Theses on Forgiveness

  1. Forgiveness only takes place because of the cross: only because God forgave us can we truly forgive others.
  2. Forgiveness is a gift from God; it is not natural to fallen humanity.
  3. Forgiveness is part of our new identity in Christ; because we are new creations, we can and must forgive.
  4. Forgiveness is an act of grace, and thus it is God’s work, not our own.
  5. Forgiveness is a relational event, not an individual one; bitterness is communally destructive just as much as, if not more than, individually destructive.
  6. Forgiveness is not an individual choice between two equally possible paths, but rather an act of obedience that flows out of our new identity; we cannot refuse to forgive without contradicting this identity.
  7. Forgiveness affirms the radical nature of the offense, and the radical depth of the wound.
  8. Forgiveness judges the offense by denying its power and its future.
  9. Forgiveness judges the offender by separating the person from the offense and thus affirming his or her humanity despite the inhumanity of the act.
  10. Forgiveness makes true forgetfulness possible as the art of allowing our identity to move forward toward its proper future; forgiveness kills the past in order to remain open to the future.


Anonymous said…
Hi D.W.

I was thinking of doing a "Ten Propositions on Forgiveness" just before I did the one on preaching. I'm glad I didn't. Your Theses could not be bettered.
Thank you,
byron smith said…
Thanks for these insightful points.
What is the relationship between repentence and forgiveness?
Shane said…
Re: # 2 "Forgiveness is a gift from God; it is not natural to fallen humanity."

Are you saying that no non-christians ever truly forgive anyone? Or that their forgiveness is always conditioned anonymously by God's?
Shane, I would say it is analogous to the fact that non-Christians can perform good works that accomplish good things. But their identity is not marked or shaped by an orientation toward the Good. To put it another way, forgiveness for them is external to their identity, whereas for the Christian, forgiveness is written in to their new personhood. I would actually employ the Lutheran distinction between inner and outer person. Forgiveness for the Christian moves from being a purely "outer" interaction with others to becoming an "inner" part of one's God-given identity.

Byron, good question. I would like to hear what other people think on that topic. I would say that we first need a more robust theology of repentance, which recognizes that metanoia is not just "I'm sorry" but rather a complete U-turn, a change in one's direction in life, a re-orientation toward the Good. Repentance is a conversion. When we have that in mind, we can see right away that forgiveness cannot wait for repentance before it forgives.

I suppose this might be another major distinction between forgiveness for a Christian and forgivess for the non-Christian. As a disciple of Jesus, the Christian must forgive even when there is no repentance. In that act of forgiveness the Christian helps restore the other's humanity by negating the inhuman act; in doing this, the disciple of Jesus helps enable the other person to enter the path of true repentance. We thus have a responsibility to act first, to overcome the causal relation between that person's repentance and our forgiveness by establishing a new relation between the offender and the offended in which we move the offender toward his or her proper future in our act of forgiveness.

Forgiveness by one who is not a disciple is still caught in the web of causality, so that a transaction takes place: the offender "repents" and the offended "forgives." But here repentance remains external and is not yet a full inner conversion. And forgiveness here is not yet an inner act that is marked by grace. When forgiveness is marked by grace, it overcomes the opposition, makes distinctions (between person and work), makes judgments (on the act with negating power, on the person with power of affirmation), and reorients both persons toward a future of reconciliation. Forgiveness is thus active for a Christian, rather than a passive response to the other person's "repentance." Clarification: between the Christian and God, forgiveness is always a passive relation, since we receive from God the identity, grace, and power to forgive; it is not our own.

In this, Byron, I have presupposed that the Christian is the one offended. Of course, if the follower of Jesus is the one who offended, then I assume repentance is simply a matter of course. It may be very difficult and still take some time, but there is no other option than to commit oneself to that U-turn.
Anonymous said…
Let me further support the notion that Christian forgiveness (following the model of Christ) is offered prior to repentance. It seems to me that forgiveness is often a necessary precondition to repentance. Forgiveness is that which enables us to repent.

Journeying with "the damned" of my society (criminals, addicts, prostitutes, etc.) I often wonder how different things would be if Christians journeyed with these people declaring "you already are forgiven" instead of saying, "you need to be forgiven."

In this regard it is helpful to distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation (this further supports the view that forgivness is an embodied process, not just a single one time event or declaration). Forgiveness is offered with the ultimate goal of reconciliation. And so forgiveness is given, repentance is enabled, and then reconciliation can take place.
Halden said…
My question would be about the final thesis on forgiveness and forgetfullness. I'm a little hesitant to talk about the anihilation of the past in forgiveness or about forgetting past offenses. Miroslav Volf has a fascinating account what it might mean to forget and forgive which I find compelling, but I think it has dangers as well. I think one of the greatest gifts of Christian forgiveness is that it allows memory of failure and sin to be transformed into hope. Not by denial of the past or forgetting it, but by finding that in Christ's resurrection our past failures are caught up into a greater reality of hope and transformation that is the last word. Forgiveness in my view, at least prior to the consummation of all things allows us, not to forget the past, but to remember it, but to remeber it in hope, knowing that our failures and betrayals are overcome and transformed (though not undone) in Christ.

