Virtual Colloquium: Brandon Warmke, “God’s Standing to Forgive”
April 21, 2017 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: General  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 2

Today’s Virtual Colloquium is “God’s Standing to Forgive” by Brandon Warmke. Dr. Warmke received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Arizona in 2014 and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His work in moral philosophy has been published in journals such as Philosophical Studies, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, and Philosophy and Public Affairs.

God’s Standing to Forgive

Brandon Warmke

Consider two cases:

LUCY: I lie to my brother, telling him I bought a gift for our parents when I did not do so. Realizing my guilt, I ask my new plumber Lucy to forgive me for my lie. Lucy forgives me for lying to my brother.
GOD: I lie to my brother, telling him I bought a gift for our parents when I did not do so. Realizing my guilt, I ask God to forgive me for my lie. God forgives me for lying to my brother.

The claim that Lucy could forgive me for lying to my brother will, I think, strike most people as very strange. And yet for many people, it will not seem nearly so strange to think that God could do so. An apparently central tenet of all three Abrahamic faiths is that God can and does forgive human persons for the wrong things they do to one another. But how is this possible? Because I lied to my brother—and not to Lucy—we are inclined to think that Lucy cannot forgive me. She lacks standing to do so. But then why think that God can forgive us for the wrongs we do to others? It is natural to suppose that just like I did not lie to Lucy about the gift, I also did not lie to God about the gift. And so if Lucy does not have the standing to forgive me, how does God? This is the question I wish to explore: how could God have the standing to forgive us for the things we do to one another? Call this the problem of divine standing. In this paper I provide two different solutions to the problem.

I begin by cataloging the various ways that one might have standing to forgive someone for wrongdoing. One has direct standing to forgive a wrongdoer when one is the direct victim of that wrongdoing. One has indirect standing when one is wronged as a result of a wrongdoing to someone else. Controversially, one can possess proxy standing to forgive when one can forgive on behalf of the victim. Also controversially, one can possess third-party standing to forgive a wrongdoer for what she did to someone else.

I then show that none of these individual varieties of standing to forgive explains why God would be able to forgive interpersonal human wrongs. For example, one might argue that when humans wrong one another, both the human victim and God have direct standing to forgive, but for different wrongs. When I lie to you, you can forgive me for lying to you, and God can forgive me for, say, disobeying God. But such a solution would still not secure God’s standing to forgive me for lying to you.

I then develop two different solutions to the problem of divine standing. One kind of solution concedes that God cannot forgive wrongs between human persons because God lacks standing to do so, but argues that this is no problem. There are many things that God cannot do. Just as God cannot, say, keep your wedding vows to your spouse (only you can do that), God cannot forgive you for lying to your spouse (only s/he can do that). This solution also stresses the importance of human forgiveness: because only you can forgive the wrongs done to you, those wrongs will be forgiven only if you do so.

For those who desire for God to be able to forgive us our “trespasses” against others, I develop another solution to the problem of divine standing. On this strategy, when we wrong others: (1) the human victim has direct standing to forgive us for the interpersonal human wrong; (2) God has direct standing to forgive for the wrong against God; and (3) God has third-party standing to forgive for the interpersonal human wrong. In developing this solution, I defend the possibility of third-party standing. I suggest a new strategy for defending third party-forgiveness and show that persons can come to have such standing when they stand in relationships of personal care with both victim and wrongdoer. I conclude that since God stands in relationships of personal care with all of us, this explains why God has standing to forgive us for our wrongs against each other and not just our wrongs against God.

The complete paper is here. Comments welcome below!

  • Tim Perrine

    Hi Brandon,

    Thanks for an interesting topic and careful discussion. I have two thoughts, which I hope will be helpful.

    My dictionary distinguishes between two kinds of usages of ‘forgive’. One kind—the kind that seems to be your concern here—is to give up resentment for. That’s perhaps not the best philosophical definition, but it puts itself in the ballpark of interpersonal forgiveness/forgiveness as a kind of reactive attitude that seems to be your concern. But the other kind is to grant relieve from a payment or appropriate debt. I think this is the usage we might have when someone says “forgive me for the intrusion”—the person recognizes by interrupting they might be opening themselves up to some sort of appropriate censorship or punishment and are pre-emptively requesting forgiveness. Consider also ‘your debt has been forgiven’ or ‘he forgave the further penalty required by the school, waiving it off as inappropriately harsh.’

    I think the distinction is important for the following reasoning. Growing up, I was taught a version of what you call “direct distinct standing.” By performing an act that is a sin, I both harm God and my fellow person, though the harms may very well be different. A corollary of this view is that there are some harms that cannot be forgiven by God—they can only be forgiven by those whom I have sinned against. Now you raise two kinds of worries for this view, so far as I can tell. The first worry is that “many people who believe that God can forgive them for what they have done, believe (and desire) not just that God can forgive them for some of their wrongs, but for all of them” (8) or on the same page “If we want to preserve the notion that God can forgive any wrong committed, then we cannot construe God’s standing to forgive as direct standing.”

    However, I think once we draw the distinction between two kinds of forgiveness my dictionary recommends, I think this worry can be accommodated. I would assume that most theists who want God to forgive all of their sins want God to grant relieve from the appropriate punishment of all of their sinning, e.g. spiritual death or distance from God. And, of course, God can do that even if God cannot forgive us in the relevant interpersonal sense for the harms we commit towards others. So God can forgive us from all of our sins, just in a slightly different sense of ‘forgive.’ On this picture, then, there are three to four possible kinds of forgiveness in an act of sin: both God and my fellow person may interpersonally forgive me, God can forgive or waive the appropriate punishment for my sin, and (if appropriate) the person may also waive the appropriate punishment for my sin.

    The second kind of worry that I detect (perhaps mistakenly) is a worry about omnipotence (p. 11). I wonder if your case can be bolstered by digging into the nature of forgiveness. I think of forgiveness as essentially requiring a forward looking attitude: in forgiving you, I commit myself to treating you (in thought and deed) in future interactions as if you were a friend or ally despite the fact that you have harmed me (or tried to harm me). But if forgiveness essentially requires some sort of commitment to act/think/feel certain ways, and if God cannot force us to have commitments, for the standard reasons, then it will simply follow that God cannot forgive me in the interpersonal sense for a harm I commit to another. For that would require God to force the person I have harmed to have the relevant sorts of commitments, and God couldn’t do that.

    Anyway, thanks again for an interesting topic.

    Tim Perrine

    April 22, 2017 — 10:56
    • Brandon W

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and reply. There are surely interesting questions to explore about the nature of God’s forgiveness. In two other papers, I’ve explored different ways of theorizing God’s forgiveness, so I agree it’s important. As it turns out, I think that neither resentment-overcoming nor punishment-forbearance are good ways of thinking about God’s forgiveness. It would take me a fair bit of space here to explain why, but if you can forward me an email address, I’m happy to send them to you.

      April 24, 2017 — 10:33
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