Justice in Love

Written by Nicolas Wolterstorff Reviewed By Randy Martin

Nicolas Wolterstorff, emeritus professor of philosophy at Yale University, has given us his Justice in Love, which further develops the field of moral philosophy after his earlier Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Whereas his former work critiques John Rawls's theory of justice, this sequel addresses the moral and biblical question of the relationship between justice and love. Over the course of four major sections, twenty-one chapters, and 282 pages of text, Wolterstorff gives us plenty to ponder, much that challenges commonly held positions, and significant conclusions that differ from the historic understandings of the Church, especially the Augustinian and Reformed tradition, in his interpretation of the nature of God's justice.

As Wolterstorff opens his book, he familiarizes the reader with the two chief impulses that have formed the moral conscience of Western civilization: love and justice. The former has its unique source in Judeo-Christianity, the latter in the philosophical and legal traditions of Greco-Romanism, as well as in the “Jerusalem strand.” But the perennial question posed in moral reflection as well as in the political realities of Western civilization has been “what do justice and love have to do with each other?” (p. vii). For the perception has existed that the aims of each will conflict; pursuing justice will overtake and deny the imperative to forgive (which is essential to the demand of love), while the imperative of love will in some cases require what is essentially unjust.

Consequently, two motivations initially drive Wolterstorff's project. First, he looks to develop “an understanding of love such that the imperative to act justly is not in conflict with the law of love, not a restriction thereon, not even a supplement, but such that doing justice is an example of love” (p. 84). Second, he seeks to develop a theory of justice that will achieve this end and be fully commensurate with this understanding of love. The first three parts of his book argue this case. But in the fourth part a third impulse for Wolterstorff's project appears: to present his interpretive vision of the doctrine of God's justification.

As someone who places himself in the agapist tradition, Wolterstorff's starting point critiques representatives of that tradition, namely, Soren Kierkegaard, Anders Nygren, and Reinhold Niebuhr. He does so in order to uncover “the points at which modern day agapism proves inadequate, particularly the points at which its understanding of the relation between love and justice proves inadequate” (p.16), in order to work out his own version of the compatibility of love and justice. His chief concern in this regard is the assertion made within the agapist tradition that God's love for us, being of pure grace, is not concerned with just treatment of us. What justice would require of us God forgives, “for God's love for us is pure benevolence, gratuitous generosity all the way down” (p. 108). Since the paradigm of God's love is forgiveness, which is not what justice requires, God can be just towards us or forgiving towards us, but not both simultaneously. In response, Wolterstorff concludes, after extensive explanation and argumentation, that the nature of agape love by which God loves us, by which we in turn love God, our neighbors, and even ourselves, is not the love of benevolence, but the love of care (p. 104). Consequently, to love in an agape manner means that we seek “to enhance someone's flourishing with seeking to secure their just treatment” (p. 101). This form of love, Wolterstorff argues, is not in conflict with the essential demands of justice, nor will it engender, when functioning properly, the unjust treatment of others.

But this reconciliation of love and justice hinges in every way on how Wolterstorff defines justice. In this regard he discusses the “founding texts of the agapist tradition”: Matt 5:17-48 and Luke 6:27-36 (pp. 120-26). His analysis leads to the conviction that Jesus rejects the Lex Taliones, and since the Lex Taliones is the negative aspect of the reciprocity code, Jesus “repudiates . . . the reciprocity code as a whole” (p. 125). Upon this point Wolterstorff, in the strongest manner, argues that Jesus was rejecting the notion of justice and its punishments as being retributive: “if Jesus was not rejecting retribution in rejecting the negative side of the reciprocity code, what was he doing? I see no plausible answer to this question” (p. 128). While recognizing that his view runs counter to “the majority opinion in the Christian tradition” (p. 128), Wolterstorff presents a notion of justice that he sees as robust and biblical, what he calls the “reprobative” theory of punishment.

