Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

NT Lesson #14: Can mercy rob justice? (Matt 18:27)

Posted by Robert C. on April 17, 2007

In Alma 42:25, Alma explains to his son Corianton that mercy cannot rob justice, “not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.” And yet here, in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:22ff), the king/Lord seems to freely forgive the debt of his servant after the servant begs for mercy (18:27). Isn’t justice being robbed in this case?

Over at New Cool Thang, the meaning of justice has been discussed at length. Blake Ostler (in Exploring Mormon Thought, Volume 2), Jacob Morgan (in a recent Dialogue article), and Dennis Potter (an older Dialogue article) all reject the typical notion of justice that underlies penal-substitution theories of Atonement.  These theories are all based roughly on the parable/alleory where someone steps in to pay our debt for us, like in that Elder Packer video most of us have seen. The main reason for rejecting the notion of justice underlying these theories is that it seems to make God out to be an unforgiving person. Their argument is essentially that God can forgive sin just like the king does in this Matthew 18 parable.

If God’s justice isn’t a demand for some form of payment as a result of sin (like an unforgiven debt), then what is justice? The view that Blake, Jacob, and Dennis take is that justice means, very roughly, that we will get what we choose. So, although the penal-substitution story is a nice heuristic, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously, theologically speaking. (Note: it’s been a while since I’ve thought about these issues or read stuff on this, so I may be badly mischaracterizing what these guys’ are arguing….) On this view, mercy and Atonement are what (somehow) facilitate a change in what we ultimately choose, and thus make it possible to be reconciled with God—but strictly speaking, God does not demand proxy-payment as a consequence for our sins.

On the one hand, I get a bit uneasy trying to think about these issues in a grand, systematically theological way that has a tendency to get away from the various contexts in which these terms are used in scripture. On the other hand, I think passages such as this one on the unmerciful servant invite and almost necessitate discussion and thinking about the meaning of justice and mercy. This ambivalence carries over to how I feel about posting this on the blog: I don’t really want to rehash the theological issues that have already been discussed at the NCT blog, but I would like help in thinking about these issues, and I would like to know how others would be inclined to answer the following question in Sunday school: If the king freely forgave the debtor, why can’t God do the same thing—and if so, what is the need for Christ’s Atonement?

(Notice, I think a key passage for understanding atonement and justice if Alma 34:8ff. The link is to the wiki which has some notes and other relevant links.)

92 Responses to “NT Lesson #14: Can mercy rob justice? (Matt 18:27)”

  1. Cherylem said


    There is a very interesting book that I have not read for some time but which looks at the atonement with different eyes: the Nonviolent Atonement, by J. Denny Weaver. (Of course, this is a Girardian book.)

    Weaver says that the traditional penal-substitution theories assume divinely initiated or divinely sanctioned violence (p. 19). He writes (p. 44) “His death was not a payment owed to God’s honor, nor was it divine punishment that he suffered as a substitute for sinners. Jesus’ death was the rejection of the rule of God by forces opposed to that rule. Christus Victor [Weaver’s theory] exposes how incongruous it is to interpret this story as one whose ultimate purpose was to arrange a death in order to satisfy divine justice. Far from being an event organized for a divine requirement, his death reveals the nature of the forces of evil that opposed the rule of God. It poses a contrast between the attempt to coerce by violence under the rule of evil and the nonviolence of the rule of God as revealed and made visible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

    “When evil did its worst, namely denying Jesus his existence by killing him, God’s resurrection fo Jesus displayed the ability of the reign of God to triumph over death, the last enemy. The power of the reign of God over the forces of evil is made manifest in the resurrection of Jesus . . .( p.. 45) {this} constitutes an invitation to submit to the rule of God. It is an inviation to enter a new life, a life transforemd by the rule of God and no longer in bondage to the powers of evil that killed Jesus . . . ”

    Well, he goes on. He’s written a book regarding this. Of course, to think this way means we have to rethink many things, including D&C scriptures regarding the suffering of Christ.


  2. Cherylem said

    [edited at Cheryl’s request]

  3. Cherylem said

    And sorry for the typos. Didn’t sign in . . . so can’t fix. Just pretend they aren’t there.

  4. brianj said

    Robert: I can already tell that I’m going to get way behind in this discussion—everyone here just thinks too fast for me—but I wanted to say how well you framed the question and got me thinking.

  5. m&m said

    I would like to know how others would be inclined to answer the following question in Sunday school: If the king freely forgave the debtor, why can’t God do the same thing—and if so, what is the need for Christ’s Atonement?

    God can and does do the same thing, but there is a catch. I don’t think the king would have forgiven the debtor, however, had he not approached the king and felt remorseful and willing to do “his part.” The forgiveness was not freely given until the debtor sought to repay and do what he could.

    Mosiah 26:30
    30 Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.

    God freely forgives as long as we repent, as long as we turn to Him and seek to change, to do our part, just as the king saw the debtor’s remorse and desire to come to him and repay. I think this is only possible because of the Atonement.

    I will have to keep my other thoughts to myself since you don’t want this to be a rehashing. Suffice it to say that I am not convinced by the arguments fully rejecting penal substitution theory. :)

  6. Cherylem said

    I thought about my fast response last night and quite frankly repented of it. I am not sure the book I quoted from is a great text – in fact, while provocative, the book is hardly definitive. Additionally, I think I did Robert’s question an injustice by immediately jumping in with what he didn’t want to happen (sorry Robert!). And I want to soften my statement: I *tend* to agree with non-substitionary theories of atonement, but for me the jury is still out. And in no way do I want to give the impression that I diminish in my own mind the work that Jesus did, or the centrality of the atonement to that work, or the effect and impact of that atonement on my own life.

    So, m&m, thanks for bringing us back to Robert’s original question. I agree with you that repentance is critical to our ability to utilize the atonement.

    And later, I will try to write something on Robert’s bottom line question: “What is the need for Christ’s atonement?” For now, I just want to say that I think the atonement – and resurrection – gave us agency. It gave us a choice. Without this, the entire work of God – the plan of salvation – would be null. Without the atonement, we would all be stuck being “natural” men and women, children of evil, with no liberation in sight, ever.

    So the question: What is the need for Christ’s atonement, is the most important question of all.

  7. “for me the jury is still out,” writes Cheryl, which captures my thoughts exactly.

    But let add a couple of other thoughts also, thoughts that I’ve not yet traced to their end, so I don’t know where they lead.

    I find it fascinating that “justice” translates tsdkh in the Old Testament, which means NOTHING like “justice” the way we think about it. Gerhard von Rad on the subject: “tsdkh can be described without more ado as the highest value in life, that upon which all life rests when it is properly ordered. But what do we mean by it? Theology has for long now ingenously explained the concept in light of her own presuppositions, that is, the presuppositions of the West. Its content seemed to be given by the translation in the Vulgate (iustitia), and by the German word Gerechtigkeit, namely, a man’s proper conduct over against an absolute ethical norm, a legality which derives its norm from the absolute idea of justice. From this absolute norm, it was supposed, issued absolute demands and absolute claims. In social respects justice so understood watches with complete impartiality over these claims and takes care that each man gets his own (iustitia distributiva). Thus, the only remaining question was, what is the norm that the Old Testament presupposes? But, oddly enough, no matter how urgently it was sought, no satisfactory answer to this question of an absolute norm could be found in the Old Testament. The reason was that the question itself was a wrong one, and in consequence the statements in the Old Testament simply could not be brought into harmony with this way of thinking.”

    This, I think, poses a major question for all of our thinking about mercy vs. justice. We tend to this of this tension as one between a non-feeling absolute norm and a pathetic (in the original meaning of the word!) willingness to make exceptions to norms or rules. Is it not this that has led us to think of the Father as an unfeeling Judge, yet of the Son as the suffering, understanding Savior?

    The question to ask, I think, is: what is justice? And what do Book of Mormon prophets mean by the term (do they all use it the same way)?

    So here are my very basic thoughts on how justice is portrayed in the OT: justice is essentially acting in accordance with a covenant relationship (this is derived in part from von Rad’s further discussion). Deuteronomy commands the Israelites over and over to do justice, by which it means to feed the poor, clothe the naked, etc., etc., etc. That suggests to me that to “do justice” there means to make good the covenant that binds each Israelite to another Israelite by making sure that all have what they need. If I drop that covenant obligation (I am bound to my brothers and sisters!), I am unjust, and the covenant is broken (atonement needs to be made; as Margaret Barker points out again and again, the Hebrew word for atonement means literally to mend a torn covering/seal). To speak of God’s justice, then, is to point to His having a covenant with Israel/us. He is bound by covenant to do certain things, and His justice amounts to His maintaining that covenant. Were God to cease to maintain that covenant, He would cease to be God (remember that the covenant was made with the phrase: you will be my people, and I will be your God; if He breaks the covenant, He ceases to be God). Part of that covenant, however, is penal, as the last chapters of Deuteronomy, as well as Alma 12, make quite clear: with the commandments/covenants comes “a penalty,” in Alma 12 “the second death.” If that has been established as part of the covenant, God’s justice–His maintenance of the covenant–requires His punishing us. If He refuses to punish us according to the covenant, we no longer have the covenant. If we were to lose the covenant (an everlasting covenant) rather than to receive the punishment, we would not be receiving mercy (which implies connection to God still) but losing the very possibility of mercy (no connection/covenant, no mercy). Hence, mercy cannot rob justice: the covenant must be maintained in justice, and mercy cannot undo that without undoing itself and justice. Mercy and justice must be bound up together in the covenant relationship.

    Hmmm…. I’d never thought of any of this in these terms, but I like where this is going. But it does seem to tend toward a penal substitution theory. I’d like to think about this more.

    But then how would I respond to the question raised by the student? Aren’t the stakes quite different? Hasn’t the judge the power to forgive, according to the covenant between the two? In other words, he is being just in his forgiveness. But God, in relation at least to Israel, and perhaps to us individually (who are under covenant), does not have that same power, because of the nature of the covenant by which He has bound Himself to us…? Hmmm….