A great example of this are the resurrection meals between Christ and the disciples. Always beneath the surface are the memories of eating with Christ just before deial and betrayal. But the presence of Christ and his love brings about restoration, not through forgetting the past, but through the transforming presense of Christ and his love. The exchange between Jesus and Peter at the end of John's gospel is a particularly beautiful example of this.

Now, I do think that there is an eschatological forgetting of sin and offences whcih is the gift of grace. And I even think that there may be times when that gift is experienced in the present. I.E. when I look at my friend whom I have forgiven and I see them, not as someone who has offended me and I have pardoned, but simply see them as a friend whom I love. That is a great gift of grace that is sometimes given in relationships. But what must be avoid is telling the victims of offenses to forget the wrong done to them. Forgetfullness is a deadly ideological weapon and cannto be used against victims, though of course all are called to forgive. I can never say that the Jews should forget the wrong done to them in the holocaust, for example. To my mind that thinking is demonic (not that I'm imputing such thinking into your thesis, just exploring the dangers of forgetting). Such things must be remembered, not for the sake of bitterness or revenge, but so that those memories in all their rawness can be transformed into hope by the power of the Cross.
Halden, your last paragraph speaks of forgetfulness precisely as I intended to in my thesis. And I included thesis 7 in order to make sure that deep offenses like the Holocaust are not truly forgotten. The wound is affirmed even while the inhumanity of the act is denied a future. The openness to the future is what I feel forgetfulness (theologically defined) offers us.

I think the following from Eberhard Jüngel illustrates what I am after better than Volf:

"I wish to clarify this by referring to a phenomenon which is decisive for our humanness, and which we ought to value highly: the art of forgetting. As those who state, who tend towards works and seek through those works to erect monuments to ourselves, we have to rely on the ability not to forget. Hence we stuff our computers full. What is not forgotten is known. And knowledge is power. Hence it may be that the past as it were tyrannizes the present and the future. To store up knowledge is to store up the past. Without computers, we would be overburdened with the past for the sake of knowledge. Having computers is not as yet a guarantee of the opposite. The computer does not necessarily but may well lead us to a future in which we are still ruled by the past.

As those who are addressed, however, we are conscious of the interplay between remembering and forgetting. As we are addressed as persons, we can forget our works when considering our persons. We can put them behind us and so become free for the future. Even with respect to knowledge itself we have to affirm that only the art of forgetting can form a human mind in such a way that it can really understand the world. One who forgets nothing is an uneducated person who will understand but little. This should not lead us to conclude that someone who forgets everything is for that very reason an educated and intelligent person. But one thing is clear: one who cannot forget cannot be happy. To address someone could, certainly, be very unpleasant. But to address someone in God's name always means to absolve that person of his or her past, to grant new possibilities and thus to grant the power to forget. This is human. As we address each other in this way, we correspond to the God who has justified us as human beings and called us out of the nothingness which we ourselves have made. It is thanks to this creative word which grants new possibilities that we exist. And as we express our existence through thanksgiving to God, we distinguish amongst ourselves between that which is worthy of remembrance and that which can be consigned to oblivion, not carelessly but confidently. If it is said of God that 'he will remember their sin no more' (Jer 31.34), then we for our part ought to forget the sin which God has forgiven. Such forgetting cannot of course be commanded: we have to be able to do it" (Theological Essays I, 151).
Anonymous said…
A further question: Can groups forgive - and ask to be forgiven -e.g. nation states, ethnic communities, and dare I say churches?

Only if groups can act as moral agents - and I think they can. Groups can both inflict and suffer wrongdoing. Moreover recognised leaders can speak and act on their behalf, in both public apology and public graciousness. Hence the disappointment at the Pope's recent weasel words at Auschwitz -and the admiration for the magnanimity of Nelson Mandela.

And while only victims themselves can forgive in a strong sense, surely there must be some ethical space for vicarious forgiveness in a weaker sense. Otherwise how break the histories of vicious spirals of collective vengeance - i.e. how work towards reconciliation, the goal of the forgiveness-process?
Kim, you ask a great question, and I most definitely agree that both group and vicarious forgiveness are valid and necessary. We need to recover in a radical way the emphasis on our communal responsibilities — whether large-scale (ethnicity/nation), medium-scale (church/community), or small-scale (family). Vicarious forgiveness has been on my mind recently due to this event.