Bible Fantasy Football Team


Christians tread a fine line as we try to be fully in touch with contemporary culture while retaining our distinctively Christian stance. We are part of our broader community, sharing very much in common with other members, but we are different and our faith makes us see things differently. Christians have always tried to bridge the gap between the church and ‘secular’ society. One way of doing this is to use something that we have in common with the rest of the community as a vehicle for the Gospel, hoping that the natural connections can be helpful for making spiritual connections.   Here’s one attempt to use the World Cup to make a bigger, spiritual point. It’s from Premier Christian Media.



Your Bible fantasy football team

You’ve been voting for your ultimate Bible XI and here are the results!

Goal keeper: Jesus…because he saves!

Left back: Barnabas because he defended the Gospel.

Centre back: Go for Peter ‘The Rock’ as centre half.

Centre back: David as a defender because he is very strong.

Right back: Adam…’cos he goes right back to the beginning!

Left midfield: Angel Gabriel on the wing.

Central midfield: Solomon in midfield – he has the wisdom to read the situation.

Central midfield: Get Moses in midfield to feed the strikers: he’s great at pass overs.

Right midfield: Elijah has pace, he proved this by outrunning Ahab. Play him on the wings.

Striker: Joshua as a centre forward. He’d fear no opposition!

Striker: Jehu as striker, he will move so fast and furiously, no one will catch him.


1) Andrew for his fabulous assists, especially leading Simon-Peter to Christ!

2) Samson so he can head in corners

3) Goliath as a central defender

Manager: St Paul, whose team talk would be based on Philippians 3 verse 14: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

They can all play against the Sons of Jacob – full team sorted in one hit – mind you they probably wouldn’t work well together and would send Joseph away as a sub!

For me this fails on at least three points: it flirts with blasphemy; it is theologically illiterate and, of course, …  it is simply not very funny . Or maybe I’m just getting old and losing my sense of humour. Anyone know of any better attempts to use the World Cup for evangelistic or other worthwhile purposes?


London Summer School

Lunchtime in the London sunshine
Lunchtime in the London sunshine

Last week, 14 students from Union College spent a week in London attending a summer school held under the auspices of London City Mission. It was an opportunity for us to reflect on the opportunities and challenges of mission and ministry in an urban context. It was an energising and helpful experience in which there was not only some reflection on the biblical and theological issues associated with urban mission and ministry, but also a chance to observe some effective urban ministry projects firsthand, and to talk with those working on the frontline.

The ministry locations included a church planting project on the Isle of Dogs, an arts cafe and arts ministry in the East End, and a day centre for the homeless in Waterloo. What was impressive was the thoughtful and deliberate way in which each ministry leader reflected on their location and the culture which they were serving in a gospel-centred way.

In addition, we had the opportunity to visit the Palace of Westminster and to meet up with some of our local representatives from the SDLP and DUP as well as the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ivan Lewis MP, and Northern Ireland Minister, Andrew Robathan MP. Kate Hoey, the Ulster-born MP for Vauxhall gave us her clear and pointed perspective on the current situation in Northern Ireland and the issues that need to be addressed.

There were some good interchanges as we talked together about what kind of leadership was needed in Northern Ireland and what role Presbyterian ministers might play in providing that leadership. Thanks to all our local representatives who took time to talk to us, especially Jeffrey Donaldson, Jim Shannon, Mark Durkan, and Margaret Ritchie.

A special big thanks to all the staff at London City Mission who delivered an inspiring and challenging learning experience.



Humphreys goes to Gloucester – lessons for preachers everywhere

Picture (c) Ulster Rugby

David Humphreys, one of Ulster Rugby’s most famous and important figures of the past twenty years, announced on Saturday evening that he will be joining Gloucester as Director of Rugby, equivalent to the post that he has held at Ravenhill for four years. His move brings three warnings for preachers everywhere.

Humphreys has been tight lipped about the move, especially his reasons for going. Did he jump or was he pushed? Did Gloucester offer him pots of money that he couldn’t refuse? Is this a well planned career move or a fit of pique? The answer is that we simply don’t know.

Now the first warning. All of the narrative events of Scripture are very briefly told, leaving many gaps, not least in supplying motivations. Why did Rachael steal the household idols; why did Mordecai not bow to Haman; why did Judas betray Jesus; why did John Mark leave Paul in mid-journey? Beware of trying to fill in the gaps. We should never make a substantial preaching point by guessing about something on which Scripture is silent.

