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  • "Tolle me et redime te":Anselm on the Justice and Mercy of God
  • Bruce D. Marshall


JUSTICE AND MERCY we are apt to think of as opposites. Our inclination in thought and speech to play the two off against one another can take many forms. Of these perhaps the most obvious is the thought that mercy begins where justice ends, in the sense that mercy by its very nature not only goes beyond justice, but sets aside the demands of justice. Mercy, moreover, is closely tied to forgiveness. We are likely to think of the person who shows mercy as the one who forgives a wrong rather than demanding justice. Mercy so understood is the readiness to overlook or let go of what justice rightly requires, in particular to forgo the recompense or penalty to which one could, in strict justice, lay claim.

It is not hard to think of cases in everyday life where this way of disjoining mercy and justice seems entirely in order. A teenager rear-ends my new car in traffic, apologizes in tears, and begs me not to report the accident to her insurance company or call the police. I am entitled to do both, and if I decide to do neither, it seems like an act of mercy precisely because I did not seek the justice that was mine by right. One might think it unwise of me to show mercy in such a situation, but that is beside the point. The logic of the matter is the same either way: to have mercy is to forgo just recompense or penalty, and to seek justice is to forsake the path of mercy. [End Page 161]

Not only in everyday life do we think of justice and mercy in this disjunctive way. We do so in religion, in fact especially there, and surely, we might suppose, with good reason. Consider Jesus' parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18, or as it is also called, the parable of the pitiless debtor (in the Jerusalem Bible, for example). A king's servant, owing vastly more than he could ever hope to repay, faces the inexorable consequences of justice: the loss of his goods, his home, and even his wife and family. He begs the king for mercy and receives the forgiveness of his whole debt. The forgiven servant, though, begins rounding up his fellow servants, and mercilessly demanding the full repayment of the relatively minute sums they owe him. Now at the king's command the full force of justice descends, without mercy, on the unforgiving servant. The king hands him over to "the torturers" (Matt 18:34) until the whole debt is repaid—which is to say, forever. Jesus makes quite explicit the already unmistakable lesson: "So will my heavenly Father do to you, if each one of you does not forgive his brother from your hearts" (Matt 18:35). The point is not simply to warn us against hard-hearted and "pharisaical" dealings with our neighbors, when we fail to allow mercy to hold sway over the requirements of justice. The parable warns just by teaching how God deals with us: in sheer undeserved mercy, forgiving what his justice could rightly demand and what we could never hope to pay. He expects us to do the same.

It may seem surprising, then, that the New Testament can also speak of the forgiveness of sins as an unqualified work of divine justice. This comes through with particular clarity in the Epistle to the Romans. According to Paul, the gospel reveals "the justice of God" (Rom 1:17). The tradition of rendering dikaiosune in English as "righteousness" may somewhat obscure the connection between God's justice and his forgiveness here, but to medieval Western Christians it could not have been more obvious that Paul was talking about justice, since the Vulgate consistently translates dikaiosune simply as "justice," iustitia. In Jesus Christ the iustitia Dei is manifested apart from the law (Rom 3:21). God "proposed" Jesus Christ as a propitiation, precisely "in order to show his justice, by overlooking the sins [End Page 162] of the past" (ad ostensionem iustitiae suae, cum praetermisisset praecedentia delicta...


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pp. 161-181
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