Tuesday, 10 December 2013

As an Evangelical - albeit an Anglican one - I have long struggled with the concept of the "Wrath of God". This came to a head in recent months over the modern hymn "In Christ Alone" where the stand out verse in this respect talks about how the "wrath of God was satisfied". I have swung both ways on this, wanting on the one hand to acknowledge that there is such a thing as the Wrath of God, and that it is a biblical concept, while on the other hand being very wary that this does not become the predominant feature of God's character.

It was interesting to read Angela Tilby's article in the Church Times a little while back on the subject as mentioned in the above hymn. I am not sure what Angela's churchmanship is but I suspect that it is not evangelical. And yet she writes in defence of the line and the theology behind it. You can read the whole article here.   But here is what she says about attempts to correct the 'offending' line:

"So how should we react to the theology of the cross in "In Christ alone"? I am unconvinced by the attempts to "correct" the authors, for example by substituting "love" for "wrath" in the critical line. Worthy, wimpish, and ultimately patronising, it refuses to allow them to engage with one of Christianity's most potent metaphors. Penal substitution may not be found in scripture, but it does have an honourable pedigree. It is crucial to Anselm's understanding of the Atonement; Calvin developed it, and it still moves individuals to tears of repentance.

Yet this deeply disturbing, even cruel, conception of what happened on the cross works because it is a metaphor. Taking it literally as a forensic analysis of salvation is simply a mistake. It should be seen alongside, for example, John Donne's "Batter my heart, Three Person'd God".

As paradox, penal substitution has great force. To imagine Christ standing in for me at the place where I am most guilty and in need brings about the kind of insight that can change a life. We should not try to conform genuine poets such as Townend and Getty to our theological mediocrity."

By contrast an evangelical, Tom Wright, makes a case for changing it. Here are a few of his quotes on the matter:

First on the doctrine of the Wrath of God:
“The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates — yes, hates, and hates implacably — anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully, and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.”

However he warns against oversimplification which makes God's wrath or anger His most prevalent characteristic leading to a tendency to split the Trinity making God the bad cop and Jesus the good cop as it were:
“This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn't much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent.“ You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’. I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire. So we must readily acknowledge that, of course, there are caricatures of the biblical doctrine all around, within easy reach — just as there are of other doctrines, of course, such as that of God’s grace.”

Wright is concerned to avoid caricatures of God as being ONLY wrathful and angry - as Richard Dawkins would have us believe - and quite rightly points to the fact that His wrath is an expression of His love. What he and Angela Tilby are saying therefore is this, don't emphasize the one over the other but put them together as two aspects of the same thing. Unfortunately I do wonder if "satisfied" is the right way to describe what happened to God's wrath when Jesus died on the cross? But what other word would do? Placated? Quelled? Deflected? I do not doubt that somehow God's wrath was answered by Jesus' willingness - and therefore God's willingness - to die on the cross for our sins, but to put those two words together "wrath" and "satisfied" does evoke so many unhelpful and therefore inaccurate images that if I were to lean any way it would probably be towards Tom.

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