Vengeance is Mine: A Biblical smackdown on vigilante justice

Ethics justice Theology / Biblical Studies

When confronted with repugnant crimes against other people – especially those we care about – is it right to take matters into our own hands and violently repay those who have wronged us or those we care about? Is there a particular answer to this question that we can call biblical?

At the risk of over-dramatising, It grieves me that there is even disagreement among sincere Christians on the right answer to this question. There shouldn’t be. Don’t get me wrong – I think that if an action is immoral then it is immoral for us all, whether we are Christians or not. There isn’t a separate set of moral facts for Christians. But Christians, it seems to me, have – in addition to the moral resources that everyone else has access to – moral teaching in Scripture and a clear call to pursue a holy life that should cry out to them that this way of acting is wrong. Until quite recently I acted on the assumption that committed Christians of the non-crazy sort would all immediately answer this question the same way. However, a recent discussion drove home again for me the fact that there exists a culture among some evangelicals (and among people in general, for that matter) that is deeply wedded to the notion of a personal right to violence as the default reaction to evil. At the risk of stereotyping, these people tend to be men rather than women, and they tend to be American. I make no judgement just now about why this is the case, but that is my anecdotal experience. As I have made quite clear in the past (and will again in the near future when I interact with the work of Preston Sprinkle), I am not a pacifist. That is a different issue. Setting aside the question of whether or not force against others is ever justified (I maintain that sometimes it is), let me lay the groundwork by re-tracing the steps that prompted me to make these comments.

Here’s the scenario that I was presented with, based on a news story: A father enters his son’s room and sees a young man – a man known to the family – sexually molesting his son. Immediately incensed, the father rushes in, grabs the young man and throws him to the floor. The young man knows that the gig is up and he does not flee or fight. The father knows that there is no longer a threat to his son, but he is so angry that he does not care. He kicks and punches the man on the floor until he is badly battered, lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood. He then phones the police and tells them that he has beaten the man unconscious for them and they can come and collect him.

There is no question as to whether or not the father knew that the man was guilty. He was caught red-handed. All parties to the discussion are agreed that the man did not bash the offender this way because it was necessary to defend his son. On this occasion the threat to his son was defused fairly easily and quickly (in fact my interlocutors believed that the mere presence of the father would have been enough to remove the threat of further harm to his son). All parties to the discussion agree that the man kicked and punched this man on the floor knowing that the man was now no significant threat to anybody, and that the father did this in order to exact revenge. The father was paying this man back for what he did.

These are the facts accepted by everyone who took part in the discussion that prompted me to write about this. For that reason I have not provided a link to the news story, because if I did that then some readers might be tempted to read it and piece together their own different interpretation of the facts (as implausible as I think other interpretations are). The moral judgements that took place in this discussion were all made on the basis of agreement on the facts as I have described them. One last introductory remark: I want you to disregard what the police may have thought of the father’s actions and how they responded to them. I am not interested in their assessment. I am interested in my assessment (and yours, if you want to share it). The police do not do my moral thinking for me (a scary thought!) and I am taking for granted that they could simply have been wrong about whether the man’s actions were morally justified – and certainly about whether or not the man can claim biblical justification for his actions (imagine a world in which we typically deferred to the police on matters of biblical hermeneutics!).

The sorts of remarks that my Christian friends were making about the father’s actions included:

  • “100% morally justified.” (This was a sentence, lest you fear that I am shortening it and leaving out something important.)
  • “Did he beat the man because he was angry and wanted to exact vengeance? Absolutely… And I firmly believe he was justified in doing so, in the eyes of God and man.”
  • “I believe it was necessary from a moral and judicious aspect.”
  • And from the same person as the previous quote: “I think in this situation, the mere threat of violence or simply the dad’s presence would have been enough to stop the rape from happening.” [Note: in the interests of clarity, the news stories are describing the offence as sexual molestation.]
  • In defending the actions of the father under these circumstances, one said: “There is a strong Biblical case to be made for personal vengeance in certain circumstances.”

