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God in the hands of Angry Sinners (a review)

April 29, 2012

I’m feeling quite invigorated to see my interpretative intuitions vindicated by a fine article by David B Miller with the above (wonderful) title. It is subtitled “The Misdiagnosis of Wrath and Ephesians 2” (in Peace Be With You: Christ’s Benediction Amid Violent Empires, ed. Sharon L. Baker and Michael Hardin, (Pennsylvania: Cascadia Publishing House, 2010), pp. 234-242). What Miller’s title does is highlight how much the famous phrase by Jonathan Edwards stands in stark contrast to the gospel narrative. If Miller is right (of course he is!) than yet another pillar of ‘penal substitution’ is revealed to be one more of the pagan illusions that have held western Christianity captive for so many centuries.

From a Girardian perspective it is obvious that ‘children of wrath’ held rich opportunities for a metaphor of the human condition as seen in the light of Christ’s death, however some exegetical work was required to be done to subvert the traditional western reading in terms of objects of divine wrath, and Miller does the work.

Taking a lead from Leslie Mitton (who baulks at following through with a minority reading), Miller notes that ‘children of wrath’ can be seen as a construction similar to ‘sons of disobedience’ referring to the human condition rather than the wrath of God. And in this context makes good sense in terms of the powers that Christ has conquered in his death and resurrection (chap 1). Moreover, Miller contends that if the passage is read in its primary context of the letter to the Ephesians in which the work of salvation is primarily an act of peacemaking (chapt2) then the anthropological reading fits much better. What’s more the dramatic turn in the following verse “But God who is rich in mercy” does not indicate an about-turn in a bipolar God, but a contrast between God’s action in Christ and those he came to liberate. The cross is God’s response to human wrath. To quote Miller: ‘there is no need for a legal fiction to describe the cross. The remedy matches the need’ (p. 239). After all if Jesus is to be believed (in one of the three passages in the synoptic gospels he talks directly about God) God has always been ‘rich in mercy’ (Luke 6:36).

To highlight the relevance of this article to the life of the church as it rediscovers the centrality of ‘peace’ to salvation, I will finish this review with a quote from Miller’s article. Here he is commenting on the impact of Jonathan-Edwards-like images of God’s relation to humanity:

“Edwards’ locating of the problem of wrath in God rather than in humanity allows for the easy separation of Christian ethics from soteriology. One may in this model easily claim to be reconciled to God (I.e. freed from God’s wrath), while simultaneously dismissing the commands of Jesus to love one’s enemies. One can claim to be saved by the blood of the lamb, while preparing to shed the blood of one’s fellow human beings. If, however, the cross stands as remedy not to God’s wrath but to our own, then such separation is untenable. To deny Christ’s remedy to our wrath is to deny the saving power of the cross.” (p. 241)

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