The other day I was talking with some friends, as old friends meeting over the holiday do – about a fourth friend. One of us was expressing some sadness of heart over this other’s apparent moral dereliction.
Another of us asked, challenging, “do you think that’s how God regards this person?”
“Maybe” was the answer.
The first pressed the point: “What is God’s last word about this person?”
More uncertainty followed. But for me at least it was a turning point in the conversation. I don’t know exactly what it means that God’s last word about this person is somehow identical with Jesus Christ. But I am sure that it means God’s last word about this person is mercy and love.
I have of late considered anew the very old tension between God’s love and God’s justice. Even acknowledging the tension as such will probably irritate some of my theologian friends (“if God is simple, these aren’t two conflicting properties” or, from a different vantage, “that’s just substance ontology talking”). But I think it’s justified to recognize it, give it room. Historians of religion speak of the centripetal effect of monotheism: characteristics that were formerly shared between distinct gods (e.g., war to Ba’al, nurture to Asherah) were later predicated, however improbably, of the same deity. The pivotal and biblically oft-repeated saying of Exodus 34 (“YHWH, YHWH, the compassionate and gracious God”) contains a contrastive (“yet”) at its seam; I forget, maybe the form-critics even attribute the two uneven halves of the unit to different sources. An article I read recently by Reformed theologian Hans Weder (“Sachkritik as a Fundamental Device for Theological Interpretation”) baldly claims that the God-is-love Jesus of 1 John stands in basic contradiction to the Jesus of Revelation, up to his knees in the blood of the disobedient. Weder calls for a theological judgment to be made: both perspectives cannot perdure. I am not sure if Weder’s specific contrast is warranted (1 John might be a bit toothier than Weder appreciates), but his point lingers – these seem like identifiably different attitudes towards human sinfulness. Weder’s frankness differs from the long and seemingly uneasy history of theologians seeking to reconcile the two – Anselm with his fancy-footwork navigation of divine goodness (mercy) and justice (punishment), Barth with his schema of “God’s Yes containing God’s No.” The smell of a problem, if you ask me, and way over my head.
But I have grown in confidence that, however these aspects of God’s outlook towards humanity be resolved, there is (at very least) an asymmetry between them. If my one old friend first assumes the equality of mercy and justice – perhaps even the priority of the latter! – I believe that God is more merciful, and that this accords with the thrust of the whole Bible (if there is such a thing). I think of the history running from Judges through 2 Kings, which passes harsh judgment on the disobedient people and kings, and interprets their sufferings consequentially – yet at the same time, maintains an awareness of God’s commitment to successive rulers and generations, and keeps up hope in God’s fidelity that will triumph in the end. It is, after all, an exilic corpus, trusting on the basis of past promises and salvations that God’s mercy will be the final word after the catastrophic (but passing!) judgment of displacement. Exodus 34 itself witnesses to the imbalance in favor of mercy: God maintains compassion and forgiveness to a thousand generations, but visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation. And the New Testament seems like nothing else than a resurrection-driven explosion of hope in the merciful and restoring action of God – over against perhaps more somber or limited visions of salvation indigenous to 2nd temple frameworks of expectation. Sometimes the New Testament states the claim in such a way that it sounds as if its authors gainsay the continuity of God’s grace in Jesus Christ with the gracious God whom Israel had known. The Gospel of John says, “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17), and Titus says, “the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared” (3:4). But at stake is the new and radical realization of God’s compassion in the solidarity of Jesus with us sinners – his participation in our warped humanity unto the point of death.
Whatever else can be said of our old friend, on the basis of Jesus Christ and the history of deep mercy behind him, I will first assume the extremity of God’s mercy towards this friend – and towards all of us. Merry Christmas.