  8. Robert C. said

    Cheryl and m&m, please don’t apologize, I didn’t mean to discourage discussion of what anyone feels are the important issues, and I think you both are raising (or starting to raise…) important issues. I do, however, appreciate you taking time to think what is indeed most important to discuss. It’s interesting—even surprising to me—that I feel a sense of responsibility with this thread that has my name listed at the top, a responsibility I usually don’t feel (or don’t pay attention to!). I think this attitude of reverence that I feel in even discussing the Aonement should be something I have all the time, esp. when discussing religious matters. To that end, I’d like to retract what I expressed in my post, and simply request that you (and everyone) simply take a quiet moment before posting to reflect on the . . . well, sacredness . . . of the issues we’re discussing here—but if you feel you have an important point to make or issue to raise, please don’t let anything I said above interfere.

  9. Cherylem said

    Robert #8,
    I had a very similar feeling of reverence and regret. I have the very real sense of speaking too hastily, of treating the most sacred thing too lightly. To that end, I really would like to have my earlier posts deleted (1, 2, 3). I have a sense of shame about those posts – not shame or even apology regarding the ideas presented, which I think are legitimate, but a sense of . . . I don’t know . . godly shame. I’d just like to start over.

  10. Robert C. said

    Cheryl, thank you for posting the Weaver-Girard bit. A little surfing turned up this interesting page which (I think) summarizes presentations at a very recent conference discussing Girard and Atonement theories (including Weaver’s take).

    I’m not sure which quotes lead me to this thought, but something on that page (or in what you wrote) made me realize what I think is one of the core issues for me. In the post above, I wrote, “strictly speaking, God does not demand proxy-payment as a consequence for our sins.” This, indeed, is what I like in the work of Blake, Jacob, and Dennis (and a whole host of non-Mormon theologians they draw upon), and also seems to be a point that Girard makes: the Atonement is not about satisfying God, but is more about satisfying us.

    The more I’ve studied the various theories of atonement (here is an intro page at wikipedia), the more I see the distinctions as somewhat artificial. So, personally, I’m not so much looking for one theory that I think is best. Rather, I’m trying to deepen my understanding and appreciation of the atonement by considering all theories with their various merits and different perspectives (I’m currently reading a book on Paul Ricoeur and I think this approach is very Ricoeurian…). I esp. think that many of these various theories are quite similar in the sense I just described: they focus on how the Atonement satisfies (at-ones!) something in us, whether we try to describe this inner-want in terms of an inner sense of justice, or a feeling of being unloved, or a lack of faith, or a hard-heartedness, or despair, or whatever.

    There is much I need to reread and re-ponder, but I think this is consistent with scripture, the idea that the Atonement is not so much about appeasing some abstract, impersonal, cosmic notion of justice, but that Christ’s suffering is/was more about having a very intimate and personal effect on each of us. What I find striking in this parable of the unmerciful servant is that the king freely forgives and does not demand payment. It is easy for me to imagine God as being similarly gracious. So, rather than simply resorting back to the Elder Packer video and thinking about Christ’s suffering in terms of making proxy payment to the king, I’m inclined to think about Christ’s suffering more in terms of how it helps me change my heart so that I will not only plead for mercy myself, but that I will also show mercy to others, “grace for grace”….

  11. Robert C. said

    Also, this all has me thinking about a different way to understand Pres. Packer’s allegory: Whereas I’ve always thought that God is the one we owed a debt to, perhaps it’s better to think that we owe others (i.e. other mortals who are not apt to be forgiving) debts, and so the Atonement is not so much about appeasing God but somehow appeasing/satisfying others. (If anyone digs through the New Cool Thang posts, Mark Butler, who I think blogs for Millenial Star now, has some interesting ideas along these lines….)

  12. Cherylem said

    The website you found is wonderful and makes me long to be with those people again. I have to say – people who are thinking about the work of Rene Girard are among the most gentle, loving, accepting and thoughtful people in the world, in my opinion.

    Also, I believe that non-substitionary understandings of the atonement demand more of us as individuals: demand that we make changes in our worldview and our private relationships that are very profound, that shake us to the core, that literally change our hearts and brains, and, I think, are permanent.

    I think I had the reaction I did to my own posts (and thanks for editing them) for reasons perhaps hard to explain, so I won’t try. Again, I was not apologizing for the idea of non-substitionary atonement, which I believe is important and has something valuable to say to us as LDS. Instead, and this is the best I can do, and the final word (I hope!) on my posting/not posting: I was just overwhelmed by the subject itself. I think of all subjects, we (and I personally) need to approach the atonement with fear and trembling, with great care, not only as we express our own ideas, but also all of us need to be sensitive to how others understand this pivotal event in history and in doctrine.

    Thanks again.

  13. Jacob J said


    I’d never thought of any of this in these terms, but I like where this is going. But it does seem to tend toward a penal substitution theory. I’d like to think about this more.

    I was with you right up until this last line. How does any of the stuff you said before tend toward a penal substitution theory. (I know Robert is not wanting to rehash old arguments, I am asking so I can understand your train of thought.)

  14. joe m said

    The question: If the king freely forgave the debtor, why can’t God do the same thing—and if so, what is the need for Christ’s Atonement?

    Maybe the correct question is “why doesn’t the King forgive freely when he has to power and love to do so?” I don’t think the first question has an answer that is complete or satisfactory, assuming the atonement is necessary. So the second question assumes that the King has the power, but chooses to use it only as He sees fit. So, we can ask “why?” If we are to be forgiven freely, then there are no consequences and the Plan doesn’t work so well.

    In the story presented in Matthew 18, maybe the begging for mercy is enough to satisfy ‘justice’ in this case.

    Joe’s (#7) comments about justice are very interesting. In light of: ‘justice’ in the scriptures is not penal, and the Lord did not suffer penalties or punishment for our sin. Rather, it seems to me that ‘justice’ is more cause and effect. Our actions have certain effects that are unavoidable. This is not a math formula, and the same action may not have the same effect in all cases.

    From the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, we are taught that actions have consequences, and some actions are not reversible. I’m not prepared to relate the atonement to these thoughts here quite yet. How the atonement erases/compensates for those consequences is beyond me… I can only say that it works…

  15. Jacob,

    Let me emphasize the word “tend” and its weakness (I don’t think my comments lead inevitably to a penal substitution theory, nor that they even imply such, but simply that they tend towards it). But that said, let me explain the connection I was seeing.

    If justice is a matter of maintaining (being faithful) to a covenant, and here we are speaking of the justice of God, and if that covenant is made with certain penalties attached to it, then God’s justice (His faithfulness to the covenant) implies His willingness to effect the penalties that are tied to the covenant. Were He not to inflict these penalties, He would be neither just nor merciful (mercy is as much predicated upon covenant as is justice, I would think), but simply unfaithful. But if He is somehow to maintain the covenant relationship without inflicting the (apparently necessary–covenanted, at any rate) penalties–and I think this maintenance without penalty is what we are calling mercy–perhaps the most likely way to make sense of how this could happen would be through a penal substitution. In other words, if the penalty must be dealt out in order to maintain the covenant relationship, then mercy can only be had through the establishment of a second covenant, one that opens the possibility for vicarious suffering.


    But let me say, even as I’m working through these thoughts, they are very counterintuitive for me: I have long been uncomfortable with a penal substitution theory of atonement. I’m seeing in my comments here a third way that avoids the dichotomy between a rather Greek conception of necessary penal consequence on the one hand and a complete avoidance of violence on the other hand. What I’m developing here today (!) is something that sounds very Hebrew to me, and it reconciles a number of paradoxes I’ve had suspended in my head for some time. But I’d very much like to hear other conclusions that can be drawn from my comments on justice! I’m quite, quite open to other ways of reading things.

  16. Jacob J said

    The question: If the king freely forgave the debtor, why can’t God do the same thing—and if so, what is the need for Christ’s Atonement?

    I think the answer is that God can do the same thing, and thus, we can be sure that the atonement is about much more than forgiveness alone. In the end, the question is not whether we have been forgiven, but whether we have become celestial. In my opinion, framing the whole thing as a problem concerning forgiveness miscontrues the relationship between forgiveness and repentance. Repentance is primarily about becoming something better, not about obtaining forgiveness.

    This is an important point in my mind, because it is a very common mistake in the way the atonement is discussed and analyzed. As a thought experiment, I offer the folloing question: How would the plan of salvation be different if God freely forgave everyone all the time and without condition? A different question, but related, is: When Christ freely forgave his crucifiers saying “Father, forgive them,” did this somehow put a monkey wrench in the plan for those who were freely forgiven without repentance or even understanding on their part?

  17. douglas Hunter said

    Working 7 days a week for over a month has prevented me from participating in the blog at all, but this topic is too good to pass up. A few comments before I disapear for another 2 weeks.

    – I suspect that the initial question “If the king freely forgave the debtor, why can’t God do the same thing—and if so, what is the need for Christ’s Atonement?” Is not one that should be dealt with directly, that is, I think we need to arrive at such questions after doing some work, work that may radically alter, even eliminate, the question.

    – I think its worth questioning the Justice vs. mercy way of thinking. Why not suspend the idea that mercy and justice are in oppositionfor a moment? If we consider the issue in context we may find that there are mlitiple relations possible between justice and mercy. The statement that mercy can not rob justice, may be problematic, because of the word “rob”, and also because its used in a way that seems to totalize the relationship between the two. my feeling is that mercy plays an important role in justice but its God who decided what this role is. There probably is not a formula or constant in this regard.

    – In my mind its important to not reduce justice to a calculation, such as in the penal substitution example. Anything resembling Deed “x” required punishment “y” is not justice at all, that’s the most simple form of law, and there is a huge difference between law and justic. Justice occurs beyond the calculation, beyond the law, justice only exists in the moment of the decision. This is also the case for mercy.

  18. Jacob J said

    Joe Spencer (#15),

    But I’d very much like to hear other conclusions that can be drawn from my comments on justice!

