"Children of wrath" and a puzzle over Calvinism

I have been following, and occasionally contributing to, an interesting comment thread on Alastair Roberts’ post Does God Love or Hate You? This discussion arose out of my own post about Mark Driscoll’s teaching “God hates you”. In comments today on Alastair’s post the issue has come up of what it what it means to be “children of wrath”, the traditional wording at Ephesians 2:3.

I realised that there is something puzzling about the meaning of this phrase. This is basically a Hebrew idiom, “children of …” meaning “people characterised by …”. More fully, a literal translation is “by nature children of wrath” (RSV). TNIV interprets as “by nature deserving of wrath”. But Alastair seems to understand the phrase as meaning “destined for wrath”.

The puzzle is what this means, especially for those who take a Calvinist position. For this phrase is a description not of unbelievers, but of the past state of the believers to whom the letter is addressed. So Calvinists, who believe that God predestined and foreknew that these people would become believers, can hardly understand the phrase as meaning “destined for wrath”. At least Alastair is not being inconsistent here, for he does not call himself a Calvinist.

It is interesting to see what other translations have here (only those  on my shelf significantly different from RSV, in roughly chronological order):

  • Moffatt: “objects of God’s anger by nature”.
  • JB Phillips: “under the wrath of God by nature”.
  • NEB: “In our natural condition … under the dreadful judgement of God”.
  • TEV/GNT: “In our natural condition … destined to suffer God’s anger”.
  • Jerusalem Bible: “by nature … under God’s anger”.
  • NIV: “by nature objects of wrath”.
  • CEV: “had made God angry … were going to be punished”.
  • NLT: “born with an evil nature, and … under God’s anger”.
  • The Source NT: “in danger of God’s anger”.

The implication of nearly all of these translations is that these people were going to suffer God’s wrath, but then something happened as explained in the following verses. It is in fact only TNIV which avoids this implication with “by nature deserving of wrath”.

My point here is that all the non-literal translations except for TNIV apparently contradict the Calvinist position by implying that God intended to punish these people, although Calvinists hold that they were predestined to salvation. Indeed the Calvinist position depends on 1:4,5, interpreted in an individualistic way.

The literal translations manage to fudge the issue by keeping the more or less meaningless “children of wrath”.

FF Bruce, himself a Calvinist I believe, understood the phrase as “worthy to receive divine judgment”, and appealed to 2 Samuel 12:5, where a literal “son of death” is understood as “deserves to die”. Well, this argument may well justify the TNIV rendering. Of course the TNIV rendering does not imply a more general Calvinist position.

But I can’t help thinking that certain translators have chosen to keep very literal rendering here to obscure the possible conflict between more dynamic renderings and their theological position.

This brings me back to the original point which Alastair made in a comment:

God loved us before Christ died for our sins, and because he died for our sins, his love enables us to move from children of wrath to sons and daughters of God.

The upshot of all this is that for those that are outside Christ, God simultaneously loves them yet consider them children of wrath and alienated from him. Certainly that is my reading of scripture, and Ephesians in particular. I think it was this hard teaching that Driscoll was attempting to convey.

We can agree on this, except for the last sentence. Well, Driscoll may have been attempting to convey this hard teaching, but by summarising it as “God hates you” he was being extremely incompetent at conveying the truth that God loves them!

But we must bear in mind that Driscoll calls himself a ‘four-and-a-half point’ Calvinist (unlike Alastair and myself). So his understanding of God’s wrath can hardly be that it is coming on the elect who are predestined to be saved, such as the Ephesian believers; rather it can only be coming upon “the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6) who are the reprobate, those not predestined to be saved. The logical Calvinist position must be that God loves the elect, including those who have not yet turned to Christ, and they are “children of wrath” only in the sense that they deserve judgment. I don’t see how Driscoll can claim that God hates these members of the elect.

Now in five point Calvinism God loves the elect and hates those who are not. I’m not sure exactly what the missing half point in Driscoll’s Calvinism means, but it seems to be something to do with limited atonement. Perhaps he denies the full limited atonement idea that God only loves the elect and Jesus died only for them.

So, why does Driscoll preach “God hates you”? Surely he can’t be moving away from limited atonement in the opposite direction, that God doesn’t even love the elect? Or was he simply assuming that most of the congregation to which he was preaching that message were not elect? Certainly that would agree with his failure to preach the gospel to them in any way. Apart from that I simply cannot understand what he was getting at.

22 thoughts on “"Children of wrath" and a puzzle over Calvinism

  1. “But we must bear in mind that Driscoll calls himself a ‘four-and-a-half point’ Calvinist (unlike Alastair and myself)”

    Out of curiosity, what do you call yourself?

