Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: Justice in Love by Wolterstorff
David M. VanDrunen
Book Review: Justice in Love by Wolterstorff

Brief Review of Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

This new volume is of interest to the WSC community, and Reformed circles more broadly, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it deals with an issue of perennial importance and debate for Christian theology and ethics: the relationship of love and justice. Another reason for interest is the identity of the author. Nicholas Wolterstorff is one of the most significant Christian thinkers of the past generation, and by background and reputation is Reformed (though he has defended views over the years contrary to Reformed teaching, some of which I will observe below).

Before I get to the substance of the book, it is worth mentioning that Wolterstorff’s new volume is a model of clear writing and lucid argument. Students, pastors, and others who wish not only to think clearly but also to communicate effectively will find here a fine example of someone dealing with profound and difficult matters in an eminently understandable way. The book is practically worth reading simply to see this at work.

Wolterstorff’s main argument is that, contrary to much Christian thinking over the centuries, justice and love are not in tension, but are perfectly harmonious when understood correctly. Since this must be a short review, I can only summarize his case in very brief fashion. In Part One Wolterstorff considers modern day “agapism,” a view popular in many circles over the past two centuries, whose most well-known proponents include Soren Kierkegaard and Anders Nygren. This agapism teaches that the New Testament requires seeking the other’s well-being as an end in itself, without regard for what justice requires. Wolterstorff argues that this view fails for a number of reasons, including the fact that the very notion of forgiveness (a crucial idea for agapists) depends upon an underlying notion of justice. In Part Two Wolterstorff builds a case for his alternative, which he calls “care-agapism.” Appealing to Scripture, he argues that pursuing justice must be seen as a form of love. He concludes that love as care helpfully captures a conception of love as both seeking to enhance a person’s well-being and securing justice for a person (by seeking to ensure that the person’s rights are honored). As part of his case here he examines the Sermon on the Mount. He believes that when Jesus made reference to the lex talionis (“eye for an eye”) and said that people should not return evil for evil he was rejecting completely the notion of retributive justice (i.e., that justice requires a harm to be paid back by an equivalent harm).

These conclusions are foundational for how the argument develops in Part Three. Here Wolterstorff raises the issue of forgiveness and asks whether it is incompatible with justice. He recognizes that many Christians have believed so, and thinks it is probably because they are committed to the idea of retributive justice. That is, if justice requires the punishment of sin, then forgiving sin seems to be unjust. Thus many Christians have embraced the idea that Christ suffered the penalty of retributive justice vicariously, on behalf of others, and that because of this God forgives them. Wolterstorff argues that vicarious punishment and forgiveness are two different things; if sins are punished vicariously, there is nothing to forgive. Because Scripture teaches forgiveness, however, the idea of vicarious punishment should be dismissed. Because Jesus invalidated the notion of retributive justice, says Wolterstorff, justice does not absolutely demand punishment, and God (and we ourselves) can forgive without being unjust. Wolterstorff does defend the use of punishment, but not on retributive grounds.

Part Four consists primarily of Wolterstorff’s interpretation of Paul’s main argument in Romans. Paul, he claims, was writing to defend God’s justice, in his justifying Jews and Gentiles impartially. Wolterstorff’s understanding of Romans is not subject to quick summary, but suffice it to say that he sees Paul’s take on God’s justice as harmonious with his own understanding of justice and forgiveness promoted earlier in the book.

One of the strongest points of Wolterstorff’s book, in my judgment, is his consideration and critique of the modern day agapists. He shows quite effectively the inherent difficulties of claiming that the New Testament requires pursuit of others’ well-being while being indifferent to the claims of justice. Without justice it is impossible to know when one has been wronged, and if one is not wronged, then forgiveness itself is irrelevant. An understanding of justice is indeed intimately tied to a coherent understanding of love. Furthermore, I believe Wolterstorff is on solid ground in concluding (primarily based upon arguments in his previous book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs) that some conception of rights is necessary in order to understand justice (though the language of “rights” is often abused and confusing).

At the same time, I also believe there are problems in the overall argument he builds. For the sake of space, I focus very briefly upon a few interconnected things undoubtedly of crucial moment for his larger case. First, Wolterstorff’s read of the Sermon on the Mount, such that Jesus declares the lex talionis (and thus retributive justice) to be fundamentally invalid, is unpersuasive. For one thing, the Old Testament is filled with commands to exercise retributive justice. The Noahic covenant (Gen 9:6) and the Mosaic covenant (Exod 21:23-25; Lev 24:18-20; Deut 19:19-21), for example, prescribe the lex talionis as a key principle of justice. Unless God was commanding wicked things, the Sermon on the Mount must not be declaring retributive justice inherently invalid. Rather, Jesus is describing the ethic of the kingdom of heaven (not, contra Wolterstorff, an ethic for all individuals), and people are not to pursue retributive justice as participants in this kingdom, but rather to forgive those who wrong them. But if retribution is an aspect of justice, then forgiveness does become a problem of sorts. When God says that he will not justify the guilty (Exod 23:7) but then also says that he justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5), it seems prima facie that he says contradictory things. Christian theologians have rightly wrestled with this issue. The traditional answer—that Jesus bore the penalty of retributive justice on our behalf, so that God could both justify us ungodly people and satisfy the claims of his justice—is not only logically sound, but also taught in Scripture. Christ did bear our sin (e.g., Isa 53:4-6; 1 Pet 2:24) and take our curse upon himself (Gal 3:13). Wolterstorff argues against this view in a way similar to how many Arminian theologians have argued against the Reformed: if there is vicarious substitution then there is no need for forgiveness. This has a certain logical force. But if Scripture teaches that God forgives precisely through the provision of his Son as a substitute, then perhaps Wolterstorff’s assumption about what forgiveness must mean for God should be re-examined.

All of this comes to bear in Wolterstorff’s interpretation of Romans. While I appreciate much of what he writes about this epistle (especially in chapter 20), there seem to be some crucial holes in important parts of his argument (especially in chapter 21). Wolterstorff admits that he does not discuss what Paul means when he says that Christ died for us (because he does not think it crucial to what Paul has to say about God’s justice), though he also admits that the doctrine of Christ dying for us was very important to Paul. He also does not discuss—but in this case actually ignores (unless I missed it)—Paul’s teaching that God imputes righteousness (4:6, 11) and that Christ’s own righteousness and obedience are the basis for our justification (5:17-19). Both of these things are crucial aspects of the Reformed doctrine of justification and, for various reasons, rather at odds with Wolterstorff’s understanding of justification. These doctrines further demonstrate (and enrich) the idea that legal substitution and forgiveness are consistent, and even mutually related, and that the justification of sinners must involve both.

Justice in Love is a very profitable book for thinking about the relationship of these two crucial aspects of any viable theology of Christian ethics. Ultimately, however, I believe Wolterstorff’s rejection of retributive justice offers a harmonization of justice and love that cannot account for the full range of biblical teaching, including its teaching about justification itself. There is something about justice and a forgiving love that stand in tension, which only Christ’s atoning work can bring to harmony. In Wolterstorff’s account the atonement plays no decisive role, and in fact seems to be unnecessary for his conclusions. That itself, I judge, signals that something is not quite right about his conclusion.