03 December 2006

The Wrath of God

Paul Nuechterlein's website, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary quotes Robert Hamerton-Kelly's very interesting take on divine wrath:

...the wrath revealed in the gospel is not the divine vengeance that should have fallen on us falling instead on Jesus, but rather the divine nonresistance to human evil (cf. Matt 5:39), God’s willingness to suffer violence rather than defend himself or retaliate. It is the permission granted us by God to afflict ourselves unknowingly; it is the divine nonresistance to human evil. It is God’s unwillingness to intervene in the process of action and consequence in the human world by which we set up and operate the system of sacred violence, and so paradoxically a sign of love as the refusal to abridge our freedom and a respect for our choices even when they are catastrophic.
There are interesting connections here with theodicy and free will.

For those not familiar with the Girardian concept of "sacred violence", the basic premise is that all human societies maintain internal cohesion by first identifying and then expelling/murdering a scapegoat. The completion of the violence against the scapegoat results in a temporary and false "peace" for members of the "in group" as they contemplate ultimate matters of life and death in the wake of the violence. But sacred violence does not last and must be repeated over and over in order to keep the "peace".

The concept of sacred violence and its inability to bring about permanent peace is why I am increasingly coming to reject penal substitionary atonement as a legitimate theory of atonement. PSA seems to substitute the temporary, human, sinful tool of "sacred violence" for the divine and permanent tool of God's "Shalom".

The idea of "God's wrath" essentially being His refusal to interfere in our human, violent wrath is intriguing. It is certainly consistent with the commentaries on Matthew 13 - the Lectionary reading a fortnight ago - which insisted that "wars and rumours of wars" originate in human society, not in God.


Anonymous said...

Interesting! As you already know, James Alison write a lot on this subject. There was also an article about a non-atonement way of looking at things, from Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J. - link

crystal said...

OOps - that was me.

PamBG said...

I was wondering if it was you, Crystal. Thanks for the link to the Overberg article. :-)

There's an interesting congruence here in that, after writing this post yesterday, I went to an evening service to hear God's love expressed in terms of "God loving us so much, that he gives us radical freedom". I don't think that actually contradicts this post, but seems to serve to support it. In my view, anyway.

Sandalstraps said...

Interesting. I'll have to read more from both authors on this subject.

I've long wrestled with concepts of God which include "wrath," as is evident from this. I've never tried, however, to reconcile our tradition of a sometimes wrathful God with my intuition that if God is truly God then God cannot be wrathful. I'll need to ponder this for quite some time to see if this creative synthesis works.

Thanks for pointing the way.

PamBG said...

Sandalstraps, I didn't actually know about the specifics of your history of having left ministry. I'm assuming that this congregation was not in New Orleans? Your sermon would have been well appreciated by any congregation to which I have ever preached, either in the circuit that sent me or here in Kidderminister.

I know that the application of the Girardian anthropology to Christian theology has been enormously helpful to me in putting these "puzzle pieces" of theology together. Websites that might be helpful are: Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Preaching Peace, and the James Alison website.

I don't think I know your denominational background, but I do believe that one has to go down a catholic / Arminian theological route rather than a Calvinist one. I appreciate the Calvinist desire to glorify God, but I think it goes over the top and then we get into all sorts of theological "trouble" that does not jive with the biblical witness, in my view.

When I get a chance, I might try to post an old sermon that I did right after the Indonesian tidal wave.

Sandalstraps said...


I am a United Methodist. I served a student appointment at a rural church in the Kentucky Conference.

Methodists in America are a very different lot. We are much more a part of what I call American cultural evangelicalism, a fusion of fundamentalism and conservative politics. Even still, the church I served was not very representative of Methodism in Kentucky. They more closely identified themselves with Southern Baptists. The only thing Methodist about them was their connectional structure, and they constantly rebelled against that.