The second warning concerns the other end of the process. There is much about the people to whom we preach that we don’t know: their fears, hopes, regrets, ambitions and so much more. Preaching into the unknown is dangerous so we must be cautious. Of course we should also do our utmost to get to know our people, sharing their lives and walking with them through good days and bad. If we do this we will not have to guess and can make relevant, helpful application of Scripture to the realities of everyday life.

Third, when we guess about the hidden parts of other people’s lives, we betray more the hidden parts of our own lives than we might realise… so, be careful, very careful.

Great Joy

Award1The Gamble Library in Union College is often referred to as “the jewel in the College’s crown”. It is an impressive library with excellent facilities. The jewel now sparkles considerably more brightly as a result of a recent award to our current Deputy Librarian, Joy Conkey.

Joy was presented with the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland’s (CILIPS) Annual Student Award. She was nominated by Robert Gordon University where she recently completed a Master of Science degree in Information and Library Studies, with distinction. The award was for gaining first place in her year. It was presented to her by the CILIPS President for 2014, Robert Ruthven, at CILIPS Annual Conference in the Apex Hotel, Dundee, in front of hundreds of information professionals.

Well done, Joy!

Stonework Project

John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, enjoys a prominent position on the front of Union College
John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, enjoys a prominent position on the front of Union College

Union College, designed by the famous Belfast architect, Sir Charles Lanyon, is a listed building. The original front section of the building was built in 1853 with stone from Scrabo quarries in North Down at a cost of £5,000. It is a powerful example of Renaissance Revival and its giant Roman Doric columns and high attic make a magnificent centrepiece. The south wing by Young & McKenzie was added in 1869; the north wing and Chapel in 1881, to plans by Lanyon’s son John. Now, thanks to a generous grant from the Department of the Environment, it is currently undergoing a major facelift. Phase One of the project is well underway.

The new replacement stones are being sourced from a quarry in Derbyshire. The skill and expertise of the craftsmen who are currently working on the building is of an exceptionally high quality. It is amazing how the original building was constructed in the middle of the nineteenth century when there were no power tools or electronically-operated cranes. The scaffolding in place means that we can get to the top of the building to view the whole of the surrounding area. We are hoping that the first phase of the project, which covers one side of the building, will be completed by November of this year and then, when appropriate resources have been identified, we can then move on to phase two to restore the other side. Here are a few pictures which illustrate the current phase of restoration.

The McClay Library at QUB viewed from the top of Union College





Welcome to our new site!

Since 2009 I have been an intermittent blogger, but with my move to Union Theological College, I thought it was time for a technological upgrade and make-over. My friend, RK, whose expertise in digital technology and web design almost mirrors the divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, has come to my aid and set me up with this “Spirit of Union” site. His willingness to do all the hard work in the shadowy land of cyberspace is much appreciated.

I am hoping that I may be able to persuade some of my colleagues on the faculty, as well as some of our students, to contribute to this blog. That should make it interesting!

I have just come to the end of my first academic year at Union and it has been a steep learning curve as I have tried to pick up all the  details of my responsibilities as Principal. Our ministry students graduated ten days ago, and they will be licensed by their presbyteries soon. Our Queen’s students are focused on completing exams and assignments. Formal classes may have come to an end, but that other energy-sapping activity of marking and grading assignments begins. And then next week we have the highlight of the year for every good Presbyterian – the General Assembly!

I hope that you will be able to access our new site easily and even set yourself up for email notifications of new postings

Running out of time

thSXYXI9HFSitting in Brussels airport, with just a few minutes on my free wifi connection, a blogpost seemed to be a good idea. But what to blog about? Running out of time is the obvious answer, but running out of time for what? Here are a few suggestions for a sermon illustration/application or two:

Running out of time to surrender to the Lordship of Jesus – the eternal imperative

Running out of time with my children, they grow up so soon – the paternal imperative

Running out of time with my aging parents – the filial imperative

Running out of time to apologise to … – the relational imperative

Running out of time to do something about my diet and lifestyle – the health imperative

Running out of time to do something in the Province as we stumble forwards and backwards- the social imperative

Running out of time to make the best of my working/studying years – the intellectual imperative

Running out of time to spend with my friends in mutually upbuilding fellowship – the ‘philial’ imperative

Running out of time to do whatever little I can to stand against the despoiling of our environment – the global imperative

Running out of time to take a strong, loving stand for Christ among my non-Christian friends – the evangelistic imperative

Running out of time to watch more awfully bad tv / play more  – the absurd imperative


Doctrine Committee on Baptism

thKKH0WY9OOne of the reports coming to this year’s General Assembly is on the question of baptism. A request came to the Doctrine Committee from the Church Architecture Committee about the appropriateness of installing baptisteries in Presbyterian meeting houses and the increasing practice of baptism by immersion within PCI. Here’s the full report from the Doctrine Committee. One of the resolutions appended to this report asks the Board of Christian Training to prepare materials so that the whole church membership can be taught what our church believes with regard to this sacrament.



