At Dylann Roof's arraignment hearing, representatives of the murder victims said they forgave him. That was widely commended in various outlets, including some Reformed sites. That, however, raises the question of whether unconditional forgiveness is theologically warranted.
Thus far I've held off publicly commented on the issue. I thought it best to put some space between the event and commentary. However, since Obama eulogized (and politicized) the funeral of Clementa Pinckney–presumably with the consent of his relatives–it's no longer a private affair.
I'm not laying down a general rule. Ideally, it would often be preferable to wait a while before commenting on some controversy. Unfortunately, the other side doesn't give us that luxury. Right after the event, the wrong side rushes in to superimpose its interpretive narrative on the event. If you wait for a cooling off period before you push back, it's too late. By then the narrative is etched in stone. By then, moreover, the public is bored with that controversy. Attention has shifted to the next outrage de jour.
It's admirable that some of the family members are willing to forgive the murderous assailant. That's personally virtuous.
But whether that makes it a theological model for Christians generally is a different question. Good intentions don't ipso facto make something right or true.
I'm going to evaluate what some commenters said, both at TCG, and Triablogue. Critiquing a commenter, who offers his own opinion of the issue, isn't the same as critizing the families.
As a rule, I wouldn't directly correct the bereaved unless I think they have misconceptions which will harm the grieving process.
The forgiveness they extended to him is in no way unbiblical. Many times Jesus commands his followers to forgive, and he does not put conditions on that forgiveness.
i) That's one of the recurring fallacies in this debate. This is a simple issue of theological method. Harmonization. Systematic theology.
In Scripture we often have two sets of statements on the same topic: one set is qualified, the other set is unqualified. That raises the question of whether or how to harmonize them. How do they go together? This isn't unique to forgiveness passages.
a) For instance, you have unqualified prayer promises in Scripture. But, of course, God doesn't always grant our request.
b) Likewise, you have unqualified prophetic threats in Scripture. But, of course, God doesn't always bring about the threatened judgment.
The basic principle is that Scripture often speaks in generalities. Explicitly qualified passages implicitly qualify formally unqualified passages. If you reject that harmonistic principle, you generate irreconcilable contradictions.
ii) That also means you can't obey Scripture. You can't obey contradictory directives. If you refuse to harmonize the ethical injunctions of Scripture, you can't be faithful to the ethical injunctions of Scripture.
iv) Moreover, many people shipwreck their faith by failing to appreciate that principle. They have false expectations based on unqualified Biblical statements. When their hopes are dashed–because they disregarded qualified passages on the same topic–they lose their faith.
We live in a very unforgiving culture. I’m sure many here would say that sexual morality is the most despised Christian teaching in the secular world, but I’d argue it’s forgiveness. We live in a world where people either refuse to forgive because the other person doesn’t deserve it, or will grudgingly offer forgiveness but only for their own well-being (not out of love for the perpetrator).
That's a hasty generalization. And the truth is often the opposite. We live in a very permissive culture that's nonjudgmental about many sins. Our culture is, by turns, forgiving and unforgiving.
This seems to be conflating God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness in ways that are not useful. God can forgive sins; people cannot. Therefore, human forgiveness is different from God’s forgiveness. We never–not even in the face of a fully repentant sinner–have the power to forgive sins, so I think conflating human and divine forgiveness is not a productive exercise.
i) It's unclear what she means by that. According to Scripture there are occasions when we both can and should forgive sinners. Perhaps she's driving a wedge between forgiving a sinner and forgiving sins. If so, she needs to unpack that distinction.
ii) There is, however, a sense in which we can't forgive sinners. The relatives of the murder victims can forgive Roof (if he's penitent) for the harm he did to the relatives, by murdering their loved ones. But they lack the authority to forgive him on behalf of the murder victims. That would be presumptuous. They can't forgive him for the harm he did to someone else. They can't take that prerogative away from the murder victim.
As for the ugly comments that see to self-justify disobedience to the Christ’s commands to forgive as we’ve been forgiven, to overlook our Lord’s very words that we might be forgiven as we forgive others, well, it is truly heart-wrenching.
i) Once again, this repeats the same mistake. It treats unqualified statements as the norm, or isolates unqualified statements from qualified statements of the same kind.
ii) Moreover, the comparison backfires. If divine forgiveness is conditional (contingent on repentance), then by parity of argument, so is human forgiveness. So the Lord's prayer doesn't support his contention.
