Sunday, 11 July 2010

Question 21 - God's Justice & Mercy

Why this Question Matters.

In Question 20 Aquinas introduced the idea of love in God. In treating of the topic, it became clear that the most important consideration was to understand the way in which we attribute love to God. We have to be careful with the meaning of terms applied to God and to man, understanding the analogies and dis-analogies in their uses. In this question Aquinas turns to the ideas of justice and mercy in God. In scripture and in the liturgy, these are terms that are sometimes applied to God in the same breath in which love is attributed to God, so it is not surprising that Aquinas follows the same strategy in this question as he did in the last. In asking whether there is justice and/or mercy in God, the answer is clear “yes”, but the substance of the question is really to understand what it means to attribute justice and mercy to God.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: As indicated above, Aquinas’s first task is to not really to answer the question “Is God just?” but rather to understand the way in which the term “justice” may be attributed to God. The objections focus on meanings and properties of the notion of justice that would seem to be incompatible with being an attribute of God. For example, justice is a part of the virtue of temperance (which is to do with the passions); justice would seem to circumscribe free action; justice is to do with rendering what is due to individuals. Each of these is prima facie incompatible with some property of God already described by Aquinas. In his answer, Aquinas identifies two types of justice: “commutative justice”, which is to do with agreements between people; and “distributive justice”, that deals with the distribution of what is due to people on the basis of merit (in its widest sense). We cannot attribute commutative justice to God (as there can be no proportion between God and man) but God’s justice is paradigmatically distributive justice, as “God bestows on everything what is proper to each”. In answer to the objections, Aquinas identified that some of the moral virtues are associated with the passions (and for these we must attribute such virtues to God only metaphorically) but others are associated with the will and these can be attributed (carefully) to God. Also, although justice might seem to circumscribe free action for humans, when we consider God it is better to consider His free action as willing what is just by definition. The objection that justice is about rendering what is due is based on the argument that God is a debtor to no creature. Aquinas identifies that God orders creation to Himself and that in doing so He gives to creatures what they need in order to fulfil their place in that order. In this sense, these things are due to creatures so that they can fulfil their natural function. However, we might also note that in giving creatures what they need in order to fulfil their natural order, God is honouring His own ordering of creation. In a sense, God is giving what is due to God rather than simply what is due to creatures.

A2: Aquinas now inquires into the relationship between truth and God’s justice. He recalls that truth is a matching between mind and reality (Question 16, Article 1) and observes that when the mind concerned is creative, the mind is the rule by which reality is judged but that when the mind is not creative the reverse holds. So for us, truth consists of a matching of our minds to things; for God, truth consists in things matching His mind. God’s justice orders things according to His wisdom and therefore we can consider God’s justice to be truth.

A3: Having dealt with justice, Aquinas now inquires into the nature of God’s mercy. Mercy might be seen as being an emotional response; it might also be seen as a relaxing (and therefore a falling short from) justice. These would suggest that God cannot be merciful. Aquinas answers that the “sadness” that we feel when we act mercifully is a result of the compassion that motivates mercy. God, of course, feels no sadness but He acts to drive away imperfections in creatures by the perfection of their goodness. In doing so when it might appear that such gifts are not due to people, God is not acting contrary to justice but acting beyond and above justice. If one pays back a debt, it is not unjust to add a gift to the repayment.

A4: Are justice and mercy simultaneously present in all of God’s works? Scripture might seem to provide examples where only one of these is present in specific circumstances. Similarly, suffering in this world may seem to give an example of injustice in God’s works. Aquinas answers that since God can do nothing that conflicts with His wisdom and goodness and that all that He does is in proportion to what he has ordered, everything He does, He does with justice. He also observes that everything that is due to a creature can be traced back ultimately to God’s will and, foundationally, God’s goodness maintains everything in existence. Therefore God’s mercy is present in all of His works insofar as He provides their very source by His goodness. If scripture sometimes speaks of a work of God as being simply a work of His justice, it is due to the fact that His justice is sometimes more evident in such works. For example, even in the damnation of the reprobate their punishment is sometimes softened by His mercy. Suffering in this world might appear unjust, but can still be seen to exhibit God’s justice and mercy insofar as through suffering people may be lifted closer to God.


  1. Whem God forgives someone at the end of their life after they have brought so much hurt and pain to many people, what is the justice in that? For instance, someone who receives the sacrament on his death birth including baptism which we understand to mean that he might not even go to purgatory. How does that reflect his justice? I can see his mercy but not his justice.

  2. Hello Anonymous,

    This is a very challenging question; indeed, we see from the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-17) and from parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) that it was considered challenging at the time of Jesus. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” does not seem to be an answer that balances justice and mercy. We also see from the case of the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43) that the situation you envisage appears to be a real possibility.

