Natural Consequences (6): God's Vengeance

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The following is a response to David Nilsen about the exegesis of Romans 12:19. David was trying to argue that Romans 12:19 is a clear case of Pauline teaching that God retributively punishes sin. You can see the first portion of the exchange here. Below is my non-retributive exegesis of the passage, written as a response to one of David’s comments.

But first, here is the passage we are discussing:

12 rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; 13 distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16 Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. 17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”[a] says the Lord. 20 Therefore

If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”[b]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

[a] Romans 12:19: Deuteronomy 32:35

[b] Romans 12:20: Proverbs 25:21, 22

(taken from BibleGateway.com, NKJV translation)

At face value it seems like verse 19 must be teaching retributive punishment of sinners by God for their sins. But let us consider whether or not another interpretation is possible, and also if it is plausible.

David—

You wrote:

“The bottom line for me is that I don’t see how “repay” cannot include some concept of retribution. It’s possible that retribution can also have the effect of deterrence, but deterrence need not always include retribution. So I don’t see how it can be argued that repayment can have a sense of deterrence but NOT of punishment. Repaying or “paying back” is exactly what punishment is.”

It seems like the question of whether or not “repay” must mean “to give merited retributive punishment” in contexts where “repay” is negative will depend on a number of other factors about New Testament use of concepts of reward and payment. This brings us back to the issues I was asking about before:

It seems like if the New Testament teaches that virtue is its own reward, then we wouldn’t be able to understand “repay” in a strict sense of merit in all cases—at least in positive cases. If “reward” doesn’t correspond to a strict sense of merit, then it seems that merit language can mean something different but analogous in the New Testament. This would give us reason to think merit-language of punishment *will not necessarily* require a strict merit of punishment. We would need context to demonstrate that strict meritting of punishment is what is meant in talk of “repaying”. Do you think that the New Testament teaches that virtue is its own reward? That seems to me to be what Jesus is getting at when he says “rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven”. The blessed states of being that Jesus tells us to cultivate (virtues) are valuable insofar as they are what our union with Christ consists in. But they are not earned at all.

Do all instances of wage-payment in the New Testament involve crediting of merit by God? There seems to be some wage-paying that doesn’t consist in giving in exact proportion to what is due in response to the recognition of what one deserves. And if this is the case, especially with paying a negative wage, it seems like we would need an overriding argument from context to show that the meritting of retribution is meant when wage payment language is used.

You wrote:

“But I don’t see how that interpretation can be drawn from this specific passage. Your description, “We are being commanded to become the instruments of divine vengeance upon sin” is the exact opposite of what Paul explicitly states in this verse, and so I certainly see no presumption in its favor. Moreover, I would disagree with the original presumption that the way God repays his enemies is by blessing them.”

Paul is definitely denying that we are to repay evil with evil, and he denies that God’s judgment on sin consists in the Christian inflicting harm on the sinner. That is clear. And it also seems like Paul is probably not saying that all of God’s vengeance is accomplished in this life. Its not obvious that my interpretation is the exact opposite of what Paul explicitly states, because all Paul seems to be explicitly stating is that we are not to repay evil with evil, and he denies that God’s judgment on sin consists in the Christian inflicting harm on the sinner.

But the connection between 19 and 20-21 is more natural if we read it my way.

(1) Consider the contrast between what we are not supposed to do as Christians and what we are supposed to do as Christians. We are told not to “repay evil with evil”. But notice that this is not saying “do not repay evil with anything at all”. In fact, we are given instruction to bless those that persecute us, to live peaceably with all (even those who do us evil), and to feed our enemy and give them drink. And this seems to be Paul saying “repay evil *with good*”; the language may not be there, but the concept sure is. Surely this is divine grace that is being given through the Christian to the enemy. And so it seems we can speak of God “repaying evil with good” in verse 20. The concept is clearly there, even if the language isn’t. Given the idea of God in Christians “repaying evil with good” in verse 20, it fits better with the preceding statement “I will repay, saith the Lord” in verse 19 to say that the repayment spoken of in verse 19 is accomplished in verse 20. This also connects verse 20 back to 14 and 18.

(2) Consider also verse 21. In verse 21 we are told to “overcome evil with good”. The overcoming of evil/sin with good must be divinely-empowered, for without God’s grace no good can be done, and thus no evil/sin can be destroyed by good. But if God is empowering us to overcome our own sins and the sins of others, then this is a divine judgment upon sin. We already know that Paul can think of God as “condemning sin” (Romans 8:3)—which consists (at least partially) in breaking its power over humanity (overcoming it). It is natural to think that when God overcomes sin, he has taken vengeance upon it, or condemned it. And if God overcomes sin by using Christians to help those that hate them, it seems like God has taken vengeance upon sin by using Christians.