I am grieved over so many smart evangelical leaders giving such confused dangerous counsel on forgiveness. It is very central to practically living out our faith with others that we get this right (see e.g. Lord’s prayer and Lord’s dire warnings/consequences of not forgiving our brother from the heart).
i) Commenters keep repeating the same methodological fallacy. That's a systematic error.
ii) Moreover, his statement backfires. Not everyone is our "brother." That's a synonym for a fellow Christian. Our duties to believers and unbelievers are not identical. Many of these passages are about a code of conduct within the church. Between members of the Christian community. It's not about outsiders.
Please study what the Greek word means apeimi used for forgiveness (i.e. release, no connotation of reconciliatin) in the key verses. Please study context. Think deeper logically and conceptually of common usage of the term (since you are teaching others using this English word) and in more detail how yes, repentance is a condition of our salvation but ABSOLUTELY NOT a condition for forgiveness of every particular sin...
He doesn't know how to properly frame the question. The question at issue isn't the meaning of a particular Greek word, but the fact that in Scripture, forgiveness is often said to be contingent on contrition–in reference to divine and human forgiveness alike.
Brother teachers, please please please stop telling people that until someone repents they need not forgive, and in fact are being unbiblical in forgiving in those circumstances! Although you in your sophisticated views may say “but I make sure to love them”so that the practical effect may not be so egregious, your hearers are going around feeling simply smugly satisfied withholding forgiveness and holding that grudge until the person admits what they have done (not happenin’ 90% of the time) applying your teaching.
For someone who claims to be so forgiving, notice how harsh and judgmental he is.
Alan’s argument seems twofold, both unpersuasive. The fact that some variants of texts leave out the sentence critically seems unpersuasive to me compared to the large majority of critical texts that study the texts and conclude it.
To my knowledge, the reliability of a reading isn't based on the quantity of the witnesses, but the quality of the witnesses. Was the scribe a careful or careless scribe? Is the MS early or late? If later, is the MS part of a textual tradition that traces back to earlier MS?
Think of the extreme damage you are doing pedagogically stiffening backbones in not forgiving people unless/until there is repentance.
Is there very respectable intelligent evangelical disagreement on this point today, absolutely… more reason why I am so strident in my tone on this issue because of the absolutely grave and dangerous impact if I am correct.
Just to answer him on his own grounds:
i) At the risk of stating the obvious, the theory of unconditional forgiveness can be quite psychologically damaging to victims. That can easily alienate some people from the Christian faith. Drive some victims away from the faith. Or predispose other people to never consider Christianity in the first place.
ii) I'd add, from a pastoral perspective, that even when forgiveness is mandatory, there are times when we need to give the injured party time to make the emotional adjustment.
If, say, you're a Holocaust survivor, one of the prison guards who shot your sister right before your eyes later becomes a Christian, and you bump into him at a church service 20 years later, I think it's unreasonable to expect that you'd be psychologically prepared to forgive him on the spot. You haven't seen him since the Allies liberated the death camp. Your last memory of him was as a sadistic, murderous prison guard.
You can't just turn on a dime. You need some time to absorb the situation.
iii) Likewise, there are devout Jews who reject Christianity in part because they associate Christian theology with unconditional forgiveness, which they find morally abhorrent:
how dare we say our spouses, Christian friends, and enemies must do so before in my mind forgive rather than say “Hey, I’m ready to forgive once they repent, in the meantime I am warranted in wanting my payback and do not release them from their obligation to give.
He keeps coming back to that. He's fixated on that characterization. For him there's no middle ground: either you consciously forgive everyone for everything they ever did to wrong you, or else you harbor grudges about everything that everyone ever did to wrong you. That says more about him than it says about other people.
Does he think the alternative to blanket forgiveness is maintaining a mental file of rap sheets on everyone who ever slighted you? Rap sheets containing every charge against them, which you periodically comb through to refresh your memory?
Over the decades, I've wronged many people, and I've been wronged by many people. But I don't keep a mental record. Most of those incidents I've forgotten. In many cases, even if I remember them, they have no emotional resonance at this distance. What they did to me is so trivial compared to other things in life. It's not something I think about. I just don't care. So much of that is dead to me. Just like much of the past is dead to me.
