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.