    Let me use your way of expressing justice/mercy in terms of covenant to give you my take on what we should conclude from it.

    If justice is a matter of being faithful to covenant, then the blessings associated with the covenant can only be obtained if both parties live up to their ends of the covenant. God’s faithfulness to the covenant does imply he is willing to inflict the penalties associated with the covenant. Those penalties are directed at the party who does not live up to their end of the covenant, so any sort of substitution would be out of harmony with the idea of justice as a matter of maintaining covenant. I have yet to encounter a covenant in which the penalty for violating my promises is to punish someone else.

    Obviously, God is true to the covenants he makes, so the only issue is whether or not we will live up to our covenants. The atonement exists to enable and empower us to live up to the covenants we have made. God cannot offer the blessings of covenant without the requirements of the covenant because of the nature of those blessings, which fits under the umbrella of justice as you have framed it. Thus, the atonement can only be brought to pass on condition of repentance (Alma 42:13), which is the process by which we turn ourselves into covenant keeping people. Now, obviuosly, along the way, we will break our covenants by degrees. God is merciful, but mercy only has claim on the penitent (Alma 42:24). Thus, as we strive to live our covenants, we can stay in a covenant relationship despite our imperfections.

    17 But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord.
    18 Yea, and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance, that whosoever repenteth the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire; but whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.
    19 Therefore repent ye, repent ye (Hel 14)

  19. djlott said

    This is my first post and I am nervous!
    I have two thoughts about this verse:
    1) How did the Pharisees react when Jesus forgave people of their sins? Here he was the King of kings, and he had that power to forgive, and they could/would not see that.
    2)The Mosaic law was “an eye for an eye” level of the law,justice and mercy. The higher law, I feel, is that we have steps/covenants to make, keys to hold to receive the fullness of the Atonement. At the same time, my 7yod who has Down Syndrome, already has a place saved for her. What she has is this incredible amount of love for everyone. And I need to have this same love/forgiveness that she has to have a place with her.
    In D&C 45:3-5 He tells us that He is our advocate with the Father, because we believe in Him, and follow Him. My favorite hymn is “I Stand All Amazed” (#193)…I think it expresses how I feel about this better than I can.

  20. m&m said

    This from Elder Scott helped me understand justice better than I have before: Justice is that part of Father in Heaven’s plan of happiness that maintains order. It is like gravity to a rock climber, ever present. It is a friend if eternal laws are observed. It responds to your detriment if they are ignored. Justice guarantees that you will receive the blessings you earn for obeying the laws of God. Justice also requires that every broken law be satisfied. When you obey the laws of God, you are blessed, but there is no additional credit earned that can be saved to satisfy the laws that you break. If not resolved, broken laws can cause your life to be miserable and would keep you from returning to God. Only the life, teachings, and particularly the Atonement of Jesus Christ can release you from this otherwise impossible predicament.

  21. m&m said

    There is much I need to reread and re-ponder, but I think this is consistent with scripture, the idea that the Atonement is not so much about appeasing some abstract, impersonal, cosmic notion of justice, but that Christ’s suffering is/was more about having a very intimate and personal effect on each of us. What I find striking in this parable of the unmerciful servant is that the king freely forgives and does not demand payment. It is easy for me to imagine God as being similarly gracious. So, rather than simply resorting back to the Elder Packer video and thinking about Christ’s suffering in terms of making proxy payment to the king, I’m inclined to think about Christ’s suffering more in terms of how it helps me change my heart so that I will not only plead for mercy myself, but that I will also show mercy to others

    I think it can be both. I think at some level it must be both. The fall was a direct result of broken law. Justice took affect and Adam and Eve were cast out of Father’s presence. What needed fixing was not just personal, within Adam and Eve. At that point, what was at stake was less about their relationship with each other and very much about their relationship with God (they didn’t need to show mercy to each other — the real issue at hand was that they wanted to be back at one with Him!)

    I am not articulate enough to try to explain what I mean, but to me, to only talk of the personal nature of the Atonement and not what it means in terms of me being able (physically and spiritually) to come back to God’s presence cannot be overstated. Without the atonement, we would die and become forever angels to a devil. This is big stuff. I don’t know how Christ could atone for all of our sins, and I don’t know what that fully means. The scriptures talk of demands of a divine justice, and being exposed to the whole law and its punishment, and the like. If we take away punishment, we have no Atonement. I still don’t know what that means. But I think the Atonement is bigger than I can imagine. It not only helps change my heart but helps change the world. It will fix every little possible wrong in my life and every huge wrong in all of the history of all mankind, on this world and on others. And somehow, my puny efforts at trying to obey and seek Christ and let Him change me are enough for Him to potentially say that I can be “perfect in Him” (think of it — *I* could become perfected? Puny, unworthy little me? THAT to me can capture the sentiment of this parable — not as much trying to figure out what the debt might have been that wasn’t demanded, but just that his broken heart was enough to unlock all the love and mercy the kind had to offer. Does that mean that the debt wasn’t somehow paid at some other time? That payment would have been required had he not humbled himself and approached the king seeking to do all he could do to repay? There is much that might be considered from what is not said, no?

    I share the sentiment with others that we need to approach this with fear and trembling. This is so much bigger than our brains can comprehend. Ever. Even the prophets have said they don’t fully know how it all works, so I am really, really leery of someone who will jump in with confidence and either form or reject a “theory.” I agree with Robert; I don’t want to pigeonhole the Atonement into some man-made theory. I want to look at whatever might help me internalize and appreciate a little more of the unspeakable amazingness of it all.

    And in that sense, I think we don’t NEED to understand what justice means in an “out there” cosmos kind of force (although I just suspect it has that kind of reach as well)…because what does end up mattering is how it changes our individual lives and our ability to be at peace with God and with others. So now perhaps I come full circle and join back with what Robert said above. I think the parable in question can help us understand some elements of what the Atonement might mean, but can’t encapsulate all of it. (I’d love to see a compilation of all the parables that might teach this, and all of the times the Savior talks about His role and judgement and the like, to see what kind of big picture might be painted. Obviously would still be woefully inadequate, but still might be interesting.)

    One of my favorite scriptures that helps me try to imagine what the Savior did and the impact that had is the one that has been mentioned, in D&C 45. He PLEADS our cause. He holds up His supreme act as something that can “spare” us from something — something that must be horrible enough for Him to so plead our cause. He gives us the power to have eternal life. It’s a gift (f we are bound to Him in covenant). His mercy is amazing. All He asks is that we give Him our hearts. But I sense that there are sad consequences if we don’t. It’s all so personal and so big at the same time…..

    And I feel so small in trying to participate in this discussion. Writing allows me to try to think “out loud” but is so hard, scary. I think I am going to try to really ponder and study this more in the next while (something, interestingly, that Elder Scott specifically encouraged in that talk on rock climbing I quoted above.)

  22. Jacob (and, by my second paragraph, everyone),

    I think there are presuppositions on my part that you don’t have, and presuppositions on your part that I don’t have, and that is the measure of the distance between us on this. Let me lay out some presuppositions that are guiding my thinking here.

    Covenants are concrete, not abstract. A covenant is made in a concrete event. An implication of this is that if justice quite straightforwardly means faithfulness to a covenant, it cannot be universalized: justice is a particular person’s faithfulness to a particular covenant. In short, I think we need to be very careful about speaking about some kind of all-encompassing or universal justice.

    The consequence: justice and mercy must be thought of within the bounds of (always with reference to) a particular covenant. This is vital, since some prophets in the scriptures are speaking of one covenant, and others of another. There is a great difference between talking about God’s justice in regard to the Abrahamic covenant and talking about God’s justice in regard to my personal baptismal covenant. And there is a great difference between talking about God’s justice in regard to some of the remarkable covenants made during the endowment and talking about God’s justice in regard to the covenant Adam made before partaking of the fruit. And there is a great difference between talking about God’s justice in regard to the covenant made between the members of the Godhead in the premortal council and talking about God’s justice in regard to the covenant at Mount Sinai. Etc., etc., etc. In short, let me recast a point Robert made above: we have got to recognize that the scriptures are not univocal on this subject, and that is precisely because each prophet is speaking in a specific context about a specific covenant.

    That, I think in fear and trembling, is vital.

  23. joe m said

    as m&m (#21) stated, there must be punishment. (2 Nephi ch. 2) So, thinking out loud here, maybe it’s not God who demands the ‘penal substitution’ (for lack of a better term), but Christ offers it (like DC 45, thanks m&m). So, God did not ‘punish’ Christ by proxy for our sins, but Christ voluntarily felt the punishment of all sins, so that when we are penitent He can plead for our cause… isn’t this what the scriptures teach? this is not entirely consistent with my earlier post, but the more i think i think about this, the more i can’t avoid how the scriptures teach that punishment is necessary to stand in opposition of reward. while many of us do not like the idea of a punishing God, how can we avoid it? just thinking out loud…

  24. douglas Hunter said

    M&M quotes elder Scott:

    “Justice guarantees that you will receive the blessings you earn for obeying the laws of God. Justice also requires that every broken law be satisfied.”

    strong disagreement here. Justice plays no role in this. Law itself is perfectly capable of achieving these functions, this is to reduce justice to the law, it is to claim that justice is exactly a calculation, or formula. This is the view of justice from the point of view of the law.

  25. m&m said

    I don’t see why you think that justice doesn’t play a role in this. I don’t think Elder Scott is reducing justice to a formula. Justice has demands, and I think the scriptures can support what Elder Scott says.

    Do you have anything to back up what you are saying, or is it simply what you think vs. what Elder Scott thinks? I bet you can guess which I will choose if that is the case. :)

  26. douglas Hunter said

    well since your mind is made up . . .

  27. cherylem said

    m&m#25 and douglas #26,

    m&m . . . it is kind of a conversation stopper: either we agree with Elder Scott, or we’re wrong. It’s a terrible burden of infallibility to put on Elder Scott.

    I am interested in the way people think, how they think, how they reason, what insights they’ve come to themselves. . .

