Recently, one of my church leaders read Jonathan Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God at a Fourth of July service at my church. By way of introduction, it was pointed out that this used to be commonly read in schools as part of American History or English, but this is falling by the wayside. The sermon is certainly a sobering one, and one I think everyone should read, even if they disagree.
Around the same time, I had a discussion with someone who said essentially that Edwards was too "fire and brimstone". My response was to argue that, as far as I can tell, Edwards' theology is Biblical theology. Granted, in that sermon he uses some graphic imagery. But the Bible itself speaks seriously about sin and punishment, and, at times, uses very graphical language.
However, I have had a number of discussions with people who argue that, whenever we look at God's judgments, we have to remember that "God is primarily love". In other words, when we want to properly understand God, including his justice and wrath, we have to begin by understanding "God is love" and then apply that to understanding all his other attributes.
I think this is a fundamentally flawed approach. God isn't primarily anything. He is who he is, as in his famous declaration to Moses in Exodus 3. If we elevate any one of God's attributes to primacy, it will inevitably lead us astray. If we think God is primarily love, passages about God's judgment, anger, and wrath, will sound strange and foreign to us. But likewise, if we primarily think of him as angry and wrathful, we won't properly understand why God would send Jesus Christ in order to pay the price for our sins so that those who trust in him can be saved.
I think, however, that this is becoming increasingly common in modern Christianity. We don't study the Bible to see who God is, in all of his attributes. Rather, we focus on the parts that declare positive promises, or talk about God's love, because these parts are pleasant. And we gloss over Biblical passages talking about God's judgments, anger, or even hatred. I'm sure this is part of the reason Edwards' famous sermon is falling out of favor. It's no longer seen even as great literature, but as a harsh diatribe from a less enlightened and more brutal time -- a time to be forgotten. We make tolerance such a high ideal that we tend to think of God as tolerant, as well.
As a result of this overemphasis of some of God's attributes at the expense of others, we are at worst worshipping a false God, and at best have a very small view of what God has done in sending his Son.
I'm considering doing a series on some of these topics, perhaps blogging through some of Edwards' related sermons. But here, I wanted to point out this article on "Why you may not have heard about wrath, sin, and hell recently.". It's an old article from Christianity Today. I got the link from Pyromaniac. I don't necessarily agree with everything in it, but it does make a number of really good points. Check it out. Here are a couple teasers:
One of the most obvious features of new-model evangelicalism is an emphasis on recalling the warmth of a family relationship when thinking about God. It prefers to picture God as three persons held together in a relationship of love....
New-model evangelicals usually suggest that old model thinking came into the churches of Europe with the translation of the Bible into Latin. To the Roman mind, the justice of their law courts was the supreme glory of the empire. Theologians such as Tertullian and Augustine set the interpretation of the Bible in the context of a criminal found guilty by an impassive judge who pronounces the death sentence of hell. The Son of God was then viewed as the one who came in to pay the penalty so the criminal could go free. This forensic, law-court model was set out in its most rigorous substitutionary form in Cur Deus homo (Why did God become man?). Four hundred years later the Reformation would retain aspects of the law-court model of Augustine and Anselm.
Here's another good bit:
So wrath is more like a loving encouragement or rebuke to help us into (or keep us in) the fold. New-model evangelicals shrink from using the terrors of hell to scare people into making a decision. From the old-model point of view, that approach misses the fact that God can send us to hell, and that the only hope is to accept what Christ has done to save us from the damnation we deserve.
The author closes by pointing out that many Christians have probably moved in the direction of this new way of thinking without realizing it, and challenges us to ask whether this is Biblical. My hope, if I can find the time, is to do something along these lines in upcoming posts, probably partly by revisiting some of Edwards' sermons relating to these issues.
UPDATE: Part II of the series is here.