What is Justice? 1

What is Justice 1

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Law School.  In this series, David reflects on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s most recent book, Justice in Love (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion).


Nicholas Wolterstorff is a leading Christian philosophical theologian who combines his intellectual erudition with a warm evangelical faith.  Recently he published an important two-part series of books on the theme of “Justice” — Justice: Rights and Wrongs and Justice in Love.  Although both books touch on some difficult philosophical and theological themes, they are readily accessible to anyone.  If you’re involved in justice ministries, legal or law enforcement work, government or military service, or are otherwise interested in the theme of justice, these are books you should read.

Here are some opening questions:  Why two fat books on “justice?”  Don’t we already know what “justice” means?  What do you think comprises “justice?”  Do human beings have inherent “rights”?  Is a concept of “rights” required for a concept of “justice?”

“Justice” and “rights,” in fact, are slippery concepts.  Western liberal theories of justice and rights, after the rise of modernity, generally attempt to avoid reference to God or any other transcendent source of rights and justice.  John Rawls’ highly influential approach, for example, is rooted in social contractarian ideas.  For Rawls, “justice” requires that each individual give to others what she would desire for herself, if all individuals were ignorant of any other person’s desires.  Other theories, such as the “capacities” approach of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, conceive of “justice” as what is necessary to maximize the innate capabilities of each person in a way that supports human flourishing.  Each of these theories, and others like them, focus only on human or “natural” factors.

Christian theology, of course, must think beyond the human to the divine.  But how do notions of “justice” and “rights” fit into a Christian theistic framework?

In Roman Catholic theology, “justice” is woven into the “natural law,” which is to some degree accessible to all human beings through the exercise of natural reason.  For Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, natural law served as a précis to the fuller understanding of truth and the virtues that could be acquired only through faith.  Following Aristotle, Thomas’ ethical theory is a eudemonistic one – it posits an ideal “good life,” a life in which the vision of God is the ultimate good, and develops virtues and practices required to attain the good life.   Although Thomas considered faith necessary for a fully virtuous live, he believed ordinary human reason could grasp the basic principles of justice.

Wolterstorff argues that eudemonistic theories of ethics fail to supply a stable basis for “rights” and “justice” because they fail to offer an account of inherent human worth.  (JR&W at p. 179).  The “life-goods” of eudemonism, he says, are activities “each of us must choose … with the goal in mind of enhancing one’s own happiness.”  Wolterstorff suggests that, “[t]here is no room in this scheme for the worth of persons and human beings, and hence none for one’s right against others to their treating one a certain way on account of one’s worth.”  (JR&W at p. 179).  This argument against eudemonism is interesting because it turns the usual Protestant / Reformed argument against eudemonism on its head by suggesting that eudemonism is not “humanistic” enough.

Thomistic natural law theory – or at least a version of it – was subject to severe attack during the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther, in particular, famously battled with Thomist scholars of his day over the relationship between nature and grace.  This basic question of theological anthropology – to what extent, if at all, can human beings know and do good through natural reason, and what is the necessary role of God’s grace – remains a fundamental question for any Christian theory of justice.

For some strands of Protestant Christian theology, following Luther and to some extent John Calvin, the notion of “human rights” is eyed suspiciously or flatly rejected.  If God’s sovereignty is such that he “can do whatever he wants,” then human beings have no inherent “rights.”  For Reformed thinkers in this vein, the only real basis for “justice” and “rights” is God’s divine command.  The Decalogue provides us with the blueprint for God’s law, which we are bound to obey, and that law gives people obligations to each other, with corresponding rights.  For example, the command not to steal (Exodus 20:15) supports a right against other people to personal property.  But these are not “natural” rights that inhere in persons apart from God’s commands.

One problem with this kind of divine command ethic is that it raises the specter of arbitrariness.  Is theft wrong merely because God says so?  Could God then change the command and at some point declare theft to be lawful and “good?”  On the other hand, is there a standard of “good” to which even God must adhere, suggesting that there is something greater than God?  Most divine command theorists avoid this problem by noting that God Himself is the perfection of good in His being, so that His commands, which are always consistent with His own being, are neither arbitrary nor indebted to a standard above His own being.

Wolterstorff, however, argues that divine command theories fail because they rest on an analogy to human commands.  We know what a “moral command” looks like because we as human beings issue such commands to each other.  But if human beings can issue moral commands to each other, Wolterstorff says, then the standard for morality can be at least in part a human one, which does not rest on God’s commands as divine command theory requires.

