Thursday, April 1, 2010

The wrath of God was satisfied (3/4)

I think it possible that Christians can sing 'the wrath of God was satisfied' as a fair and appropriate expression of our understanding of atonement (how we become one with God through Jesus' death on the cross). I am not quite there yet in reaching a conclusion, hoping to be there with a fourth post tomorrow on Good Friday.

I appreciate very much the twin comments made each day by Howard and Anonymous, each examining weaknesses in my exposition as it unfolds - though neither persuading me to continue my exploration in a different direction!

What is the wrath of God in passages such as Romans 1:18, 2:4-11, 3:5-8, Ephesians 2:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 5:9 (see also 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9), and Revelation 16? I suggest it is the response of God to wrongdoing, to unjust behaviour, and to disobedience to God's commandments.

To use 'wrath' in description of this response is certainly to use a word which conveys a sense of strong anger. Naturally that raises a number of questions because for us humans 'anger' is a variable and often destructive emotion (if not destructive of others, then destructive of ourselves). It's variableness includes the fact that our anger can be controlled or uncontrolled, well-directed (e.g. at the perpetrator of a crime) or misguided (e.g. railing against the world in general about some particular misfortune we have suffered), righteous or unrighteous, disciplined (e.g. we deal with it before sunset) or undisciplined (we begin to take a perverse pleasure in stoking our anger). Thus it becomes difficult to speak of the wrath of God without invoking images of a God barely distinguished from the worst features of angry humans. Further, I suggest that we have difficulty conceptualising how an angry human is simultaneously being a loving human, and thus we retreat from talk of 'the wrath of God' because we (rightly) wish to foster and uphold talk of the love of God. But therein lies a clue that I want to take further tomorrow: if we could conceptualise how an angry human can also be a loving human, could we reconcile the wrath of God with the love of God?

If the wrath of God is the response of God to wrongdoing, to injustice, and to disobedience to God's commandments, what might it mean for the wrath of God to be 'satisfied'? It could mean that a wildly angry God, similar to the worst case scenario of a violently angry human being, has somehow been placated or appeased, with the result that God is calmer, saner, and more reasonably disposed towards humanity. To be fair to those who wish to distance themselves theologically from such an understanding of both what 'the wrath of God' and 'satisfied' means, amidst the passages noted above, along with (say) the endings to the parables of talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and of pounds (Luke 19:11-28), is material which has a sense of such an angry god and of such a potential means of placation or appeasement.

I want to suggest another line of thought which picks up on a cue in one of the key passages concerned with the satisfaction of the wrath of God as expounded in Romans, it is Romans 3:26:

"It [=Christ Jesus being put forward as a hilasterion, i.e. propitiation or expiation or atoning sacrifice, 3:25] was to show his righteousness (dikaiosunes) at the present time, so that he might be just (dikaion) and the justifier (dikaiounta) of the one who has faith in Jesus." [ESV].

That is, to be a little more precise (IMHO) than the ESV (and other translations) by noting the Greek words I have transliterated:

"It was to show God's justice at the present time, so that God might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."

This cue suggests to me that the satisfaction of God's wrath is the satisfaction of justice rather than the appeasement or placating of God's emotions (if we may so speak of God in rather human terms). God's wrath is God's response to injustice, so the reversal of that wrath requires the reversal of injustice. God is just so that reversal requires no change in God's action in the world, but it does require a change in respect of ourselves who have acted unjustly: we need to be made just.

Tomorrow I will attempt to take this further. Here I have not attended to the content of wrath as God's 'response' to injustice within humanity (noting that 'injustice' with reference to Romans 3:23-26 incorporates all wrongdoing, unjust relationships, and disobedience to God's commandments). I shall see what further thought overnight enables me to say about that!

16 comments:

Howard Pilgrim said...

Thank you for appreciating my responses to your first two posts, Peter. On the strength of that, I'll offer a third, and may even manage to anticipate what you intend to say next.

I agree with you entirely that biblical talk of God's wrath has nothing to do with his inner emotional state, but with the principles exemplified in his actions. So the cross was, among other things, a demonstration of God's resolute opposition to our sin.

As you know, there is a growing recognition among Pauline scholars that the language in Romans can be best understood by recognizing that this letter, above all others, has an imperial context. Paul explains the saving action of God in Christ by contrasting his reign with the governance of the Roman Empire. When Roman governors took harsh and punitive action against their subjects, this was envisioned as Caesar's displeasure or wrath. When they decided to take more lenient or tolerant actions, they presented this as Caesar's love for his people. The language of personal relationships and human emotions was thereby co-opted to describe what were in fact rational decisions about how best to exercise governance, and everyone knew that Caesar's feelings had very little to do with it. The deepest issue was one of justice: was the governor acting wisely, and were his decisions working for the common good? A just ruler acts decisively to reward those who do good, and to restrain those who do evil.

