character. The law was Given to man in order to show us our sin.

Finally, I have to pick on Pauper Frater's latest quip. Although it is beyond doubt that Christ was refering to Psalm 22 with his sixth saying from the cross, to say that that is the sum of its meaning is a little glib. Christ's use of Scripture is usually allusive, but also develops its meaning. In fulfilling the Scripture, he fills in its meaning with the significance of His death. The saying may suggest separation, or even a moment when God did not recognize his own likeness in the Son. The words do not simply suggest, "Hey, everybody, I'm being crucified, just like the Psalmist said."

Incidentally, it is nice to see Herr Vos is following the conversation.

Contentedly,
Sir R.F. Burton

5:13 PM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

AUGH!! I lost all my responses to your responses! And they were so good! Sigh, here's what I can remember:

>>having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.<<

And who is the debt to?

>>Did Jesus die to pay the penalty of our sin? Yes. <<

Yes and no. But mostly no. Who did Jesus pay the penalty to? God? NONONONONO!!!! Yes, there is penalty for sin. Any sin separates us from God, and that, in itself, is it's own penatly. It's a penatly in the same way that plummeting to your death from the Empire State Building is a penatly of "transgressing" gravity.

The Bible says, in 1 Corinthians 13, that "love bears all things." The penalty isn't paid to God because God can bear our transgression because He is Love. We are forgiven without the death of Christ. We are forgiven without the blood of Christ. God doesn't have to be paid in blood.

>>this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.<<

Yes, his blood is shed for sins. But we need forgiveness, not so God can bear us, but so we can bear Him. God can take our uncleanliness. We can't take His holiness.

>>Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life. Not only that, but we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.<<

We are reconciled to God, not Him to us.

>>The point is not that God is "hostile" towards us, or that he is at war with us. On the contrary, we are the ones who sinned, rebelled, who chose death. Death is the consequence of sin. Jesus is the Doctor and his sacrifice the cure.<<

Absolutely. I agree with all of this. What I deny is that the Father somehow needed the blood of Christ to accept us again.

>>it is necessary to see the Atonement through both Egyptian and Italian eyes.<<

I don't understand what you're saying here.

>>There is a message of triumph- of life and peace in the Resurrection which is not accessed by simply using the vocabulary of blood for blood.<<

I agree, but the idea that God was paid the blood of Christ, or that He ever needed the blood sacrifice to forgive us in the first place, pollutes the message of triumph.

>>The scriptural concept of sin has nothing to do with archery, which forms the term's background. <<

The scriptural concept of sin is one that is evolving over time. We begin, let's say, with the Decalogue which seems legalistic on the surface. We continue with the words of Christ that if one lusts, one has committed adultery or if one hates, one has committed murder. The concept of Law was broadened to include intention. Finally, Christ changed the concept of Law from one where you don't do something bad, to the True Whole. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself." That is the whole of the Law. You can't break it. But you can miss the perfection that it is. You can "miss the mark."

>>The law does not exist to show us our sin. The law exists because it is the manifestation of God's righteous character. The law was Given to man in order to show us our sin.<<

It seems like you're saying the same thing. And the Law, as presented by Christ (Love God, Love Man) is the manifestation of God's righteous character in the whole, God is love, not in the part, God doesn't like people to cheat on their spouses.

>>"Hey, everybody, I'm being crucified, just like the Psalmist said."<<

But that is exactly what He was doing. Not saying God had abandoned Him, but reminding everyone with the Psalm what He was doing and why He was doing it.

In short, God doesn't need us to apologize to Him. He doesn't need us to pay anything. We need to be changed, healed, perfected so we can be with Him, not so He can be with us.

Peace,
Christopher

1:57 PM  
Blogger fra edwin said...

Christopher,
The particular "Eastern" groups whom you are quoting keep using this claim (that God demanded the Blood of Christ in order to be paid off for debts against him) as a stick to beat up on Western Theology. I object.

The reason I quoted St. Paul (Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son...) was because this supports "Western theology" which states that there was a rift caused by human sin and rebellion; the consequence (wage) of sin is death - a human-caused separation from God who is the source of life; and that God's mercy was so great that he willingly gave his son in sacrifice, just as his son gave willingly his life in obedience, to heal the rift. This is NOT anger, this is NOT hate. This IS love.

I have begun to feel that this "mis-interpretation" of Western Theology is intentional and political - and not religiously or theologically founded at all. It angers me. We should be one in Christ, yet we squak over vapors when we should be bowing at the same altar, and sharing the same bread.

11:28 PM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

Edwin,

I'll admit that I've created a bit of a straw man by taking the theology to its logical extreme. However, this is largely what I believed as a child, and what many still do today. That is, that God needed to be placated in order to accept us. Your beliefs, as presented here, I have no problem with and, I don't think, any Orthodox would either.

Is it political? Yes, much in the same way that the debate between Eastern and Coptic churches is. But I think there's something real behind the politics. It all comes down to this, for me. Did God need to be reconciled to us, or us to Him?

Peace,
Christopher

8:44 AM  
Blogger fra edwin said...

Christopher wrote:
However, this is largely what I believed as a child, and what many still do today.... Your beliefs, as presented here, I have no problem with and, I don't think, any Orthodox would either.

Edwin replies:
I think that you have hit on the problem, Christopher. You are still working through the kind of black and white theology you were taught as a child, and holding it against the Western Church.

I liken God's law to gravity. Gravity is a useful thing. It helps me keep things where they are put. It makes skiing fun. Without gravity everything on the planet would literally fly apart. Gravity is a great gift from God. Even so, if we think we can test God's love by throwing ourselves from pinnacle of the temple we will fall and fall hard. This is the consequence of the misuse of God's gift of gravity. What is worse, is when we blame God for hating us when we get hurt.

