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What is Forgiveness?. Anthony Bash Durham University. 1. The Place to Start. Letting someone off / Excusing? Overlooking something to get on with people? Forgetting about the past? Restoring relationships? Letting go ? Pardoning? Apologising? Condoning?

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what is forgiveness

What is Forgiveness?

Anthony Bash

Durham University


Letting someone off / Excusing?

  • Overlooking something to get on with people?
  • Forgetting about the past?
  • Restoring relationships?
  • Letting go?
  • Pardoning?
  • Apologising?
  • Condoning?
  • ‘Forswearing resentment’ (Butler)

It has to be a moralresponse

  • There has to be recognition of wrongdoing

Compare forgiveness with other less obvious moral responses to wrongdoing.

  • For example, see revenge / vengeance: J G Murphy ‘two cheers’ for vindictiveness (Getting Even, 2003). Revenge and vindictiveness promote ‘self-respect, self-defence and respect for the moral order’ (in Worthington, Forgiveness Handbook, 2005).

Hannah Arendt, ‘The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth’ (The Human Condition, 1958).

  • Charles Griswold, Forgiveness (2007). Known in Greek culture. Not a ‘virtue’ in Greek ethics.

Forgiveness as a cultural universal

    • Chinese culture (ChristophHarbsmeier in The Ethics of Forgiveness, ed. C. Fricke (2011).
    • Mahayana Buddhism
    • Some higher primates engage in ‘forgiving’ behaviour (Frans de Waal).

The most obvious starting place to understand forgiveness in the western tradition is from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).


Godis forgiving – sweeping away, burying, removing, washing away human sin.

  • Human repentance always precedes God’s forgiveness.
  • Forgiveness is seen as being about restoring humanity’s relationship with God.
  • Next to nothingabout person-to-person forgiveness in the Hebrew Scriptures – perhaps one example in Genesis 50:17.

The achievement of the New Testament is to establish forgiveness as (i) a pattern of person-to-person behaviour; and (ii) as a moral virtue.



  • Forgiveness is a pattern of person-to-person (not corporate) behaviour.
  • He applied (Jewish) divine forgiveness as a model for person-to-person forgiveness.
  • As with divine forgiveness, person-to-person forgiveness is about restoringrelationships.

“Jesus’ achievement is to distil out of a range of behaviours a new, discrete category of human behaviour (person-to-person forgiveness) that people had not hitherto separately identified. It is also to give that category of behaviour its own characteristic features and identity markers. So, for example, those who seek forgiveness should be repentant and those whose forgiveness is sought should be unstinting in their efforts to forgive. Forgiveness seen this way is new in Jewish [and Greek] thought.”



  • Forgiveness is a moral virtue.
  • Forgiveness is grace in action.
  • Forgiveness is a dispositional quality, referring to a spectrum of virtues all driven and inspired by grace, e.g. kindness, patience, long-suffering.
  • (Paul seems to have been influenced by Greek patterns of philosophical thought. If Jesus’s forgiveness is ‘Jewish-style forgiveness’, Paul’s is ‘Greek-style forgiveness’.)

“What matters to Paul is that forgiveness is an expression of grace, and one of many different expressions of grace. We can put it this way: Paul is not so much concerned with identifying forgiving behaviour as a genus of person-to-person relations as interested in exploring all kinds of virtuous behaviour that are the outworking of the grace of God among human beings in their social and personal relations. Forgiveness is an important aspect of what it means to be gracious – but the primary emphasis in Paul is on grace, not forgiveness.”


Christianity has ‘won the argument’ about forgiveness.

  • But what has it won, and was it worth winning?

The ‘Augustinian Dilemma’ – a conflict between divine justice and divine love.

  • The idea of sparing wrongdoers because of love is in tension with the idea of justice.
  • If we forgive we usually forswear the right to justice.

One of the central problems of forgiveness … it depends where we start! Do we start with love or do we start with justice?

  • The idea of justice is deeply embedded in human beings.

Another way of looking at this is to think of the problem as being about conflicting moral goods:

    • Love
    • Justice
    • Mercy

We cannot atone for our wrongdoing and so we cannot resolve the predicament of irreversibility.

  • However, we can strive to model / practise God’s forgiveness and so seek to bring about the same goal as divine forgiveness, namely, the restoration of relationships.

Before we move on, we need to explore five commonly held views about person-to-person forgiveness.


How would you respond to the following statements?

    • Jesus is a great example of someone who forgave the unrepentant
    • We should forgive even the unrepentant
    • It is morally virtuous to forgive
    • Forgiveness is a moral good
    • It is better to forgive than not to forgive

Did Jesus forgive the unrepentant?

    • Luke 23:34 (‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’)

Should we forgive the unrepentant?

    • The Lord’s Prayer (‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’). Does it mean that if we are not forgiving, God will not forgive us?
    • The interpretation hinges on the word ‘as’.

(i) God will forgive us only if we forgive others in the same way as and to the same extent that God forgives us.


(ii) If we forgive, it is because we ourselves have experienced the lavish grace of God’s forgiveness. Being a forgiver means we have received – and been transformed by – the grace of God; it is this evidence of having received God’s grace that is the ground of assurance that God will go on forgiving us.

    • See Matthew 18:23-35.
    • Receiving the grace of forgiveness precedes the grace of giving forgiveness.


4 some solutions
4. Some Solutions
  • Ways out of the maze ….

We have identified at least six constituents of forgiveness

    • Letting go (Jesus)
    • A gift (Paul)
    • Justice
    • Love
    • Repentance
    • An appropriate measure of restored relationships

‘Thick’ and ‘thin’ forgiveness – i.e. actions that we regard as forgiving and that have the six elements to a greater or lesser extent.

  • Forgiveness is therefore variegated / has gradations. Many variables go into a response that we call ‘forgiving’.
  • ‘Forgivenesses’.

Forgiveness is

    • a spectrum of responses that have the six elements present to a greater or lesser extent
    • an alloy
    • a process
    • situation-dependent and has to be seen in the context of the life-history and personalities of the protagonists
    • not necessarily the only way to respond to wrongdoing
    • at best, an impossible marriage of justice and love