The Committee was directed by the General Assembly to consider the increasing practice of Baptism by immersion within our denomination and the implications for the faith and practice of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The Committee reviewed both the subordinate standards of the Church and previous reports of the Doctrine Committee (Reports, 1958;1959;1972;1973;1974;1985). It is evident that the position of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is that ‘Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.’[1]

In 2013, the General Assembly requested the Doctrine Committee to re-write the report on baptism which was the basis of a resolution of the General Board instructing the Church Architecture Committee not to grant permission for the installation of baptisteries in Presbyterian Churches. The connection between our resolution and our remit was clear: the question of whether Presbyterian churches should install baptisteries was the context in which the question of baptism by immersion was put to the Doctrine Committee.

The Doctrine Committee recognizes that baptism by immersion is permissible within PCI. However, there appear to be at least two interpretation of what ‘permission’ means. One interpretation is that baptism by immersion is on par with baptism by pouring, sprinkling or dipping in the sense that no one form of baptism (for adults) is more acceptable than another. Another interpretation is that what ‘permission’ means is that we acknowledge that baptism by immersion is a valid form of baptism, not that immersion is as acceptable as other modes in a church standing in a Reformed tradition which has consistently favoured non-immersionist modes of baptism.

Our belief is that, whichever interpretation of the meaning of ‘permission’ is adopted, baptisteries should not be installed in Presbyterian churches. Their installation would encourage a credo-baptist theology of baptism which would undermine infant baptism. We believe this against the background of widespread uncertainty amongst members of PCI about the basis of infant baptism. We agree that, if asked to explain ‘why Presbyterians baptize infants … many Presbyterians would stumble and blunder the explanation.’[2] It is against this background that both the question of baptism and baptisteries must be considered. In this context, we need to be clear on our answer to two fundamental questions.

1. Is Baptism fundamentally a testimony to conversion?

2. Do the children of believers belong to the people of God?

1. Is Baptism fundamentally a testimony to conversion?

There are three steps in the credobapist argument, as it is widely advanced. First, it is held that the word baptizo means only full immersion. Secondly, it is argued that the mode of Baptism is the essence of the symbolism and meaning of Baptism, that is, personal conversion to Christ. The credobaptist exegesis of such passages as Romans 6 and Colossians 2 is taken to establish that Baptism involves immersion in water (‘being buried with Christ) and resurrection (‘being raised with Christ’) out of the water of death. If these first two points are granted then the third follows – that Baptism may only be administered to those who demonstrate the necessary signs of conversion, viz., personal repentance and faith.

The Reformed paedobaptist response has always been that baptizo need not mean immersion and that the meaning of Baptism is not found primarily in the symbolism of dying and rising, but in the symbolism of cleansing from sin. Baptism is a covenantal washing.[3] This covenantal washing belongs to all whom God calls into his covenant people. The washing points not to what has happened to the individual (the subjective reality) but to what God has done through Jesus Christ (the objective reality). The covenantal backdrop to the paedobaptist position nullifies attempts to lessen the objective meaning of baptism by equating it with individual conversion. Baptism is a covenantal washing for all the people of God (Acts 22:16).

This covenantal understanding of Baptism is reflected both in the mode of Baptism and in the traditional architecture of the Irish Presbyterian Church. The mode of covenantal washing most frequently spoken of in Scripture is pouring or sprinkling and in Christian Baptism sprinkling is ‘lawful … sufficient, and most expedient.’[4] The frequency of sprinkling in covenantal washings is clear from Hebrew 9:10 where the author writes of the ‘various baptisms’ (baptismois) of the Mosaic covenant. The writer then makes reference to three sprinklings (Heb 9:13 cf. Num 19:17-18; Heb 9:19 cf. Ex 24: 6,8; Heb 9:21 cf. Lev 8:19; 16:14)[5]

It is certainly true that conversion may be the occasion of baptism. Inasmuch as this is the case, the baptism of a convert is indirectly or in a secondary respect a sign of conversion, since it is the occasion of the baptism of the particular individual in question. However, baptism is not in its nature a sign of conversion, but a sign of entry into the covenant community of the people of God, the privilege of infants and converts alike. We have to be aware that baptism by immersion tends to suggest the necessity of conversion prior to baptism and this, in turn, seems inevitably to undermine the position ‘that the Church consists of all professing believers together with their children.’ (Reports, 1972, p.13)

The Committee is concerned that any change to the traditional baptismal practice of the church as reflected in the architecture of our meeting houses must inevitably reflect theological shifts in the denomination in the direction of a credobaptist theology.