I left pastoral ministry after the conflict which followed that sermon, but not because of it. At my blog there are other pieces to the story, but the short version is that I resigned that pastorate after I could no longer take the emotional and spiritual abuse that was heaped on me daily. After resigning that pastorate, my wife asked that I not accept another one. She vowed that she would never again go through that kind of ordeal, and even very nearly lost her faith.

We then made a joint decision for me to withdraw my candidacy for ordination, and eventually landed at a lovely liberal, urban, multicultural church where I serve as the Education Team chair and she leads the Children's Ministry. We are both much happier in purely lay ministry rolls.

I share your misgivings of Calvinism, though studying it in a Presbyterian Seminary has made me a little more charitable towards it. I guess I no longer see it as an out and out heresy, though for the life of me I still can't see why anyone would be attracted to it. I don't suppose that's too charitable, is it?

PamBG said...

Sandalstraps, I was never a UM but I've had correspondence on discussion groups with UMs and I got the impression that much of the UMC is as you described although I've also found many people with ideas similar to my own.

It sounds like a horrible experience and I'm sorry that you had to go through that as a young couple. It sounds like it was a thoroughly inappropriate congregation for a student minister (I had a pretty difficult Student Ministry myself, which I'm not going to discuss anywhere on the web, so I sympathise - but nothing like that.)

On Calvinism, I just think it's wrong and mistaken about the nature of free will. If that's intolerant, then I guess I am.

Sandalstraps said...


The United Methodist Church is a difficult denomination to pin down, because it is so diverse. The Kentucky Conference is fairly conservative, even by American standards. The West Ohio Conference, however, can often be beyond liberal to the point of not being objectively recognizable as Christian. Most Conferences fall somewhere in between the two positions.

Our denomination is, for this reason, on the brink of a split. The last time we split was over slavery. This time the presenting issue is how to treat the subject of homosexuality, and how to pastorally treat gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and other such individuals, and to what extent such individuals can be included both in the church and in the leadership structure of the church. I suspect, however, that while this is the presenting issue because it is such a polarizing cultural issue, the deeper issue is how we read the Bible.

Conservatives try to frame this as a question of Biblical authority: is the Bible the word of God, true and binding on all believers, or isn't it? Liberals, on the other hand, say it isn't that simple. Some deny Biblical authority at all, treating the Bible like just another book, to be treated like any other ancient manuscript which records humanities stumbling quest for the truth of God. Others still at least pay lip service to the spiritual authority of the Bible while also decrying the literalism so prevalent among the conservatives, who yank passages out of their textual, cultural, linguistic, and historical contexts and apply them willy nilly to modern issues.

In any event, it is difficult to see my denomination as a cohesive group. We are bonded by a common Wesleyan heritage and a connectional structure, but those bonds are splintering, leaving only a series of bad compromises and political alliances. As such it is difficult to in any way characterize United Methodism as a whole. Rather, we can only speak of regional trends, as some regions move in the direction of my former congregation while others rebel too far against that vision of the church, leaving the distinctly Christian character of their faith behind.

I can, however, much more closely relate to those who all but abandon the distinctly Christian character of the faith, because I carry the scars of the opposite error. And, of course, I am very much a pluralist, which allows for a great deal of compromise in that area.

But now we've highjacked the discussion away from a lovely new approach to atonement theology.

PamBG said...

Sandalstraps, I actually have a bibliography on the subject of non-violent atonement. It's for part of my work on my MA dissertation.

Happy to email it to you if you're interested.

Sandalstraps said...


Color me interested.

PamBG said...

I can, however, much more closely relate to those who all but abandon the distinctly Christian character of the faith, because I carry the scars of the opposite error

It's hard to know how to pursue these sorts of "divergent" conversations on a blog. I have no interest in having a primary post on the subject of "How I have been hurt by conservative Christianty", but I have been there too.

I went to a fundamentalist day-school and church as a child (theologically fundamentalist and actually a denomination committed to the study of theology - not "fundamentalist" in the pejorative sense of the word). The vast majority of the people I went to school with are no longer practicing Christians.