So God, in the early chapters of Romans, is depicted as a just ruler, who rules the world wisely and whose decisions are always made for the common good. To forgive wrongdoers without demonstrating his implacable opposition to their evil deeds would be unjust. On the Cross, God demonstrated not only the pain he bears in forgiving humanity, but also the consequences of the evil we have embraced. As a just ruler, upholding the moral fabric of our world, he sentenced us all to death. As a redeeming rather than destructive ruler, he took that punishment upon himself in the person of Jesus, so that he might forgive us without becoming an unjust ruler.

That redemptive, restorative level of justice is what sets God's reign apart from all the kingdoms of this world. This is the heart of Paul's gospel for an oppressive, heartless empire.

Outside of that imperial context, I don't see how any talk of God's wrath can be properly understood, and maybe we have to find different language to denote his justice.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Howard,
While reserving to myself the right to think further for 20 hours or so, I think you are largely anticipating where I am heading :)

Tim Harris said...

Hi Peter,

I have been flat out and not in any position to contribute any thoughts in response to your posts, or the comments they have generated. I think in this post (more so than the previous two) you seem to be heading in a more fruitful direction (if I am reading you right) - and while I concur with all that Howard proposes above, I think there is much more to Romans on this issue than limiting it to an imperial reading (as helpful as it is) - although I am not assuming Howard is wanting to limit it to this.

The danger is in pressing an anthropopathism in the direction of the caricature of a God who is moody and subject to emotionally derived conduct. In part response to Howard, there was indeed considerable discussion in the Gr-Rom world about what makes for a good king/emperor (a well established topos amongst the philosophers), where the focus is on the avoidance of tyrants whose conduct was characterised by their mood of the moment and self interest. Jesus does indeed exemplify the opposite, and there was a specific term in Grk to denote it, which Paul uses elsewhere (but not in Romans) - 'praus' - poorly translated as 'meekness', and not at all the same as 'humble'. It was a quality of a king not acting the tyrant - but this does not feature in Romans.

I am struck by the parallelism between 1:17 where the 'righteousness of God is revealed;, and 1:18 where the 'wrath of God is revealed...' The revelation of God's wrath at injustice is an aspect of salvation. The remedy (to summarise a much longer argument) is related to the renewal/transformation of the mind - a whole new way of recognising what is the will of God 'what is good and acceptable and perfect' (12:2) such that we share God's outrage at injustice.

Salvation in Romans (it seems to me) includes the satisfaction of God's right condemnation of injustice (all that is not just/right) - at one level, the great acquittal - but so much more than that. It goes deeper into satisfying the consequences of sin in relational terms before God (hence justification), as well as satisfying the demands of justice. Yet the greater framework is in seeing salvation in terms of the renewal and transformation of the world, and especially life as opened up by the 'one man Jesus Christ' in contrast to Adam - 'the grace of God and the free gift in that grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many' (6:15ff).

It is in the revelation of God's 'wrath/outrage' over injustice that the context of the saving work of Christ is understood: acquittal, satisfaction and reconciliation yes, but so much more - a whole new pathway for humanity and creation itself.

In other words, the diagnosis of the human condition and it's consequent impact on our state before a righteous God is both a precursor and integral element of God's grace in salvation.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Tim!
In different ways, but with overlap, you join Howard in anticipation of where my thinking is heading!

Tim Harris said...

I need to correct one line of my previous comment (4th para): it should read 'It goes deeper into satisfying the consequences of sin in relational terms before God (hence 'reconciliation')'

Tim Harris said...

I need to correct my previous comment (para 4): it should read: 'It goes deeper into satisfying the consequences of sin in relational terms before God (hence 'reconciliation), as well as satisfying the demands of justice'.

Anonymous said...

Let’s just take your points in slow motion:
You have so far written three erudite blogposts and received numerous learned comments, going back to Greek original, debating Trinitarian theology and its connection to soteriology, critiquing anthropomorphism (“anthropopathism” sic?), and correcting our best translations. You have presented what would be the only responsible practice from a preacher should we read about “the wrath of God” in a reading in church from the texts you present. And still – you are not there yet! You have not yet concluded the sort of sermon that it would be irresponsible NOT to have in response to such a text from the Bible. And yet, you continue to say, “I think it possible that Christians can sing 'the wrath of God was satisfied'”. I agree it IS possible. As long as it is, on each and every occasion, accompanied by the sort of exposition that you have not yet completed. Without such exposition each time this line is sung you are constantly in danger of misrepresenting and caricaturing the Gospel – in simple words: heresy. So yes, sing it at a convention where everyone present has a doctorate in theology, sing it after a sermon that includes all four of your blogposts and comments. Otherwise (a) change the words as suggested by Bishop Tom Wright or (b) DON’T SING IT.

Tim Harris said...

Anonymous - do a google search on 'anthropopathism'. In this context it refers to attributing human related emotions to God, and underscores the limited nature of such terminology.

