Justice of Men

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The concept of man's justice is discussed here as it evolved in the Bible and as it has been developed in Christian theology.

In the Bible. After treating the fundamental themes concerning the justice of men found in the OT, consideration will be given to the perfection of man's justice in the NT.

In the Old Testament. In the covenantal theology of Israel the term esed (fidelity) applied to both parties of the agreement, to both God and man. The term justice (edāqâ or δικαιοσύνη) had the same duality of application: the justice of God meant His fidelity to His covenantal promises, and the justice of man meant basically and originally his fidelity to his side of the mutual commitment. That man, then, was just who fulfilled completely all the stipulations of the covenant, which consisted of the Ten Commandments and all their applications to everyday life and to new situations that constituted the case law of the Pentateuch. An example from the life of David makes this meaning clear. While Saul was pursuing David, the latter got a chance to kill him but refrained from doing so because Saul was still "the Lord's anointed." Afterward Saul admitted that David was "more just" than he, for David had shown him kindness whereas he had shown him evil (1 Sm 24.18). David was just, i.e., faithful to his king, even while the latter attempted to kill him.

In the prophetic indictment of Israel for covenant infidelity, i.e., for idolatry and the social injustices that proceeded from ignoring the covenant, it was often simply of Israel's injustice that the Prophets spoke, for the term summed up the idea of covenant disobedience. Thus Amos, having condemned the extravagant cult (Am 3.14) and social evil of Israel (4.1), pinpointed his indictment by saying, "Woe to those who turn judgment to worm-wood and cast justice to the ground!" (5.7).

Especially were those who exercised the office of judge in Israel obliged to judge justly, i.e., according to covenantal law and its casuistic specifications, and not to allow respect of persons or bribery to contaminate their decisions (Dt 1.1617; 16.1920). But beyond the justice or injustice of human judges was the judgment of God; one of the functions of the Temple according to Solomon's dedication prayer was to have been to serve as a place of vindication for the wrongly accused who came into God's presence to swear to their innocence (1 Kgs8.3132).

The theme of God's ultimate vindication of the justice of the wrongly accused appears quite frequently also in the Psalms, e.g., 25 (26).1; 34 (35).2324, and especially 23 (24).35, where the justice that was rewarded is described as belonging to one "whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain, nor swears deceitfully to his neighbor." The picture of the just man as one who kept covenant fidelity with his God (in practice, the Ten Commandments) appears in greater detail in Psalm 14 (15) in a kindred context; such a man could dare to approach the Temple and enter the presence of God. The counterpart of the just man was the rich extortioner described in Jer 22.1317. (see justice of god.)

In such a context of justice, equated with the covenant fidelity whereby man lived out the results of his commitment to Yahweh, the justice of the coming Messiah is to be understood. Against the background of the increasing infidelity of the Davidic dynasty, Isaiah announced a new Davidic monarch who would rule with justice and fidelity to the covenant. He himself, the messianic monarch, would live in justice with God and procure justice for others by judging them according to the covenant (Is 9.6; 11.25; 16.5). Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant between God and His people, one that they would keep (Jer 31.3134); but he also promised at the same eschatological era ("days are coming" in 23.5; 31.27, 31;33.1418) a new David to reign in justice (23.5; 33.15).

The restoration and fixation of the Mosaic Law that took place after the exile still retained the ancient covenantal framework. Israel's obligation to the divine commands grew intrinsically and organically from its new being as "my people" (cf., e.g., Joshua ch. 24 with Nehemiah ch. 9). In the solemn renewal of the covenant, the author of Neh 9.1314 stressed the Mosaic Law within the usual historical prologue to the establishment of covenant obligation, and he then interpreted Israel's former infidelity in terms of disobedience to this Law (Neh 9.16, 26, 29, 34). The newly inspired Israelites made and signed a binding covenant (9.38), which was interpreted as meaning to take an oath, under the penalty of a curse, that they would walk in the Law of God, given by Moses, God's servant, and would be careful to observe all the Lord's commands, His ordinances, and His statutes (10.2930). The just man and his justice would henceforth be more and more described in terms of obedience to law as a means to attain fidelity to the covenant. Yet, even in Psalm 118 (119), the praise of fidelity to the Law, the Psalmist knew full well that it was only in so far as God came into an individual's life that he was thereafter enabled to observe the Law ("Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart," v. 34). This thinking is summed up succinctly in Ps 1.2, which sees the just man as one who "delights in the law of the Lord and meditates in his law day and night." Such a theme is far from the thinking of the Pharisee who sought justice by keeping precepts; he should rather have kept precepts because he had found justice, or better, because justice had found him. Once sacred law became disconnected from its basis in divinely given covenantal being, it tended to proliferate indiscriminately in multiple interpretations and applications, and since its vital core was now dead, it became eventually an insufferable burden for the believer. By the time of the NT the Mosaic Law had fallen into such a state in the hands of the Pharisaic theologians.