(3) Also important is the fact that the image of hot coals conforms to the general pattern of biblical pictures of divine wrath. Wrath is symbolized by fire (as Jeremiah teaches). My interpretation preserves a natural connection between “leave place for wrath” and “put hot coals on his head”, because the divine response to sin (wrath) consists in God empowering Christians to feed and give drink (the fiery coals that encourage repentance). Regarding the fact that the coals encourage repentance, Klassen argued that the Proverb is tied to a Egyptian ritual of repentance, where a man would return to the person who he had wronged, showing his genuine intent by having a tray of burning hot coals on his head.

Klassen writes:

The coals of fire were evidence in the original (Egyptian) ritual that repentance had taken place and for Paul they probably signified that the enemy had been turned into a friend…If this is true, then the interpretation so widely accepted by interpreters that the coals of fire refer to shame, remorse or punishment lacks all support in the text. In the Egyptian literature and the Proverbs the “coals of fire” is a dynamic symbol of change of mind which takes place as a result of a deed of love.

(“Coals of Fire: Signs of Repentance or Revenge?” NTS 9, 1962-1963, pp 337-350. Cited in Turner, Christ and the Judgment of God, pg 41-42)

Also important is the fact that God’s wrath is an historical thing consisting of the divine response to sin, and is not confined to the eschaton, as Joel Green would be quick to point out. (“Must we Imagine the Atonement in Penal Substitutionary Terms?” in The Atonement Debate, pg. 163)  So the fact that wrath and vengeance are spoken of here does not require that it be in the world to come only.

Also, do you think that God repays evil with evil?  Given the relationship between human forgiveness and divine forgiveness in the NT (we should forgive as God forgives, forgiveness is withheld from the unforgiving) it seems like Paul might think that God treats others the same way Christians are supposed to.  And this makes a retributive treatment of the passage awkward.

And given that Jeremiah explains punishment in terms of the natural consequences of sin (see here), why not think that Paul could similarly edit the meaning of “punish” to have a broader concept it expresses?

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3 Responses to “Natural Consequences (6): God's Vengeance”

  1. David Says:

    MG,

    I’ll try to respond in more detail soon, but briefly: If the image of hot coals does not represent punishment but repentance, than wouldn’t it be perfectly plausible to read Paul as saying, “Don’t avenge yourselves, because God will (in an ultimate sense) avenge you, so in this life show only love to wrongdoers in the hopes that it will lead them to repentance.” In other words, showing love and leading to repentance seem to be different from and contrasted to wrath and vengeance. And we are not so much being called to be instruments of divine wrath when we show love to evil doers as we are called to leave the wrath and judgment to God and show love INSTEAD. Notice that this would imply that we are not called to show love to anyone without qualification, but rather we are called to love in order that one might come to repentance. This is analogous to God’s love toward sinners as well, except that His love is effectual, so with His love repentance is necessarily brought about. In that sense we DO forgive as the Lord forgave us (and that’s very important to remember: Col. 3:13 says “forgive as the Lord forgave YOU.” This does not imply any sort of universal forgiveness without either punishment or substitution).

  2. MG Says:

    David–

    You wrote:

    “I’ll try to respond in more detail soon, but briefly: If the image of hot coals does not represent punishment but repentance, than wouldn’t it be perfectly plausible to read Paul as saying, “Don’t avenge yourselves, because God will (in an ultimate sense) avenge you, so in this life show only love to wrongdoers in the hopes that it will lead them to repentance.” In other words, showing love and leading to repentance seem to be different from and contrasted to wrath and vengeance. And we are not so much being called to be instruments of divine wrath when we show love to evil doers as we are called to leave the wrath and judgment to God and show love INSTEAD. Notice that this would imply that we are not called to show love to anyone without qualification, but rather we are called to love in order that one might come to repentance. This is analogous to God’s love toward sinners as well, except that His love is effectual, so with His love repentance is necessarily brought about. In that sense we DO forgive as the Lord forgave us (and that’s very important to remember: Col. 3:13 says “forgive as the Lord forgave YOU.” This does not imply any sort of universal forgiveness without either punishment or substitution).”

    That seems like a possible read. But your considerations don’t seem to undercut the arguments I have offered, just to show that there is another possible interpretation. I don’t see it as preferable. Nor do your considerations seem to exclude another non-retributive (like what I was initially arguing for on your post) read that is similar to your read–but where the vengeance spoken of is directed towards sinners with the intent of harming them, but where the vengeance consists in God exercising preventative justice in the eschaton (harming sinners in some way so as to prevent them from harming the saints) or the present.

  3. David Says:

    MG,

    Sure, that brief consideration alone doesn’t make your read impossible, and obviously given the presuppositions about God’s nature and the meaning of “wrath” you would be bringing to this text, you would prefer your read to the one I’ve suggested. But sans those presuppositions about God’s wrath (replaced with my own, of course) I do think my read is more plausible. Also, a lot of your argument seems to be premised on the fact that your interpretation “preserves” or explains what’s going on in the text, so if I’ve offered an interpretation that does the same, that would seem to remove some of the initial reason for wanting to accept your interpretation. And as I’ve said already, I think your interpretation is attempting to make the text fit into a mold that goes against the natural sense of what Paul is saying.

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