Frankly, we need to let a lot of slights and aggravations roll off our back. In many or most instances, it's not a case of either forgiving or withholding forgiveness, but forgetting, or letting the emotions of the moment drain away. It's a question of priorities.
but his forgiveness is NOT conditional upon you being conscious and specifically repentant about any specific sin you want forgiveness for.
He keeps harping on this, but that's a red herring. It's question of having a penitent attitude, not having a checklist.
(Calvin says thats a different sense of the use of the word forgiveness than the fundamental type of forgiveness ALWAYS to be offered), doesn’t say anything specifically/logically to ‘what if someone does not repent?’.
As far as Luke 17, you did not interact with what I cited from Calvin who clearly answers this with a “two types of forgiveness” argument, and I’d add 2nd and 3rd distinctions: personal forgiveness is different than ecclesiastical forgiveness discussed here.
Why should we grant those hairsplitting distinctions? The underlying cause is the same: one person sins against another. Why would it be a different kind of forgiveness when it's not even a different kind of sin?
This starts out at a purely personal level: one professing Christian wrongs another. It only escalates, it only becomes an issue of church discipline, because the offender is impenitent.
Calvin commenting on Matthew 18 and parallel passage in Luke, says yes, there is a sense of ‘forgiving’ where you treat them outwardly as reconciled but that the more important sense of forgiveness of the two which we are sternly warned we must do from the heart does not require repentance. Piper says “forgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn’t look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person” and quotes Thomas Watson who also had this position, with his quote “We are not bound to trust an enemy; but we are bound to forgive him. (Body of Divinity, p. 581)”. C.S. Lewis also shared this view on forgivness where theres no repentance of others; no theologian he, but a great Christian thinker.
That's an illicit argument from authority, as if citing the opinion of Calvin, Piper, Watson, and Lewis proves anything. But their position is only as good as their supporting arguments. You can't simply cite your favorite theologians to prove your point, as though their bare opinion makes it right.
Forgiveness/apheimi is my releasing a person from my desire/right to see them paid back or to pay me back for what they have done wrong to me, just as we use the term in the secular world for debts. Does not have to have reconciliation, its that simple, and is an important concept in its own right compared to reconciliation which is not in our power.
That distinction is an exercise in misdirection.
I’ve corresponded with Braun after publication on his book on this and he seems to agree with me that we should offer this always definition I offer substantively but doesn’t want to call it forgiveness by my understanding but merely love.
Another illicit argument from authority.
Just because Christ used the example in Luke that IF a brother repents seven times we should forgive each time (Calvin says thats a different sense of the use of the word forgiveness than the fundamental type of forgiveness ALWAYS to be offered), doesn’t say anything specifically/logically to ‘what if someone does not repent?’.
i) Why not? If repentance is unnecessary, why did Jesus frame the issue in conditional terms? According to him, when Jesus says "If your bother repents, forgive him," that's not different that "If your brother refuses to repent, forgive him anyway!" That tampers with the teaching of Christ.
ii) Keep in mind, too, that there are actually three conditions in this passage. I am obligated to forgive the offender if three conditions or preconditions are met:
a) He's penitent
b) He personally wronged me (no third-party forgiveness).
c) He's a fellow Christian ("brother").
Thank God and my wife don’t wait for my specific repentance to forgive for my myriad of unconfessed sins I have, and all of us will go to the grave unconscious of.
That's a purely emotive appeal.
Moreover, it's needn't be a question of forgiveness. When dealing with friends and family, we often cut them some slack, just as they cut us some slack. We make allowance for their faults and shortcomings to get along.
Forgiveness should not be conflated with reconciliation; it is a different word and concept and should be distinguished, while understanding reconciliation being a main and further goal of forgiving, laying aside the right and desire for repayment or punishment of the offender in our heart for any ultimate harm as a means for that reconciliation with us and more importantly with God.
i) He begins by imputing to his opponents the claim that they've allegedly conflated reconciliation with forgiveness, then scolding them for his own imputation. He then proceeds to correct the conflation he imputes to them. The whole exercise is circular.
ii) Moreover, it's beside the point, since we're dealing with passages involving the word for forgiveness or concept of forgiveness where that's contingent on contrition. The idea that forgiveness is conditional isn't based on introducing reconciliation passages into the analysis–in word or concept. We aren't combining forgiveness passages with reconciliation passages. So he's burning a straw man.
To the contrary, he's the one who's dragging reconciliation passages into the analysis. But that's a separate issue.
