A call for papers passed through my inbox recently for a conference entitled ‘Divine (In)Justice in Antiquity and the Middle Ages‘. In my perversity, I immediately thought about this sublime post by Fr Aidan Kimel over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, St Isaac the Syrian: The Scandalous Injustice of God. If you’re pressed for time, I recommend that you skip my post and read Fr Aidan’s.
Anyway, I thought it would be a laugh to submit a paper to the conference about the injustice of divine grace in St Isaac the Syrian (‘of Nineveh’, d. 700) — to challenge our ideas of what it means when God is ‘unjust’. Generally speaking, when folks say that God is ‘unjust’, they really mean that God allows ‘bad’ things to happen to ‘good’ people. My paper, inspired by Fr Aidan and giving him full credit (of course), would use St Isaac to question this idea of just and unjust as well as bad and good in relation to divine-human relationships.
Upon further thought and reading the call for papers more closely, I decided that it wasn’t such a good idea — I can’t read Isaac in the original Syriac; I have yet to read his complete works; blog posts by Fr Aidan are the only secondary material I’ve read. The groundwork for me to produce an academic paper on St Isaac the Syrian is too great, even if the seed of a thesis exists. And I have a feeling that seed is correct.
Nevertheless, as I brough to the fore on my posts about St Augustine of Hippo and medieval Cistercians on divine love (here and here), God goes far beyond justice in His dealings with the human race, according to the teachings of historic Christianity. Whether one believes in apokatastasis as do St Isaac and Fr Aidan, God — the overwhelming Trinity that is, in His essence, agape, dilectio, love — loves us more than we can ask or imagine, and that love has overflown and continues to overflow in the divine action with regard to the human race.
Remember, as we were taught in Sunday School or heard from an evangelist on the street, the human race is fallen, broken, twisted, diseased, suffering. One glance at footage shot by drones in Homs, Syria, will show you that. One look at the clubbing scene in Glasgow on a Saturday will show you as well. Having turned our backs on God, and being ourselves ultimately ex nihilo, we are headed for destruction without God (see St Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation).
God loves us, so He comes to save us. Justice, which is balance (I always quote Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins for that), means that ‘bad’ things happen to ‘bad’ people. No one is good, no one is righteous — not one (Cf. Romans 3:12; Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:0).
Yet when we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us so that we might become the friends and children of God, heirs of the universe. This is absolute, overpowering love, agape at its deepest and truest.
It is also, by the ancient understanding of justice (in a judiciary sense, typically a retributive idea), unjust.
All of this, of course, has been said better and more beautifully by St Isaac the Syrian.*
[Insert plug for Late Antiquity here.]
*Also said by the Newsboys, ‘When you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. A real good thing.’