Further, Wolterstorff argues that divine command theories fail because all such theories rest on an inherent moral obligation to obey God’s commands, even prior to any specific command from God (JR&W, at p. 275-76).  The reason we are morally obliged to obey God’s commands cannot itself arise from one of God’s commands, or else we become stuck in an infinite regress.  We must be morally obliged to obey God’s commands because of something inherent in the God-human relation that precedes the divine commands.

In other important strands of Reformed thought, the imago Dei, combined with a theology of “common grace” supports a concept of natural human rights.  This seems to be the approach taken by many contemporary protestants who cite Abraham Kuyper as an influence.  But it remains difficult to understand exactly what about the imago Dei grounds a universal concept of rights.  Is it a set of human capacities that arise from the imago?  If so, what about people who have not yet developed all their capacities (infants) or who have lost them (mentally incapacitated adults)?

Wolterstorff argues that “rights” and “justice” cannot derive from eudemonism, divine commands or the imago Dei alone.  Rather, he says, “human rights” flow primarily from the fact that every human being is loved by God and is thereby a “friend” of God (Wolterstorff calls this the “love of attachment”).  The imago is itself the fruit of that love:  God wishes to relate to us and he desires us to share in His creative life, which is what the imago makes possible.  The fact that God loves us and wishes to relate in friendship to us endows each one of us with inherent dignity.  We each have rights in relation to each other because each one of us is loved by God.  As Wolterstorff summarizes his position in Justice:  Rights and Wrongs:

I conclude that if God loves a human being with the love of attachment, then that love bestows great worth on that human being; other creatures, if they knew about that love, would be envious.  And I conclude that if God loves, in the mode of attachment, each and every human being equally and permanently, then natural human rights inhere in the worth bestowed on human beings by that love.  Natural human rights are what respect for that worth requires.  (JR&W, at p. 360).

This notion that “each and every human being” is loved “equally and permanently” by God obviously appears to conflict with some important passages in scripture, notably in Romans 9, particularly when read through an Augustinian / Reformed theology of Divine election.  If God “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau (Rom. 9:13), and if God shapes vessels for different purposes, as the potter shapes the clay (Rom. 9:19-21), is it possible to say that God loves “each and every human being equally and permanently?”  Wolterstorff devotes an entire chapter to this problem in Justice in Love, which I will leave for another post.  In short, Wolterstorff interprets Romans through the lens of both Karl Barth’s theology of election and the New Perspective on Paul, and argues that Paul is not addressing the question of individual salvation and individual election that occupied the Reformers in their reading of Romans.

In sum, Wolterstorff’s central argument is that “justice” and “human rights” are substantive concepts rooted in the love of God for each and every human being.  Because we are each created to share in God’s own life and are loved by Him, we owe to each other the dignity due to creatures loved in this unique way by God, and have corresponding rights with respect to each other.

What do you think of Wolterstorff’s arguments against eudemonism, the imago Dei as a basis for rights, and divine command ethics?  Is he correct to locate inherent human dignity in God’s “love of attachment” to us?

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  • rjs


    I’m glad to see you back here.

    I don’t see where imago dei and God’s love of attachment are really distinct. Imago dei isn’t a set of capacities – but a place, function, and purpose. We each and all represent God in the world. Rooting justice in happiness, greatest good, or divine command is unsatisfactory.

    I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Scot McKnight

    David, as I read this, and I got the book and haven’t read it yet, I’m wondering if Wolterstorff is anchoring justice in God’s character/being/attributes or just in the covenant relationship of love.

    That is, do I treat my neighbor justly because God loves that person or because God is love?

  • Susan N.

    “Is he correct to locate inherent human dignity in God’s “love of attachment” to us?”

    This is my conviction. But, even as I affirm this, I admit that in looking at the biblical narrative and trying to make sense of my observations and experiences of justice (or injustice) in the world, it’s often perplexing.

    Just last week in my ladies’ group, we were discussing the interactions between Yahweh and Moses, and Moses and Pharaoh. I asked my friends, “So, did/does God love Pharaoh too? Because it seems to me that in hardening Pharaoh’s heart to stubbornly resist rightly hearing and doing the right thing, God brought a heap of hurting on Pharaoh and the Egyptian people.”

    And from that jumping off point, “What are we to do with the Pharaohs in our lives?”