Please study what the Greek word means apeimi used for forgiveness (i.e. release, no connotation of reconciliatiin) in the key verses. Please study context. Think deeper logically and conceptually of common usage of the term (since you are teaching others using this English word) and in more detail how yes, repentance is a condition of our salvation but ABSOLUTELY NOT a condition for forgiveness of every particular sin.
He's committing a common semantic fallacy. The Greek word doesn't include (or exclude) the concept of conditionality or unconditionality. The meaning of the Greek word is neutral on that score. That idea is supplied by the context. By stated qualifications.
To take a comparison, you have debates over the conditionality or unconditionality of Biblical covenants. Greek and Hebrew words for "covenant" don't include the concept of conditionality or unconditionality. But must be supplied by other things that are said about a particular covenant.
Just to clarify, I’m not being snarky or combative. I myself have thought about Luke 23:34 with this debate in mind, and felt it was not a clear proof text for unconditional forgiveness. But Acts 7:60 seems clearer to me.
This is another issue of theological method.
i) To begin with, it's probably Acts 7:60 that influenced the scribal interpolation in Lk 23:34.
ii) There's a reason Lk 23:34 is the favored prooftext rather than Acts 7:60. That's because, if Jesus said that, it would have a certain normative or exemplary force given who said it.
By contrast, the fact that an early Christian like Stephen is quoted saying something doesn't ipso facto make his sentiment binding on other Christians. The Bible quotes lots of people saying lots of things. The Bible often quotes the disciples in the Gospels. But that, of itself, doesn't make it an imperative for Christians generally. It's not a command.
iii) Stephen doesn't say he forgives his persecutors. Rather, he asks God to forgive his persecutors. Strictly speaking, this is about divine forgiveness, not human forgiveness. And divine forgiveness is contingent on faith in Christ and contrition for sin. Divine forgiveness is conditional.
iv) Perhaps some readers infer that Stephen's prayer carries the implication that he forgave his persecutors. That's possible. I would, however, point out that those are logically separable.
It's quite possible for someone to think or say: "Maybe God can forgive you, but I can't."
There are people who leave forgiveness is God's hands.
v) Apropos (iv), the only Biblical example we have of sainted murder victims asking God to do something about their killers, they are not in a forgiving mood:
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:9-10).
Here they pray, not that God will forgive their killers, but that God will exact retribution on their killers. That's theologically significant because it represents a heavenly perspective on the situation. The martyrs are normative characters. They reflect the values and standards of the narrator. They give voice to the viewpoint of the narrator.
Jason, I do not agree that God's forgiveness of us is technically "conditional", because I believe in monergism, rather than synergism. Does God's unmerited favor toward us work with the Holy Spirit to cause faith and repentance in His elect? Of course. But in this respect, we are not God, so we can't put ourselves in the judgment seat. I think this is the problem with view that would teach us to withhold forgiveness.
We have some non sequiturs here:
i) Even though regeneration is monergistic, it's still the case that salvation is contingent on faith, repentance, and perseverance.
And even in Reformed theology, sanctification is cooperative. Moreover, sanctification is a prerequisite for salvation.
ii) As for "putting ourselves in the judgment seat," that confuses eschatological judgment, which is God's prerogative, with our making judgments about sin and punishment. The latter is entirely Scriptural. It's part of church discipline. It's part of OT penology.
iii) The principle of monergism is broader than whether we merit God's favor. For instance, a baby is dependent on adults to care for it. Yet parents have an obligation to care for their baby.
Conversely, someone can be dependent on another even if he doesn't merit particular treatment. It's just a question of need.
iv) Then there's her false dichotomy. God can make X conditional on Y, even if God enables the agent to comply with X.
If I give my teenage son the car keys, his ability to use the keys is conditional on having a car in the first place. I supplied the car as well as the keys.
The problem that concerns me is ill-legitimate authority. When I stated that we are not to take God's judgment seat, I have something much more specific in mind. Only the Lord can judge someone from a divine perspective, granting them eternal forgiveness/remission of sin. Likewise, only civil authorities have the rightful place of legally punishing wrongdoers, whether it is with incarceration or capital punishment. Additionally, church officers wield the rightful authority of excommunication of an unrepentant believer from the body of Christ (this explains your passage on Moses' appointing Judges).
That's a very expansive definition of "forgiveness," which is not what Alan or Jason have in mind. Her definition concerns pardon or punishment.
