The good work of God’s wrath (a response to Greg Boyd)

It’s always interesting when someone else says something that you’ve said exactly the way you said it and then you want to critique it for the same reasons that somebody else critiqued you. Greg Boyd preached a sermon about God’s wrath two Sundays ago called “The Judgment Boomerang” that helped me understand some inadequacies in my own reflections on it. I agree with Boyd in very essential ways, but I disagree with him in one very fundamental way. So I wanted to lay out the unhealthy, un-Biblical conception of God’s wrath that Boyd and I both react against, then share Boyd’s solution to it, and then share my concerns with Boyd’s solution and what I would propose instead, even though I know I’m still on a journey to figuring this out. Bottom line is that God’s wrath has a constructive purpose in the universe and that purpose is on display right now in the grief and anger with which our country responds to the horrific shooting in Connecticut.

The biggest problem in the modern evangelical conception of God’s wrath is actually a philosophical torpedo that devastated Christian theology in the late middle ages from which it has been reeling ever since. Reformed Christian theologian Hans Boersma brought this to my attention in his book Heavenly Participation. A medieval philosopher named John Duns Scotus developed a concept called the “univocity of being” by which he claimed that God’s existence is no different than any other being’s existence. Up until this point, it was universally accepted in Christian thought that God is the source of every creature’s being as their Creator and thus His existence (whether it’s even right to use the word “existence” to describe whatever being God has) is not at all the same as theirs. Duns Scotus’ univocity of being concept essentially laid the groundwork for God to be viewed as an infinitely large, invisible, omnipresent “first creature” who made everything else at the beginning of time (like the Deist watchmaker) and has intervened periodically in history since then, rather than the Creator who not only started the world but is constantly creating every instant and every atom of existence. Most evangelicals, whether they acknowledge it or not, have a theology that reflects what I would term a “watchmaker interventionist God.”

It makes a world of difference how we understand God’s wrath when we’re talking about the watchmaker, interventionist God of the late middle ages and modernity instead of the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If we see God as not the constant creator and source of being, but just another being who set the universe up and intervenes periodically, then we come to view His wrath as an externally imposed, causally independent reaction to sin. If on the other hand, God is the source of our being and thus intimately (though transcendentally) internal to us, then the “punishment” of God’s wrath is largely the organic corruption of human nature that results from our sin, which is precisely the view of both Augustine (City of God 14.3) and Aquinas (Summa Theologiae I-II.85.3) as well as the most straightforward interpretation of Romans 1:18-32 and several other key Biblical passages.

God’s wrath is the violent response of His violated shalom which can manifest itself in a number of different ways that are all organic to God’s created order. The violence of God’s wrath does not need to be reduced to the “supernatural” interventions of an otherwise absentee watchmaker by which God is limited under the cosmology created by the combination of Duns Scotus’ univocity of being and the scientism of the Enlightenment which says, “Okay, God, since science can explain most of nature, we’re only going to call phenomena Your doing if they violate the explanatory scientific laws we’ve come up with.”

So when John Piper tries to speculate that an unusually nasty outbreak of tornadoes are God’s response to sexual debauchery and other such things, he’s operating under a “supernatural” account of God’s wrath that was created by Duns Scotus’ reduction of God to the “first creature” and the abdication of God’s sovereignty over all minutiae of creation to the scientific explanatory hegemony of the natural order. If we’re getting more tornadoes than usual, that is God’s wrath expressing itself in the created order in response to pollution that violates the harmony of His atmosphere. God’s wrath in response to some form of human debauchery would manifest itself in the degradation of relationships, mental health, or bodily symptoms of the participants. At least, this is the way Christians explained it for the first 2/3 of our existence.

All right so here’s a summary of Greg Boyd’s response to the messed up way that God’s wrath has come to be defined for modern evangelicals. Basically he makes all the points I have about God’s wrath being built into the natural order rather than being something God engages in “supernaturally” as a response to events. Boyd points out that many of the references to God’s wrath in scripture involve someone being “handed over” to the results of their own sin or further “hardened” in response to their stubbornness. Also in the psalms, when the Israelites complain about God’s anger, their most common complaint is that He has “hidden His face” from them. So the way that Boyd frames God’s wrath is to say that it is God’s “withdrawal” of the mercy by which the created order is held together so that creation descends into chaos. So it is basically the complete inversion of the modern watchmaker interventionist account of God’s wrath in which God imposes supernatural punishments from a default position of disinterest. In Boyd’s account, God punishes us for our sin by retreating from active involvement in our lives to becoming like the absent watchmaker that many of us think He is anyway.

