Taking it out on wrath

Godface2I’ve been enjoying a conversation with an old friend about sacred violence and the Cross and thought I’d post a portion of it here. In response to my suggestion that the Cross is not Jesus suffering the “punishment” of divine “wrath,” my friend declared, “I don’t comprehend how one can overlook so many scriptures that plainly speak of God’s anger and wrath.” Below is part of my response. I be interested in any thoughts.

What often happens is that Christians assume “Christ” and “Bible” together comprise a single, composite center from which we move outwards toward the world – interpreting and evaluating as we go. What I’m suggesting is that this is a mistake. The hermeneutical center from which we move out to assess and interpret as we go is Christ, and the Scriptures themselves are among the things that get judged and adjudicated along with all else in light of Christ. This doesn’t mean that Christians are to understand the Scriptures as just another religious text, but it does mean that the Bible does not (because it cannot) embody the character and intentions of God as does Christ. “Christ” and “Bible” are not convertible.

What difference does this make? Just this – the words the OT uses (wrath, judgment, forgive, etc.) all undergo re-evaluation in their biblical contexts in light of the event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The dead-and-risen Christ becomes a kind of “reset” button by which we rethink Israel’s history and theological vocabularies. Seen in light of Christ, the OT only approximates the truth that gets revealed finally in Christ. Some of the OT portrayals of God may in fact get God wrong in some respects, respects we could only possibly be in a position to understand because we now read in light of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Yes, there are many passages that describe God as “burning with rage to consume the wicked” whom “his soul hates,” God as pleased with the “sweet smelling aroma of burnt offerings” and as forgiving conditionally, God as celebrating the “dashing of babies against the rocks,” as “laughing at the wicked,” and as “feeling indignation every day, ” and God as “no longer loving” a generation of Israelites because of their sin. There is no calculus that converts these into gospel truth or even anticipations of the gospel.

There are amazing exceptions to this picture as well. God is also portrayed as caring for Ninevites (even their cattle!) in spite of Israel’s racist disregard for them, loving and forgiving unconditionally, and as being disgusted by blood sacrifice. Rgarding that the generation of Israelites described by Hoseas (9:15) as “no longer loved by God,” Lamentations (3:31) assures us that “no one is cast off by the Lord forever.” We are also told in no uncertain terms that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice.” This latter insight cannot mean God desires sacrifice but only when it’s conditioned by mercy. The point (which we only finally understand in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection) is that sacrifice adds nothing relevant to what God desires which isn’t already present in a merciful, humble, and contrite heart.

So the OT is a mixed bag. It doesn’t offer a single, unified theology on many of these fundamental questions. It too is among the things that get judged and revealed in the light of the Cross and resurrection. That means terms like “wrath,” “judgment,” and even “forgiveness” which are variously used in the OT and which we inherit from that OT worldview, have to undergo a purging, a cleansing. In the light of Christ – the quintessential revelation of the character and intentions of God – we may have to find better words or redeploy the same words with radically new meanings.

My essential point is that there is no way to draw a straight line from the OT use of the word “wrath” (as that concept was employed in the OT by Israel) to concluding what the Cross must mean in light of that term’s OT usage. This gets the interpretive order precisely backwards. It is in light of the Cross that we are compelled to assess Israel’s theological vocabularies. That such critical re-evaluation of the Bible’s own pronouncements is thinkable is not a foreign thought we have to bring in from somewhere else. This kind of re-evaluation of the Bible happens within the Bible itself (within the OT and between OT and NT).

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7 comments on “Taking it out on wrath

  1. This is good, Tom.
    Can I tweet a link to it, please?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    Tom,

    Pertaining to the ‘re-evaluation of the Bible’, your friend may find my most recent article at Eclectic Orthodoxy a worthwhile read: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2017/10/17/sola-scriptura-holy-tradition-and-the-hermeneutics-of-christ/

    Jesus seems to indicate that it is not a ‘re-evaluation’ at all, but rather the only way to evaluate the scriptures is by/in/through himself.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mike H says:

    Been thinking about your post for a few days, especially in the wake of Robert’s article over on Eclectic Orthodoxy.

    There are so many interrelated and moving pieces.