In the New Testament. The problem of the justice of men in the NT coincides with that of justification. At the time of Jesus the spiritual authorities of the people of God had lost an understanding of divine law as the day-to-day specification of their covenant commitment, even to the point where their interpretation was now in open conflict with the Ten Commandments themselves (Mt 15.19). Thus, one of the first things Jesus had to do in preparing His disciples for the arrival of the kingdom was to warn them that "unless your justice exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5.20). Jesus' new justice is described in Matthew ch. 57; it was spiritual and interior, but, above all, it was based on the fact that the believer saw God as his Father and sought to act according to such an existential situation (Mt 5.48; 6.4, 6, 18). The justice of the kingdom of God was based, in other words, on a new and perfect relationship with God, which Jesus mediated to mankind as Moses had mediated the ancient covenant at Sinai. With the new covenant came a new law, and when the new law conflicted, in the Pharisaic interpretation, with the old Law, Jesus did not hesitate to place mercy and love before such an explicit law as that commanding rest on the Sabbath (Mk 3.16).

St. Paul was embroiled even more formally and theologically in the same controversy. The Pharisaic position was known to him from within, and he set out to oppose it in Galatians, on a rather personal level, and in Romans, on a more theoretical basis. There had been, he argued, only one justice (justification) for man and that was offered gratuitously to man by God's merciful love and was accepted as such by faith; this was as true for Abraham as for those living after Christ (Gal 3.618; 4.2131; Rom4.125; 9.69). Neither in the OT nor in the NT could a man attain justification, i.e., become just, by observing a set of precepts, however divine and holy they may have been. Paul's teaching was a direct polemic against the Pharisaic position that was in danger of passing, through Pharisee converts, into the early Church. But Paul also insisted in the moral section of almost all his Epistles and equally clearly in the doctrinal part of Romans (e.g., ch. 5 and 8) that the justice that man accepted by faith, which was a share in God's own fidelity to Himself (Rom 3.26), was a baptismal commitment that resulted in the life lived in the risen Lord (Gal 2.20; Col 3.14).

James stressed the last point even more strongly, possibly because of a misunderstanding of Paul existing among some of the Apostle's converts. The act of faith had to lead to a life of charity or it could hardly be termed faith; it was dead faith (Jas 2.1426). In a polemic with the Pharisees it was necessary for Paul to stress the absolute gratuity of the first moment of transition from sin to grace whereby the justice of men was established; but in the polemic of James, possibly with negligent Christians, it was necessary to talk rather of the daily commitment that flowed organically from the gift of faith. The same teaching appears in Jn 1.17, where Christ brings into this world for mankind the power of abiding covenant fidelity, which then overflows for mankind in love (1 Jn 2.29;3.1618; 4.711).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 125455. a. descamps and l. cerfaux, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928) 4:14171510. w. kornfeld and h. vorgrimler, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:711713. a. descamps, Les Justes et la justice dans les évangiles et le christianisme primitif hormis la doctrine proprement paulinienne (Louvain 1950).

[d. m. crossan]

In Dogmatic Theology. Justice of men may be understood either as the moral virtue that regulates man's actions regarding other people and by which he renders each one his due (justice considered as a cardinal virtue or as a special virtue; see justice), or in a broader sense as designating rectitude in man himself, in his inner disposition, his higher powers being submissive to God and his lower powers to the higher in such a manner that he finds himself in right order with regard to God, to his neighbor, and to himself (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 113.1; De ver. 28.1). In a word, it is the state of man in which he is what he should be. It is in this sense, closely akin to the biblical concept of the just man and identical with the meaning of the term in the phrase original justice, that justice is considered here.