    I’ve understand this phrase to be describing the state of sin that we were born into, which I think fits the TNIV translation.

  2. I don’t call myself a Calvinist. See this post for some of the main reasons. The point of my new post is to show the contradictions between Calvinism and the popular understandings even of those who call themselves Calvinists.

    It is wrong to understand “by nature” as referring to what we were like at birth. This verse is not teaching about original sin, rather that because of the sins we had committed we deserved wrath – and we committed those sins because our nature was sinful.

    No, Charity, love and anger are not mutually exclusive. Love and hate are. So the Bible teaches extensively about God’s anger as well as God’s love, but very little about God’s hate and not at all in the New Testament – except for the quotation in Romans 9:13.

  3. Peter, thanks for continuing this very enlightening debate. I won’t comment further at the moment on what I believe Driscoll was getting at, as I believe I have said enough for the moment.

    My reading of Ephesians 2, concerning this phrase, is that those that are now in Christ in Ephesus were formally the same “as the rest”: spiritually dead, sinning, surrounded by sinners, wickedness in their heart and under the power of Satan. Therefore without the blood of Jesus they will be subject to the wrath of God. It would be unrighteous to suggest otherwise. I don’t think “destined for wrath” as a gloss for this phrase should be interpreted as “predestined to hell”, as that makes no sense, as you rightly point out.

    So in summary, Paul is saying that they deserved wrath. But now, since they are in Christ, they have a new destiny and future, which is hidden in Christ.

    My own personal theology, which I have yet to develop, sees two “destinies” or “callings” over many people. One, which I call Fate, is what Satan has for that person. The other, their Destiny, is what God has for them. I suppose this is a very Armenian way of looking at it. A Calvinist would say that only for the Elect does God’s Destiny triumph over Satan’s Fate for that individual. I guess an Armenian would say that God gives us the choice to chose between life and death, between what the powers of the world offer, and what the Power of God offers.

  4. Thanks, Alastair. Interesting thoughts at the end, and even almost a way of getting round the double predestination implication. But I would go for the Arminian version: it is for each of us to choose between God’s destiny for us or Satan’s fate. The danger of this is that it gets a bit too close to dualism, two equal gods between whom we need to choose.

  5. Calvinist believe that the eternal decree of God is worked out in history, so it’s perfectly possible to view believers prior to conversion as headed straight for God’s wrath. I wonder if the idea of children as inheritors helps. We are all, by nature, those whose inheritance/reward is wrath. This, it seems to me, is quite different from ‘predestined for hell’.

    This would create a nice parallel also with children of God and one aspect of that meaning – i.e. God is our inheritance. By sharing in Christ we become co-inheritors with him of a Father-Son relationship with God. Hooray!

  6. Yep, which is why I cannot remain in the Arminian camp for too long! I believe that God pursues us, even as we spurn Him and attempt to avoid Him. So on one hand we have to make the choice between life and death, on the other hand God is ignoring our “choice” and working to save the Elect. Or something like that!

  7. Hmm, not sure love and hate are mutually exclusive either. Depends what we mean by the terms, in what sense etc. etc.

    I take it that when God ‘hated’ Esau this was with regard to inheritance of the Abrahamic promise. I’d want to assert that at the same time he loved him in the sense that he allowed him to exist, clothed him, fed him, gave him a family, sustained his being, allowed him to enjoy the gifts of the creation.

    We can properly talk of God hating things and people, so long as we define it properly. But obviously we must also go with the balance and emphasis of scripture which is not a focus on hate as a bunch of other things. Something can be totally true, and in fact something we should believe and teach, yet at the same time our believing and teaching should be shaped by the tone and emphases of the bible.

  8. Pete, thanks for your comments.

    I realised I had not done justice to Romans 9:13, and Malachi 1:2,3 which it quotes. But I think there is a special hyperbolic sense of “hate” when used in parallel with “love” in this kind of context, also in Luke 14:26 and perhaps 16:13 || Matthew 6:24, where “hate” must mean something like “love less”.

    Perhaps when we read of God hating people it is always to be read as hyperbole, in the Bible as well as from Driscoll.

  9. There certainly is a danger if we automatically carry over everything we associate with the word ‘hate’ to bible descriptions of God as hating. Though I guess that’s true of ‘love’ too.

    Whatever God’s ‘hate’ is like, it isn’t incompatible with his other attributes, but rather totally one with his love, justice, holiness, knowledge, will, holiness etc.

    In some respects I guess ‘hate’ in the texts above is to do with actions, and that by way of contrast with actions towards another which are described as love. However, I’d be hesitant to say that these actions were disconnected from God’s emotional life – his love and his hate towards Jacob and esau respectively must be a reflection of his emotions too. Neither set of actions or dispositions are ‘dispassionate’ in that sense.