    For instance, why do you think justice has demands? Separate from the scriptural record, or from the GAs, how would you explain this? What kind of demands does justice have? Is justice a law separate from God? Do you think even God has to bow to the laws of justice? Are there laws that God cannot break? Would godly justice be different than justice in our court system? In what way?

    I would really be interested in how you think about this.

  28. douglashunter said

    I have a hard time seeing this as needing “backing up” what I wrote about Scott’s statement is pretty basic. Isn’t it self evident that Scott’s statement stays well within the realm of legal formula? This is clearly the realm of the law. The question for Scott is: Why would the law need any assistance (from justice) in its area of greatest compentence? I think the assertion that Justice is involved in the most mechnical aspects of the law must be questioned, even if it’s wrapped up in the status quo as put forth by GAs.

    But the entire thing begins with an understanding of what justice is or might be, and the possible relations of the law to it, as well as of what the law is.

  29. douglashunter said

    Cherylem says: “laws of justice”

    This is a common but paradoxical phrase. Does anyone know where it comes from? How is it possible that there could be a law of justice?

    From the point of view that justice is beyond the law, that justice arrives just as the law is leaving, a law of justice would be impossible.

  30. m&m said

    OK, folks, sorry if you feel I derailed possible conversation. My point was that I really have no motivation to simply accept an “Elder Scott is wrong” without any explanation. So, Douglas, I would then be interested to understand what your view of justice is. I personally don’t see what Elder Scott said as being outside the realm of possible or logical, and I would like to understand better why you think he’s off. I don’t understand why you think that “the assertion that Justice is involved in the most mechnical aspects of the law must be questioned.” Maybe you think I’m thick-headed (and that is possibly the problem here), but it seemed to me your comment was incomplete and if that is all you were going to present, I personally would opt for a single GA statement over a single stranger’s statement. Your follow-up doesn’t really help me much, so I would love to hear more of what you mean if you feel so inclined. Or if you think it should be obvious, then ignore me.

  31. m&m said

    I am interested in the way people think, how they think, how they reason, what insights they’ve come to themselves. . .

    In a sense, I was asking for more clarification. Sorry that didn’t come across. I will say though that if someone will simply disagree with a GA without explaining why, I have a hard time being motivated to accept that person’s point of view…I really, too, want to understand more. Again, apologies.

  32. cherylem said

    #29 douglas: good insight there. Hmmm. law of justice. . . hmmmm.

    #31 m&m, no apologies necessary. I appreciate what you bring to the table.

  33. m&m said

    Cheryl, to be honest, I am a bit befuddled as to your request to explain my thoughts (severely incomplete as they are) about eternal justice outside the scriptural record or prophetic teachings. To me, there is really no other way to understand what eternal justice might entail. Am I missing something? Do you think it’s possible to understand eternal justice by only looking at mortal concepts of that principle?

    Douglas, I think your question that I just saw about “law of justice” being a contradiction in your mind might help me understand what you are driving at. Can I ask a question: What do you think it means to be “judged according to their works, according to the law and justice.” (Al. 42:23)

  34. m&m said

    Scratch that question above and consider the following: What do these scriptures teach about the relationship between what “law” is and what “justice” is?

    “justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law”
    “the grasp of justice, which was about to be administered according to the law”
    “O the greatness and the justice of our God! For he executeth all his words, and they have gone forth out of his mouth, and his law must be fulfilled.”
    “Prepare your souls for that glorious day when justice shall be administered unto the righteous, even the day of judgment…”
    “while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice”
    “But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.”
    “to be judged according to their works, according to the law and justice.”
    “For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them”

    The references that I see on “law of justice” on lds.org seem to me to also be saying “principle of justice” or could just be simply stated as “justice.” I am not sure we should get too caught up in the phrase “law of justice” because we do know that justice is a key in the whole plan.

    And the reason I included Elder Scott’s quote is because it was helpful to me to think about justice not only as a bad thing, a force that demands something from me, but also a force that can benefit me as I obey the law. We want both mercy AND justice. Justice isn’t the bad guy and mercy the good here. We want God to be both merciful and just. That was really my point in bringing that up. If that helps at all…. (piggybacking off of something Joe said earlier about perhaps not thinking about justice and mercy as only opposing forces)

  35. robf said

    I have to admit to being pretty lost since Joe’s comment #7. I think we’re talking past each other without a generally agreed upon definition of justice. So–what the heck is “justice” anyway?

  36. m&m said

    So–what the heck is “justice” anyway?

    Ay, there’s the rub. :) This is one reason why I posted the scriptures (of course there are boatloads more). So far I am thinking that justice is what demands that the law be executed according to its prescribed punishments (or blessings a la D&C 120:20-21). Justice has “demands” (2 N3 9:26; Mosiah 15:9; Alma 34:16; Al. 42:15, 24) (Al. 42:13 says it has its “work.”) The law exists, punishments/blessings are tied to the law (a la 2 Ne 2) and justice demands that the consequences must be followed through according to the law and prescribed punishments. Mercy steps in (the Savior is “standing betwixt [us] and justice” Mosiah 15:9) because of the atonement when law is broken and repentance has been exercised. Justice demands that we be exposed to the whole law and its punishment if we don’t follow the “conditions of repentance” (Hel. 14:11-18; Al. 42:13; He. 5:11; D&C 18:12; 138:19).


  37. douglashunter said


    1-who was it exactly that wrote “elder Scott is wrong?”

    2- ” I personally would opt for a single GA statement over a single stranger’s statement.” -Its not a competition, at least I don’t see it that way. Asking questions is a very different type of discourse.

    3- “I am not sure we should get too caught up in the phrase “law of justice” because we do know that justice is a key in the whole plan.” -But the idea of a “law of justice” is a pretty remarkable idea, it has huge implications so, its well worth exploring, what it might mean, and if it’s even possible. I start from the point of view that a law of justice is impossible, but that does not end the discussion, its a starting point, all be it a challenging one.

    4- “judged according to their works, according to the law and justice.” As far as I can tell justice would be one possible outcome of a judgement, a decision, made based on works and the law. But there would have to be a real decision, not the application of a formula or a quid pro quo. But how could justice be a basis for such a decision? I don’t know. It seems that is a totally different concept than the concept I have been nipping around the edges of.

  38. m&m said

    I read your comment disagreeing with Elder Scott as saying he was wrong. Sorry if I misread you. I didn’t see you asking questions, but seeming to state a fact that was obvious to you (but obviously not to me).

    “Law of justice” is a phrase that isn’t in scripture, so when I see it in talks, I wonder if they have used the word “law” to mean “principle.” I think that justice is bound, has it’s work/demands in a similar way as a law, but is it confusing (or redundant?) to say “law of justice”?

    Per your #4, why do you say that “would have to be a real decision, not the application of a formula or a quid pro quo.” This is I think where I might be losing you. Why can justice not involve quid pro quo?

    I was going to muse about whether there could be a sort of on-off switch to this, that is, that you are either exposed to justice without mercy, which means spiritual death, or you have mercy stand between you and justice and you can be reconciled to God. But three degrees of glory (each with their own gradations of laws to which people will have lived in accordance with) would nix that idea, at least to a degree (ha, no pun intended). Celestial glory means being able to endure God’s presence. Any other degree of glory does not enjoy that blessing.

    Ugh. This is all too way over my little head…..

  39. robf said

    m&m, when you write about justice, it almost seems like you are writing about a person–an entity with the ability to act. Otherwise, justice couldn’t “demand” anything. Now granted the scriptures use this kind of language, but I think we have to be careful about personifying justice.

    Whereas if I’m reading Joe right, he’s suggesting that justice is a mutually understood and agreed upon quality or condition or requirement of a covenant relationship.

    I’m not sure what I think about this, I’ll have to give it some more attention.

  40. joe m said

    Cherylem #27, you ask if there are laws God cannot break…

    DC 82:10
    I, the Lord, am abound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.

    I suppose the laws that God cannot break are the covenants he makes, as long as we keep those. This lends support to law and justice being tied to covenants…

  41. douglashunter said

    m&m- I suspect you are right about the use of the word law to mean principle, that would certainly make it easier for me to wrap my mind around it.

    as for formulas / quidp.q. I am trying to hold on to what I think is the very best concept of justice which holds that there is a distinction between law and justice that law establishes itself in the name of justice but that the law is not justice, the application of a specific punishment or reward based on a specific action is the realm of the law, the law if a formula. Justice on the other hand arrives at the moment when the formula fails, when the calculation can not be made. I see justice as positive and more powerful than the law as is mercy.

    “. . . could be a sort of on-off switch to this, that is, that you are either exposed to justice without mercy, which means spiritual death, or you have mercy stand between you and justice and you can be reconciled to God.”

    I would change it to say ” law without without mercy which means spiritual death . . .”

  42. m&m said

    Whereas if I’m reading Joe right, he’s suggesting that justice is a mutually understood and agreed upon quality or condition or requirement of a covenant relationship.

    I’m not trying to personify it, just using scriptural language, which I think is important.

    OK, so douglas, which comes first in your mind, the law or the justice?

  43. cherylem said

    #19 djlott,
    Your comment about your daughter moved me. Thanks for sharing this. I liked very much your comment about D&C 45, about Christ being our advocate. That also has been a continually compelling concept for me.

    Joe m#40, I liked how you related the idea of God being bound to his own covenants to the law/justice idea.

    I have for a long time been fascinated by the limitations of God. We speak easily of God’s omnicience and omnipotence but I’m not really sure God is either of those things. But that is an entirely different subject.

    And I am over and out for the night.

  44. douglashunter said

    m&m – “which comes first in your mind, the law or the justice?”

    honestly, I don’t know, but I suspect justice.

  45. Jacob J said

    Joe Spencer (#22),

    I think I can see where you are trying to go, but I don’t think I can go along. The title of the post makes reference to a rhetorical question asked in Alma 42:25 (“What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice?). Since this question is preceded by a long discourse on the meaning of justice (starting in Alma 41), it seems to me that we must interpret the question in the context of the definition of justice advanced in that passage. The notion of justice you are suggesting (as clarified in #22) does not appear to me to be in line with what Alma expounds in Alma 41. You said:

    In short, I think we need to be very careful about speaking about some kind of all-encompassing or universal justice.

