One more interchange …

Brandan Robertson was the first person to post a review of my upcoming book. We’ve been dialoguing back and forth about a couple ideas in the book. Here’s his latest:
And here’s my response to his response.
Hi, Brandan!
Great responses! I’ll reply piece by piece … You said …

Now back to point 3 of your post. You address my concern that you are unable to reconcile a God who is loving and wrathful. I appreciate and hear your response. The whole theme of Wild Goose this past year was “Retribution vs. Restoration”. And I heartily agree that it seems to me that most of God’s judgement in Scripture is restoritive. God is radically in the business of making all things new, recreating broken messes, and bringing life to the dry bones in the valley of death. However, I find that, like most issues, this is not a black and white issue. It’s not one or the other. There is benefit to both restoration and retribution. And I don’t feel that you have acknowledged that completely.

I’d be interested in the benefit that comes from retribution. If a person does something evil or unloving or unkind, and another person (or God) decides to imitate their behavior by doing something evil, unloving, or unkind to them, it seems to me that we have more evil, unloving, and unkind behavior in the universe, not less. And now God is in the messy business of mirroring human behavior. That seems a step down from what I’m suggesting. But maybe I’m missing something?
You wrote …

Hear me- I want to believe that all of God’s wrath is restorative. I really do! But my commitment to the Bible stops me in my tracks and points me to places like Revelation 14:11 where it says, “And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast…” or Jude 12 & 13 where it says “These men are those who are… wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever.”

If I understand you correctly, you’re bringing these passages in to say that because of the word “forever” (and ever), this is retributive punishment, and not only retributive, but eternally retributive? That creates the additional problem of a finite creature doing finite wrong, and an infinite God imposing infinite retribution. I think you’re right: this view can be defended with some Bible verses, but I don’t think it is easily defended in relation to Jesus – we don’t see him practicing revenge or retribution. In fact, he consistently practices the opposite – “when he was reviled, he did not revile,” and so on. Was he misrepresenting God? That’s why I think other interpretations of these texts are preferable – interpretations that highlight Jesus as Logos and full bodily self-expression of God.
You wrote …

Now, in our interview, and indeed, multiple times in the book, you teach about “Two traditions”, the peace tradition of the prophets and the sacrificial wrath tradition of the priests. You conclude that Jesus sides with the “Peace” tradition- to which I agree. But I don’t think that means Jesus was against the wrath tradition. We have so many examples of Jesus doing and saying things that we’re not very comfortable with. Jesus, of course, prohibits his disciples from engaging in war and violence- but that is completely different from God engaging in retribution. I just don’t think we can possibly get around the fact that God does condemn and offer retribution to those who have not submitted their lives to the Lordship of Christ. Even though we really want to.

Actually, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. The prophetic tradition, for example, includes Elijah and Elisha who had a lot of violence associated with them. And there are powerful peace messages in the priestly tradition. (I’m intrigued, for example, by James Alison’s interpretation of the day of atonement – you can hear it in his audio series, “The Shape of God’s Affection.” It’s a stunning reading of the relevant texts.)
Also, I am quite comfortable saying God judges and condemns. I think condemn means “exposes as wrong” or “identifies as wrong.” And I think judges means “evaluates morally” (and usually if not always, also means “sets things right.”) I think God does these things – and in fact is the only one competent to do so!
I think in Christ, sacrifice (in the sense of appeasing a hostile God) is over. (You may remember I offer an overview of the Book of Hebrews in the book, which I believe makes this very point.) So that dimension of the priestly tradition is done. In the New Testament, the old appeasing sacrifice is replaced by another kind of “sacred gift” – the living sacrifice of dedicated and non-conformist lives, the sacrifice of praise, and the sacrifice of kind and generous deeds to others, “with which,” Hebrews says, “God is pleased.”
You wrote …

In point 2 of your response, you argue that you are not calling us to simply disregard violent passages, but rather to acknowledge them and the harm they have done in history. Granted. I believe we all need to spend a lot more time reflecting on how we have abused and misused the Bible as Christians in history to do horrendous and unChrist-like things. But, once again, that simply doesn’t mean that because these verses have been abused, we need to disregard them, which is, it seems, what you are arguing that Paul and Jesus did. By siding with “Peace” they disregarded “Wrath”. I think that’s what you mean? Right?

Again, I don’t throw out the word “wrath.” But I don’t equate it with eternal conscious torment or hostility on God’s part. Again, I think God is hostile toward that which is hostile toward God’s beloved creation (which includes us). If we destroy God’s creation, then God is against our destructive behavior. By the way, I notice in Romans 1-2 that wrath is expressed in letting people experience the natural consequences of their actions. In today’s terms, that would mean that if we continue to disregard our responsibility to care for the environment, we can expect to have to face rising sea levels, drought, storms, and the like. If we don’t take our vows and commitments and responsibilities seriously, we can expect to experience social fragmentation. God isn’t like a codependent who enables our bad behavior by shielding us from its natural consequences.
Interestingly, the passages from Jesus and Paul that I cited in the text clearly do side with peace and disregard vengeance and related themes. So my question would you would be why you aren’t upset with Jesus and Paul for doing so?

I do find your references to Law and Gospel very compelling, I must admit. We are taught in the New Testament that the Law was useful, but the Gospel now fulfills and does what the law could not. Applying that to retribution vs. restoration is indeed fresh and incredibly thrilling to think about. But my question still remains- even in the New Testament, don’t we still see the “Priestly” tradition lived out? What do we do with the book of Revelations retributive scenes of God’s wrath or Peters references to condemnation and judgement? It seems that, while peace, grace, restoration, and love prevail as the prominent themes of the Gospel, wrath and retribution still have a place in the Gospel tradition.

I don’t have any problem talking about wrath as God “giving us up” to experience the consequences of our foolish choices. But I can’t quite see how peace, grace, restoration, and love actually do prevail (win?) if wrath, retribution, etc., have the final word. (That’s why I entitled a book The Last Word and the Word After That.) Sin does indeed abound, but grace abounds “all the more.”
On your question about the priestly tradition – it depends on how we define priestly. What I think ends decisively (again, I’d refer you to the chapters in the book on eucharist for this) is sacrifice (appeasing blood-letting). It is over forever. But there’s more to the priestly tradition than that. There’s what we would call the pastoral role – teaching, leading in worship and prayer, seeking lost sheep, healing the wounded, catechizing, and so on – the kinds of things, I think, that you and your peers are preparing for in college. May God bless you in your continuing studies and preparation!
And let me say thanks again for modeling such intelligent and engaged learning, questioning, challenging, listening … all essential to a wise student’s work. This is what good education is about, and I’m a better person for your excellent questions and honest push-backs. God bless you, Brandan!