Friday, August 12, 2005

Wrath & Atonement

The interesting topic of the atonement has been raised by Michael Pahl and especially Lorren Rosson who writes an excellent review of the book by Stephen Finlan: The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors which Lorren has recently supplemented with several comments from the author. While I'm not keen to move far our of my hole of Jesus studies, Scot McKnight is in the process of releasing a massive study of this in Jesus And His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, And Atonement Theory which means it does form part of the field I'm wading into...
I recently read a good discussion of this in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts by Joel Green and Mark Baker. While I can't comment on Jesus' view of his death just yet - given that Ed Sanders thinks it "weird"[Jesus and Judaism, pg. 333] that Jesus would conceive of his death as part of his mission and aims. I can offer my thoughts [which I'm sure will spark much debate around me] on wrath and atonement and possibly a better way of understanding the New Testament data in light of it's Hebrew context.
In the Hebrew scriptures the wrath of God is viewed as an expression of his will as he deals with sinful and rebellious humankind in the context of history. YHWH’s wrath, as an expression of his holiness, his omnipotence and his sovereign, kingly rule, is executed against the nations who have rebelled against his sovereignty (e.g., Ex 15:7; Ps 2:1–6; Amos 1:2–2:5). YHWH’s wrath is also unleashed against an Israel for failing to live by the covenant which YHWH established with the chosen nation (e.g., Ex 32:10; Num 11:1, 33; Amos 2:6), a work that Isaiah calls YHWH’s “strange deed” and “alien work” (Is 28:21). A day will come when YHWH will finally establish his sovereignty in history and defeat his enemies. That will be a “day of wrath” (e.g., Zeph 1:15, 18; 2:2–3).
But how exactly does God effect or carry out his wrath? It is my understanding, that God often allows us to merely face the logical consequences of rejecting both his commands and Him. This is seen in the Hebrew scriptures where Amaziah would [just] not listen— [ergo] it was God’s doing, in order to hand them over, because they had sought the gods of Edom. [2 Chron 25:20]. This can also be seen in Jeremiah 7:25–34; 12:7; 25:4–11; Lam 2:3 and Hosea 5:6-7; 9:15–17; 10:13–15. Also in the Hebrew scriptures, God can turn people over to their own hardness of heart (e.g., Is 6:9–11; 29:9–12; Jer 44:25–27); cf. Psalm 81:12.
I recently read Ray Ortlund’s book “WHOREDOM”, which given the offensive title, alerts us to the fact that God at times view Israel as a harlot, who had been woefully unfaithful and thus God let her face the consequences of her harlotry. Abandonment by the Ultimate Husband, God himself. God did not seek to arbitrarily punish people, even his people. But God’s personal character is affronted and spat upon when Israel worships other gods, that aren’t in fact gods, and ends up destroying herself.
The thing I’ve recently learnt is that when we give ourselves to other lovers, we get abused and hurt and this is what YHWH had to witness. His called, rescued and adorned bride being abused by other gods because of their own stupidity and unfaithfulness. Thus, the only way to pull Israel back, to embrace her again, was to let her go. And thus, to let her suffer. This is seen outside the canonical corpus in 2 Esdras 15:23-27:
And a fire went forth from his wrath, and consumed the foundations of the earth and the sinners, like burnt straw. Alas for those who sin and do not observe my commandments, says the Lord; I will not spare them. Depart, you faithless children! Do not pollute my sanctuary. For God knows all who sin against him; therefore he will hand them over to death and slaughter. Already calamities have come upon the whole earth, and you shall remain in them; God will not deliver you, because you have sinned against him.
Thus, judgment takes the form of God’s abandonment of Israel to its enemies. What is important to note here is that “wrath” here is the allowing of YHWH for Israel and the world to face directly the consequences of their own actions. It is not directly YHWH brutally punishing or abusing people, but rather God “handing them over” and “withholding” his protection so that they face their own consequences. God doesn’t want or desire to do this, but wickedness forces his hand of judgment. [cf. Matt 23:37]