2. Do the children of believers belong to the people of God?

It is hard to overstate the robustness with which this foundational question has been answered in the Reformed tradition. Calvin writes that ‘immediately from birth God takes and acknowledges them as his children … for he gives them a place among those of his family and household, that is, the members of the church.’ Bavinck notes that ‘the children of believers are not pagans or children of the devil who still … have to be exorcized at their baptism, but children of the covenant, for whom the promise is meant as much as for adults. They are included in the covenant and are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the covenant.’[6]

The basis of this claim in Reformed theology is the doctrine of the covenant: ‘The basic premise of the argument for infant baptism is that the New Testament economy is the unfolding and fulfilment of the covenant made with Abraham and that the necessary implication is the unity and continuity of the church.’[7] The church of Jews and Gentiles stands in continuity with the people of Israel, Gentile believers having been grafted into the people of God in terms of the covenant of grace. As children were part of the covenant community of Israel, so they are part of the new covenant community. Baptism is initiation into the covenant community of God’s people; therefore, children are the proper subjects of baptism.

Baptism functions in the life of the church as a picture, not primarily of the experience or commitment of the individual, but of the covenant salvation of God. This means that the sacrament of Baptism points us to God and what he has done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ – as the Westminster Confession states the matter, ‘a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.’[8]

This focus in Reformed teaching means that the subjects of Baptism are not simply those who can give testimony to a work of grace in their lives. It is too simplistic a reading of Scripture to say that Baptism only follows repentance. Rather, this covenantal washing is rightly administered to those who belong to the covenant. The conviction of the Reformed tradition is that there is ample evidence in both testaments to show that the children of believers belong to the people of God (Genesis 17:7; Matthew 19:14; Ephesians 6:1-3). The status of covenant children is not based on any presumed spiritual experience but on the divine covenantal constitution.[9]

The Committee affirms without reservation the confessional position that the visible Church consists of those who ‘profess the true religion together with their children.’[10] The immersionist practices which would follow the installation of baptisteries would make it difficult for the Church to maintain unity in this fundamental area.


Firstly, the subordinate standards of the church are clear: ‘Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.’[11] The Reformed tradition in which PCI stands is agreed that Baptism by pouring or sprinkling is the most appropriate mode of administering the covenantal washing of which Scripture speaks.

Secondly, in upholding this confessional teaching the committee encourages Kirk Sessions to reconsider their motivation for conducting baptisms by immersion. It is the responsibility of Kirk Sessions to ensure that baptisms are administered in the rich assurance of covenantal promises and not on credobaptist assumptions about the connection between the mode of baptism and personal testimony.

Thirdly, the covenantal backdrop to the theology of Baptism underlines that ‘infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.’[12] This is emphatic in both the Confession and in the traditional practice of the Church. The Code states that ‘A minister shall encourage baptism’ (para 83,1). This means that we cannot consider infant baptism as just one more option amongst others.[13]

Finally, in light of the fact that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland accepts the Trinitarian Baptism of other communities, not least the Roman Catholic Church, the Committee is concerned that the confessional position of the denomination is currently being undermined and urges Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries to ensure that there are no “rebaptisms” of those who received a covenantal washing in infancy: ‘The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.’[14]



[1] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, iii.

[2] Frank A. James III, in his Introduction to Lewis B. Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant (2003), p.xvi. The reference is to American Presbyterians.

[3] That Baptism is not by immersion and is a covenantal washing may be seen, for example, in Hebrews 9. See Jay E. Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism (1975), pp.1-15.

[4] Directory for the Public Worship of God, ‘Of the Administration of the Sacraments.’

[5] Adams, Baptism, pp.9-11

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV. xvii. 32; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume Four: Holy Spirit, Church, And the New Creation (2008) p.530.  For a full historical treatment see Schenck, Children in the Covenant, pp.3-52, who cites (p.46) the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God which states that children of believers are ‘Christians, and federally holy before Baptism and therefore are they Baptized.’ The issue is not the actual spiritual state of any individual, whether adult or infant, but the fact that membership in the visible Church of God is determined by the covenant declaration of God.