The need of brevity prevents us from explicating the lines of development Wolterstorff uses to drive his analysis on behalf of the reprobative perspective; in its essence it is what focuses on the perpetrator, imposes hard treatment as the moral method of condemning him for his wrong, and shows resentment of the same and anger at him for his act (pp. 196-97). In this definition Wolterstorff finds the nature of justice that is operative in the biblical narrative, in God's anger against those who break his law, and in the punishments God inflicts. It is this form of justice that allows forgiveness without violating justice. As Wolterstorff states, after an extensive argument, “God's punishment of human beings for their wrongdoing is a condemnation of what was done and an expression of God's anger. Full and complete forgiveness . . . requires foregoing reprobative punishment. But what we also saw [in his extensive argumentation] is that such foregoing does not, as such, violate or undermine justice” (p. 205-6).

As Wolterstorff begins the fourth part of his work, he has, if his arguments can be sustained, harmonized biblical love and justice by the process of redefining agape as care and justice as reprobative. Now he turns to the question of “The Justice of God's Generosity in Romans,” a sustained analysis of the doctrine of justification in Paul's letter according to his “reprobative” justice understanding. Not surprisingly, his analysis is “along the lines of the 'New Paul'” (p. 247), fully accepting the verdict that the reformational understanding of justification is a serious misreading of the text. Further, this tradition's understanding of justification is “incoherent.” Wolterstorff argues that “acquitting and pardoning, declaring innocent and forgiving, are not only distinct but incompatible” (p. 258). Instead of justification being the imputation of righteousness, Wolterstorff maintains “that Paul does not say that Abraham was reckoned as dikaios; that would have the ring of imputation to it. He says that Abraham's faith was reckoned to him as dikaiosunē” (p. 263). In other words, when God reckons the sinner who has faith justified, it is nothing other than God dismissing the charges that stood against him. And it is upon the ground of the sinner's faith that God in his justice and judgment acts in this way.

Wolterstorff rejects other aspects from the Reformed tradition as well. A case in point is his treatment of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement (pp. 192-93). Wolterstorff fails to give the Reformed understanding its best presentation, echoing the sounds of classical Arminianism in his misstatements and critique. This is unfortunate, but not surprising. Earlier in his work, Wolterstorff states, “that Christ's suffering was in some way for us is undeniably a component of New Testament teaching” (p. 192). To be so vague on the meaning of Christ's suffering for us is indicative of theological confusion elsewhere. Where he sees the cross as only a “component” of NT teaching, Paul sees it as of “first importance” (1 Cor 15:3). This tells us much, when, in reading Wolterstorff's analysis of faith and justification in the book of Romans, we recognize that here is a view of salvation for which the work of Christ is incidental, not central. It is difficult to see on Wolterstorff's analysis of justification the necessity of Christ's cross work at all. If the ground of justification is faith, then the death of Christ is not necessary, only faith.

However, Wolterstorff's treatment of justice and justification is but an outworking of a position he has taken earlier involving Jesus and theLex Taliones. It is critical to Wolterstorff's project as a whole that he be absolutely correct in his claim that Jesus rejected the Lex Taliones and thus the “reciprocity code.” Yet Wolterstorff's analysis rests on the mistaken assumption that Jesus is speaking to his audience about the scriptural form of the Law, rather than about a set of misinterpretations associated with the Oral Tradition. This interpretative decision disables him from arriving at any other position with regards to his understanding of justice in love.

While much that Wolterstorff says about love, forgiveness, and certain aspects of justice are insightful and illuminating, the benefits for pastoral ministry may be insufficient to merit the kind of slow reading a philosophically written work requires. Yet, for the aspiring scholar, there is enough substance here for further study. For the Reformed tradition, Wolterstorff's challenges need to be answered in fullness.

Randy Martin

Randy Martin
Bakersfield Christian High School; Covenant Presbyterian Church
Bakersfield, California, USA

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