    One dear lady spoke then of an unnecessarily cruel aide whom she had witnessed being rude to her sweet roommate.

    The best solution we could come up with for (generally) dealing with Pharaohs (oppressors, enemies) is to pray for them right along with the oppressed, that God, in His mercy, would UNharden their heart to know the truth of His love and grow in their capacity to show compassion and care for others.

    Jesus both demonstrated this (even from the cross, referring to his accusers and executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”), and taught it (“Love your enemies; pray for them.”)

    To be honest, many times I feel like Moses when he witnessed the Egyptian taskmaster harshly treating the Hebrew slaves — anger gets the better of me. But, alas, two wrongs don’t make a right (is that in the Bible?)! Teach me Your ways, Lord…

    “Justice in Love’ sounds like a book I would benefit greatly from reading.

  • Brilliant piece. Thanks! I’d also love to know the answer to Scot’s question (#2).

  • Taylor

    Might it be easier to create a tiered justice system?

    Human justice is easy to some degree. Whatever the foundation of the argument, in ultimately falls to some sameness that we all have before God, which gives us inherent rights (or lack thereof) amongst each other.

    In keeping with the theory that all men have sinned, which merits death according to God, mercy trumps justice.

  • Taylor

    oops – I meant to say; we want to focus on how mercy trumps justice in the Human-God tier.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#1) — good observation. A eudemonistic theory would follow the sort of anthropology you suggest — humans are inherently oriented towards goals or purposes, and ethics is about the virtues and practices that lead towards those goals. In a nutshell, that’s Aquinas. Wolterstorff thinks eudemonism fails. Not surprisingly, eudemonists disagree!

    I have for many years thought of myself as a eudemonist (or maybe post-Christendom-eudemonist!) in the vein of Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, etc. A tension here, which is something I think Wolterstorff is keen to address, is that eudemonism doesn’t sit will with the culture of liberal democracy. Eudemonists don’t really like “rights talk” at all because of the inherent individualism of such talk. You could see Wolterstorff’s project in these books as an effort to provide a theistic grounding for liberal democratic values, which he thinks are essential to the pragmatic work of justice in this world. Here you see Wolterstorff’s Calvinist-Kuyperian background shining through.

    I confess that I don’t at present know exactly where to fall on this difference.

  • dopderbeck

    Scot (#2) — another interesting observation. I heard a talk last year by Stephen Long in which he suggested that Wolterstorff is still stuck with the nominalism that underlies much Reformed theology. In other words, something like “justice” can be whatever God says it is or whatever God makes it to be, rather than a “real” ontological category rooted in God’s being. That might be a fair criticism. I’m not sure Wolterstorff ever tries to address why God chooses to have an “attachment love” with this particular creature, humans, and to endow only this particular creature (at least on Earth, and as far as we know, in the universe), with His image.

    For a Christian / Aristotelian eudemonist such as Aquinas, the answer would relate back to a broader doctrine of creation in which each created thing has its own purposes and telos in connection with the whole, all of which flows from the transcendent being of God.

    So again, I do think you can see a basic division here between Thomistic / Aritsotelian categories and the break with those categories by the Reformers. Even though Wolterstorff eventually breaks quite significantly from Calvin (in his reading of Romans), he sides with the Reformers on this point.

  • Still working through this book — found some chapters to be very accessible, other parts of the text extremely dense, and I had to reread and parse exactly what Wolterstorff is stating, and still having difficulty seeing where he is driving to.

  • Great post dopderbeck! My wife and I heard him awhile back at Eerdmans here in Grand Rapids, and found it quite good. And I was quite enthusiastic about the first book (knowing the other was coming), but held back, because I was awaiting learned people like you to weigh in.

    I find his thought quite compelling myself: true to scripture and to life. And look forward to the rest of this series. Hopefully I’ll take the time to read through both books, myself.

  • DRT

    Sorry for some rambling, but I admit that this topic makes my brain work in ways that it is not wired to work and I have not determined if that means it is against the way I should work or if it is just because I have not worked it in that way. You say

    In sum, Wolterstorff’s central argument is that “justice” and “human rights” are substantive concepts rooted in the love of God for each and every human being. Because we are each created to share in God’s own life and are loved by Him, we owe to each other the dignity due to creatures loved in this unique way by God, and have corresponding rights with respect to each other.