Yet how do we teach our children? We say, don't climb that tree, you will fall and hurt yourself. That sounds like a punishment, doesn't it? Parents get angry when their children do things to bring harm to themselves or others, and the parents will chastise them. Do the parents hate their children? On the contrary. They know that the consequences of climbing that tree could kill them.

Has the Church taught about sins and punishment? Absolutely. Can one die due to sin? Absolutely. Does God love us unconditionally and want us to live abundantly? Absolutely. Are these things incompatable? Not at all.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Hajiburton said...

I have two quick irrelevancies, in order to clarify what I said earlier. The first is, PF, in refering to "Egyptian and Italian" eyes I am refering to Rome and Alexandria- St Basil and St Gregory, East and West. In simplest terms, the force of my comment was that in remembering the Passion, one should never omit suffering,
and never stop short of the Resurrection and Ascension.

Also, I must object to your response to my point about the law's raison d'etre. Existing as the manifestation of God's character and existing to show man his sin is not the same at all. It is a classical Orthodox way to parse theology that, on a few points, one must distinguish between what is ontological in God, and what is economic. The arch example of this is the filoque- the Orthodox say that Christ sending the Spirit is part of the economical relationship of the Trinity (i.e.- it is a distinction IN TIME relating to man and his salvation), and that the Spirit's Proceeding from the Father is onotological, (i.e.- it describes the workings of the Trinity at the level of being, not just what is does, but what it IS.)

This distinction with the Law is the same. The Law IS because God is- the Law is part of what can be known of God's being. The Law was GIVEN because it was expedient for man and his salvation that God's character and the demands of that character should be revealed to him.

I think Jeremiah 31 would furnish a suitable proof-text. In the New Creation, there will be no need for people to teach one another the Law, "for they shall all know Me, from the least to the greatest." The Law does not pass away, but its givenness does.

I insist on this point not because I am bloody-minded and like to make blood vessels pop, but because I believe that failing to make this distinction can have to evil consequences:

1- We may believe that the law is evil somehow, and that the problem is the rules, not our inability to obey.

2- We may believe that the order that upholds the world is merely there for us, which is to diminish God's glory.

I'm terribly sorry you lost your responses. Perhaps you'll recall them in heaven, when we can get a really BIG argument going!

Sir R.F. Burton

4:40 PM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

Edwin,

My black and white theology has mostly been corrected. What concerns me is that much of what I stereotypically call Western Christianity is still hung up on it to varying degrees. Even supposedly free thinkers like Spong are just reacting to it.

Nevertheless, I agree with all you say. I'm sure there is another level where we'll find discord, but I think it important to say where we're unified.

Haj,

No, we should never omit suffering, although I'm not sure where you got that I thought we should. It's the legal penalty (to whom? no one's answered...) that I deny.

Regarding Law, I see what you're saying. The first and last sentence were the same, but it was the all important middle one I skipped. I take your point, then, agree (I think), and I'll raise you. God is Law and then there is the revealed Law as we understand it. I would posit that the Decalogue was an incomplete understanding, but enough for the Jews at the time.

God is Law. God is Love. The Law is Love. Christ bears this out in His own words. Those who act lovingly are fulfilling the Law and, by default, not breaking it. Our concept of law is a series of "don'ts" which can be broken. "Don't be this way. Behave." We don't proscribe what people are SUPPOSED to be doing. God's concept of Law is active. "Be this way. Love."

Further, all this talk about the wrath of God, or the Justice of God, etc are all ways that we can understand a difficult concept. God judges, not actively, but by His very nature. God "hates" sin, not actively, but by His very nature. The nature of God is as a Fire, consuming all that is not-God (not-Love). Those that are like-God are not consumed and, further, are joyful in His presence. Those that are not like-God are in constant torment. "No one can see the face of God and live." Not because He actively destroys them, but because their nature is contrary to His.

God just Is. It is we who either love Him or hate Him. We seal our own fate. This is why theosis is so important in Orthodox theology. It's not just about right standing with God. It's about being like Him.

Incidentally, your reasons 1 and 2 for understanding Law are excellent, and I entirely agree.

With flaccid fingers,
Me

8:11 PM  
Blogger Hajiburton said...

Dear PF,

I'm interested in your comment about theosis. Where does it come from? It reminds me of what might be a parallel concept in monastic theology, which lies at the heart of early western mysticism (i.e., non-visionary, non-passion obsessed, associated with Gregory, Augustine, and Bernard). It is the concept of "deification," (lat. deificare), which is not becoming God, but becoming one in willing and affection with God- it is the experience of Union which "consummation" epitomizes as regards the individual soul, and which all true Christian mystical experiences prefigure here below. I encountered it in Bernard, but he received it from Gregory (I think). You might look for it in Bernard's Sermons on the Song of Songs 71.9.

Ecumenically,
Sir R.F. Burton

6:09 PM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

St. Athanasius of Alexandria said, "The Son of God became man, that we might become God." Right of the bat, you can see that the Incarnation will play a much larger role in Orthodoxy. In their conception, the Incarnation was not needed because we fell. It would have happened anyway. God didn't just want to return us to our pre-Fall state. He wanted to do something more, and had planned that something from the beginning.

So how do we "become God" without becoming God, as it were. Palamas made a distinction between God's Essence and His energies. We cannot become one with God in His Essence. Rather, we become one with His energies.

Thus, we must struggle in addition to our faith. We struggle to attain that union. In the terms I grew up with, it's more about Sanctification than Justification. The latter is kind of a by-product of the former. But the common conception of Sanctification is not sufficient to describe Theosis. It's much more. My guess is that most Protestants would be quite uncomfortable with it.

Ecumanaically yours,
Me

6:30 PM  

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