This background should inform the debate of whether Paul understands the wrath of God as emotional in nature, or the necessary consequence of a holy God encountering sin. Any solution to the problem must account for both the judgment and the love of God in his dealings with Israel and humankind in general, and must exclude any notion of malicious or capricious anger on the part of God.
Paul also uses the verb [paradidomi, “to hand over”] in three important verses in Romans 1:24, 26, 28; cf. Jer 34:21, cf. Zech 1:12 where YHWH “withholds mercy” and cf. Rom 8:32 were God “did not withhold his son”. The statement “God gave them over” explains precisely how God’s wrath (1:18) is revealed: he lets people destroy themselves as they warp their own humanity by embracing the natural effects of choices that are contrary to God’s will.
C. H. Dodd, noting that “Paul never uses the verb, ‘to be angry,’ with God as subject” and that wrath when used of God is “curiously impersonal,” propounded the influential view that wrath is “not a certain feeling or attitude of God toward us, but some process or effect in the objective realm of facts” (Dodd, Romans, pg. 21–22). In other words, wrath is the inevitable result, or consequence, of human sin in a moral universe—a calculable effect of certain behaviours or attitudes—and not the activity of God against sinners (Dodd, 23–24).
A. T. Hanson notes that: “For Paul the impersonal character of the wrath was important; it relieved him of the necessity of attributing wrath directly to God, it transformed the wrath from an attribute of God into the name for a process which sinners bring upon themselves” (Hanson, The Wrath of the Lamb, pg. 69). This rightly stress that Paul never describes God as angry, and draw attention to the fact that Paul speaks of “the wrath of God” only in Rom 1:18, Eph 5:6, and Col 3:6; elsewhere he can speak of “the wrath” in an apparently impersonal way.
Paul views wrath as both a present reality and a future expectation. It is at this point that judgment and destruction intersect with wrath (cf. orge and dikaiokrisia, “righteous judgment,” in Rom 2:5). The present wrath is indicated by its present revelation from heaven (Rom 1:18) in allowing sinners to reap what they sow and in the threefold “handing over” (paradidomi) by God of Gentiles to their depraved life-styles in which heart, passions and mind are all given over to evil deeds (Rom 1:24, 26, 28) and an absence of covenantal relationship with God.
The theme of abandonment as judgment might be even more significant to explore with regards to God’s wrath, given the cry of Jesus (Mk 15:34; Matt 27:46). In the gospels this term is used by Pilate when he “handed over” Jesus to be crucified (Matt 27:26, Mk 15:15, Luke 23:25, John 19:16). [In Mark 15:15 it is the crowd that is “satisfied” when Pilate hands over Jesus to be crucified. The Father in heaven is not “satisfied” with this event, the crowd and Pilate are!] I wonder if McKnight explores any of this in his analysis, Jesus and His Death?
God hands people over to face the consequences of their actions. In Jesus coming to earth, God handed him over to rescue the world from its ultimate consequences, death. Instead of accepting the gift of God, namely Jesus, they annihilated and rejected him. Thus, indirectly Jesus takes on the wrath of God – he is taken and beaten by their evil ways which God has handed them over to. Instead of this being a loss however, God turns this into a victory whereby he absorbs the evil of humanity and defeats the principalities and powers. This opens up further reflection on New Testament teachings on atonement.
Thus, wrath is the abandonment by God so that Jesus faces the consequences of rejecting him and his ways. The Father abandons the Son to face the free will choices and evil which tortures and kills Jesus. This is the greatest sacrifice, because the Son embraced this vocation and saw it as his ultimate expression of love, both to us and to the Father of how to reconcile people back to himself.
Now this is only the first-fruits of my thoughts and I'm seriously not well read in this area, but I think the argument might have some merit... Thoughts? I’d really appreciate some exegetical feed back on this.


