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Monday, December 05, 2016


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"Why didn't God simply forgive man for Adam's sin?"

I see it this way: forgiveness has to be accepted, generally by contrition and repentance. It is not a unilateral act by God, though his is the first move, that is, he is willing to forgive if we want it.

Could it be a unilateral act? I suppose, but then we would lose our freedom and be different from what we are.

As for forgiving the man who raped one's daughter, this may be in fact impossible. What Aquinas writes in such a case is that our forgiveness extends only to asking God to forgive him, a forgiveness possible to all despite the continued negative feelings.

I agree more or less with your characterization of orthodox Christianity. What an absurd thing to say that "One cannot both truly forgive and demand that justice be served". Of course one can forgive and yet still demand justice. Forgiveness does not mean 'exonerate a person from justice. This is one of the paradoxes of the Abrahamic religions which only Christianity can solve, I think- namely- how can God satisfy both his mercy and his justice? If he exacts justice on the sinful, where is his mercy? If he shows mercy, where is his justice? Arguably, it is only through Christ's death that both justice and mercy are satisfied, for Christ takes our punishment (there are a number of theories about how this occurs-penal substitution, ransom theory etc.) thus satisfying God's justice, yet also satisfying his mercy, since we no longer need to pay the penaltly for our own sin.

Another thing too, to say that forgiving your daughter's rapist is done in order to restore good relations with him is sick.

"Steven's thought, which he takes to be an explication of Christian forgiveness, is that true forgiveness exonerates the person forgiven: it removes the guilt and moral responsibility and with them the need for restitution and punishment. One cannot both truly forgive and demand that justice be served."

That doesn't make good sense to me (though I don't know what conversation you're referring to, so perhaps it makes more sense in context). If I commit a crime--felonious assault, let's say--then I'm responsible for it and I'm guilty. It will forever be true of me that I was responsible for that crime and guilty as charged.

But that doesn't entail that you can't forgive me. We both can acknowledge my guilt and responsibility while at the same time forgiveness takes place. You wave your right to my being punished for beating you and vow to treat me going forth as if I hadn't committed the crime. In essence, you forgive me. The Prodigal Son was responsible for his foolishness and guilty for throwing away his fortune, but the Father does not punish him and treats him as if he's been restored.

"Why didn't God simply forgive man for Adam's sin?"

I think it only makes sense to forgive someone if it's for some greater good. If God just ignored all sin, waving his right to punish anyone, then I suspect the world would be worse off and not better.

But perhaps you're asking why the atonement is *necessary* at all, when I could just ask for forgiveness and God could simply forgive me without all the dying Son business.

I think probably a lot of people wouldn't sincerely ask without the sacrifice of his Son. But if they were to ask apart from there being a crucifixion, I'm inclined to think that they could be forgiven without the crucifixion.

Yet that doesn't entail that atonement via Christ's death wouldn't still be necessary. Perhaps there are communal sins which couldn't be forgiven simply by my asking for forgiveness for *my* sins and you asking for forgiveness for yours. Perhaps there are sins of humanity which could not be forgiven unless there were a representative who could stand in for the group as a whole. That is the line of argument taken up here in this very interesting paper:

Hi Bill,

In those days -- nearly five years ago now, which for someone my age is quite a bit of time -- I would have argued that genuine forgiveness is unilateral and unconditional along the lines you brought up in your post above. The proper object of forgiveness is a guilty person; if a person's guilt has been "dissolved" by repentance, punishment, reparations, etc., then there is nothing left to forgive, and so forgiveness in such a case is impossible because there is no existing possible object of forgiveness.

I am not sure whether I still stand by this argument, but it certainly doesn't seem to me as poor as some of your commentators are making it out to be. It is an argument that more important and insightful philosophers than I have proposed. Even if a person were to appeal to some doctrine of atonement, it is still clear that it would be impossible -- given the infinite guilt which comes after the commission of a mortal sin -- for one and the same person both to suffer complete justice and to be forgiven.

These days I would say something like this. Forgiveness is the restoration of a previous friendly (or at least peaceful) rapport between two persons. This is clearly compatible with the requirement that the guilty person pay what is proper for her guilt, so long as this payment does not irreversibly damage or destroy the guilty person. Thus, God can forgive us for our sins and we might still have to pay for them in purgatory, because we will not be there forever and because friendship with him will have been restored after the declaration of forgiveness.

Alternatively, you might think that God does unconditionally forgive everyone for their sins, but only those who repent and properly orient themselves towards God benefit from this. After all, God being immutable, he doesn't go from being unforgiving to forgiving in any literal sense when we repent. The change happens on our side, not on his.

