In the previous two ROAR’s, I have poked fun at a modern understanding of justice and rights, which is often used by politicians to benefit one group at the expense of another group. Such redistributive benefits would not have been seen as just or fair in the eyes of the ancient world. Although Aristotle was a pagan, general revelation opened his eyes to understand various aspects of justice, which were already understood by those who had been given special revelation, the Jews. The way in which God taught His people justice is different than the way Aristotle taught his students.
The Bible often teaches the concepts of justice through narrative, poetry, and exhortation. The reader comes to an understanding of concepts by reading examples. In contrast, Greeks such as Aristotle systematically taught concepts. The Western mind is used to classification and systemization. If a Western student of the Bible wants to study the atonement, it would be very easy for that student to pick up a systematic theology, a Bible dictionary, or even a concordance, which systematize and organize topics. Such systematization is helpful to define concepts; however, examples help to see concepts in action.
This study of justice will refer to the Bible’s examples within Aristotle’s systematic framework for justice. By so doing, the reader will both be able to define the different aspects of justice, and see those concepts in action.
Justice as Righteousness
What is Right and Just?
A right is someone’s due that carries with it a universal negative duty.1 In other words, if I have a right to something, it is the duty of everyone else in the world not to deprive me of that something. If I have a right to life, it is the duty of everybody to not murder me. If I have a right to freely exercise my religion, then it is the duty of all people to not hinder my faith. If God has a right over His creation, then it is the duty of the entire cosmos to worship Him and Him alone. If there is no corresponding universal negative duty, then that which is called a right is actually a burden on someone else. If I were to claim the right to free education, free housing, and free medical care, then someone else would have to bear the burden of the cost. A right is not a burden to others, but a duty to guarantee someone’s just due is met. This understanding of the term “right” helps the reader to understand that which is just in general.
The ancient world would have defined a general sense of justice as giving someone their due, or that which is that person’s right.2 If taxes are due Caesar, then give him his due. If tithes are due God, give Him that which is rightfully His. If Isaac promised Jacob his brother’s inheritance, he can’t give “backsies,” but must keep the promise. This general sense of justice is very fluid, and can be situation relative. Other factors must come into play in order to define what is just in every situation.
Who are Right and Just?
The ancient Greeks would have considered a just person to be a righteous or virtuous person, someone who was as morally perfect as one could be. Aristotle described the just person as having “a moral state such that in consequence of it men have the capacity of doing what is just, and actually do it, and wish it.”3 In this moral state, the just person would obey the highest standard of goodness, the law; thus, the just one would be perfect in himself.4 The just person would also be perfect in virtue towards others.5 In relation to the general sense of the term justice, and the term “right”, a just person would always give everyone else their due, giving pay to whom pay is due, giving respect to whom respect is due, and kindness to whom kindness is due. The Christian religion has a slightly different take on the just.
Those who are just in the Bible are those who have been justified by God, who alone is perfect in justice and righteousness.6 The saints of the Bible are not perfectly just. Abraham gave neither Pharoah nor Abimelech their right to the truth about Sarah.7 Abraham’s son Isaac repeated his father’s injustice to Abimelech.8 Jacob stole the blessing due his brother Esau.9 Rahab refused her people the right to know spies were in their midst.10 Samson, a Nazarite who owed God a holy and clean life, drank wine, touched dead bodies of unclean animals and men, and lusted after pagan women.11 Yet God declared all of these righteous for their trust in His promises.12 God declares and makes righteous those who trust in Him. In otherwords, the just are those who have been justified, and are in the process of being sanctified by God. Those who are being sanctified will seek to give everyone their due.
In both the Greek and biblical understanding, righteousness is justice that is universal in nature. It is universal because it is the type of justice that one expects of everyone, everywhere, no matter the time or situation.13 Yet, as has already been noted, there is a type of justice that is relative to particular situations. In the next ROAR, we will examine this particular form of justice.