Ted Gossard said...

First thanks for the work and sharing of it to us.

Douglas Moo in his Romans commentary in the NIV Application Commentary series makes these statements with reference to C.H. Dodd's interpretation of God's "wrath".

"But the Bible presents God as a personal being, interested and intervening in the course of human history in all kinds of ways. To be sure, we must allow for the frequent anthropopathic element in the biblical description of God. The biblical writers often use analogies with human emotions to depict God, and we are wrong if we attribute these emotions to God in the same way as they are present in us. But we cannot avoid the distinctly personal language used to describe God relationship to his world. He chastises, tests, repents, rejoices, and, yes, he grows angry.

"But God's anger is not like ours, nor is it like the wrath of the Greek gods. His anger is like theirs in that it is motivated by an offense against divine standards revealed in his Word to human beings. In fact, rather than dismissing pagan notions of the wrath of the gods entirely, we should perhaps see in them a pale reflection of the truth about the wrath of the real God. In the pagan impulse to appease an angry deity, in both ancient and modern times, we can detect one way in which God has left in the world he created some evidence of himself.

"But if immersion in certain cultures leads people to interpret God's wrath inaccurately, immersion in others can lead us to dismiss the concept altogether. Modern materialism, of course, denies the possibility of God's wrath. But perhaps a greater danger to the church is the present tendency in the midst of the awakened interest in 'spirituality' to view God as a purely benign being. If God exists, so many people seem to reason, that he must be a good God who has our own interests at heart. Surely he could never be angry with us or do anything that might inconvenience us!

"...Ultimately a failure to appreciate the reality of God's holiness and its implication, wrath against sin, warps our understanding of the Christian faith generally...Reading and rereading Scripture is the only practicable way to soak up that biblical worldview." (p 65)

Moo, I'm sure would use a different approach in answering you, a believing biblical scholar.

I would say, why is God having emotion and letting people go to experience the consequences of their chosen paths- mutually exclusive? God in the OT is likened to a bridegroom who is upset with his bride. In letting her go, he is surely not emotionless. He is angered and jealous because his love has been spurned. Yet he would in the end draw her back to himself, because of his love for her.

Just some thoughts. Sorry for the length.

Gareth Naude said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sean du Toit said...

Ted thanks for the comment. Gareth, besides the fact that you didn't actually interact with the argument, and what it was about, please refrain from quoting scripture at length as it clutters the posts and makes the excessively long. I shall respond to your comments in due course.


Gareth Naude said...

apologies for at length quote

Ted Gossard said...

Sean, I would like to paste my comments from "Jesus creed" over here, but can't figure out how to. And I'm short on time this part of the day.

The comments certainly are not earth shattering, as you could see for yourself.

I do appreciate what you have written along with the sources. Was just trying to think that through scripturally from my limited perspective.

But anything you would have to say, especially in the way of critique of anything I said, I would certainly appreciate.

I like your blog.

Sean du Toit said...

Thanks Ted.
I think your comments are spot on, and I too would consider wrath to be personal in the sense that God is concerned about the people who are destroying themselves due to rejecting him and his ways.

I would concur with almost all of Moo's comments that you quoted above. I just wish I had my NICNT version of his commentary on Romans with so that I could interact more with him. I would also recommend one read Ben Witherington's commentary on Romans which is proving to be very helpful to me in preaching and teaching.

I'm glad that you enjoy the blog. It's a work in progress and so hopefully, I progress...

Ted Gossard said...

Thanks Sean.

Yes, unfortunately I don't own Moo's NICNT on Romans either. Thanks for your recommendation and for sharing thoughts from your work with us.

eddie said...

Amos 4.6-13 offers a different perspective to 2 Esdras 15.23-27. Here YHWH lists many of the things he brought upon Israel (e.g. lack of water, bread, pestilence, crop failure) in the hope to have them turn back to him. This suggests that not everything is a natural consequence.

Where God employs various nations to punish Israel, it can indeed the removing of his protection, but can this be said about his punishment of the nations?

In Romans 1.18-32 we have another perspective, where God's "wrath" is indeed his "giving them up..." to the consequences of their actions (vv.24,26,28).

We need not choose one perspective over the other, both can happily co-exist as God's action in response to different situations.