Gift of God. This justice of men is a gift of God's grace and the fruit of justification. Of himself man is unable to be what he should be. St. Augustine and the anti-Pelagian councils inspired by him, when they were confronted by the naturalism of Pelagius, asserted the doctrine that only God's grace in Christ makes men just (see H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 225227). The Council of Trent in its decree on justification restated and developed the doctrine. Neither the Law nor nature, it said, can bestow justice, but only the grace of God through Christ, man's redeemer (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 152125). Hence "the justice that is said to be ours because it inheres in us and justifies us is likewise God's justice because He gave it to us through the merit of Christ" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1547; cf. 1529).

This justice is an objective reality in man (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1529), different for different persons (ibid. ), susceptible to growth and meant to grow by good works in keeping the Commandments (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1535). It is the contrary of the state of sin or of injustice (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1528): "Every sin, insofar as it entails insubordination of reason to God, may be called injustice contrary to justice" (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 113.1 ad 1). Accordingly, only those who live in the state of grace are just; they only are what they should be according to the will of God. This supernaturalism excludes every form of naturalism, past or present.

This doctrine rests on a double basis. First, without this divine gift of justice, all men are sinners, having either original sin or personal sin or both. Historically this is the more explicit reason for the doctrine of St. Augustine and the councils of his time; it is also the explicit teaching of Trent, which allows no middle state between sin and justice (cf. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1528, 1524). A second and more basic reason is that in the present world economy all men are called to the supernatural destiny that no one can attain without grace; and so no one is just in God's eyes unless he lives in grace. The justice or righteousness of those who are not in grace is but justice in a relative sense, secundum quid. But it is a doctrinal deviation repudiated by the Church to say "that the 'justice' of infidels is injustice or sin" (cf. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1925). Only Christian justice is justice in the full sense of the term, simpliciter. St. Augustine did not say more when he spoke of the good works and virtues of infidels as sins and vices because they are without faith and grace: their justice is only apparent, not real; it does not effectively help them toward salvation.

The justice of men, justice of Christians, applies to "being" before it applies to "doing." It is not merely a matter of keeping the law; the Church condemned the legalistic concept of justice proposed by Baius (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1942, 196970; see baius and baianism); keeping the Commandments is only a sequel to the state of justice. But objective justice of its nature requires just works, or subjective justice. On being follows doing. In terms of Christian grace, incorporation in christ postulates imitation of Christ.

Imperfection of Man's Justice. This justice, however, in the redemptive economy of grace is incomplete and imperfect. It never reaches the level of perfection that it had in the state of original justice. First of all, vigilance and struggle are required to persevere in justice; no one can be victorious in the struggle with the flesh, the world, and the devil without the help of grace (cf. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1541). Even with the help of grace, man is not able to avoid every venial sinnot without a special privilege such as was given to the Blessed Virgin (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1573). Furthermore, from the existence in the just of concupiscence common theological doctrine concludes that without the help of actual grace man is unable to keep the natural law for long and to avoid every mortal sin. Man's justice does not take away his congenital debility. Awareness of this is a constant reminder to man that his justice is not the fruit of his own effort only but a gift of God.

Current theology of grace expresses the traditional doctrine of men's justice by saying that justice is one of the formal effects of sanctifying grace. This means that they, and only they, who live in the state of grace are what they should be according to the will of God. In fact, only they who share in Christ's grace are on the way to salvation and effectively living in the right order established by God, namely, the supernatural order.

See Also: elevation of man; grace, articles on; man; pelagius and pelagianism; salutary acts; supernatural.

Bibliography: r. lemonnyer and j. riviÈre, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190305) 8:2:20422227. Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, Tables générales (1951) 1:184468. j. haspecker et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:9771000. r. schnackenburg et al., ibid. 8:103350. j. wang tch'angtche, Saint Augustin et les vertus des païens (Paris 1938).

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