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Reclaiming Divine Wrath

A History of a Christian Doctrine and Its Interpretation


Stephen Butler Murray

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, there was prolific misuse and abuse of the concept of divine wrath in church pulpits. In pursuit of a faithful understanding of what he calls a «lost doctrine,» the author of this study investigates the substantial history of how «the wrath of God» has been interpreted in Christian theology and preaching. Starting with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and moving historically through Christianity’s most important theologians and societal changes, several models of divine wrath are identified. The author argues for the reclamation of a theological paradigm of divine wrath that approaches God’s love and God’s wrath as intrinsically enjoined in a dynamic tension. Without such a commitment to this paradigm, this important biblical aspect of God is in danger of suffering two possible outcomes. Firstly, it may suffer rejection, through conscious avoidance of the narrow misinterpretations of divine wrath that dominate contemporary theology and preaching. Secondly, irresponsible applications of divine wrath may occur when we neglect to engage and understand the wrath of God as inseparable from God’s justice and love in Christian theology and proclamation.


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Chapter Four Divine Wrath Amidst the Rise of Evangelicalism and Liberal Theology: From Wesley to Ritschl 151


Chapter Four Divine Wrath Amidst the Rise of Evangelicalism and Liberal Theology: From Wesley to Ritschl There is no question that the Enlightenment ushered in an abrupt change in the way that Christian theology dealt with the issue of divine wrath. While the centrality of the human agent was uplifted, the role of God was downgraded to a secondary role at best, often characterized in the terms of a presence, rather than as a first agent and primary cause who superceded and upended all other agencies. Indeed, the Christian doctrine of provi- dence, upon which any enactment of divine wrath is founded, was found utterly intolerable by the Enlightenment thinkers. This led to a paucity in theological treatments of divine providence generally, and of the wrath of God in particular. To speak of divine wrath would be to embrace a con- cept of God that seemed outmoded, increasingly foreign to a congrega- tion who identified themselves as the central players in their own moral universe. This was a personal and social universe that withdrew from the chaos of the conf licts and wars demanded and implemented by religious authorities, seeking instead a solidarity and assurance of existence through scientific and philosophical reason.1 Indeed, the rational method was seen as a remedy to the violence that had overtaken Europe internally, and in its external forays into Africa and Asia. Immanuel Kant, who served as a 1 Miroslav Volf of fers a compelling discussion with regard to the Enlightenment’s claims for reason’s...

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