Book Review: Christian Tradition and the Practice of Justice

posted in: Anglicanism, Book Review, Justice | 2

Working for SPCK, the UK’s leading Christian publisher (And, incidentally, the 3rd oldest British Publisher), I get the opportunity to read and review quite a few books. Today’s review is of a book by one of the SPCK Trustees, who is also the Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey and Visiting Professor of Theology at Liverpool Hope University. Christian Tradition and the Practice of Justice is Nicholas Sagovsky’s 2008 book as a result of his William Leech Research Fellowship, engaging theologically with a wide range of discussion around justice and the Christian tradition. I read this book as part of my 2017 Reading Challenge, and it has inspired my paper for the 2017 Vineyard UK Theology Symposium, as well as this post on the beginnings of Justice.

Sagovsky begins with a discussion of the Greek view of justice, an early introduction to this particular authors’ range of reading and understanding. It was fascinating to read of the ways in which Hellenistic poetry, history and legal opinion (to note only three genres of literature!) have influenced how we talk about and enact Justice in the present day. Sagovsky notes, rightly, that “From its beginnings, the Christian movement was hugely indebted to Greek thought” (p. 26). This, though, is not enough to shape and understand the Christian tradition of Justice – as this author goes on to explore and expand. Regardless, this opening chapter is a helpful and informative overview of some of the foundational ideas that have shaped discussion of Justice in our culture.

The chapters on ‘The God of Israel and the problem of justice’, and ‘Jesus and the reign of God’s justice’ follow on from Sagovsky’s introduction, demonstrating some of the radical features of the Judeo-Christian worldview, and the diverse beauty of the Bible as it engages across time with some of the driving questions of human existence. Here we find the fundamental root of Justice, as the author comments on Isaiah 42:1-7:

For a Christian, this represents the consummation of the understanding of justice in the Hebrew Scriptures, for here the God who in his justice created not only Israel but the very heavens and the earth, through the free human response of his servant, establishes justice in such a way that this servant is in himself a covenant to his people and a light to all the nations” (p. 41)

The way in which Sagovsky blends together the Old and New Testament discussion of Justice is brilliantly demonstrated by his exegesis of, and engagement with, the story of Job that immediately follows the above observation. This is a careful, whole-hearted exploration of what the Bible means by Justice – a justice that finds its best expression in Jesus. In his Old Testament chapter, Sagovsky is also careful to give space to the voices and experience of victims – a key part of the practice and pursuit of Justice. The New Testament chapter is helpfully and accurately focused on the vital character of Jesus: “Jesus is depicted as the agent of God’s justice” (p. 59). With the biblical foundations laid, Sagovsky turns to his wider theological discussion of Justice.

The rest of the book deals with the application of Justice to three key thinkers, and five vital questions. Sagovsky covers three major periods of Church/cultural history as he engages with Augustine (p. 83-105, focusing on ‘Justice as theodicy’), Aquinas (p. 106-118, engaging with ‘the virtue of Justice’), and Rawls (p. 119-144, with a focus on Justice as fairness, echoing a theme that this particular author is committed to throughout the book). The issues covered in the latter chapters are freedom, the rule of law, the meeting of need, responsible action, with a final chapter (inspiring my paper for the Vineyard Symposium) on Justice and the Eucharist.

In conclusion, this thoughtful book covers the key topics of, and many of the key contributors to, the Christian tradition of the pursuit of justice. With two brilliant chapters on the biblical roots of justice – as well as three stimulating examinations of key thinkers – this is a book that successfully bridges disciplines, bringing a distinctively theological account of Justice into conversation with many relevant discussion partners. For my two pence, this is a very helpful book that I’ll be recommending (in part) to those who are interested in the biblical roots of Justice, as well as the relationship between a Christian articulation of what is right and good to some of the key questions of our day.



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