Tuesday, April 5, 2011

And Justice for All

I've noticed that I'm ambiguous in my use of the word "justice." Sometimes I use it in a harsh, wrath-of-God, opposite-of-mercy kind of way, and sometimes I use it as a utopian, world-peacey idea. St. Andrew prays to be "justified" in the canon. Frederica Mathewes-Green points out that Biblical references to justice refer to a condition of harmony between God and all Creation while the Roman Empire developed justice into a legal system that was quite effective at whipping the ancient world into shape. Whether justice reminds us of a relationship or a courtroom is an important distinction. The relationship lens is more demanding, thorough, and enduring, but the courtroom rules are easier to write down in a tract. My friend Ed Smith explains that thinking of salvation as a legal contract in the heart transforms a God bound by law to torment us forever into a God who is afterward bound by law to provide us with perpetual bliss. How convenient that we control the choice of which way to handcuff God.

While on a tour of Alcatraz prison I saw a display on the history of imprisonment.  I had never before noticed that the word "penitentiary" has the root of "penance" or "repentance" and in fact, the 15th century definition of penitentiary is "place of punishment for offenses against the church." The modern legal definition is "a state or federal prison for the punishment and reformation of convicted felons." In a legal view of salvation, repentance is almost irrelevant as long as we tremble in fear before the threat of punishment in hell. Somewhere along the way the incentives of humility and repentance were replaced by a fear of punishment. Maybe this tragic misrepresentation is why St. Paul kept harping on and on about the dangers of legalism. It is a drastically inferior model when compared to being in Christ and receiving the grace that leads to complete freedom. Experiencing salvation means that our healed heart will bear good fruit and strive for unity with God. We can pray with St. Andrew, "Thou art my beloved Jesus, Thou art my Creator; in Thee shall I be justified, O Savior."

1 comment:

  1. I recently realized that my signing up as a "follower" of your blog was not giving me any notifications of new posts, so I caught up on reading today. Anyway...

    You've touched on an example of how theology has affected how scripture is understood (and even translated), while we may intend it to be the other way around.

    I was made aware, a while back, that, in most popular English translations, the same Greek word is translated differently as either "justified" or "made righteous," sometimes even in the same sentence. Of course, "justified" is typically viewed in a purely legal way, having nothing directly to do with the health of our souls. Even "made righteous" may be read by many in the same way, but the literal meaning of the words is that God is actually fixing what is wrong with us rather than reconciling some conflict within Himself between His "justice" and His "mercy" or love.

    I like to ask whether, among theological traditions, the Greek tradition or Latin tradition should be more clear on the meaning of the Greek New Testament. Surely, the Greek view is worthy of some thoughtful consideration, at the very least. Translation is difficult and is never perfect due to the fact that there are few perfect matches between pairs of words in two languages. Then, over time, with varying usage and streams of thought involving the word, the original idea can be very much lost.

    You mentioned "mercy" being perceived as an opposite of justice. It seems that "mercy" is habitually conceived of in legal terms in our culture, but it is translated from the Greek "eleos" indicating "oil." What did oil have to do with a court of law? Naturally, nothing at all. However, oil was used in the healing arts and this is what God's mercy is about.