I recently returned from some time away on the Outer Banks and I am catching up on the news. I’ve come across several news stories that state that evangelicals have forgiven Donald Trump for an extramarital affair. I must say, I’m rather puzzled by this claim on a number of levels. Perhaps mostly, I am puzzled because this use of the concept of forgiveness has no biblical basis. Can evangelicals really be playing that fast and loose with scripture?
I have double-checked the stories and there is, indeed, a quotation from Jerry Falwell, Jr., where he claims that evangelicals have forgiven the president for cheating on his wife. I don’t know how representative Falwell is of his fellow evangelicals so I will limit myself to what he says. In any event, thinking of the course on forgiveness I taught last year, I have to say that if Falwell handed in a paper claiming that he, as an unaffected third-party, can forgive the offense of the president’s adultery, I would give him an F.
First, let’s make a distinction between divine forgiveness (that is, the forgiveness that God offers to human beings), and interpersonal forgiveness (that is, the forgiveness that human beings offer to one another). We’ll get to divine forgiveness in a little bit. But first, because Falwell claims that he and other evangelicals have forgiven the president of his adultery, we have to look at interpersonal forgiveness.
When it comes to interpersonal forgiveness, the vast majority of theologians and philosophers say that only the victim can forgive a person who has wronged him or her. What they are rejecting is what is called “third-party forgiveness.” An example of third-party forgiveness would be something like: Alan steals Bart’s bike, and Carl says to Alan that he (Carl) forgives Alan for his sin against Bart. Most scholars say that Carl really cannot forgive Alan, because it is only Bart who has to bear the costs of things like lowering his resentment toward Alan, forswearing revenge against Alan, choosing to give up his moral right to punish Alan, and the like. Since these are the types of things that make up what it means means to forgive someone, it is simply incoherent to speak of a third-party forgiving someone for his or her sin against another person. To forgive someone who has done you wrong is often a very painful process. My rather benign example of forgiving the wrong of stealing someone’s bike cannot begin to compare to the pain that must be involved in forgiving a spouse who has cheated. For a third-party to say that they can forgive the adultery of a husband against a wife, who has suffered this humiliation and who alone can know the personal cost it would take to forgive, is morally and spiritually tone deaf.
A few philosophers have tried to argue for the possibility of third-party forgiveness in certain restricted cases where a third-party has been granted standing vis-à-vis the injured party so that they can meaningfully speak a word of forgiveness on their behalf. However, most folks think such philosophical attempts fail, and in the case of the president’s extramarital affair they hardly apply. More pertinent to our discussion, I know of no theologian who thinks third-party forgiveness is possible (please let me know if you know of any). Nor can I find any biblical basis for third-party interpersonal forgiveness. The strongest possibility is John 20:23 where Jesus says to his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But as Donald Gowan says this most likely means that when those who have received the Holy Spirit forgive people who have sinned against them, then God confirms their forgiveness. This is an important passage, but it is still a matter of the offended party forgiving someone who has sinned against him or her. It’s really not about third-party forgiveness. So when Jerry Falwell Jr., or anybody other than Melania Trump for that matter, says he forgives the president for his extramarital affair, that is simply a misuse of language.
Now, I think evangelicals can make an important appeal to divine forgiveness in the case of the president’s sinful behavior. I think they are on solid ground when they claim that the president, like every other human being, is sinful and needs God’s forgiveness. I actually think they could go further and say that God has already forgiven the president for his sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There are solid biblical and theological reasons for saying this (and I would agree with them). However, I do not think, biblically speaking, that this underwrites a further move that says, I, therefore, forgive Trump’s extramarital affair. On the interpersonal level, only the wronged party can forgive. On the divine level, that is what God does (or has already done).
So what should we expect evangelicals to say about the president’s extramarital affair? As I mentioned above, this raises other matters that puzzle me. I think Falwell would be on more solid biblical ground if he said something like because we all need forgiveness and because Christ died on the cross for the sins of the whole world, we should not judge or condemn the president for his extramarital affair. On the interpersonal level, only Mrs. Trump and the other people harmed by his affair (e.g., his children) have the right to forgive the president for the wrongs he has done to them. On the divine level, only God can forgive the sins of human beings. So, instead of saying they forgive President Trump, I think Falwell might better have said he doesn’t judge or condemn the president. And even then, Falwell would need to clarify that biblically speaking this means not trying to judge another human being as God judges them. We have no right to pass judgment on their eternal status before God. However, not judging or condemning someone in this way is not to say that we cannot make judgments about the rightness or wrongness of extramarital affairs. The bible is very clear that adultery is wrong.
Biblically speaking, however, I’m not sure that would be enough. I would have thought evangelicals, informed by a scriptural view of forgiveness, would have not only assured the president of God’s love and forgiveness (a rather good thing to do, I think), but would also point out that, in the New Testament, God’s forgiveness always involves repentance and an impetus towards the restoration of relationships. Now, there is a healthy debate about whether prior repentance is necessary in order to receive God’s forgiveness. There are a good number of biblical passages that portray the process of forgiveness in this manner. However, there are also other biblical passages that show God forgiving sinners before they repent. Perhaps, most powerfully, we can think of Jesus on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” I think passages like these are compelling so I find myself on the side of the debate that says that God sometimes forgives people for their sins prior to people repenting of them. However, having said that, in the bible, it seems clear that repentance, either prior to or after God’s forgiveness, is always part of the process. Repentance is the way in which God’s prior forgiveness is made actual in our lives (through the action of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace) and leads into the possibility of restored relationships. Instead of giving the President a “mulligan,” I would have expected evangelicals to not only assure President Trump of God’s forgiveness, but to also encourage him to claim that forgiveness through a process of repentance and amendment of life.
So, I would give Falwell an F for his understanding of forgiveness. He shows how easily a core Christian concept like forgiveness can be corrupted when taken out of the context of the communal faith and practice of the church. Within the church, forgiveness is the costly, but ultimately life-giving practice whereby we are restored to right relationships with God and with one another. As a justification for why evangelicals continue to support President Trump despite his alleged extramarital affair it is a parade example of what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.