Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Forgiveness: some comments on Lucy Allais’s ‘Aspirational Forgiveness’

Joseph Shaw

This is one of those topics in which philosophers are uneasily aware that there is a theological background to ordinary thinking, without understanding, or wanting to get involved in, the theology. So a couple of thoughts about that might be useful, although I’m far from being an expert on that either.

The ‘foundational prayers and creeds’ Calhoun refers to as establishing the Christian idea of forgiveness is presumably the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ This is illustrated by the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, and other passages. I note this because an easy way in to the theological literature is to see the discussion of either in biblical commentaries, or, especially, the petition-by-petition discussion of the Lord’s Prayer in the 16th C. Catechism of the Council of Trent, or the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Two important things which are worth saying are these: Christian forgiveness is not exactly obligatory, since there is great emphasis on its being voluntary; and Christian forgiveness does not wipe away all need for punishment. Both these points are important, but easy to miss.

On the first: The major incentive for forgiveness is the desire for a similar forgiveness from God. And in each case, what actually happens in forgiveness is that the forgiver disclaims at least some what is owed to him in justice. (This obviously can’t be obligatory: it can’t be a requirement of justice to waive what is just.) Since we forgive what is owing to us personally, we can forgive an injury without being unjust; it is supererogatory. (We have the right to give up what we have a right to demand.) However, in the context of a Christian’s relationship with God, a failure to forgive others would be scandalous, since God has forgiven each of us much more—hence the parable of the unforgiving servant, who refused to forgive a trivial debt, having been forgiven himself a vast one. If we hope, not for justice, but for a supererogatory forgiveness, from God, we have to behave in a parallel way ourselves.

This is, incidentally, in line with your interpretation of Bishop Butler. Butler is following the standard orthodox line here, as given in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, for example. Feelings of resentment may remain, and insofar as they are involuntary, should not be a cause for scruples in the Christian, who has genuinely given up plans for revenge etc..

On the second: In withdrawing our claim on what is owed to us, we don’t necessarily obviate the need for punishment, let alone repentance. It is interesting that you mention absolution here, because, odd as it may seem, real absolution does not remove one’s liability to punishment. What it does is commute eternal punishment due to mortal sin (if the penitent has confessed a mortal sin), to temporal (ie non-eternal) punishment (ie purgatory). This is still due to God’s justice, even though the penitent has clearly received God’s forgiveness.

And even this kind of absolution is only possible because of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christ’s sacrifice is an offering to God which is sufficient to make up for all the sins throughout history, and Christ made this offering available to us to satisfy God’s justice, making God’s forgiveness possible. God forgives (ie, no longer requires what is owed to him in justice, which is eternal punishment), because he graciously accepts the offering of Christ, offered by the penitent in lieu of what he owes God. (So God’s forgiveness is still supererogatory, but it does not go so far in merely giving up the demands of justice, as to trivialise the wrongdoing and the wrongdoer: a point emphasised by Richard Swiburne in his book on atonement.)

On the other hand, sins which are forgiven are ‘blotted out’, not merely ignored, and no longer act as a barrier in one’s relationship with God. This is in sharp contrast with the Lutheran and in general Protestant view, in which God merely ignores our sins. In Catholic thinking, God makes us genuinely better people. Our souls are injured by sin, and they are healed by God when he forgives us.

It is interesting to think of the philosophical debate in the light of this doctrine. If one doesn’t want to talk about God, but wants to give a sympathetic account of the intuition that forgiveness is possible and good, and even quasi-obligatory, the paradoxes your paper started with arise very quickly. However, it still makes sense to say that one is not being unjust in waiving what one is owed; and that this is a good thing, when seeking to restore a relationship with someone who is seeking forgiveness. What is not possible to see is how justice might be satisfied from a different source, ie Christ’s sacrifice; and how forgiving others has an important role in one’s other important relationship, ie with God.

Forgiveness of the unrepentant, I think, is a slightly different animal, although the same word is used. I think that the theological context of this is the command to love one’s enemies, and pray for the persecutors, and not curse them. Again, in the original context this is motivated by reference to the parallel with God’s attitude, which is to love everyone, and to seek their salvation—God does not desire the destruction of the sinner and so forth. And as before, while as an individual one gives up one’s claim on the person persecuting one, the need for the latter to repent, and to be punished/ do penance, remains. And again this is all connected to the way in which Christ took on the burden of sin in dying on the cross. But whereas the point of forgiving the penitent—God forgiving us or us each other—is to restore the relationship, the point in forgiving the unrepentant is to seek his good, and not his (moral) destruction.

In one sense God has already forgiven all sins, because he has accepted Christ’s offering, which is sufficient in justice to make up for all sin. But in another sense God’s forgiveness awaits the sinner’s repentance, which involves the sinner’s pleading of Christ’s offering on his own behalf. What we imitate, here, is God going after the sinner—the lost sheep—and trying to win him over by doing good to him, and not merely abandon him to his just punishment. As with the other kind of forgiveness, without the theological background this is harder to understand, but I think that the supererogatory nature of wishing well to the persecutor, without denying the seriousness of his wrongdoing, is still intelligible.

