The "Justice" of God in Athanasius and Irenaeus

Post by
Alvin Rapien

This article does not intend to tackle all the issues with penal substitutionary atonement nor its variations, but to relay some insights from Saints Athanasius and Irenaeus regarding the relationship between God and justice.


It is not uncommon within Eastern Orthodoxy to hear something akin to “The Orthodox God is a God of mercy through and through, not a God whose justice predominates.”[1]  Perhaps one of the most succinct examples of this trend is found in the works of Fr Georges Florovsky, when he declares that “The Cross is not a symbol of Justice, but the symbol of Love Divine.”[2]  Such discourse is also taken up in certain evangelical circles, which pits the mercy of God over and against the justice of God.  Most of this discourse is tied to the polemics against post-Reformation Protestant understandings of atonement which posit that, in such atonement frameworks, God’s justice needs to be satisfied (all of which is based on a bad reading of Anselm as I’ve pointed out before) in order for humanity to be forgiven of their sins.  Justice, within these polemics, functions as some type of outside necessity: God “must” work within these external boundaries in order to relay forgiveness to humanity.  In short, the conditions of justice must be met before salvation can take place.  

This article does not intend to tackle all the issues with penal substitutionary atonement nor its variations, but to relay some insights from Saints Athanasius and Irenaeus regarding the relationship between God and justice.  Several critics of the aforementioned understanding of justice argue that God is thus bound to outside rules and thus place an economic limit on the infinite God.  One vocal critic states:

“We are the ones who mindlessly say, ‘God can’t forgive; he has to satisfy justice.’  But this is ridiculous.  It’s a projection of our own pettiness upon the grandeur of God.  Of course God can just forgive!  That’s what forgiveness is!  Forgiveness is not receiving payment for a debt; forgiveness is the gracious cancellation of debt.  There is no payment in forgiveness.  Forgiveness is grace.  God’s justice is not reprisal.  The justice of God is not an abstract concept where somehow sin can only be forgiven if an innocent victim suffers a severe enough penalty.  In the final analysis punitive justice is not justice at all; it’s merely retribution.”[3]

There are several assumptions in the above statement at work, with the foremost being the relationship between forgiveness, salvation, and justice.  Yes, it is true that God can indeed forgive without condition.  However, the conditions of salvation are not met just by mere forgiveness nor by mere repentance.  This point is made clear by Saint Athanasius in On the Incarnation.  Athanasius posits the corruption of humanity as a movement from being into non-being, an ontological movement that leads humanity’s death.[4]  This corruption begins with the transgression of the law given in Eden, which Athanasius states is the very conditions of God’s law:

“For [God] brought them into His own garden, and gave them a law: so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven; but that if they transgressed and turned back, and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death which was theirs by nature: no longer to live in paradise, but cast out of it from that time forth to die and to abide in death and in corruption.”[5]

Athanasius problematizes this situation even further: in order for humanity to be redeemed from the law of death, God cannot merely undo the law of death because of humanity’s repentance (which presupposes Divine forgiveness) since (1) God is not a liar,[6] (2) God must remain consistent with the Divine Law put forth,[7] and (3) repentance does not undo the ontological consequences.[8]  Since God is the one who put the law of death into effect, for God to go back and change the conditions would make God out to be liar and therefore inconsistent and untrustworthy, according to Athanasius.  It would be “monstrous that before the law was fulfilled it should fall through”; in other words, since God freely created and entered into the conditions of upholding the law, it cannot simply be undone, with the previous reasons of God’s truthfulness and consistency acting as a deterrent for its undoing.  Furthermore, repentance does not undo corruption.  A “further step” is needed, according to Athanasius.[9]  This is nothing less than the union between both God and man found in the body of Jesus Christ, whose suffering and death on behalf of all took human nature through death and conquered it, thereby “the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men).”[10]  There is a logic at work here within Athanasius’ proposal: the law of death cannot be undone because God must remain consistent with the very law put in place by the Divine.  Salvation is thus achieved by working within the bounds of the law, not outside of it.  God is consistent with the law; God is just; God is a God of justice.

A short insight from Irenaeus is worth noting here as well.  In his diatribe against Marcion in Against Heresies, Irenaeus asserts that Marcion splits God into two: one “good” and the other “judicial.”[11]  Yet, Irenaeus argues, if God lacks either quality, then God is not God at all: “For he that is the judicial one, if he be not good, is not God, because he from whom goodness is absent is no God at all… how can they call the Father of all wise, if they do not assign to Him a judicial faculty?”[12]  Irenaeus sees no need to divide the Divine, for God by nature must be perfect in all operations:

“For He is good, and merciful, and patient, and saves whom He ought: nor does goodness desert Him in the exercise of justice, nor is His wisdom lessened; for He saves those whom He should save, and judges those worthy of judgment. Neither does He show Himself unmercifully just; for His goodness, no doubt, goes on before, and takes precedency.”[13]

One may possibly interpret the latter statement – that goodness takes precedency – as evidence that Irenaeus upholds one aspect of God over the other, but that completely misses the entire context of the argument.  Irenaeus’ framework of goodness and justice is not an either-or between goodness and justice (or, transposed into modern discussions, mercy and justice) – that argument belongs to Marcion.  Goodness and Justice are ever present within God and never in conflict.  God’s mercy is justice for it is consistent with God’s operations in this world.  Thus, contra Florovsky, the Cross of Christ is the very consistency (Athanasius) and presence (Irenaeus) of both God’s justice and God’s love.


[1] Stephen Thomas, “Deification,” The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity (Two Volumes), ed. John Anthony McGuckin, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 1.186.
[2] Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption (Volume Three in the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky), (Belmont, Mass: Nordland Publishing, 1976), 103.
[3] Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News (New York, NY: Waterbrook, 2017), 103.
[4] Athanasius, On the Incarnation 4.
[5] Ibid. 3.4.
[6] Ibid. 7.1.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid. 7.3-5.
[9] Ibid. 7.4.
[10] Ibid. 8.4.
[11] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.25.3.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.

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