    Alma presents justice as the princple of “restoration” in a perfectly generic and generally applicable way. I don’t see anything in his comments to suggest the kind of specificity to a particular covenant you are after. In my paper (that Robert alludes to in the post), I argue that the notion of justice described in Alma 41 is expanded on and clarified by D&C 88 (compare, for example, Alma 41:13 and D&C 88:40). This notion I am presenting is not the only notion of justice found in the scriptures, but I believe it is the notion of justice Alma had in mind when he asked his rhetorical question.

    In short, let me recast a point Robert made above: we have got to recognize that the scriptures are not univocal on this subject, and that is precisely because each prophet is speaking in a specific context about a specific covenant.

    As I said above, I agree that the scriptures are not univocal, but not because each prophet is speaking in a specific context about a specific covenant. I would be interested in any support you have for such a view. Certainly cultural influences play a big part in differing notions of justice that appear in the scriptures. However, I can’t think of any scriptures where the notion of justice can be tied to a specific covenant. Can you?

  46. cherylem said

    #45 Jacob,
    When did your article appear in Dialogue?

    All: I have been thinking of the Biblical meaning of justice/judging, specifically the meaning in the Tanakh, which I assume would have been foundational to BOM understanding of this word. I think, if I remember correctly from previous studies, that justice was a postive term, indeed a restoration term (as in Alma), as in restoring a set of relationships or community to wholeness – and that this understanding was geographic – a Near Eastern concept.

    I’m wondering if Robert would pull up some lexicon stuff on justice.

    Justice had also to do with restoring the innocent, those left without hope:

    Deut. 32:36 (NIV)
    36 The LORD will judge his people
    and have compassion on his servants
    when he sees their strength is gone
    and no one is left, slave or free.

    This is all I have time for – running to work. But hopefully, more later.

  47. Robert C. said

    Wow, way too much here for me to keep up with. I think we should several follow up posts on all of this. There’s a lot I want to say in response to everything above, but I don’t have much time this morning.

    I will say that I think it is important to think about the idea of justice as a possibly evolving concept, or at least a concept with at least slightly different connotations in different contexts. I looked at an interesting book a while ago that tried to back out whether legal terms and concepts were used (and if so, if the connotations were different) in pre-Moses/pre-law times. I’ll see if I still have the book and perhaps make a new post just on that. Also, I think it’s interesting that justice is not a term used in the KJV New Testament. Just is used several times, but never justice. I’ll try to look at the TDNT entry this weekend sometime to see how that might help us think about the term in the OT and NT.

    Also, I think this is a good time to make another plug for Dialogue. Jacob’s article really is fantastic. I think Dialogue developed a bit of an ‘unfaithful’ reputation (and, on my view, justifiably so, at least to some degree…) for a while there, but I must say I’ve been quite impressed with many of the recent articles there. Jacob’s article is in the Spring 2006 (Volume 39, No. 1) issue (try this link—I think it can be purchased for $10; here should be a page for subscribing—$25 for a one-year, electronic subscription, or $42 for all issues 1966-2006!).

  48. Cheryl, et al.: cf. my #7, where I begin to look at precisely this question of the OT “concept” of justice and how it relates to covenants. My comments rely very heavily on Gerhard von Rad’s work on justice (I’m falling more and more in love with von Rad’s work).

    Jacob, I take it you are familiar with Givens’ discussion of Alma 41 in By the Hand of Mormon? If there is anything besides von Rad behind my thoughts, it would be Givens. Or rather, if there is anything behind my thoughts, it would be the whole of continental thought, which I think comes out nicely in von Rad in terms of the OT and in Givens in terms of the Book of Mormon. I probably ought to read your paper in Dialogue (when published?), but even to speak of something like “universal” justice seems… how do I put this?… crassy American (I’ve just offended a number of people…). And that suggests to me that we have two ways to approach the Book of Mormon on justice: either we can assume that it is a powerful instantiation of Bloom’s American Religion reading of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, or we assume that the book has its roots in ancient Near Eastern thought. I am unashamedly assuming the latter. Part of that is that I think Bloom couldn’t be more wrong (Joseph seems to me to have been profoundly anti-American… based on my own take on arguments like Hill’s Quest for Refuge). And part of it is simply the richness I find in the Book of Mormon when I look for precedence in the OT and Hebrew thinking generally.

    But I think the topic is outstripping the length in which I’d like to write my comment for now. Let me sum up this way: I think there are important presuppositions at work here that are not being laid out on the table… what are they? (And I ask that in all seriousness. I hope I don’t seem to be presuming any particular presupposition on your part. I’m all… eyes?)

  49. robf said

    Here are some interesting thoughts on the themes and theology of tzedakah/justice. I still think we need to spend more time on the Hebrew concept of justice before we jump into Book of Mormon or New Testament or modern concepts. The whole idea of “robbing justice” isn’t making any sense to me without a better understanding of what we are meaning by justice. Sorry to be dense, but I still feel like this conversation is moving too fast and that we should really dig in and feast on this word “justice”.

  50. Robert C. said

    robf #49, thanks for that link. I’ve actually never heard of tzedakah being translated “charity.” The KJV translates this “righteousness” most often.

    I found the book I mentioned above, Implied Law in the Abraham Narrative by James K. Bruckner. What is interesting is that I think the ideas discussed in that book will mediate between the various ideas of this thread. In particular, I think this suggests a rather interesting and direct relationship between covenant and law (Joe and Jacob’s discussion) and law and justice (m&m and douglas’s discussion, and others’…). Here’s one interesting phrase from the TDNT that relates law and a notion of justice:

    That God posits law, and that He is bound to it as a just God, is a fundamental tent in the OT. . . .

    I’ll try to elaborate later, but I think that justice and law (Torah) are indeed very intimately connected, but I don’t think justice can or should be reduced to thinking in terms of law (after all, wasn’t God just before Moses?). Here’s another rather dense and interesting TDNT quote (sorry I don’t have time to elaborate more):

    The fact that in Hellenistic Judaism, too, God can be called [just], the One who is infallibly consistent in the normative self-determination of His own nature, and who maintains unswerving faithfulness in the fulfilment of His promises and covenant agreements, prepares the ground for the crucial religious importance of the term in the New Testament.

    However, I’m inclined to think that we do in fact see develop, esp. in the BOM, a lexical relationship between justice and the punishment that is required by law for those that break the law (and I think religious and civil law develop in interestingly related but not equivalent ways in the BOM…). The question I am ultimately trying to get at, I think, is why such punishment is required by the law. At any rate, I’m inclined to think that it is this legal sense in which justice, Atonement, and mercy are used in at least some passages in the BOM (Alma 34 esp.—see the wiki for some more of my thoughts on this, and note the link to Jacob’s carefully argued rebuttal to my reading; Jacob also posted a rebuttal at the Dialogue site here), and that these passages give some scriptural justification for a type of penal-substitution view. But I think this mostly serves as a metaphor/analogy for helping us to understand the Atonement—that is, I do not think this should be taken too seriously at a theological level.

    These are horribly reckless claims that I don’t have time to try to defend, but for what it’s worth…. Oh, I also think it’s interesting that justice and righteousness seem to be interchangeable English terms in Biblical Hebrew and Greek (see the Hebrew link above and here for the Greek term, dikaios). I think one interesting project would be to try and find BOM or D&C passages where the term justice is used and where righteousness would not really fit—I think that if such passages could be found, they would would help support a notion of justice more like “an eternal law” (and inasmuch as such passages are not found, I think we are forced back to a notion of justice that is more contextual and relational—at least on my reading, righteousness has more of a connotation of someone who gives their word and keeps it, but again, it would take more time than I have to try to defend this claim, so I’m even suspect of what I’m proposing here…).

  51. Jim F. said

    douglashunter (#41): Justice [. . .] arrives at the moment when the formula fails, when the calculation can not be made. I see justice as positive and more powerful than the law, as is mercy.

    Cherylem (#46): [In the Old Testament,] justice was a positive term, indeed a restoration term (as in Alma), as in restoring a set of relationships or community to wholeness.

    I don’t have time for a more thorough discussion, but I want to note that these two remarks seem to me to be central to thinking about what justice is and, therefore, to our question about justice and punishment and what it means to say that mercy cannot rob justice.

  52. cherylem said

    I have spent some time doing a verse by verse of Alma 42-43, using the ideas of justice = a restoration of all things; mercy = God’s sympathy for man’s frailties; punishment and reward = part of justice as a restoration of all things; and atonement = reconciliation, intercession, forgiveness, mercy. I believe this is consistent with the Hebrew in the Torah, which would have traveled with Nephi/Lehi to their new world.

    I think this is enlightening, and though not the final word or the deepest meaning, may spur others’ thoughts.

    It is soon here, in chart form (let’s see if I can figure out how to do this):

    alma 41 and
    42 alternate reading

  53. cherylem said

    Soon . . . (see #52). I couldn’t figure it out . . . so soon Robert or Joe will post this . . .

  54. Jacob J said

    Joe Spencer (#48),

    I take it you are familiar with Givens’ discussion of Alma 41 in By the Hand of Mormon?

    Yes, I am familiar with his discussion, and I like it for the most part. His description of justice as the “moral order that validates human agency” is very much like my view (By the Hand of Mormon pg. 206).

    Givens’ discussion is quite good (and contains much I recommend) until he comes to his conclusion at the bottom of 207 beginning with “So Christ offers himself as ransom to the demands of law…” where he appeals to the basic premise of penal-substitution. At that point, I part ways with him because, again, it is just silly to say that the moral order of the universe (justice) can only be safeguarded by an explicit injustice.

    even to speak of something like “universal” justice seems… how do I put this?… crassy American

    I’m not sure what you mean by “universal” in that sentence. You didn’t really respond to my point about Alma 41 being out of harmony with your description in #22 (other than to cite the work of von Rad in a broad way), so I don’t know what your view is. Does Alma 41 describe a kind of “universal” justice? If not, in what way is it not “universal”?