[7] John Murray, Christian Baptism (1980), p.45.

[8] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, i.

[9] See Murray, Christian Baptism, pp.53-4: ‘It is this fact of the divine institution that constitutes the sufficient ground for administering and receiving this ordinance … no further judgement respecting the secret purpose of God nor respecting God’s secret operations in the heart of those baptised is required as the proper ground upon which the ordinance is administered.’

[10] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV, ii.

[11] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, iii.

[12] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, iv.

[13] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, v.

[14] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, vii. Cf Code 83,3.

The Church in the Public Square?

The response to The Church in the Public Square? conference at the end of January was very encouraging. We had hoped that 100-150 people would attend, but over 260 actually registered for the event. Our three speakers, Professor Donald McLeod, Dr Jonathan Chaplin and John Larkin QC did an excellent job in helping us to reflect on key aspects of the church’s engagement with issues in the public square. All three lectures will eventually be available on both the websites of Union Theological College and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Professor McLeod set out a very thorough and comprehensive picture of the church’s relationship to the public square from an orthodox and Reformed perspective. He emphasised the Christian’s responsibility to support and respect the state, the state’s responsibility to provide security and peace for its citizens, and the church’s duty to speak to the authorities on behalf of those who were unable to speak for themselves. In his closing remarks he referred to the ministry of Thomas Chalmers in Glasgow in the 19th century and the comment that the effect of Chalmers’ ministry was that he “warmed” the city. That, suggested Professor McLeod, remained a goal for the church in his engagement with its community, namely, to bring warmth.

Dr Jonathan Chaplin set out a well-reasoned and compelling argument for “principled pluralism”. Against the background of secularism and pluralism, Christians should adopt this position, which he defined as “a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and fair for other faiths too. Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others.”

In commending this position, Dr Chaplin set out some clear theological foundations on which “principled pluralism” rests, including a recognition of the authority of Christ over all creation and the state’s specific and limited role under God to establish a public order of justice. A Christian presence within a democracy means that Christians may work democratically to bend state policy towards a Christian position by proposing, and not imposing, a Christian point of view. The state does not have the competence to assess the truth of any religion, but should treat all religious viewpoints even-handedly. In the New Testament era, there are no covenanted political nations. The New Testament people of God are part of a trans-national and global community. And while the state may not justify its corporate acts by an appeal to religious or secular faiths, Christians may work to shape the laws and policies of the state in line with their vision of public justice. It is more important for a state to actually do justice than for it to declare formal allegiance to the Christian or any other faith.

John Larkin’s lecture dealt with the issue of rights. His carefully-argued presentation set out the position where the rights of all people, including Christians, need to be recognised and preserved in society. His most interesting example of “the clash of rights” had to do with the case of the Christian guesthouse owners who were found guilty of discrimination against a homosexual couple. Mr Larkin said that he “did not believe that some boor who for his own obscure reasons does not like homosexual people should be able to deny services to them as an expression of his own dislike; the law prohibits such a denial of services, and in my view, rightly so. On the other hand, I do think that a Christian in business should not be placed in a position where he or she must choose between withdrawing from business or being complicit in what the Christian must regard as deeply sinful.”

Overall, this was a stimulating and thought-provoking day of discussion. It has certainly impressed upon us the need for further work and reflection in this area, and how we can best educate ourselves so that as Christians and a church we can respond in a gracious and intelligent way to the full range of issues, and not just the “hot button” ones that make the media headlines.

Already we have plans for another The Church in the Public Square conference in January 2015 when we will be focusing on “end of life” issues. Put 22 January 2015 in your diary and watch out for further details.

Justice in love

In the aftermath of the failure of the talks convened by Richard Haass on the issues of flags, parade and the past, I came across a section in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice in Love which is relevant to us in Northern Ireland. How are we going to move forward? What is the resolution to all the outstanding issues arising from The Troubles? Wolterstorff’s discussion of the apparent tension between the call for justice for past actions, and the willingness to forgive those who have hurt and injured us, is very apposite.

The fundamental point of the book is that there is no inherent tension between justice and love. Rather justice is an expression of love. Justice is within love. Some writers argue that one cannot be both just and loving. Following the command to love may sometimes wreak injustice, and following the justice-imperative will sometimes be unloving. But Wolterstorff argues that if we see a tension between justice and love then something has gone wrong in our understanding of them. He proposes a way of understanding love and justice such that the two imperatives are fully in harmony with one another.