The example of the adulterous husband illustrates some of these issues. In Catholic teaching adultery (and ‘unreasonable behaviour’, which would cover physical abuse) gives the injured party the right to separation (of ‘bed and table’). (The conditions for to annulment and remarriage are a separate matter.) If the injured party should forgive the adulterer/ abuser, this is the giving up of what is belongs to her by right. The good of the relationship would usually be a powerful reason to forgive, and thereby restore the relationship, but as you say there are limits, most obviously where physical abuse is concerned. In the scenario you describe, the beaten wife might give the husband the forgiveness of not seeking revenge, but not go back to him, even if he expressed repentance.

I hope this is helpful. In light of what I’ve said, one thing I would look out for in this debate is whether the different participants accept the possibility of supererogation. A lot of people don’t, and if you don’t, I think the paradoxes of forgiveness are insoluble.


Joseph Shaw said...

Joseph Jedwab says:

I like the post on forgiveness. I think it's a bit brutal to say that the Protestant view is that God ignores our sin. It might be the Lutheran view. I don't think it's the Calvinist view. God makes us ighteous. That begins now. It's made complete at the general resurrection.

Joseph Shaw said...

I confess my ignorance of Calvin's position. But there is a tension between our moral transformation during our life and the denial of merit.

Calvin says the smallest sin is infinitely displeasing to God. If this is right, even a partly morally improved human will have an infinite amount of sin which will have to be ignored - since even saints commit (what Catholics call) venial sins.

Joseph Shaw said...

I admit that generalising about Protestant views is hazardous (hence I said 'in general'). However, that we are not transformed in this life in such a way that we can merit heaven, is as widespread as they come. Poeple who disagree with this are unlikely to call themselves Protestants, even if they are outside the Catholic Church.

I don't see why I should disagree with your statement. The Catholic view of the efficacy of the Cross makes it explicit how it is that God's forgiveness is compatible with His Justice. And this is the basis for the understanding of human forgiveness.

Joseph Shaw said...

There is nothing independant of God's grace that we do to make us fit for heaven - agreed. I assume you would not agree: by exercising supernatural (God-given) virutes, the saints merited to go to heaven by their works.

On purgatory: I misunderstood your question. God forgives our sins, in the light of the satisfaction offered by the sacrifice of Christ, but still demands some punishment, as fitting his justice. That makes sense to me - it is a matter not of what is absolutely necessary to God, but to what is fitting, and elevates human dignity. God chooses how to allow us some share in working out our salvation.

Joseph Shaw said...

Forgiveness and mercy: interesting. Must they be distinct.

Atonement owed to the victim: I agree, not 'primarily'. Although of course we think this partly because of the crown's takeover of serious criminal prosecution in the Middle Ages. In the early Middle Ages, it was up to the victims or relations to bring prosecutions and demand restitution. But anyway, we can say that forgiveness by the victim means merely the victim's giving up of what is owed to the victim: thus thoughts of revenge, curses, loss of relationship and so are the things that the victim can play with.

On the next point, I think that loss of good relations can be thought of a sanction imposed or lifted by a victim.

Forgiving the dead: I'm not convinced there is a non-religious use for this idea. In a religious context, of course, there is still the possibility of praying for / not cursing them.

Joseph Shaw said...

NB do you remember what Laertes says to Hamlet:

Laer. I am satisfied in nature, 164
Whose motive, in this case, should stir me most
To my revenge; but in my terms of honour
I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement,
Till by some elder masters of known honour 168
I have a voice and precedent of peace,
To keep my name ungor’d. 41 But till that time,
I do receive your offer’d love like love,
And will not wrong it.

I'm very interested by the distinction between different kinds of satisfaction demanded here: of nature and honour. Laertes gives up one and keeps the other.

Daniel Hill said...

Just to pick up on JS's comments on Protestantism; I agree with JJ that few Protestants think that God ignores our sins.

The standard line (which I accept) is that all sins (or all the sins of the elect) are (infinitely) punished in Christ, so no sin is ignored. Further, on the standard line our guilt is imputed to Christ too, and his righteousness imputed to us. Protestants in general think that guilt just is liability to punishment, and so one cannot be liable to punishment if one's guilt has been imputed to Christ. (Hence Protestants in general reject the scholastic distinction between 'reatus culpae' (liability to guilt) and 'reatus poenae' (liability to punishment).)

That said, the orthodox Protestants do distinguish between 'potential guilt', which we have till the next life, in virtue of our sinful nature, and 'actual guilt', which is remitted when we are justified (i.e. at the moment of conversion), in virtue of our being incorporated in Christ and so covered by his righteousness.

Daniel Hill said...

One further point: can God not command us to do something that we are not obliged to do by justice alone? And if he does does that act not thereby become obligatory for us?

Joseph Shaw said...