    I think there are important presuppositions at work here that are not being laid out on the table

    Of course this is true, not because I am trying to hide my presuppositions but because no one can give a full explanation of their view of justice in a comment on a blog. I’m sure the same is true for you. Nevertheless, you advanced a view in #22 and I haven’t seen much support for it despite my attempt to engage it in #45.

    All, I appreciate those of you who have asked about my paper. If I can find a spot to stick it on the web, I will post a link. However, I didn’t intend to make this post about my paper, so I apologize for the self-promotion.

  55. Robert C. said

    (Notice: Cheryl’s Word.doc is now posted in in comment #52.)

  56. m&m said

    it is just silly to say that the moral order of the universe (justice) can only be safeguarded by an explicit injustice.

    I’m sorry, but I find it really off-putting to read that anyone’s view that leaves room for penal-substitution (i.e., which doesn’t share your view) is “silly.” I think we should be approaching this as a “we are all trying to figure this out” kind of way rather than “I have it figured out and you don’t” kind of approach. I also think we ought to leave room for the possibility that our definitions of “justice” and “injustice” (and law and whatever else comes into play) just might not be quite the same as they are in the eternal scheme of things, and this is why I have a hard time jumping on any bandwagon that explicitly rejects penal-substitution concepts (especially when I personally think there is some scriptural support for at least something along that line).

    If General Authorities have no last-say kind of authority in this kind of discussion, I fail to see why anyone else should. :) If the goal really is to explore points of view, then ought we not leave room for all kinds of thoughts as we are all still working through this rather than dismissing others’ as “silly”?

    Sorry for the metacomment. This is something that I have struggled with for a while on this topic. Jacob, I know that you aren’t the only one who feels that way, so my comments are more general than just directed at you. I would like to feel that I can explore thoughts and ideas, though without being labeled as stupid or silly.

  57. cherylem said

    I’ve read your paper – will have some comments later.

    I wanted to mention Moses Miamonides, the Medieval Jewish philosopher (1135-1204). I mention him in reaction to my own notes (God uses fear of punishment to motivate men to do good – even in Alma 41-42). I think this is germaine to Jacob’s paper and several comments in this section on how we view justice/mercy and the Atonement.

    I one wrote a paper on the similarities between Maimonides’ views on Free Will, Repentance and Human Perfection and the LDS thought on the same. I pulled it out and will mention a few things here. This is especially appropriate because I think Maimonides compares incredibly with Alma 41-42.

    Maimonides wrote prolifically on these and other subjects. He believed:

    Re free will:

    1) Free will requires an absence of compulsion. M believed this absolutely unequivocally.

    2) Maimonides used Torah – especially Deuteronomy (I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil: choose life) but also all of Torah. The Deuteronomy text tells us that disobedience is punished and obedience is rewarded by such language as “If you obey . . and if you do not obey.”

    3) M. believed that the ability to choose is a necessary condition in order to receive instruction. If one cannot choose one cannot learn as a human being.

    4) The punishment of God: God punishes by “nullifying” volition.

    5) The educational process was not meant to last forever. Rewards and punishments were meant to be temporary, as a type of preparatory school for man.

    6) This explains the great purposes of the law, for without the means of the law, with its accompanying rewards and punishments, the great multitude of people could not be withheld from wrong-doing. Man should believe in truth for truth’s sake, but this ideal can only be reached by a comparative few. The multitude can only be withheld from wrong-doing by means of threats and induced to obedience by hope of a reward.

    7) The entire sacrificial cult was instituted by God as a preparation for something better. The laws regarding sacrifice were a “school text,” a “divine ruse.”

    8) M. believed that if Moses lived during M’s time, and brought the revelation from Sinai, the sacrificial system would not be required because the people at the time of M. would not need it. I.e., God arranges choices for his children Israel according to their needs and understanding, offers rewards and punishments so that they can clearly understand the choices, and then leaves them to exercise their free will.

    9) “Free will” is an approximate term as is “moral responsibility.” These terms have no real equivalents in classical Hebrew.

    10) Laws had no intrinsic value in and of themselves, but only were valuable as they served man in a preparatory sense; they were preparatory to something greater.


    1) When a man chooses wrongly he can make more and more wrong choices until God takes from his ability to make correct choices (thus M. says: God hardened Pharaoh’s heart), or . . . sometime before the hardened heart, man can repent.

    2) According to Mishneh Torah, a repentant person who dies “earns life in the world to come,” even if the person repents on his deathbed.

    3) A person should always think of himself as about to die so that he will repent immediately.

    4) Needing repentance is not shameful: “The repentant sinner should not think that on account of his sins he is far beneath the righteous. Rather he is beloved by G-d as though he had never sinned; moreover, his reward is great since he has tasted sin and overcome his inclinations and abandoned it.

    Repentance involves specific steps: a) confession before God b) determination never to repeat the sin c) utilize the day of atonement d) repentance of a positive commandment brings immediate forgiveness e) repentance for a negative commandment is more difficult; the repentance suspends punishment until the Day of Atonement, which Day atones for the sin but even here there are interesting exceptions f) For a sin against a fellow man, restitution and appeasement must occur g) Certain sins are more serious than others, and these involve a more difficult or even impossible repentance

    5) Repentance is not fuzzy feel good steps, but definite, thoughtful actions. Repentance requires decisions made by free will: without free will, repentance would be impossible. All this can be understood through Torah study.

    6) The Torah is the tree of life.

    The Possibility for Human Perfection:

    1) It is a command to be like God. One obeys this not by turning oneself into a being similar to God, but by imitating certain of God’s attributes and actions. Specifically, we are to “imitate the acts of loving kindness and sublime attributes by which the Lord (blessed is he) is described. This is like judgment and righteousness (mentioned in my notes on Alma)

    2) Perfection is incremental. Incremental development involves free will.

    3) “Intellectual” perfection is a) rare but essential “Through it man is man.” b) This perfection is single. It “pertains to you alone.” c) It is a thing to be desired, because it is permanent. d)This perfection is “knowledge of Him, may he be exalted . . . ” and e) everything else is “but preparations for the sake of this end.”

    4) Knowing God through imitation of God’s acts of “loving-kindness, judgment and righteousness” comes after the “intellectual” perfection of (3)

    5) This final perfection is something only a few will experience. “The imitation of God should not only make us fully human, it should make us something more than fully human, it should make us in some sense Godlike.” (Kellner: Maimonides on Human Perfection)

    6) Yet there is one more step: the creation of the ideal society, explained in M’s parable of the Palace. This society brings “into being a religious community that would know and worship God.”

    7) Since M was Jewish writing for Jews, this religious community would be made up of a “subset of those Talmudists” who had reached this level guided by the Torah.

    8) Without Torah obedience “M was extremely dubious about the possibility of a non-Jew achieving the sort of moral perfection necessary for intellectual perfection, at least in the pre-messianic world.” (Kellner again)

    9) It was Jews with Torah who would guide others to God. Referring to Moses and the Patriarchs, M said: “the end of their efforts during their life was to bring into being a religious community that would know and worship God. . to spread the doctrine of the unity of the name in the world and to guide people to love him.”

    That is, the highest level of perfection and contemplation is to bring others to God.

    Isn’t this interesting? I think I may send this paper to Dialogue . . .

    And it relates so much to Alma.

    Anyway, this is a summary only of the first part of my paper. The rest of my paper then details LDS belief on these same subjects and notes similarities to M. I wrote it for a class on Jewish Ethics.

  58. cherylem said

    Don’t know where the little yellow icons came from in #57. I love this blog, but occasionally it behaves of its own will (!), quite randomly.

  59. m&m said


  60. m&m said

    *) Am testing to see how you came up with the fonzie smiley.

  61. m&m said

    :) Ha, oh well. What do I know? :)

  62. cherylem said

    Re your paper (and anyone can chime in):
    How do you define atonement? Or better yet, how does God define atonement for us? I was trying to figure this out as I read your paper – I think the definition of atonement is critical to how we view how the atonement operates (substitionary or not). That is, again, atonement theory is not the same as a definition of atonement.

    Maybe you defined this and I missed it – I read it quickly.

    Again, I think we have to go back to classical Hebrew thought and see how that group of people viewed the definition of atonement (not that that is the final word on the matter, but we need to start there).

    Also, and this relates to Jim F’s topic on scripture as script: do all scriptures on the atonement have to agree? I personally don’t think scriptures have to agree with each other, which then changes the way we read them . . . and this is for the other discussion.

  63. cherylem said

    m&m. . . I think you know how to work the blog better than I do !

  64. Jacob J said

    m&m (#56),

    Fair point. I apologize. I certainly didn’t mean to label you or anyone else silly, merely the idea that justice can demand injustice, which I take to be “silly” by virtue of the obvious contradiction definitionally. However, I can see why this could be off-putting and I’m sorry for my choice of words.

  65. Jacob J said

    cherylem (#57),

    Your paper on Miamonides sounds very interesting, and yes, I see a lot of overlap. You should definitely submit it.

    By the way, I think the Fonzie smiley is “eight)” (with the number 8 instead of the word eight) since it seems to follow 7) in your list both times.

  66. cherylem said

    Re Jacob’s paper once again (and I also recommend it to everyone to read):

    One of the benefits of a paper like Jacob’s The Divine-Infusion Theory: Rethinking the Atonement is that it educates us in that

    1) there are atonement theories. Our way of believing/thinking about the atonement did not spring full-formed from God’s (Zeus’s) head but has actually evolved. In a restoration church, it behooves us always to work backwards to original texts even as we pay attention to modern revelation.

    2) that we *can* talk about these theories without being penalized for that talk – that studying atonement theory can eventually bring us closer to God, as we search for what God truly wants us to understand

    3) that those things which might trouble some of us about the atonement as commonly preached also troubles others, who attempt then to deal with the hard questions

    and at least for me,

    4) the knowledge that the last word has not, and probably will never, be *written* about the atonement – that the atonement ultimately can be understood only by personal revelation to the individual person, and even then, “through a glass darkly.”

