Nuechterlein on the “Wrath of God” in Romans

The word “wrath” (orgē) in Romans

Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.

Romans 2:5 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

Romans 2:8 while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

Romans 3:5 But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)

Romans 4:15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

Romans 5:9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath [of God]. [“of God” is not in the original Greek! The translators added it!]

Romans 9:22 What if God, desiring to show [the] wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction;

Romans 12:19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath [of God]; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” [Once again, “of God” was added by the translators.]

Romans 13:4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. [The “servant of God” here refers to authorities of the state.]

Romans 13:5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.

Excerpt from “My Core Convictions” on the “Wrath of God” in Romans

A much more subtle, but extremely important, corollary of the righteousness of God’s unconditional love for us can be seen in Paul’s reworking of the notion of the “wrath of God.” Often the first question in response to the thesis of a nonviolent God in Jesus Christ concerns what to make of the apparently violent God of the Hebrew scriptures, especially the common theme of God’s wrath. I believe that Paul is giving us, in the Letter to the Romans, a crucial response to this concern, one he no doubt needed to answer for himself.

Douglas Campbell has offered a bold new reading of Romans, in his groundbreaking 2009 book The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009; and now also in Beyond Justification: Liberating Paul’s Gospel, Cascade Books, 2024]. And a pivotal point in his argument helps cement a reading that students of Girard have offered for a number of years.(20) What Girardians have noticed is this: Paul, after introducing his letter, begins the body in 1:18 with a seeming thesis about the “wrath of God” — “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18) — and then works it out, with the word orgè, “wrath,” appearing twelve times throughout Romans.(21) Only that first time, however, does it appear as orgè theou, the “wrath of God”; the other eleven times the word orgè appears solo, that is, as simply “wrath.” Why? Because Paul is subtly reworking the “wrath of God” as a function of human idolatry.

Campbell’s reading, though, adds a crucial element: the words wrath of God in 1:18 aren’t even Paul’s direct words! Rather, it is Paul speaking the viewpoint of an opposing Teacher. “Wrath of God” is how his opponent talks, not Paul. Campbell argues (in ch. 13, “Rereading the Frame”) that the only thesis which solves all the questions about the reason for Paul writing Romans when he did is that he had to make a preemptive appeal against the Judaizing Teacher akin to the one at Galatia. That’s why he had to write before making specific travel plans. That’s why much of the language of “justification” is similar to that of the Letter to the Galatians.

But there is also a significant difference from Galatians. He started that church. The Galatians knew him intimately and he them. But Paul hasn’t ever been to Rome. They don’t know him, and so he must speak to the Romans differently than to the Galatians. They don’t even have a first-hand version of what Paul’s Gospel is about. He will need to give them a full version in writing. But he will also have to argue against the opposing Teacher with the disadvantage that he is there and Paul isn’t. What is Paul’s solution? According to Campbell, it is to use the Greco-Roman rhetorical strategy of Diatribe. And the latter always includes a statement of the opponent’s position, often with a “speech-in-character” effort to put things in the words of the adversary.

Also crucial to understand is that Diatribe (as well as sending epistles) was generally an oral performance with the speaker using different voices, or with more than one speaker involved. Paul would have trained the reader or readers to speak in different voices. The formidable task for subsequent generations is to isolate those different voices in a text that is intended to be read aloud in those voices. (For a more complete picture of this way of reading Romans, see “Nuechterlein on Reading Romans 1-3 in a New Way.”)

Campbell has begun that process with thoroughness, but it is a thesis sure to be debated for years. Without making a determination about the entirety of Campbell’s thesis, let us at least consider here the portion pertinent to Romans 1:18. Campbell argues that Romans 1:18-32 is Paul’s “speech-in-character” presentation of the opposing Teacher’s basic theology. And the words wrath of God represent the heart of their disagreement. Campbell writes,

In short, Paul seems to be stating in v. 18 — in a suitably pompous manner — that the initial and hence essential content of the Teacher’s position is a vision of the future wrath of God — of God as retributively just. And Paul does not think that this is the essential nature of the God of Jesus Christ. So he contrasts the Teacher’s programmatic theological claim quite deliberately with the initial disclosure of his own position — his gospel — which speaks of the saving intervention of God and hence of the divine compassion (vv. 16-17). Paul is stating here compactly that fundamentally different conceptions of God are at stake in these two gospels. Moreover, it is immediately apparent that the Teacher’s conception has no significant input from Christology. The stylistic parallel therefore denotes a deliberate contrast between two quite different theological programs. (p. 543)

