An Excerpt from “Regret: A Theology” by Paul J. Griffiths

In the concise theological grammar Regret: A Theology, Paul J. Griffiths analyzes this attitude toward the past and distinguishes its various kinds. He examines attitudes encapsulated in the phrase, “I would it were otherwise,” including regret, contrition, remorse, compunction, lament, and repentance. By using literature (especially poetry) and Christian theology, Griffiths shows both what is good about regret and what can be destructive about it. Griffiths focuses especially on the notion of the LORD’s regret. Is it even reasonable to claim that the LORD regrets? Griffiths shows not only that it is but also that the LORD’s regret should structure how we regret as human beings.

From Chapter One: The LORD’s Regrets

Christians writing theology should begin by writing about the LORD. It’s therefore appropriate to begin a study of the otherwise-attitudesthat is, the attitudes that have what’s expressed by the sentence ‘I would it were otherwise’ at their heartby writing about the oddity that the LORD, like us, it seems, exhibits those attitudes. The LORD, too, is shown in Scripture to wish otherwise things that have happened, including states of affairs the LORD has brought about; and to act upon those wishes. How is this to be interpreted?

It’s something close to dogma for Catholic Christians that the LORD is timeless, in the strict sense that no temporal properties are the LORD’s. This is one entailment of understanding the LORD as simple, which is to say thinking that there is, in the LORD, no distinction between essence and accident, between what the LORD is and what the LORD has. The LORD’s wisdom is what the LORD is, the LORD’s love is what the LORD is, the LORD’s gift is what the LORD is, and so on for all putative divine properties. From such a view it follows that the LORD can have no properties at one time that the LORD lacks at another: everything that the LORD is (which is, simply, being the LORD, the one who is, which is what the LORD says to Moses in the third chapter of Exodus when asked for a name: ego sum qui sum) the LORD is atemporally. This is difficult doctrine, and controversial; it presses particularly hard upon the otherwise-attitudes, for those seem to entail not only that those who have them are located in time, but also that they can judge that something done didn’t work out, wasn’t the best thing to do, and, ought if possible, be redressed. It’s not at once obvious how properties such as these can be predicated of the LORD.

In the Latin versions of Scripture (the Clementine Vulgate and the New Vulgate are the same in this respect), The LORD whom Christians confess is often represented with directness and clarity as wishing things otherwise, which is the fundamental otherwise-thought, and then as acting upon that thought. The standard vocabulary is paenitentia (noun), and paenitere (verb), predicated of the LORD. How to render this in English isn’t obvious. You might try saying that the LORD is penitent or cultivates penitence, but that doesn’t seem quite right, given the more-or-less technical sense given to penitence (and penance) in Catholic theology, and, as a result, to some degree, in secular English. Scripture doesn’t suggest that the LORD has sinned and must now acknowledge that sin, and do whatever can be done to redress it. Rather, paenitentia is closer to regret, to wishing otherwise something that is, regrettably, the case. Regret, then, shading into repentance: wishing some state of affairs otherwise, and turning away fromrepentingthe LORD’s own part in making it so.

The standard schema is that the LORD sees that something hasn’t worked out as well as it might have, as a result of human sin or misprision or some other mistake; then the LORD regrets, laments, and is angry that this unsatisfactoriness obtains, and does something to prevent it continuing, typically by making a judgment and either acting or threatening to act upon that judgment; then the LORD, regretting the judgment in response to some or another turn of events (human pleas, human contrition, human repentance, and so on), rescinds it or in some other fashion turns away from it. 

A good instance is to hand in the story of Saul and the Amalekites in the fifteenth chapter of the first book of Samuel. The LORD commands Saul to fight the Amalekites and to slaughter them all, along with every animal they own. Saul fights, as commanded, but he doesn’t kill Agag, king of the Amalekites, and likewise spares the lives of some among the animals, for what seem to be good-enough reasons, including the intention to sacrifice the best among the Amalekites’ livestock to the LORD. The LORD, seeing this, says to Samuel: “I regret-repent having made Saul king (paenitet me quod constituerim Saul regem) because he has abandoned me and hasn’t done what I said (quia derelequit me et verba mea opere non implevit)”words repeated verbatim later in the chapter. Here it’s clear that the LORD is regretting something the LORD has donemaking Saul kingas well as Saul’s particular disobedience. What’s regrettable, and regretted, isn’t just a state of affairs traceable without remainder to human agency, but also the LORD’s establishment of conditions that made particular sins possible. Saul couldn’t have disobeyed in the way that he did without being king; and so the LORD regrets not only Saul’s sin, but also the LORD’s own act in making Saul king.

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