Reconciling Justice and Love
This important question came via a comment from Arthur recently on my post about The Two Gods of Christianity:
I am not sure I see the “either-or” here. There is nothing at all incompatible with an emphasis on the holiness and perfect justice of God coupled with God as loving especially toward His enemies. Indeed it makes His love that much more perfect in that He loved His own enemies to the point of sending His Son to die on their behalf, making peace through His shed blood on the cross. The less than subtle suggestion here is that the “young, restless, Reformed”, a group I am familiar with and have many sympathetic position in common, somehow de-emphasize God’s love by focusing on His holiness while in reality it is precisely because of His holiness that His love is so gracious.
I thought that this comment very nicely opened up another discussion that we should be having in light of that post and its follow-up post on Why We Like the Sacrificial God. Here are some points I’ve been considering.
Let’s Be Clear on Terms
In the original post, Miller, and myself by copying it, differentiated between the Sacrificial God and the Self-Sacrificing God. The former is defined primarily by a constant need for others to sacrifice to/for him, to work hard to please him. This God enjoys punishing wrongdoing. This God seeks glory first and foremost, where glory means that he knows he has absolute control to do whatever he wants to whoever he wants.
This is different than what Arthur suggested in the comments, at least by my definitions of the words he used. Yes, if justice and holiness are defined as angry punishment of all who aren’t perfect then it is pretty much the same thing. What I think are more in line with Scripture, though, would be to define those terms differently than that in ways that are in no way incompatible with love. Justice, I think, is primarily the act of making things just. This does mean both a humbling of the powerful and a restoration of the lowly (Luke 1:46-55 for just one example). It is not nearly as simple as just punishing the bad guys and rewarding the good guys. Holiness, similarly, is not about being better than everybody else and proving it by refusing to have anything to do with them other than punishing them. Holiness simply means being set apart; it does not in any way necessitate lording that difference over others and in fact I would say that true holiness means extending grace.
There’s another term that needs to be defined: love. We sometimes like to say that the loving thing is always the “nice” thing, but we intuitively know better. We wouldn’t consider it loving to watch our child walk into traffic because we want to be “nice” and not yell loud enough for him/her to hear us. Love is not about being passive and always friendly. Love often means hard work and the loved doesn’t always appreciate that hard work of the lover while it is happening.
In other words, Arthur’s comment is a different conversation. I understand the confusion. It happens a lot that people use the terms justice and love and wonder why they can’t be reconciled when really the conversation is about whether God’s character is fundamentally one of demanding sacrifices from others or willing to sacrifice for others.
Where Do We Start?
So while justice and holiness are not inherently contradictory to love, the Sacrificial God is inherently on the opposite end of a spectrum from the Self-Sacrificing God. And yes, it is a spectrum, not a strict either/or, which Miller himself states. Many people try to balance the two; in my opinion, this is missing the point and often ends up with a schizophrenic God. Some days God is forgiving and giving himself up for others; other days he is sending tornadoes to wipe out evildoers. Which God appears on which day typically just depends on how we would like to respond if we were God in that situation. With that said, many theologians, including most traditional Reformed theologians, try valiantly to balance the two as if they are equal but opposite forces within God’s character. For the most part they end up naturally gravitating toward the self-sacrificial God, even if they speak about the sacrifice-demanding god as an equal force in God’s character. That’s why, generally speaking, I don’t spend a lot of time critiquing the more traditional Reformed camp.
I do tend to critique the neo-Reformed camp, though, because they are often much more willing to start with a God who is an angry legalist who plays favourites. Unlike their more established Reformed forefathers, any concept that God is willing to sacrifice for the love of his creation is typically treated as an afterthought. God’s self-sacrificial nature is typically reduced to a loophole that allows some, but not all of course, on an arbitrary predetermined basis, to be saved from God’s own legal system. This attitude of course carries over in a wide variety of ways as hierarchy is understood to be the natural and desired state of things: pastors submit to God, men in the church submit to their pastors, and women submit to men. A harmful view of God leads to harmful results.
I submit to you that the story of Scripture is really one of God going wildly out of his way to destroy our legal system, not provide a loophole through his own. This God seeks relationship, not dominance, and tells his followers to do the same. That even extends to enemies because this God plays no favourites: not pastors over parishioners, not men over women, not white people luck enough to be born into Christendom over those who will never hear of Jesus, not straight people over gay people, and not anybody else. He offers us all an infinite love to such a point that he gave up his own power and then his life on the cross in order to prove it to us.
As John put it, “God is love.” Let’s start with that and see how concepts such as justice fit into it instead of starting with a predetermined definition of justice/holiness and then taking away God’s love or reducing it to a loophole.