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  11. No, Charity, love and anger are not mutually exclusive. Love and hate are. So the Bible teaches extensively about God’s anger as well as God’s love, but very little about God’s hate and not at all in the New Testament – except for the quotation in Romans 9:13.

    Thanks for your answer, Peter. I would agree with this. I think that often people do oppose love and anger, but I don’t believe that holds up either biblically or philosophically.

  12. “It is wrong to understand “by nature” as referring to what we were like at birth. This verse is not teaching about original sin, rather that because of the sins we had committed we deserved wrath – and we committed those sins because our nature was sinful.”

    I’m uncomfortable with that last statement. I think that it runs the risk of appear that God created something sinful. While I doubt that you would say that, the statement could be interpreted that way.

    I don’t think that this verse teaches original sin either. I honestly don’t know if I accept the idea of original sin. If you read, Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, I think his explanation does well in interpreting both Paul and Christ.

  13. Mike, I don’t accept the Augustinian idea of original sin, that people are born with the guilt of Adam’s sin. But I do believe (as much from observation as from the Bible) that people are born with some kind of sinful nature which leads them to sin and to incur guilt. I don’t think we can claim that this is purely a matter of the environment.

    On the other hand, the Greek concept of fusis (or physis) “nature” is a difficult one, and not the same as the modern English one. This is clear from 1 Corinthians 11:14-15, where modern readers tend to answer “No, nature doesn’t teach us that at all”. Some would argue similarly for the use of this word in Romans 1:26, “unnatural” is literally “beside fusis“. But in Galatians 2:15 the sense is clearly “by birth”. The word seems to imply the original state of something, but not necessarily the perfection of the divine intention for it.

  14. I’m not impressed with Augustine on original sin either.

    Have you ever read any Eastern Orthodox writings on this topic?

    Timothy (now Kalistos) Ware’s The Orthodox Way is very good.

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  16. I’m jumping in late so I’ve only skimmed the previous comments, but two comments of my own.

    First, I am not a Calvinist, though I have some sympathies that direction. But reading Ephesians 2:3 I don’t see the problem for Calvinism. As Pete mentioned before, what one is characterized by in one’s nature does not speak of what will ultimately happen. Calvinists and Arminians would generally agree in the sinfulness of man and that this sin brings the righteous response of God’s wrath and judgment. When a person is saved, through Christ they are rescued from judgment and because of Christ’s righteousness they are kept from God’s wrath (I’ll try not to inch too close to the justification debates here…). Even if a person has been chosen for salvation, that person is not always saved and before salvation has not yet been rescued and kept in Christ and as such would fall under Eph. 2:3. This is no challenge to Calvinism.

    Second, on have vs. love, wrath, etc. In understanding passages where God speaks of hating certain individuals, and in calling on us to do the same, I’ve found helpful those explanations which say that in biblical language, God’s love means those chosen for service (in my theological framework, that would be all individuals who accept salvation in Christ) and God’s hate means rejecting others. Jacob I have loved means that God’s work would progress through Jacob, while Esau was rejected. God did indeed use Esau and his descendants, but not as willing participants in his plan.

    And when Jesus tells us to hate father, mother, wife, child, etc, I think he means something similar but a little bit reversed – the primary object of our service is Christ, we focus on him in what we do. Through him we serve others, but in serving others we are primarily serving God.

  17. Mike, I have to admit that I haven’t read anything by the Eastern Orthodox on this, or in fact on anything much at all by them. I wish I had time to read all the interesting things there are out there.

    Chris, I agree that “what one is characterized by in one’s nature does not speak of what will ultimately happen”. But some of the translations imply that wrath is what would have ultimately happened. Thanks for your observations on hate, which are helpful, although no justification for preaching “God hates you”.

  18. I frequently disagree with Driscoll. Probably agree/disagree on a 50% rate. But I don’t think Driscoll is representative of any group. I have had the impression that on here Driscoll is presented as a typical example of the Calvinist when he is not. He is sort of in his own class, and I’m rather glad for that. Some of the good things he says are really quite good, but some of the bad things he says are downright stupid and I’ve never quite figured out if he really believes what he is saying, or if he means to say something else but just communicates it really badly. I hopefully suspect the latter.

  19. if you ever get a chance…

    Timothy (Kalistos) Ware has written a great book called The Orthodox Way.

    I don’t agree with everything he writes, but its all very thought provoking and often rather beautiful.

  20. Sir,
    I think that God neither love nor hate the peoples, does he hav only same job 4 hating or loving?, rather he may hav lots of work.

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