Anonymous said...

You reinforce my point, Tim.
Only those who easily talk of "anthropopathism" are qualified to sing, "the wrath of God was satisfied". It has no place in the singing of an ordinary congregation. Step outside your study door and ask the first 20 people who walk along an ordinary street what "anthropopathism" means. Then ask the next 20 people what "the wrath of God was satisfied" means. Then ask the next 20 people what "the love of God was satisfied" means. After that, go and listen to 10 sermons on "penal substitution" and check how many of them are Peter's cricket bat "parody" (I'll put my money on: 10/10). In other words if your "interpretation" of "penal substitution" is the "correct one" call it something else. Abandon "penal substitution" as it has clearly become a parody (read: heresy). And from now on talk about the Carrell-Pilgrim-Harris theory of salvation. What is the source of the emotional energy invested in attempting to convince everyone (4 blog posts!!!) that the words do not mean what everyone thinks they mean? Don't words mean what everyone thinks they mean?!! Isn't that the nature of language - isn't that how we communicate? Aren't you arguing that round doesn't really mean round like everyone thinks, but it actually means square?

Peter Carrell said...

Golly, Anonymous, I hope those capitals do not represent wrathfulness against my non-satisfying posts!

I do not agree that 'the wrath of God was satisfied' is heresy. It may stretch the bounds of orthodoxy, but no more than some of, er, N. T. Wright's prognostications. (Incidentally if 'wrath' is problematic in the phrase and needing explanation, I am not sure why 'love' is less problematic and in need of explanation in the phrase 'the love of God was satisfied').

Anonymous said...

“Golly, Anonymous, I hope those capitals do not represent wrathfulness against my non-satisfying posts.” They are their to emphasise a word – I don’t know how to do italics, etc. But you reinforce my point: wrath is understood as an emotional response – you yourself are using the word “wrath” here in the manner 99% of people use it, in the manner previously you are arguing against. If “love of God” needs as much explanation in a parish as “wrath of God” we are in deeper trouble! I looked up “Anthropopathism” – a neologism from the Greek, meaning the current hatred humans increasingly have against the pope.

Rosemary said...

Anonymous obviously feels very strongly on this point, and I do too, although I take an opposite point of view. Sigh, it’s Easter, the most meaningful time of year for us all, and we cannot get it together. Our ONLY hope is in the Cross.

I think sir, you should confine those questions you ask, to Christians. We all know that the man in the street, those who have rejected Christ’s Love, cannot understand the things of God.

Then I would venture to suggest that none would say that the ‘love’ of God was satisfied on that Cross. They would ask how it could be? How can God’s Love be satisfied in the losing of His only Son? What on earth does satisfied mean in such a sentence? Then they would wonder if you meant that God only loved people and not His own Son. That you had so ‘anthropomorphised’ things as to make MAN the centre, rather than God and His Son Jesus.

No sir, I don’t think people are as ‘simple minded’ as you make out, it doesn’t make sense that way round, it’s a nonsense.

Having just experienced a moving Easter service, I’m very aware that as He has forgiven us, so we must forgive others, and not just any others, but those who hate us. Those who have betrayed us in the worst way, rejected our love, because as hard as it is to accept sometimes, He loves them too.

Peter Carrell said...

Nicely put, Rosemary!

Anonymous said...

Peter, please explain, simply and clearly, how God "losing His only
Son" is "nicely put"?! I find such a concept seriously distressing, and I seriously hope Howard comes to rescue with some helpful Trinitarian theology to unite God and His Son.

If this is the "theology" you support on this site, and you think this is nicely put, I fear to visit again - especially at a time when we seek to reflect on God's love not this aberration which divides the unity of the Godhead.

Rosemary said...

Did I put it badly, using the term ‘God losing His only Son?’ I probably have, I certainly don’t claim to be a theologian. What’s more I DO know that Jesus is sitting at God’s right hand, so in one way God hasn’t lost Him .. but He has as well, because Jesus came to earth, so now He’s fully God and fully human. Sigh, another mystery.

I wish I knew whether you’re considering me as a ‘professional’ or as the layman I am.

I may not fully understand the Trinity, in fact that’s an understatement, I understand very little, but they are One, and they are God and what understanding I do have, comes from them.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous, Rosemary

I think Rosemary's comment was 'nicely put' because she offered some well expressed responses to Anonymous' line of critique.

It is true that talk of God losing his Son touches on a nexus of theological issues, principally relating to the nature of Trinitarian life (as both of you mention). I would simply observe that the challenge of understanding the cross in trinitarian terms is the challenge of understanding how "My God my God why have you forsaken me?" and Philippians 2:5-11 (both of which speak of separation between Father and Son) relate to "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:20ff).

If God losing his Son is a difficult concept to grasp, then, in my view, so is the unity-of-Father-and-Son alternative, namely that God died on the cross. I suspect the theological trick is to hold them together!