In his review of this book, Jonathan Chaplin sees this tension being illustrated in the response of Gordon Wilson to the death of his 20 year old daughter, Marie, at the Poppy Day bombing in Enniskillen in November 1987. On his release from hospital after being buried in the rubble beside his dying daughter, Gordon Wilson said to a reporter, “I have no desire for revenge or retaliation. Killing the people who killed my daughter will not bring her back. So I forgive the bombers and I leave everything to God and I believe someday, I will see my daughter again.”

Gordon Wilson received many messages of appreciation for his response to Marie’s death at the hand of the Provisional IRA, but some were critical. The issue they raise was whether his loving offer of forgiveness muted the call for justice and diminished the worth of the victims.

What is the relationship between justice, forgiveness and repentance? That is a key question for people in our community, especially victims of violence, as we seek to deal with the past and look to the future. Wolterstorff argues that forgiveness is possible only if the wrongdoer repents. This is because “in the absence of repentance, to enact the resolution not to hold the deed against the wrongdoer is to insult him and to demean oneself, thereby wronging both alike.” To forgive someone who “continues to stand behind the deed” is to fail to treat both deed and doer with moral seriousness. It is, says Wolterstorff, “to downplay rather than forgive”. One cannot forgive a murderer who does not repent and who continues to argue for the moral rectitude of his wrong-doing.

The injustice must first be named as an injustice if it is to be jettisoned by the victim from his view of the wrongdoer’s moral history. Understood in that way, forgiveness affirms the claims of justice in the very act of forgiving.

Wolterstorff quotes Richard Swinburne who makes the same point with clarity.

“Unless the wrong-doing is trivial, it is wrong for the victim, in the absence of some atonement, at least in the form of an apology, to treat the [act] as not having been done. If I have murdered your wife and you decide to overlook my offence and interact with me as if it had never happened, your attitude trivialises human life, your love for your wife, and the importance of right action. And it involves you failing to treat me seriously, to take seriously my attitude towards you expressed in my action. Thereby it trivialises human relationships, for it supposes that good human relations can exist when we do not take each other seriously.”

In a very helpful way, Wolterstorff draws a distinction between a therapeutic view of forgiveness and that of theologians and philosophers.  Forgiveness as understood by theologians is a response by the victim to indications of repentance on the part of the wrongdoer. Together, repentance and forgiveness is a moral social engagement. But what the therapeutic literature has in mind by forgiveness is an a-social and a-moral process that is entirely internal to the victim. The therapist offers to help the victim overcome her negative feelings towards the deed and the wrongdoer without ever engaging the wrongdoer. If the victim gets to the point of being relieved of negative feelings, she is said to have forgiven.

But getting over one’s negative feelings in this way is not forgiveness, says Wolterstorff. Forgiveness therapy is a way of getting to a point where bygones have become bygones. It is similar to simply forgetting that one has been wronged. Sometimes that is the best we can do. But the moral question remains: Is one taking the deed and its doer with sufficient moral seriousness if one consigns the episode to a mere bygone?  And if not, is one then not demeaning oneself and insulting the wrong-doer?

“The victim may put the deed out of mind; but that does not alter the moral fact that she has been wronged by someone who has no regrets.”

Equally interesting and controversial is Wolterstorff’s view of punishment. he rejects both reciprocity (paying back evil with proportionate evil) and retribution. he thinks that retribution is based an a pagan idea about restoring equilibrium and balance into the moral order when it is disturbed by some violation, and to do so by an equal and opposite reaction. he says that if retribution has any place in the moral order, God will do it. Leave it to God.

But the real purpose of punishment is not “pay back” but “moral disapproval”. In punishing the offender, society publicly reproves the wrong that has been done. Punishment backed by such a “reprobative rationale” can actually be a manifestation of care because it promotes the good of punisher, wrongdoer and society. In Romans 13 Paul affirms reprobative punishment, not retributive punishment, and that is the task of government, to publicly reprove wrongdoing and, if there is to be vengeance, to leave that to God.

The issue of justice in love is resolved ultimately at the cross of Christ and Wolterstorff makes that point well in the final section of his book. Justification presupposes that God holds to account all human beings according to what they know of his justice. And it makes possible God’s pardoning of those who have faith in Christ.

As we seek to follow Christ in the ways of loving justice, we must wrestle with these hard questions of justice and love, repentance and forgiveness.