    First, Buddhists clearly have a highly evolved (bestowed?) concept of justice for others. It is quite simple. Justice recognizes the equality that we have. I would contend that, in general, the Buddhist’s justice is better than Christian’s. That is not to say it is better than Jesus’, just better than Christian’s.

    I am on board with rjs if I understand the statement well enough. The imago dei is our function in the world, not an attribute of us. We are cracked because we don’t function in the capacity we should, not because we have something wrong with us.

    I definitely have a problem with the whole idea of Justice being something that is somehow associated with people. It is not just to torture and kill an animal? Why is it not just to torture an animal? Because they are imagio dei? No, because there is an equivalence (not total, but partial) between them and us. This equivalence is not the actual thing that gives the animal worth, but it is the mechanism by which we understand the inherent worth they have.

    If I understand Scot’s comment in #2 correctly, “That is, do I treat my neighbor justly because God loves that person or because God is love?”

    To me, we treat other *beings* with justice because of the experience they have in the world. Regardless of their capacity to know God, many can experience agony, pain, suffering on levels that send shivers down my spine.

    Having said that, is there a justice associated with the upside? Not just a justice to stop suffering but to facilitate a relationship with god? Not on earth, in my view.

    Last ramble on this for now, this speaks to me about the discussions we have on the hell issue, of course. When Jesus was on the cross and he asked the Father to forgive them for they know not what they do, is it because Jesus understood that those people probably thought they were doing the right thing? Do we only go to hell or deserve punishment if we consciously think we are doing wrong? Clearly the people who killed Jesus committed a heinous crime, but would they be sent to hell for that? Would it be just?

  • dopderbeck

    DRT — I’m not sure Buddhism has a concept of “justice” in any sense that would support a concept of “universal human rights.” There is the notion of “karma,” but that notion supports stratification in society rather than universal human rights.

    Re: animals — Wolterstorff address that. He believes animals have inherent rights. However, they are rights appropriate to their status as animals, and are not equivalent to “human” rights. Animals, Wolterstorff argues, are not loved by God with the same kind of “attachment” love as humans (animals are loved by God, but with a different kind of love).

  • DRT

    dopderbeck, I think your assertion of Buddhism not having a concept of justice is basically correct and at the heart of my issue with the concept of justice in this post. To me, justice is inherent, it is the removal of unjust behavior. Justice itself is not something to strive for, but the elimination of injustice is the point. That is the approach that buddhism has, elimination of suffering, not maximizing non-suffering.

    I also do not like the approach Wolterstorff takes with animals. I think the language of God not loving them with the same kind of attachment leads to mean behavior. They don’t have the same faculties for experience as we do, and we need to take that into account when dealing with them. Saying that God does not love them as much makes it seem like small torture is OK as far as animals are concerned and that is not true. Torture of animals is cruel. But they are not able to anticipate and understand consequences like we can, so the impact of certain actions is quite different to them.

    Like I said, this whole subject gives me great pause, I hope to reflect on it more as you go through your series.

  • Roberto

    DRT – If I understand your concept of the Buddhist sense of justice as elimination of injustice/not maximizing non-suffering, then I find it inadequate to bring healing/shalom as understood by Jesus. Wolterstorff is careful to make clear that for Jesus, justice and love work together in the kingdom of God and are inseparable.
    As far as animals go, the Bible does call on us to care for our ‘beasts’, but Jesus does say that humans are of more value than birds etc. I love my dog, but in a completely different way than I love my wife. I believe that my dog has a right not to be tortured. My different/greater love for my wife does not lead me to think I can be mean to my pet.
    David – I was pleasantly surprised to see Wolterstorff bypass Calvin’s reading of Romans 9 for a New Paul (as he states it) approach. He has a great appreciation for N.T. Wright, but is not shy in criticizing some of his reading of Romans as well. I also like his clearly stated distinction between natural human rights and inherent rights.

  • DRT

    Thanks Roberto. I do put forth that the prima facie evidence says that Jesus stopped a history of animal sacrifice and cleared the temple of those selling animals into death. While I don’t think that is primary, since it is clear from scripture that it is not, but it certainly is true…… just sayin.

  • DRT, Animal sacrifice was stopped for Christians because of Christ’s greater sacrifice, not because of the value of the animals. If it were because of the value of the animals themselves, then why would God have instituted the sacrificial system? I agree with Roberto, greater love and care for one thing does not mean cruelty to another.