The reason why I find Boyd’s account inadequate is because I see a constructive role for God’s wrath in creation. God screams through His creation when His beauty has been abominated. He is screaming right now about the twenty children and seven adults who were killed in Connecticut. That’s the reason that we have been stopped in our tracks, most of us being people who have no direct relationship to the victims. Our souls have been abominated by what was done. We have been punished by it as a humanity, even though those of us who are repulsed by it from afar should not presume that we somehow are sharing in the grief of families for whom this is too real to blog about. Still it has put rage into our hearts. I don’t think it’s wrong to call that rage the wrath of God against a horrific injustice. The wrath of God is the demand that is made when the blood of Abel cries out from the ground. We are called out by this wrath. If we are unable to channel it constructively, then it will corrode us like a powerful acid. If God’s wrath causes us to do evil to others, then we will only find ourselves more tightly covered by the wrath like a spider web.

In any case, I don’t think God’s wrath is only a withdrawal, though we definitely lose the ability to see and hear God when we store up wrath for ourselves with our sin. The other problem is that evil often doesn’t result in chaos. The wicked really do prosper. We live in a world whose social order does violence against the people on the fringes. Part of the privilege of those of us who live in comfort is that we are allowed to remain oblivious to the violence that our comfort causes to others in ways that could never be traced back to our culpability. It’s certainly not chaos for us and we can’t be accused of deliberately causing harm to others. But unless God does violence to our social order as part of laying out the foundation of His eternal communion with us, then heaven will not be a place where shepherds are the first in line to see the baby Jesus. For the sake of God’s mercy, His wrath needs to destroy realities that don’t seem chaotic or sinful at all to those of us who aren’t harmed by them but do cause harm to people who we don’t take seriously as people.

This is why Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. The rich man didn’t do anything to hurt Lazarus. He didn’t commit any sin against him according to the individualist, private property-shaped moral standard of 21st century evangelical America. But God can’t provide an eternity of mercy to poor beggars if rich men are allowed to be aristocrats ruling over them and expecting exclusive special privileges. So God’s wrath protects Lazarus from the rich man, whatever that actually looked like in Jesus’ parable, since there must not have been too wide a canyon between heaven and hell for the rich man and Abraham to yell back and forth across it.

In any case, I think the most important distinction to make about God’s wrath is that it expresses solidarity with His creatures. It is not an abstracted judgment of  a victim-less crime. Sin always victimizes somebody God loves, even if it’s not always direct or intentional in the case of sins that disrespect God’s harmony and result in subtler, long-term damage to His creatures. God hates what hurts the people that He loves. The main historical reason Christians have divorced God’s wrath from solidarity with His creatures is in order to justify a social order that oppresses God’s creatures. Frederick Douglass shared in his autobiography that the slave-masters who whipped the hardest always seemed to believe the most in a mean and vengeful God who judged sins from a vantage point of abstract honor rather than the love for His creatures that would make whipping slaves into a sin. The same obfuscation is at play when people of privilege invent politeness as an alternative morality to treating others with justice.

God’s wrath does good work in creation. It compels us to repent as humanity. It will not let us make peace with oppression and injustice. It will violate our souls until we find a way to satisfy its rage. So if the wrath is eating at you after what happened on Friday, that is a healthy thing. If enough of us are “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37), then we will not rest until we have honored the victims of this evil with a worthy response.

24 thoughts on “The good work of God’s wrath (a response to Greg Boyd)

  1. I know you see Wesley as our norm and thus any conception of wrath has to conform to his notion that we are supposed to “flee the wrath to come.”

    As a United Methodist clergy member, I do acknowledge that the doctrinal standards of our denomination include the standard sermons of John Wesley. My blogging has been occupied with trying to understand Wesley and his relationship to United Methodism. But in this particular conversation, I was more interested in trying to understand what you were arguing.

    I often have a hard time doing that because we have not read all the same books and it feels to me sometimes like you are making connections and leaping from place to place in ways that I am not equipped to follow.

    • “I often have a hard time doing that because we have not read all the same books and it feels to me sometimes like you are making connections and leaping from place to place in ways that I am not equipped to follow.” I think you’re just being polite to say that. If I’m hard to follow, it’s because my thoughts are not always coherent and I’m still trying to figure out what I’m arguing.

      The reason I blog is to figure out where the boundary lines are. Also, you’re a little more invested in John Wesley than an average “United Methodist clergy member.” You’re on the right end of the spectrum within our denomination in terms of fidelity to the 18th century, which is why you’re a valuable resource for me in assessing where I fall within Wesleyan thought. As I imagine you know, most Methodist clergy my age are throwing out a whole lot of traditional evangelical theology that I’m trying to hold onto. I’m trying to find a way of explaining the tougher aspects of theology like wrath, penal substitution, and so forth that addresses their criticism. I’m just not willing to shrug dismissively when people say that the way God is being described by evangelicalism makes Him look like a monster.