It's all a question of what you mean by not 'imputing' sins to us. The standard Catholic understanding of the Prot doctrine is that this is less than what we mean by forgiving in light of the satisfaction offered by Christ. Luther talks about covering a dunghill with whitewash, or something like that, does he not? Of course you're welcome to reject Luther! :-)

But according to us we can actually offer to God, in satisfaction of our sins, something which makes up for them, completely - Christ's sacrifice.

I think that's a lovely doctrine; I think the Protestant rejection of it is tragic.

I don't understand the point of your last post, Daniel.

Daniel Hill said...

I think that every Protestant would assert that we are totally forgiven our sins: the punishment due to them has been suffered in full by Christ. God does not hold them against us when he judges us now or on the Great Day. What do Roman Catholics think is lacking from the Protestant doctrine?

It may well be a myth that Luther spoke of snow-covered dunghills. Nevertheless, the point is correct that we are legally righteous in our status but still sinful in our state.

I'd need to know more about what precisely you mean by `we offer to God Christ's sacrifice'; the Protestant view is that Christ offered himself to God for us. If we were to offer him to God that would mean that we could boast and would our performance of the offering not count as a work?

Daniel Hill said...

Let me explain the point of the comment I made:
Can God not command us to do something that we are not obliged to do by justice alone? And if he does does that act not thereby become obligatory for us?
You said:
Christian forgiveness is not exactly obligatory [. . .]: it can’t be a requirement of justice to waive what is just.
I say that the first clause doesn't follow from the second; you're right that it isn't a requirement of justice to forgive. It is, however, a requirement of God's and is, hence, obligatory. I hope that clarifies matters.

Joseph Shaw said...

On the last point: it is not exactly clear that God requires it of us as a matter of obligation to forgive our enemies. My point is that it is presented (in scripture) as something we should do in light of God's much greater forgiveness of us.

On the previous post: I am very aware that this is way beyong my area of expertise. However: Does offering Christ's sacrifice count as a work? I'm tempted to say: of course it does! But I know this word 'work' has a strange history in Protestant thinking. As I understand it: Luther applied what St Paul says about 'dead' (deadly, killing) works, to works like the reception of the sacraments. But St Paul is referring there to sins, not good works. And when he says faith, rather than works, saves us, that is obviously compatible with the efficacy of baptism and so on, because performing these 'works' efficaciously requires faith.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks for this, Joe.

(1) On forgiveness, I'd say that Luke 17:3-4 contains a command by Jesus that we should forgive. There are no conditions explicitly attached, and, in any case, it is a command that we should repent and seek forgiveness of our own sins. And if it is a divine command are we not obliged to obey it?

(2) On works, I don't think the issue is so much the meaning of the word. If I offer Christ's work to God, and Judas doesn't, then it looks as if the reason why I am saved and he isn't is that I offered and he didn't. For the Reformed this gets things back to front: the reason why I have faith and he doesn't is because Christ saved me and not him. Why did Christ save me and not him? God only knows!

Joseph Shaw said...

First: there are different levels of divine claim. I'm just pointing out that the incentive to forgive is expressed in terms of reciprocity with God, not as the fulfillment of obligation. So much is undeniable. I wouldn't go further than that.

Second: the reason you are saved and Judas isn't is that you offered Christ's sacrifice in atonement for your sins, with faith, and he didn't. Absolutely right. Faith is a gift from God (an infused virtue): that's right as well. If you really want to get into these things, however, you have to start making distinctions between different kinds of grace, the purpose of which is to allow us some form of cooperation with our salvation - but you can look it all up in Ott as easily as I can.

There are two differences here: one is that in Catholic teaching the sinner saved by grace is transformed, and is no longer a pile of dung. The other is that the sinner has some say in this process. It is the first which is connected most directly to the question of us offering God Christ's sacrifice, rather than a penal substitution theory.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks for this, Joe.

Concerning the first point, I agree with your statement that `there are different levels of divine claim', but I'd have said that they give rise to different levels of human obligation, and that we are obliged at some level to forgive.

Concerning the second point, I don't have a copy of Ott (though I'd like to own one if you know someone selling one!), so I cannot look it all up, which is why I'm very grateful to you for your help. (Is Ott to dogmatics what Davis is to ethics?) For Calvin, any cooperation with God in salvation would be an excuse for us to boast, which Paul rules out (Romans 3: 27). But Protestants agree that the saved are in the process of being transformed from dung to gold, but this is sanctification, not justification (the preceding change in our legal status). We have no say in justification.

Thanks for your help!

Joseph Shaw said...

What's the difference between justification and sanctification?

Ott, by the way:

Daniel Hill said...

Justification is our being given a righteous legal status in God's eyes; our sins are forgiven so that we move from the legal standing of guilt (or liability to be punished) to the legal standing of righteousness (or liability to be rewarded). This is because Christ suffered the penalty due our sins on the cross, and, thanks to our union with him, we have his legal righteousness before God. Justification is an instantaneous process of change in legal status.

Sanctification is the ongoing process of our being conformed to the likeness of Christ, i.e. being made more righteous in our state (as opposed to our status). This process won't be complete in this life.

The difference between justification and sanctification is fundamental to Protestant theology.