    I really appreciated the history of atonement theories that Jacob presented. He was concise and brief, and provided a very good overview of these.

    I liked Jacob’s insights on the light of Christ as this relates to the atonement. This is a new way of thinking for me: that without the atonement, there would be no light of Christ (thus no right/wrong, no agency, no choice). I had understood in the past that the atonement provided choice, but had not related it to the light of Christ in this way.

    Jacob thinks of our conscience (made possible through the light of Christ) as a gift, and this was also important to me.

    Then Jacob arrives at a theory of his own: the divine-infusion theory – that the atonement, through providing the light of Christ – infuses us with the ability to be fully human, by having agency, choice. This theory does not require Christ to be a substitute for anyone, while still holding us all to standards of correct choices and repentant (turned) hearts.

    And one more important thing to me regarding this paper was Jacob’s attempt to deal with the necessity of Christ’s suffering. Jacob accepts this necessity, but not that the suffering was substitutive in the way some of us have thought.

    (Jacob, am I saying this correctly?)

  67. m&m said

    Thanks, Jacob. I know you aren’t labeling people, but I feel a bit like I can’t disagree with you and say that I’m not sure that our view of what justice can or could mean is going to fully capture God’s view. My view of what happiness means is different from His, too, but I am seeking to understand what that means to HIM, not trying to impose my understanding of what it means on Him.

    It’s because of that kind of fear of potential logical fallacy (from my point of view anyway) that I’ve never been fully comfortable with the rejection of penal-substitution — because it’s all seemingly on the grounds that such principles would make God unjust somehow. I am simply not convinced that such logic is based on a true assumption. If that assumption isn’t true (not saying it isn’t but I’m not convinced that it is), then I see criticism of penal-substitution concepts as unfounded or at best off a bit. I am still in the mode of holding those assumptions you make at bay, and I would like to feel there is room to do that…either until I finally “see the light” (from your point of view) or maybe come to some different thoughts on the topic. Maybe this is all too bold (inappropriate?), since I’m clearly not as well-versed as any of you here. But still, if I can’t use GA quotes as any sort of authority for the sake of hearing people’s thoughts and ideas, I’d like to be able to work through these concepts without feeling like my ideas are silly and others already have it all figured out (because I just have a hard time believing any of us fully does). Fair enough? :) )

  68. cherylem said

    #62 m&M,

    “But still, if I can’t use GA quotes as any sort of authority for the sake of hearing people’s thoughts and ideas, I’d like to be able to work through these concepts without feeling like my ideas are silly and others already have it all figured out (because I just have a hard time believing any of us fully does). Fair enough?”

    I think this is very fair. And no one has it all figured out.

    I know you asked me above to clarify a comment I’d made (your #33 above). I didn’t reply because I felt I’d spoken badly and further attempts to clarify what I meant would only have a negative result. Written conversations carry their own dangers: no smiles, no nods, no eye contact, no physical touching of any kind.

    I like what you’ve expressed in #67.

  69. Jacob J said


    I like your word doc on Alma 41-42 (in #52). Lots of good stuff. As to my definition of the word “atonement” (#62), it seems to be used in a variety of contexts to mean different things, and I use it this way as well. Most often, I use it to refer to either the Passion, or to the process by which Christ brings us into a state of oneness with God. Not sure if that will help. Thanks for your #66; your summary was very good, and it was interesting for me to see what points you highlighted. It is gratifying to know someone got something worthwhile out of reading it.

    Robert C, I can see I have taken your post in the very direction you hoped not to go. Sorry about that.

    m&m, you may be the first person who ever felt that they couldn’t disagree with me :). But seriously, I understand your point and never intended to stifle other points of view. Again, I apologize for my choice of words.

  70. Rebecca L said

    Joe S.

    Thank you very much for your thoughts. They have helped me with some things I have been wondering about regarding covenant for a long time. I am not quite sure yet where to take it but I enjoyed reading your posts and regret not having time to fully read everything here.

    This is speaking off-the-cuff and completely without the due diligence that so many of the above excellent posts would require but I do think that we might consider that we are not the only beings with whom God has made covenants. Does it affect the “penal” model to appreciate the numerous references to law-breakers as servants of a new master, who must be bought back/redeemed? When we place ourselves outside the covenant, Christ has provided the conditions for repentance & restoration (thanks for your link & your comments CHERYL M.) possibly through covenants/arrangements with the master of our indenture. Our gratitude and faith inspired by his sacrifice leads us to make individual salvific covenants with Christ. God is able to be God perhaps in part because he is a covenant-keeper par excellence. In other words, it is his covenant-keeping which secures the order and fabric of our existence (in so many ways).

    Are penalties really just the nature of things outside of covenant? Are penalties possibly the outcome of negotiations in the formation of covenants?

    Small point: I am not sure that the parable we are discussing can be used to bear the burden of all the points that are being brought out here. The rich man was forgiving a debt owed to him personally. We all have that ability, why wouldn’t God? The questions about substition and vicarious payment really would demand a Daman and Pythias type parable wouldn’t they?

  71. Rebecca L said

    Last thought for the evening– In the parable the master doesn’t punish the indebted servant because he can or even “should” in some legalistic way (although that gives him the right and means of punishment) but because of the servant’s unrighteous judgement.

  72. Robert C. said

    Jacob #69, no need to apologize, I think this has been a very stimulating and, at least for me, edifying thread (my sparseness of comments here is b/c I’ve been very busy, not disinterested in any way). Givens’ book is now at the top of my reading list, so I’d like to study his take on Alma 41 along with Cheryl’s comments and your paper more closely. I’d also like to revisit Alma 34 after this study of Alma 41, so look for a series of posts on this chapter over the next few weeks and months (I’m partly anticipating the Passion chapters in our Sunday school readings, as well as Paul on grace, and I think understanding justice is a very complementary topic to all of this). Also, I’d like to echo Cheryl’s praise for your article, it’s been very helpful for me in terms of deepening my interest and understanding of justice—I esp. like how you emphasize scriptural passages on light b/c I think this is such a prominent and fascinating theme in Mormon-specific scripture (esp. D&C 88 and 93).

  73. […] NT Lesson #14: Can mercy rob justice? (Matt 18:27) […]

  74. […] in the previous thread, robf linked to a page on tsdq that talked about a close affinity between charity and justice. I ignorantly said […]

  75. Wow, everyone has far freer Sundays than I have! Much to read and respond to, and no time today. I did read Jacob’s direct response to me, so let me respond briefly with a promise for more:

    Jacob, thanks for your further word, because it clarified what you were saying. I did not really engage you because I apparently misunderstood what you were saying (those presuppositions that, as you say, cannot be laid out on a blog). Now that I see more clearly what you were saying, I’ll try tomorrow to get back to this discussion and respond more… responsibly.

  76. cherylem said

    Joe #7,
    I just reread this – excellent thoughts, as always.

  77. cherylem said

    Joe (and others),
    I have never read Margaret Barker. Which book would you recommend for me to start with?

  78. cherylem said

    #69 Jacob,

    You wrote:
    “As to my definition of the word “atonement” (#62), it seems to be used in a variety of contexts to mean different things, and I use it this way as well. Most often, I use it to refer to either the Passion, or to the process by which Christ brings us into a state of oneness with God. Not sure if that will help.”

    I still think we need to come up with a working definition of atonement. Joe tried in #7, referring to Barker. But I think a more precise definition is necessary.

  79. Robert C. said

    cherylem #77, you can read some of Kevin Christensen’s reviews of her at FARMS. I’d don’t know a lot of Barker and didn’t have any trouble going right into The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which I think is quite an interesting take on Revelation (if you dig back to early January posts, Joe posted something on this back then). Anyway, that’s my vote for what you should read ;-) (since I’m a couple chapters in and have been sidetracked to other books, but plan on getting back to it).

  80. Jacob J said


    But I think a more precise definition is necessary.

    The problem. I find, is that the word atonement is actually used in a variety of ways to mean a variety of things–in the vernacular and in the scriptures. For that reason, you can come up with something more precise (restrictive), but it will never be the definition of the word. It may be a definition of the word, but not the definition. The standard point about Tyndale creating the word from “at-one-ment” is useful. It is useful to know the Hebrew roots (kaper, meaning “a covering”) and the Latin roots (reconciliation, literally “to sit again with”). Barker seems to be emphasizing the importance of these roots, although I have not read any of her books. I just don’t see how a precise definition will ever be able to service the broad usage the word gets in actual usage.

    Did you have a suggested definition? Maybe I am misunderstanding what you are looking for.

  81. Jacob,

    I have just finished reading your paper in Dialogue, and I have gone back through our discussion here, and I see how we missed each other: we were speaking in two radically different registers. So let me start things afresh, if I might.

    First things first, your paper is amazing. Thanks very much for it. I hope it is read by many. I especially enjoyed your approach to the redemption of the ueber-fall, which made some sense out of several verses in D&C 88 that I’ve struggled with. And I think it is a very, very good approach to atonement.

    With that said, now let me explain where my thoughts were heading, and how reading your paper has curbed them. For years now I’ve mildly rejected the penal-substitution theory of atonement. In its place, I had something like a veil theory of atonement (something I’ll have to think through carefully now, to see how it might be enriched/overthrown/reinterpreted in light of this discussoin). But most of my thinking about the atonement has been quite simply outside of the realm of justice vs. mercy.

    When the question was raised here, I thought it would be interesting to take up a question that has been somewhere in the back of my mind for some time: how does one reconcile the traditional Mormon understanding of justice as a kind of call for punishment with the continental usage of the term as a kind of call for mercy? As I began to work out my thoughts above, with reference to von Rad’s rethinking of tsdkh, I was essentially trying to enrich Givens’ discussion of a non-universal (like you say, whatever that means… probably non-Platonic if anything) justice. But the question I was essentially trying to ask was how to think the meaning of justice in a relational setting rather than in some kind of universal or categorical setting.