    • Anyone that reads the posts cannot help but notice Wesley is always quoted.
      Arminius and Calvin are not.
      Wesley studied both Arminius and Calvin ,
      The UMC united with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church..
      So why are the writings of Arminius neglected?
      It seems Wesley came to a middle ground or compromise trying to bridge the gulf that separated Arminian and Calvinists theology.
      Arminius was labeled a heretic embracing Pelagianism.

      When I read the life of Moses, the original apostles and Paul I see predestination.
      How could anyone come to the conclusion the life events of Moses were anything but predestined?
      Paul held the perfect credentials and background for the mission he would be called to do.
      Christ would chose the apostles which was a 360 degree turn from the norm.
      The norm was students petitioned the Rabbi (teacher) to train under not the other way around.

      Luther
      “The human doctrine of free will and of our spiritual powers is futile. The matter (salvation) does not depend on our will but on God’s will and election.” Since salvation is totally of God’s doing, the doctrine of election comforts those who believe. We can say, “I belong to God! I have been chosen by God. I am one of his sheep!”

      Luther called the matter “a mystery“ and discouraged argument of the topic.
      That is most likely the best advice of all.

  2. “If we understand God’s judgment and wrath as solidarity, that helps to explain why Jesus consistently violates any semblance of impartiality or equity in how he responds to the Pharisees who are ruthless with themselves in their pursuit of holiness and the tax collectors and prostitutes who have mountains and mountains of sin in comparison.”

    Guyton I do believe you are misreading the Scribes and Pharisees. They were ruthless but not with themselves.
    They were ruthless with others.
    Not all but many.
    Christ’s anger at the bad ones is clearly evident in the gospels.

  3. Interesting thoughts, Morgan.

    If wrath is organic to creation, then what is the meaning of all the material in Scripture about the delay of God’s wrath or the 400 years of the Hebrews slavery in Egypt before God’s intervention in the Exodus? It does not seem to me that the biblical account is always (maybe not even primarily) of a organic and integrated wrath built into the nature of things. I may be misunderstanding your point.

    You say every sin harms one of God’s beloved creatures. Does that remove from sin those things that are an affront to God alone, or do you see those as a kind of self-harm?

    Given the assertion that wrath is always in solidarity with his creatures, what do you make of Paul’s “objects of wrath” discourse in Romans?

    • Let me answer by way of a quote from Augustine:
      “God’s enemies are so called in the Scriptures not by nature, but because they oppose His authority by their vice. They have no power to injure Him, but only themselves… For God is immutable, and in every way incorruptible. Therefore, the vice by which those who are called God’s enemies resist Him is an evil not to God, but to themselves; and it is an evil to them simply because it corrupts the good of their nature” (City of God 12.3).

      So yes, it’s self-harm and thereby harm to the shalom of the human community when another victim of sin is not directly obvious. We make God into a mutable fellow “first creature” instead of Creator when we talk as though He can be an object of harm in the abstract. No sin is an affront to God alone. David is being poetic when he says, “Against you alone have I sinned” (if the “alone” is even a good rendering of the Hebrew). He did blaspheme God’s name by hurting so many people. But the dishonor of God’s name destroys shalom. It doesn’t happen without consequences for God’s creatures.

      If we understand God’s judgment and wrath as solidarity, that helps to explain why Jesus consistently violates any semblance of impartiality or equity in how he responds to the Pharisees who are ruthless with themselves in their pursuit of holiness and the tax collectors and prostitutes who have mountains and mountains of sin in comparison. God can forgive egregious sins by the power of Jesus’ blood for people who have thrown themselves upon His mercy; what He cannot tolerate is a self-justifying Lucifer intermingling with His sheep. This is not because Jesus’ blood is serving to create a perverse, unjust scale of retribution as it appears in the victim-less view of sin in which God’s abstract honor is all that is at stake. It is rather because people who have not put themselves under God’s mercy are a threat to the peace and reconciliation of those who have.

      • If “affront” means “harm,” then I need to choose a different word. I did not mean to imply that from my point of view the key question was whether we can hurt God.

        Your praise of Augustine stirs up cognitive dissonance for me. I had not taken you for an Augustinian.

        • Regarding the question of whether or not God’s wrath is derived in abstraction from His solidarity with creation, there is no distinction between his being harmed and affronted. God doesn’t need to defend Himself. He defends His name for the sake of those who fall under His protection. There is no reason to affirm a purpose for God’s wrath which is more primordial to His nature than His love.

          I wouldn’t necessarily say I was praising Augustine. He just makes the important point that enmity with God is an analogical description that represents our irrational opposition to the good. When we rebel against the good, we are “punished” by the consequences that result.

    • The awkward thing of course is that Wesley and all of the 18th century were living at the zenith of this watchmaker interventionist account of God. So we can’t canonize the 18th century. We shouldn’t say for instance that if people aren’t fleeing the wrath to come when they come to church that they aren’t coming for the right reasons.

