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Justice in Love

Nick Spencer

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Hodder Stoughton, 288pp

At the turning point of Romeo and Juliet, the Prince of Verona, having banished our hero, proclaims to his assembled citizens, 'Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill'. Nicholas Wolterstorff does not mention Shakespeare in Justice in Love but the Prince's view on the alleged incompatibility of mercy and justice epitomises the position against which Wolterstorff argues.

Justice in Love, a follow up to the author's recent Justice: Rights and Wrongs,1 contends that, contrary to what the Prince of Verona and many more recent ethicists claim, love and justice are not inherently irreconcilable but, properly understood, 'fully in harmony with one another'.

The book begins with a section on why ethicists and, in particular, Christian agapists (meaning those who believe that the New Testament concept of agape, selfless love, should form the basis of one's ethical system) believe that such 'agapic' love is incompatible with notions of justice. This love, the argument goes, is gratuitous and thus blind to the idea of just deserts.

For some agapists, like the Swedish Lutheran bishop Anders Nygren, who features heavily in part 1, this means that Christians must favour love over justice; for others, like Reinhold Niebuhr, the conclusion is the opposite. Wolterstorff refuses to admit the choice in the first place and sets out to reconcile the two in parts 2 and 3.

These, like part 1, are dense and not always easy to follow. The author's argument turns on an attempt 'to work out a defensible version of agapism', in other words one that 'incorporates' justice. Alert readers may object at this point, observing that redefining one moral concept so that it is in harmony with another just because you believe they should be, hardly constitutes a secure basis for argument.

Wolterstorff's point, however, and indeed the foundation for the book, is that Christian theology doesn't see God as either just or loving. He is emphatically both. Ditto Christian ethics: 'Moses does not pit love and justice against one another. He does not say that we are to love the neighbour and pay no attention to what justice requires'. Wolterstorff is compelled to reconcile love and justice, or at least question their apparent irreconcilability, not by personal taste but by some pretty basic Christian convictions.

His solution is to identify the idea of agapic love as 'care'. This is a crucial turn in the argument and so it is perhaps unfortunate that the author has chosen to use this word in this way as it does not make his case significantly clearer. The argument is, in essence, that to care for a person is to seek not only their wellbeing but also, crucially, to pay due regard to their inherent worth.
By drawing on arguments from his previous book, in which justice is identified precisely as that attention paid to the inherent worth of each person, Wolterstorff manages to unite the demands of love and justice in the concept of 'care'. It is an ingenious line of reasoning, which the author regularly backs up with New Testament references - crucially, because he is at root trying to show that 'care' is the best category we have for understanding what agape means - but one cannot shake off the suspicion that there is some clever linguistic sophistry going on here.

The rest of the book is clearer (and an easier read) but suffers from lying the shadow of part 2. Thus part 3 seeks to show that if agape is understood as care, the apparent tensions between love and justice disappear. Wolterstorff examines forgiveness, gratuitous generosity and paternalism and argues that none of these instances of love need necessarily violate our idea of justice - providing (again) one understands justice rightly.

Hence, he acknowledges that 'if one believes in retributive punishment and holds that, whenever possible, it ought to be imposed on each and every wrongdoer for each and every act of wrongdoing…then one will of course hold that to forgo punishment is to violate justice.' If, on the other hand, one holds to a 'reprobative' rather than 'retributive' idea of justice, in which justice censures and condemns evil rather than insists on its pound of flesh in recompense, then love and justice are indeed reconcilable. If, as Wolterstorff argues, 'the God-given task of government is reprobative punishment, not retributive,' his argument is successful. But once again, there is a sense of the author needing to define his way into harmony.

The last section of the book looks at justification in Paul's theology, specifically Romans. It is, in a sense, the climax of the book. Having argued that love and justice can be complementary, he turns to the greatest biblical exposition of the way in which the two interact within the Christian story, and poses a question about God's love, as made manifest in Christ: 'What is justification and is it just?' It doesn't quite feel like a climax, however, but more of a tagged-on (if very interesting) bit of biblical exegesis.

This review will not, I fear, have persuaded the reader to invest in a copy of Justice in Love and, truth told, it is not as good as its predecessor. But if it does not do too much to add to Wolterstorff's reputation as one the world's pre-eminent philosophical theologians, it does nothing to detract from it either.

Nick Spencer