When dealing with an impenitent church member, it becomes an issue of punishment (i.e. excommunication). But that's not how it starts. It can be resolved at an earlier stage without that.
True forgiveness from the heart - the type that the Charleston Church exemplifies - is a supernatural kind that can only come from a heart that has been made new in Christ. Only a Christian believer can really forgive this way - as they have been forgiven.
To the contrary, that's taught. That's not spontaneous. Rather, they took that position because they were indoctrinated in a particular theory of forgiveness. They think that's their duty. What they ought to do.
Forgiveness is a choice. Personal forgiveness is the area where we have been given authority to exercise that choice.
That's a very wooden conception. Forgiveness has a psychological dimension. We can't just will ourselves to feel a certain way about someone. We don't have direct control over what we feel. At best, that's something we have to work on.
The position for the OPC website speaks to this issue very well
Well, what about that?
By "forgive," I mean to "stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake" ( New Oxford American Dictionary).
Honestly, that's an incompetent starting-point:
i) That's not a theological definition, but a secular definition and a psychological definition.
ii) Moreover, it fails to distinguish between the meaning of words and the meaning of concepts.
iii) Is the concept of Christian forgiveness in Scripture simply or primarily to "stop feeling angry or resentful" towards the offender?
Fact is, I don't have to consciously forgive someone to stop feeling angry or resentful. Feelings often fade with the passage of time.
iv) Or is it more about no holding something against them? More about how you act towards the offender. Payback–or not.
In Scripture, forgiveness presupposes guilt. Guilt is the object of forgiveness. Do we go on treating the offender as guilty, or not?
v) In that respect, there's a difference between divine and human forgiveness. God had remove guilt (through atonement) in a way that we can't. For us, forgiveness is more about how we view a person. Do we continue to blame them for past offenses?
To forgive someone when something like that takes place is to not harbor feelings of resentfulness and bitterness towards the one who offended you. Let it go. Bear with it. Get over it. Tolerate it.
i) Even if that's true, he's not exegeting that concept from Scripture. He's not showing that's the Biblical idea of human forgiveness.
ii) Is "toleration" the same as forgiveness? Isn't toleration a rather grudging attitude?
iii) Fact is, it's quite possible not to harbor resentment or bitterness even if you don't consciously forgive someone.
For instance, maybe someone wronged me in high school. But I haven't seen them since I graduated from high school. Suppose I never "forgave" them. But that may be because I didn't take offense at the time. I didn't take it that seriously. I just brushed it off.
Or even if it made me resentful at the time, I haven't thought about them for years.
And even if I did think about them, those feelings have faded. They are swamped by other good things or bad things that have happened to me since then.
I think what he and others like him really have in mind is people we deal with on a regular basis. If they did something to rub us the wrong way, and we have to rub up against each other every day or every week, then there's a great potential for cumulative resentment. There isn't time enough in-between for little offenses to dry up and blow away, because we're in constant contact. More friction generates more heat, absent lubricant.
And then go beyond forgiveness by returning the offense with gracious acts of kindness. Return hate with love. "Repay no one evil for evil" (Rom. 12:17). "Beloved, never revenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God" (12:19). "[I]f your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink" (12:20). "But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39). "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (5:44). "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
You must replace feelings of wrath and resentment and vengeance with feelings of kindness, affection, and love. And then perform acts in keeping with your forgiving heart.
He defines forgiveness is purely psychological terms, then says how you act towards them is "going beyond" forgiveness. But is that dichotomy Biblical? If anything, isn't the truth more nearly the reverse? According to Scripture, forgiveness itself is not avenging the wrong. Not taking retaliatory actions.
I don't deny that forgiveness involves cultivating an attitude of the heart, but it's also about refusing to even the score when you're in a position to do so. Not punishing the guilty party.
You do not have the right to withhold forgiveness. You are just a sinner like everyone else. If someone offends you, get over it, because you deserve worse.
That's theologically confused. Deserve worse from whom? From the offender? Does a victim of child prostitution deserve even worse from the pimp?
I guess what he means is we deserve worse from God. True. But he himself says we shouldn't conflate divine forgiveness with human forgiveness.
The only Christians who condition forgiveness upon repentance are church elders as they preside in an official capacity over matters of church discipline. This is called the doctrine of the keys of the kingdom.
Mt 18 doesn't make ecclesiastical discipline the prerogative church elders, but simply to "the church." That action may just as well, or better be, a collective judgment of the congregation as a whole.