      • I did not intend to open a debate about Wesley with my comment. I really was an effort to understand you thinking.

        I am not aware of Wesley endorsing anything like a Deistic account of God. He was no Platonist, but I think there are more than two options here.

        • The 18th century conception of God was heavily impacted by Duns Scotus’s ontological error. It is the basis for outright Deism; it is also the basis for a God who is not the ground of being but just an independent force in the universe, which is the kind of God that you affirm when you read the Old Testament at face value for example. I know you see Wesley as our norm and thus any conception of wrath has to conform to his notion that we are supposed to “flee the wrath to come.” I just don’t see a reason to frame our need for deliverance through that strictly juridical lens when there is a much better way of talking about the problem of sin in Eastern Orthodoxy that Wesley’s thought reaches toward but never quite gets to because of the polemical trench-wars that Wesley was trapped in.

    • Another thought. Sorry this didn’t come to me all at once. If we take the Hebrew scriptures at face value in their descriptions of God rather than filtering them through the more Hellenized thought-system of Paul, then we have to abandon the eternal/temporal duality and adopt a process theology. When we read about a God who gets angry and wants to destroy His people but then changes His mind after being persuaded by Moses, we can either call that an imperfect human representation of how God seemed to present Himself or we have to let God be mutable and exist inside time. What you can’t do is smash together the immutable Hellenized God of the New Testament with the more “anthropomorphic” God of the Old Testament and pick the pieces you like from each unless you admit that’s what you’re doing. This is not pulling a Marcion; it is simply recognizing that one side of things has to get hermeneutical privilege even though both are canonical.

  4. Are your referencing “The City of God” ?

    Don’t you find it interesting Lazarus is one named in the parable?
    The woman at the well, the adulterous woman, the thief and others are not named but Lazarus is.
    The name Lazarus means”God has helped”.in the Hebrew.
    To say the rich man did no wrong to Lazarus is not true.
    Lazarus would commit the same wrong ( in the eyes of Jesus) found in the parable of the Good Samaritian.

    The Lord looked and was displeased
    that there was no justice.
    He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
    so his own arm worked salvation for him,
    and his own righteousness sustained him.
    He put on righteousness as his breastplate,
    and the helmet of salvation on his head;
    he put on the garments of vengeance
    and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
    According to what they have done,
    so will he repay.

    Isaiah 57 & 58 is a good read and directly related.

    Are you a Marcionists?

  5. You are correct that Boyd pushes back against the interventionist, vindictive view of God’s wrath. But I think you’ve over-reached when you suggest Boyd finds no constructive place for God’s wrath in God’s world. The 3 minute clip you link to is only a small segment of his 40+ minute sermon that can be found on the church’s website. In the full sermon, Boyd speaks of Jesus suffering the wrath of God in our place. In contrast to how you’ve depicted his view, it’s clear Boyd finds the wrath of God quite constructive. What he finds *destructive* are portrayals of God’s wrath which fail to reflect the character of God revealed in Jesus, and much more closely resemble dysfunctional expressions of human wrath. Oh how desperately we need that distinction today, and how incredibly absent it is from the theology of the most vocal evangelical ministers who claim to speak for us all. We need more Boyds, and far, far fewer Pipers. To critique Boyd over the Pipers of US evangelicalism is to strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.

    • I listened to the whole sermon on the podcast like I do with Greg Boyd’s sermons every week. I’m simply taking issue with a point which he repeated several times that God’s wrath is a withdrawal of mercy and the allowing of chaos to reign. I think it’s solidarity with those who are hurt by sin.

      • Except, I can find nothing in what Boyd said that is mutually exclusive with what you’re saying. Boyd’s point and yours are perfectly complementary. So, you’re actually creating a bit of a straw man. He gets that a lot. In the past, I’ve found your critiques of Reformed theology very constructive. But there is often a social pressure to bring “balance” so as to not to seem biased. Well, we’re all biased, and there’s no getting around it. Boyd is right to reject the interventionist, vindictive model of God’s wrath, and we need more voices like his and less clamoring to project their dysfunction onto God.

        • I think you’re probably right. Perhaps I’m filling in what he left out instead of making a change to what he was saying.

  6. Wow. This is very well thought out. Essentially, God’s wrath doesn’t create chaos and disorder, messing up His own creation. Rather, it works cohesively with His creation, namely through those who live in obedience to Him to bring about change, order, and reconciliation. Your last paragraph hit home with me the most. You see, I never fell asleep when I went to bed last night. Because I am so enraged and saddened at the same time about this event in Connecticut. Angered by the injustice. And, saddened by the results… death. I got up to pray and asked God what He wants me to do about this. At this point, a prophetic voice. A voice of change and a voice prodding our brothers and sisters in Christ to change their mindset and take action. Thanks for this wonderful piece, Morgan.

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