If Campbell is right, this makes the Girardian thesis about “wrath” in Romans even more clear. Paul’s subsequent solo use of “wrath” is a contrast with the Teacher’s typical use of “wrath of God.” Paul says “wrath” because the most crucial and obstinate consequence of our idolatry is the kind of wrath we inflict on one another. Having trotted out the Teacher’s favorite forms of Gentile idolatry, he turns now to the form of idolatry that only an anti-idolatrous person can commit: wrathful judgment against other people’s idolatry. This is made explicit in the “therefore” which immediately follows 1:18-32:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (Romans 2:1-2)

This is now Paul beginning to counter the judgmentalism of the Teacher. When we judge others, in other words, it is its own form of idolatry. We portray our judgment as God’s judgment. And so, several verses later, St. Paul can deduce the logical consequences of this idolatry: “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). Wrath is simply “wrath” here, and no longer the “wrath of God,” because it can instead be seen to be the wrath we store up for ourselves, due to our idolatry of righteous violence. On the “day of wrath,” namely, the time when our human wrath comes to roost, God’s righteous judgment will be revealed, precisely as something different from our wrath. It will be revealed as a love that reaches out in grace as a free gift in faith (Rom. 3:21-26) even to sinners, to God’s enemies (Rom. 5:8-10). Those who refuse the faith of Christ — namely, faithfulness to an unconditionally loving God — will continue to live in faithfulness to the false gods of our own wrath and so will end in that wrath. It might be said that, on the day of wrath, the alternative will finally be clear to us: nonviolence or nonexistence. Either we seek the righteous, forgiving, nonviolent judgment of God that we experience in Jesus Christ, or we are handed over to the logical end of our own wrathful, violent judgments upon one another — and the wrathful gods we use to justify them.

Paul’s reworking of wrath is such an important matter that we should briefly consider several further instances of the word “wrath” in Romans. First, we have already glimpsed the problem here in this essay [“My Core Convictions,” part 2, from which this is excerpted], when we quoted Romans 12:19 and 5:9 above, while noting (in footnotes 15 and 19) the gross mistranslations in the NRSV. The words of God in the “wrath of God,” as translated in these two verses, are completely absent in the original Greek text. The NRSV translators inserted the words “of God,” and thus provide an inadvertent illustration of the idolatry of interpreting our human wrath (and the violence connected with it) as of God. Here I am arguing that St. Paul is subtly trying to work towards the opposite insight: that we would finally see human wrath, which we have formally seen as of God, as of us instead.

Second, consider Romans 3:5: “But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)” In this instance, inflicting wrath is explicitly connected with God, but Paul amazingly also makes explicit that this is precisely a human way to think — namely, it is idolatry. I can hardly imagine a more direct presentation of the thesis here. Paul asks about God’s justice, whether it can be seen in terms of God inflicting wrath on us, and then explicitly tells us that seeing things in these terms is our human way of thinking, a worldview deeply ingrained in our anthropology, not in God’s nature.

Finally, interpreters might still see in Paul’s thinking a connection between God and wrath in Romans 9:22: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction.” (22) The translation implies wrath of God by giving us “his wrath,” referring to God. But, once again, the translators have added what isn’t there in the Greek. Technically, the first his (autou in the Greek) is not there, yielding a more literal translation as, “desiring to show the wrath and to make known his power.” I would therefore suggest the following overall message of this verse as: “What if God, desiring to show the [human] wrath and to make known his power, has endured the objects of wrath made for destruction” — the “objects of wrath” being things like the whip, the crown of thorns, the nails, the cross, etc. In other words, “the wrath” and “his power” are being contrasted here. God has made known his power as distinct from human wrath precisely by enduring in Jesus Christ the typical objects of our wrathful judgment. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, in commenting on Romans 1:18-3:20, says:

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. (Sacred Violence, 101-102)

In contrast to our violent wrath, God reveals his power as nonviolent love, that is, as love which suffers violence rather than inflicting it.

And I would suggest that Gandhi and King were faithful disciples of God’s power in Jesus Christ in living out what they referred to more simply as the way of “nonviolence.” In short, I believe we have arrived at my first thesis: that “nonviolence” is also the heart of Jesus’ faith, the faith by which he was able to endure the violence of our wrath, because it is a faith in the power of God’s unconditional love, a power that manifested itself on Easter morning as the very power of Life behind Creation. It is a faith that the power of human violence can never ultimately defeat God’s power of Life.

Notes from Excerpt

20. The basic insight for this reading of “wrath” in Romans comes from Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 101-103, and James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 126-128, “The Pauline Witness.”

21. Romans 1:18, 2:5(2), 2:8, 3:5, 4:15, 5:9, 9:22(2), 12:19, 13:4, 13:5. The most puzzling of these references to wrath for me are the two in Rom. 13:1-8, a notoriously difficult passage that I need to more closely grapple with someday.

22. The crucial phrase, translated in the NRSV as “desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power,” is in the Greek, endeixasthai tèn orgèn kai gnōrisai to dynaton autou.

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