    I highly doubt that your friend would debate you on the existence of a “Christ hermeneutic.” It’s a matter of what this Christ hermeneutic actually is and how a person arrives at it. I assume that your friend would argue that the ability to come up with a Christ hermeneutic would itself be undermined if a “re-evaluation” of the text is permissible. If ALL in the Bible cannot be simply received as the perspicuous Word of God, how can a finite (depraved?) human being expect to be the arbiter of the text? Why not just “re-evaluate” the things that you don’t like (as the argument goes)? It’s all rather fragile. Saying “that’s what they though” threatens to bring the whole thing down. And so it turns into quite a game of hermeneutical gymnastics to make the pieces fit….which also start to look a lot like “picking and choosing” if we’re honest The assumption here (which comes from outside the Bible) is that the Bible must be a certain way for it to be revelatory or “inspired”.

    I’m curious – has your friend read the series of posts that you did on “What is the Bible”?

    At this point, I’m on board with “re-evaluation” as the outworking of the Christ hermeneutic. That’s not to say that this isn’t fraught with risk…just like any other hermeneutic. But I see multi-vocality, the change, the wrestling, etc. as a feature and not a bug. This idea of rethinking history in light of Christ – seeing this slow, painful process play out in the very pages of the Bible, seeing how difficult it is to reinterpret your own story – is HUGELY valuable IMO. To me, this is a “high view”. A key point, however, is that a “re-evaluation” requires a historical-critical hermeneutic as a permissible lens.

    The way that I read Robert’s comment and article, a “re-evaluation” just isn’t a thing. It can’t be. A re-evaluation requires the historical-critical meaning to be the primary meaning – the historical meaning is the “original meaning” that can/needs to be re-evaluated. But if the “real” interpretation can only be garnered through the Christ-hermeneutic, you’re not re-evaluating at all. You’re only interpreting. In that case, there is no multi-vocality, there is no change, no resetting, there is only a positive interpretation of the text that MUST conform to the Christ hermeneutic. To me, this is inerrancy/infallibility with an expanded set of hermeneutical tools (allegory, typology, etc.). It seems a lot like Greg Boyd’s “deeper meaning” approach.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      I appreciate your engagement Mike, and the gentle push, thank you.

      If I understand Jesus’ words correctly (‘Moses wrote about Me’) perhaps we can see it as a positive interpretation which calls for a re-evaluation for those of us post-incarnation. Which is to say that the re-evaluation is in us and not in what Moses wrote. I don’t see this as a wholesale rejection of a historical-critical method, btw.

      I would add that it is not merely a set of expanded hermeneutical tools – but rather a method, for the question is how will we know what are the acceptable tools, and how to use them. This method is the framework of paradosis, a tradition that requires divine inspiration no less than the written account of it. Without tools and method, Irenaeus warns a fox will be an image of the king. This much is certain: whether positive interpretation or re-evaluation, it must be within the matrix of divinely inspired paradosis.

      The bottom line is a call to faith – just like those who read Moses in Jesus’ time, we either believe Moses (and Jesus) or else we reject their claim. The historical-critical method will be of precious little help with sorting out their claim. For some reason God saw it fit to do without empirical evidence, but as you say this is a feature and not a bug.

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    • Tom says:

      Hi Mike,

      Good points. I actually don’t take the gospel texts themselves to constitutes the perspicuous center of a ‘Christ hermeneutic’. I think these texts are the product of that center – the center being the apostolic experience of the resurrected Jesus. So that transforming experience – not some particular texts – is the center. We’re not apostles, obviously, so we meet this center in the form of the proclamation of the gospel (which we have in the form of the gospels), and that explains why we’re so into identifying the center as those texts. But technically speaking, the center (the experience of the risen Jesus) is the hermeneutical center that produces the texts. The apostles have to read the OT Christologically to be able to write the words they do.

      But that leaves the post-apostolic church with NT texts to have to interpret and they are not always so clear. True. And no one person’s reading of those texts can represent the core Christian truths for the whole church. Those truths can only be arrived at through conciliar agreement. The Bible belongs to the Church, not to any single believer, and only the Church can say how the Bible defines her. But in the end, the truth of the Christian faith is self-evident given its power to effect the transformation it offers.

      Have you read Parts 4 and 5 of the ‘What’s the Bible?’ series? Part 4, points 6 and 7 might have something to do with what you’re describing: https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2016/05/22/what-is-the-bible-part-4/

      Mike: “If the ‘real’ interpretation can only be garnered through the Christ-hermeneutic, you’re not re-evaluating at all. You’re only interpreting.”

      Tom: Right. Ultimately (from a Christian perspective) it’s not ‘re’-evaluation, like Robert said. It’s just the truth of how we relate to those texts now. But it would have been re-evaluation for Jews in Jesus’ day who had been interpreting the OT Scriptures without reference to Christ. Experiencing Jesus risen would have led to what could only have been for them a ‘re’-interpreting.

      Liked by 1 person

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