    I suspect that a full answer would require a very lengthy treatment. But let me give you some thoughts in random order.

    First we have Aquinas’s answer in Ia q21 a4 (see above). At the root of this answer is the fact that our notion of justice is obtained in analogy to God’s justice. Underlying that position is the recognition that God is not a moral agent in the same sense that we are moral agents: God is more unlike us than he is like us. Chasing this line of enquiry does require a lengthy treatment – I recommend Brian Davies’s book “The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil” for an in depth treatment of this approach.

    Secondly, God orders man in his creation to beatitude; the whole point, as it were, of human life is to return to God. If God did not allow humans to repent and to have faith in Him then this would seem to be unjust. God is certainly merciful in that in some cases humans may turn back to God only at the very end of their lives; but the justice in it comes from being an absence of the injustice that would block that path back to Him.

    Third, if we think about the sacrament of baptism, then we have to acknowledge that baptism conveys the grace that it signifies and that this remits all sin and penalty of sin. So, there is the possibility that by baptism, someone previously guilty of great evil will go straight to heaven. However, one thing that is often forgotten is the question of when the grace of baptism is conveyed! Distinctions are made in theology between “valid” and “invalid” sacraments (i.e. distinguishing between whether the sacrament is or is not truly given) but also, for valid sacraments, between “fruitful” and “unfruitful” sacraments. In the case of baptism it is considered perfectly possible for a valid sacrament to be given yet for the grace of the sacrament to be postponed, as it were, until the necessary conditions are met. For baptism these conditions are true faith and true repentance for sins committed. In the case that these conditions are not met, the sacrament is described as valid but unfruitful because the grace of the sacrament is not yet operative. If the obstructions are removed then the sacrament “revives”, becoming fruitful in the conveyance of grace.

    So, someone cynically planning a deathbed baptism in order to escape justice may be deluded. If they have no faith or repentance and are just planning the ceremony to occur, or if they have faith and repentance of their past sins but are committing the mortal sin of postponing their baptism in this way, then they may very well fall foul of an unfruitful baptism that does not become fruitful before they die. In such a circumstance they would not yet have received the necessary grace to achieve heaven. These sorts of things tend to get discussed in the older books about sacramental theology such as Leemings “Principles of Sacramental Theology”.

  3. Dear Anonymous

    First St Thomas asks what justice means. St Thomas says that distributive justice is especially true of God: God grants what is proper to all existing things according to their worth, and maintains the nature of each in its proper place and strength. He contrasts this with commutative justice, which is especially true of us, in which there is a mutual giving and receiving. God cannot have any part in commutative justice, after all, who has first given to him and recompense shall be made to him?. (1a 21 1)

    Second, St Thomas says that mercy, in God, means to drive out any form of defect (1a 21 4). He contrasts this with mercy as sadness for another’s plight as if it were his own, which is especially true of us.

    So, the goodness I have all comes from God. It is given to me in proportion to my worth as a recipient and we see that as Gods justice. When I sin, I choose lesser goods in preference to greater goods. In restoring me, God’s gift of goodness is seen as his mercy. In both circumstances it is gift, unmerited. I no more deserve a deathbed conversion than I deserve a life lived in blessed friendship with God.

    So, God’s mercy is the fullness of his justice, because his gift of goodness always makes us what we were created to be. We differentiate between his gift depending on our circumstances, the circumstances in which the gift is received. That is a difference in us, not a difference in God.

    So, why do we feel slightly miffed at the idea of deathbed conversions? Is it because we suspect that a life of sin is somehow better than a life spent in friendship and love? Or are we so wedded to the idea of commutative justice that we struggle to understand how God can fail to be as reasonable as we are? A life spent in sin with a deathbed conversion seems a poor alternative to a life spent in friendship and love, so why should I resent the conversion? In the parable of the prodigal son, the father is generous to both sons. Is it the parable of the prodigal son, or the prodigal father?

    While our response to grace may be complex the gift is simple and uncomplicated. We play games with God, but God does not play games with us. God simply loves us, unconditionally. This is the Good News.

    Take a look at for a better explanation than I have been able to give.

  4. I have often been taught that God's justice was satisfied by carrying out His wrath on the Son while on the Cross. I recently heard that this is wrong. It is not the Father who is crushing the son but Jesus freely gives himself out of Divine love. Just as the Trinity is a total gift of self from the Father creating the Son, who in turn gives himself totally to the Father creating the Holy Spirit, so Jesus sacrificed himself for and to us.Through his divine nature Jesus transforms his suffering into sacrifice. What do you think? Does that fit with St Thomas Aquinus?