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.