Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea

David Konstan Cambridge University Press, Cambridge April 30, 2012
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“The modern concept of forgiveness [between people] in the full or rich sense of the term, did not exist in classical antiquity, that is, in ancient Greece and Rome. . . . What is more, it is not fully present in the Hebrew Bible, nor again in the New Testament or in the early Jewish and Christian commentaries on the Holy Scriptures” (p. ix). This is the provocative thesis of Konstan’s volume on forgiveness.

What does he mean by forgiveness? He defines it as a “bilateral process” with four components: confession of the offense, “evidence of sincere repentance,” a real change in the heart of the offender, change in the heart of the offended with the result that he will not demand vengeance (p. 21). This definition demands that forgiveness cannot occur without change on the part of the offender. Also forgiveness cannot be based on one’s relationship with another. In other words one forgives because of the moral change of the offender, not because one is close to the offender. Although discussed throughout the book, divine forgiveness is not particularly in view. Konstan acknowledges that divine forgiveness is not attainable by people (pp. 158–59, n 16).

Chapter 1 introduces the topic and discusses the definition cited above. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the Greeks and Romans. These chapters include a discussion of the Greek and Latin terms often translated “forgive.” Konstan says they are generally lacking as labels for describing the modern notion of forgiveness (pp. 57–58). Also Konstan discusses general offenses and reconciliations in Greek and Roman literature. These chapters also explore topics often associated with forgiveness such as guilt, innocence, apology, pardon, pity, reconciliation, and others. Often, the offender appeals to the offended on the basis of ignorance or shifts the blame to another (pp. 28–29, 36–37, 62). Also one may try to appease the offended party with gifts (as in the case of Achilles and Agamemnon, pp. 60–63). What is lacking from a modern perspective is any type of remorse or change of heart on the part of the offender (p. 63). This does not mean such things did not happen; they were simply not essential aspects of forgiveness in the ancient world.

Chapter 4 considers forgiveness in the Bible. However, before turning to the Scripture itself, Konstan discusses the Jewish and/or Christian work called The Life of Adam and Eve and Greek novels. Although one questions the placement of these discussions in a chapter on the biblical texts, they are natural books to explore for the theme of forgiveness. Konstan says God forgave Adam and Eve’s sin. However, this is an example of divine, not human forgiveness. The Greek novels, full of betrayal and intrigue, do not include examples of forgiveness; sin is lacking and thus no real need exists for forgiveness (p. 98). Next Konstan discusses numerous passages in the Old Testament that reveal divine forgiveness (including Lev. 4:13–20; Num. 14: 17–20; 15:22–29; 30:3–15; 1 Kings 8:33–36; pp. 99–107). Konstan says it is difficult to know what motivated Joseph’s brothers to ask for forgiveness after their father died (Gen. 50:17–20). Konstan notes this does not demonstrate his view of forgiveness because it seems motivated by fear; it is difficult to know if the brothers’ repentance was sincere, and Joseph acknowledged that God had worked for good through what his brothers did to him (p. 106). Konstan’s point is well taken. Would the outcome have been the same if the request had come to Joseph if he had been a poor, dying slave? One cannot know.

After briefly discussing rabbinic literature (pp. 107–12), Konstan discusses a number of passages including the Lord’s Prayer and the parables of the two debtors (Luke 7:47–48; pp. 113–15). Konstan repeatedly shows that God is the ultimate forgiver (p. 115), and faith is a condition for divine forgiveness (p. 119). Konstan also considers Luke 17:3 and Matthew 18:21–22, where interpersonal forgiveness is involved (pp. 122–24 ). However, passages such as Matthew 18:21–22 (Peter’s questions to Jesus about how many times he should forgive a brother) fall short of Konstan’s definition because they focus on the “general charitableness” of the offended, not the “attitude of the offender” (p. 122). Also Konstan notes the instruction to forgive as God has forgiven (Col. 3:13; p. 115).

God’s capacity to abolish sin contributes to the conclusion that “a fully developed concept of interpersonal forgiveness failed to emerge in the ancient and medieval traditions” (p. 119). Simply put, people are unable to forgive like this (pp. 118–19). Konstan’s observations are generally helpful, but he may be failing to see the significance that God’s example is intended to have for Christians (Col. 3:13; Matt. 18:23–35).

Although one must acknowledge God’s ability to forgive is limitless and man’s ability is finite, the difference is one of degree, not kind. The key to all of this is the offended party. Because God is perfect, He can more deeply be offended by people than people can be offended by others. Therefore the capacity of forgiveness must be greater for God than for people if it is to be effective. Though the New Testament says little about interpersonal forgiveness, this does not mean interpersonal forgiveness is unimportant.

In chapter 5 Konstan discusses the early and medieval church and observes emphases on penance and repentance, but there was still no full forgiveness among people. Not until modern times (chap. 6) is forgiveness, as defined by Konstan, fully present in relationships between people. The book concludes with a twelve-page bibliography and a general index including authors and topics.

This is a fascinating study and demands that readers consider what they mean by forgiveness. This is such a common term in Christianity that its meaning is often assumed.

By way of critique, three points may be mentioned. First, according to Konstan all components of his definition must be in place for full forgiveness to occur. However, not all components are always possible. For example Konstan says that because Joseph’s circumstances turned out well, his forgiveness of his brothers was not “full” forgiveness. However, no one knows if Joseph would have forgiven his brothers if his situation were different. Second, Konstan’s description of a “full or rich sense” of forgiveness (p. ix) and the implication that his definition is somehow superior to ancient notions of forgiveness is open to challenge. One might argue that forgiving someone without expecting any response or life change is a higher form of forgiveness because it forgives without seeing or getting anything in return. Also forgiveness may have slightly different components depending on one’s circumstances. Konstan’s attempt to define forgiveness so precisely, although necessary for his study, can result in a meaning that is applicable in only a limited number of contexts and seems to make a technical term (at least functionally) out of a common word. Forgiveness, however, cannot be restricted to such a precise meaning. It takes many forms, but all seem to demand that the person offended yield his right to personal retribution and not hold the offense against the offender. Other factors such as prior relationships can affect this process without forgiveness being weakened. Thus forgiveness can come in various forms so long as the essentials are present.

Konstan’s study demonstrates complexities of forgiveness that cannot be captured fully in a brief review. Forgiveness is an essential theme in the Christian life. Christian leaders as well as Christian (and other) psychologists emphasize its importance for cultivating healthy relationships. This volume can lead readers to consider how much of their understanding of this topic is shaped by factors unrelated to the biblical texts. Also this book can help enhance one’s biblical understanding of forgiveness, recognizing as Konstan has demonstrated, that divine forgiveness is very special. Although believers need to imitate the Lord, they can never attain the level of forgiveness toward others that they have received from Him.

Other volumes with similar themes and conclusions have recently been produced (e.g., see the essays edited by Charles Griswold and David Konstan, Ancient Forgiveness: Classical, Judaic, and Christian [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011]).

—Joseph D. Fantin

April 1, 2013
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2013 vol. 170 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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