    This led, above, to thinking through the covenantal reading of von Rad (which I assume he takes up from the broad thematic of Eichrodt), which drew me into thinking Deuteronomy with its curses, etc. That suggested the possibility of a covenantal obligation to punishment (with an appeal to the naive justice under fire here), and so it made me wonder if there wasn’t after all something to penal-substitution (especially as the idea seems to emerge in Isaiah 53). Essentially, at the end of my #7, I was trying to force myself not to close the door on penal substitution, rather than trying to embrace it (I have a very strong predilection against penal substitution, as I’ve mentioned).

    But the way you have articulated things in your paper clarifies an important point here. Even within the covenant model of von Rad, the affixed punishment might serve a kind of double function: it is on the one hand to be exacted of those who have made the covenant and yet break the conditions of the law associated with the covenant (unrepentant); on the other hand, the very reality of that exaction is meant (hoped) to point the way toward repentance, such that mercy can overpower justice in forgiveness/repentance. (Doesn’t this make nice sense of D&C 19? “Wherefore it is more express,” etc.?)

    Now, I think this begins to articulate how we missed each other. I was, true to my general approach over the past few years, simply uninterested in connecting up atonement with justice/mercy. My comments were primarily aimed at rethinking just the word justice and how it might be used in the scriptures, without trying to talk, really, about atonement or the plan of salvation. I was trying essentially to think about justice in the context of a covenant. You, on the other hand, were (and rightfully so!) trying to look at the much broader context of all of these issues, as you deal with in your paper. I was looking at a narrower question, and you at a broader, and so we simply weren’t speaking the same language.

    But, as I said, I’m quite glad you called me on it, because your paper clarifies the narrower question greatly. And all of this opens up some possibilities, I think, for thinking more about the meaning of the veil, the nature of the Godhead (!), and the structure of agency.

    Thanks so much for this discussion.

  82. Margaret Barker’s work is all equally readable, I think. And she is usually trying to argue for the same basic thesis in all of her work. She recently wrote a summary of her research, called Temple Theology. It is a good introduction, and she has a whole chapter on atonement there. However, I think her richest book and the one with the best discussion of atonement is her The Great High Priest. It is a collection of articles, and so one gets a rather broad sense for her work.

    Jacob raises important concerns here, though: how far will a definition get us? Barker is working primarily with Hebrew source material (she is relatively uninterested in tradition). And she does not really try to think the New Testament doctrine of atonement at all. Really, she is trying to uncover the meaning of the Hebrew kpr as it functions in the OT temple, in the rituals themselves. She then broadly suggests that this sets up a context for understanding the background of the NT. In other words, she is looking at the theology of the OT rather than the theology of the NT and beyond. I think her work on atonement there is vastly important, but I don’t remember her once trying to analyze the death of Christ in all her work.

    Does that help, Cheryl?

  83. Cherylem said

    Jacob and Joe S,
    I’d like to put something on the table re: atonement.

    here’s wikipedia:

    “The word atonement gained widespread use in the sixteenth century after William Tyndale recognized that there was no direct translation of the concept into English. In order to explain the doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice, which accomplished both the remission of sin and reconciliation of man to God, Tyndale invented a word that would encompass both actions. He wanted to overcome the inherent limitations of the word “reconciliation” while incorporating the aspects of “propitiation” and forgiveness. It is interesting to note that while Tyndale labored to translate the 1526 English Bible, his proposed word comprises two parts, ‘at’ and ‘onement,’ which also means reconciliation, but combines it with something more. Although one thinks of the Jewish Fast of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the Hebrew word is ‘kaper’ ing ‘a covering’, so one can see that ‘reconciliation’ doesn’t precisely contain all the necessary components of the word atonement. Expiation means “to atone for.” Reconciliation comes from Latin roots re, meaning “again”; con, meaning “with”; and ultimately, ‘sol’, a root meaning “seat”. Reconciliation, therefore, literally means “to sit again with.” While this meaning may appear sufficient, Tyndale thought that if translated as “reconciliation,” there would be a pervasive misunderstanding of the word’s deeper significance to not just reconcile, but “to cover,” so the word was invented.”

    If Tyndale invented this word, based on his 16th century understanding, it seems to me a distinct possibility that the word no longer serves. Instead, the word itself [with its different definitions and theories, depending on one’s philosophies or theologies] becomes a stumblingblock for our understanding of the ultimate revelation of God in Christ.

    In my GD class, I have started to talk about the experience of Christ in exactly those terms: the ultimate revelation of God. Even that is not a sufficient explanation but it works the best for me right now.

    I think [am coming to think] the ultimate revelation of God in Christ cannot be described by language, and that language veils the revelation even as we attempt to use it to describe the revelation.

    Regarding theories of atonement: in a sense, they are all correct, depending upon the individual person’s understanding. For example, that person who believes the penal-substitution theory finds the highest possible meaning of that theory in the ultimate revelation of God in Christ. The person who believes the empathy theory finds the highest possible meaning of that theory in the ultimate revelation of God in Christ. And so on.

    On the other hand, in every instance, when an attempt is not made to find the highest meaning of the theory, the word and its accompanying definition/theory seems to then be a limitation, even a harm, to human relationships: something to be misused and misinterpreted to keep human beings from seeking and understanding the ultimate revelation of God in Christ.

    But this goes further. I think [am coming to think] that all theories, theologies, and organizational models of man, in their highest form, eventually will be defined by the ultimate revelation of God in Christ.

    I also think that those individuals who have come face to face with this ultimate revelation, have seen certain visions, have had certain godly conversations, will of course try to describe what happened in the language that they know, but in the end, language will fail.

    (This is what Ben McGuire sometimes talks about when he says until we actively seek to see the vision ourselves, we are all like Laban and Lemuel: give us the interpretation, but not the experience.)

    Therefore I do think it is important to do what you say Barker is doing: what did the classical Hebrew mean, not only in definition, but in the “sense” of the reader/audience. I think it might be of huge benefit to go back to the Torah and see what was being described, and then find a new way of talking and thinking about NT christology.

    However, I am not the person for this job, if it even is something that needs to be done. Only for myself, I have in the last few months of teaching NT begun to attempt not to use the word atonement, which has become muddied, indoctrinated, and a point of argument generally (not speaking about the blog conversation at all).

    Instead I have given it a new name, which in its long form is: the ultimate revelation of God in Christ which cannot be described by language. Which name, after a time, I am sure, will fail.

    again: just putting this on the table.

  84. robf said

    As Deuteronomy enters our discussion of penalties and their relationship to covenants and justice, makes me wonder, once again, what to do about that book and how our whole understanding of these topics has been colored by the reforms during the time of Josiah (when Deuteronomy, or part of it, may have become more important) and the Exile, which seemed to be interpreted by many as Divine spanking of recalicitant Judeans?

  85. robf said

    Amen, Cheryl. Back on my mission I stopped using the word Atonement (expiacion) when teaching the discussions (charlas). Since the word didn’t mean anything to most people, and you had to define it anyway, it was easier just to emphasize what we teach that Christ’s suffering and resurrection did for us, rather than give it a name.

  86. Jacob J said

    Joe Spencer (#81),

    Ahhh, your explanation clears up a lot, thank you and well said. I went back and read your previous comments and I am glad to be able to connect with what you were saying (that is always enjoyable for me and often difficult online).

    When I decided/realized that punishment was ultimately about reform rather than revenge, it was a very important turning point in my thinking about justice. There was a section of my paper that I had to cut out for length which had some other thoughts on justice. I turned the excised portion into a post some time back. You might be interested if you missed it. The post is here and had a couple of interesting comments as well.

    cherylem (#83),

    I agree with most of the points you are made, but I don’t like the idea of not using the word atonement anymore. First of all, it is a scriptural word, so I don’t think you can be successful throwing it. Second of all, it doesn’t seem to pose any problem so long as we use more precision in our language when it is required for communication. In many (most?) situations, I am able to communicate effectively using the word atonement, despite the muddy waters you refer to. As you said, even your new name will fail in some respects, and perhaps moreso over time. That doesn’t mean it is not useful, just that we should always try to use whatever language will best communicate our thoughts/feelings in a given situation.

  87. cherylem said

    #86 Jacob,
    And yes, I am not unreasonable – the word is now part of our language, and Joseph Smith used it in the BOM and D&C (though I believe it is only used once in the NT KJ).


  88. Robert C. said

    Regarding terminology, I do think that sometimes it’s useful to use new or alternate terms for pedagogical purposes, say, in a Sunday school environment, in order to break students of old and incorrect connotations. For example, if I want to emphasize the faithful aspect of the word “true” (cf. amn in Hebrew), then I think it can be useful to substitute faithful to disassociate the propostional-truth connotation of the word true. Or, if I was talking about Atonement and wanted students not to think of a penal-substitution view of Atonement, I think using a new term would make be helpful. Nevertheless, I think Jacob’s right that we should ultimately focus on understanding scriptural terminology, and so in these cases I think it would be important to tie these new ideas back to scriptural terminology….

  89. Jacob J said


    Sorry if I made you sound unreasonable, I certainly didn’t mean to! I focused on the part of your comment that I had a potential disagreement with, but we agree on far more here than we disagree. I’ve appreciated your comments and insights on this thread. Thanks.

  90. Cherylem said

    #89 Jacob
    You’re fine. I was just saying I recognized that the word atonement wasn’t going to go away – which would be the reasonable person’s point of view. Which I am. Sometimes.

    I’m actually laughing a little.

  91. Jacob J said

    A few people asked about my paper and in #54 I said I would post a link if I got it on the web. Geoff was kind enough to put it on his site and you can read it here if you are interested.

  92. Daniela said

    You actually make it seem really easy together with your presentation but
    I to find this matter to be actually one thing that I think I would by no means understand.

    It seems too complicated and very huge for me. I am having a look forward to
    your subsequent put up, I’ll try to get the grasp of it!

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