As for the atonement, I finished reading Brian Davies, Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil last night. Evidently Aquinas thought that God could have just forgiven man's sins without the death of Christ, contra Anselm, but chose not to do so because the incarnation-atonement-resurrection story contains within itself various goods which make it worth it to accomplish forgiveness in that way.

The background here is a logical dilemma set forth by Aurel Kolnai in his important paper, "Forgiveness."

Suppose the miscreant remains intransigent, admits no guilt, and refuses to undergo a metanoia (change of heart), but I forgive him anyway. This is not forgiveness, says Kolnai, but a morally dubious condoning of an evil deed. On the other hand, suppose the miscreant admits his guilt, undergoes a change of heart, 'mends his ways, apologizes and accepts his punishment, and I forgive him. Now forgiveness has become "redundant," says Kolnai. What is there to forgive?

In brief, if forgiveness is not conditional upon admission of guilt, then it is "condonation" (Kolnai's word) and is thus not forgiveness. But if forgiveness is conditional upon admission of guilt, then it is not forgiveness either because it lacks an object: there is nothing to forgive.

By the way, Tully, (and please 'forgive' my pedantry) it is 'waive' not 'wave,' as in the joke: Time was when Brittannia ruled the waves; lately though, she waives the rules."

Yes, 'waive'. When the language is purified there will be no homophones.

It's this last part that I disagree with:
"But if forgiveness is conditional upon admission of guilt, then it is not forgiveness either because it lacks an object: there is nothing to forgive."

I can admit my guilt for committing a crime while still being defiant and in need of forgiveness. In fact, even if I'm not defiant, I can still be in need of forgiveness. I drink too much and run into your car. I don't have the money to pay for the repairs. You have the right to have me punished by the court/police--perhaps some days in jail. I admit that I did it. I'm guilty. I plead for forgiveness. You have a right to have me punished, but perhaps you forgive me because you think the punishment will do me more harm than good in this particular situation.

Forgiveness seems to be being conflated with exoneration, but the two acts are not identical. If you forgive me fully, I own up to it and we both recognize my guilt, but the punishment is waived. If my guilt is removed I've been exonerated. Now if I'm exonerated, *then* there's nothing to forgive. That I agree with. But if I admit that I'm guilty I can't be exonerated (unless I'm deceiving myself or delusional, and it turns out that I didn't really do it) but I can still be forgiven.

Kolnai's paper if you have access to JSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4544851?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents





What you say makes good sense. To forgive is not to exonerate. It seems to be an analytic or conceptual truth that if one is exonerated of a crime, then one did not commit it, whereas if one's crime is forgiven, then one did commit it. Agree?

Now suppose you do me wrong, the punishment or restitution is waived, and I forgive you. (You stole one of my books, we both know it, you refuse to give it back, but I forgive you, and you get to keep the stolen property.) Is that not condoning -- which is morally dubious -- rather than forgiving, which is morally praiseworthy?

I have no theory. I am just trying to understand the problematic.


I agree with the first part.

I also agree that in many circumstances (probably most) one should not forgive someone who refuses to admit guilt. If the aim is reconciliation, telling someone "I forgive you" who won't admit guilt might make the relationship even worse. But I don't think that doing so counts as condoning a wrongful action (though in some circumstances it might). If I forgive the person, I can recognize that he wronged me and that I'm not going to pursue punishment while still condemning the action. I might even say, "I know you will not admit that you did something wrong. I think you did, but I'm not going to harbor ill will towards you, and I am going to forgive you because I think that punishing you will be worse for the both of us." Judges sometimes do this with first time offenders. They will give them a stern lecture about their actions but waive their punishment in the hope that this act of mercy *in this circumstance* will do them and society more good than a few weeks in jail.

What's unclear to me is whether we should think of this as partial or complete forgiveness. I can certainly waive your punishment and do what psychiatrists tell people to do when they tell clients that they will be better off if they forgive the person who wronged them in their minds and move on with life. But can forgiveness fully occur if you don't admit your guilt and ask for forgiveness? I'm unsure but inclined to think not. I'd prefer to say that I have an attitude of forgiveness toward you and an offer of forgiveness, but it's incomplete unless you accept it.

The rapist has paid his debt to the society by being punished with prison time. But has he paid his debt to the girl's father, not to mention the girl herself?

There is the legal debt that the criminal discharges when he suffers punishment but it is not obvious that his moral debt to the injured parties is entirely discharged so.

Dostoevsky in Karamazov Brothers alludes to this point in the prelude to the prose poem The Grand Inquisitor.

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