So let us have no misconceptions about what was being alleged, and no attempt to water it down. The claim with which I was confronted, by a couple of fellow Evangelical Christians, is that the father’s actions in beating this man to a pulp were completely justified because it was right for him to seek personal vengeance. His actions were morally necessary even though they were not at all required to defend the man’s son from any harm. Moreover, this course of action, so the claim went, is supported by the teaching of the Bible.

In order to strip away other possibly distracting issues, let me add this: I agree entirely that it is understandable for the father to have reacted this way.

We are animals with hormones, and the immediate reaction would quite naturally have been to get angry and attack.

We are animals with hormones, and the immediate reaction would quite naturally have been to get angry and attack. I agree with a commenter who said that it would have required a tremendous effort for the father to have not reacted with violence. Given the way a lot of people are wired, that is undoubtedly true. None of that is in question. I even think that a father who acts in this way – although he should be prosecuted – should be shown some leniency precisely because his actions are understandable. Some readers may remember that back in June 2009 I made it clear that I think the partial defence of provocation should exist in law. I should also add that I and my interlocutors were Christians, and we all agreed that we should hold (and act on) the view that is most consonant with the teaching of Scripture, without abandoning the guidance of reason in doing so.

Alright, the groundwork is laid. Now here is the difference of opinion: I maintain that it is wrong to take matters into our own hands in scenarios like this one and to seek private vengeance. I do not think that it is wrong to use the force required to defend people, and I agree that it will sometimes be difficult to measure the use of such force. But in a situation where our intention is to get revenge and to use violence to pay back those who have wronged us or others, then we are acting sinfully (or if you prefer, immorally). My interlocutors maintained – and said that they had strong biblical support for maintaining – that it is right to pursue private vengeance, using violence to repay those who have wronged us or others quite apart from whatever judicial remedies might be available to us in society. I had assumed, perhaps naively, that committed evangelical Christians would all denounce this point of view. Given that I was wrong about that, I may also be wrong about how widespread this view is “on the ground,” so to speak, although in the literature on Christian ethics the view is virtually unheard of. That is why I’m writing this (and not just because of a disagreement with two people – a larger number of people agreed with what I was saying).

The actual biblical evidence can be summed up pretty succinctly, so I’ll do that, adding some comments of my own, and then I’ll consider an attempted rebuttal (one that was raised in the discussion that prompted this article).

Do not avenge yourselves: A divine prohibition

Defending others or yourself is not revenge and is not addressed here (and I have no doubt that it is permitted), but avenging yourself – seeking retribution – is simply and directly prohibited.

In Romans 12, St Paul instructs his readers, “beloved, do not avenge yourselves but give place to wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’.” Defending others or yourself is not revenge and is not addressed here (and I have no doubt that it is permitted), but avenging yourself – seeking retribution – is simply and directly prohibited. Instead of seeking revenge, we should allow a proper place for wrath. In light of the context (as Paul mentions wrath again in chapter 13, see below), many translations here read something like “give place to the wrath of God” (e.g. NRSV, ESV, NIV, ), even though “of God” is not translated from anything in the Greek. You might think that this means that we should let the matter rest until the day of judgement in the possibly distant future. This is an implausible meaning in context partly because it is not, contrary to many translations, “the wrath of God” that Paul refers to, but simply wrath, for which there is a proper time and place (see the next point). Most importantly for now, whatever “wrath” refers to, the command is that we do not take vengeance. We are reminded that there is a way for such matters to be dealt with, and we should leave room for that, rather than sticking our own fist (or gun) in.

God’s agent of wrath: Justice is rational, measured and public

In Romans 13, Paul offers some insight into what he meant in the previous chapter when he forbade his readers from avenging themselves, requiring them to give place to wrath. In chapter 13 verses 1-7 Paul calls people to respect the authorities, saying:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 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. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due. (NRSV)

The civil authorities are said here to be God’s agent of wrath. The Greek word for wrath, orgē (ὀργή), is the same word used in the previous chapter where readers are instructed to not avenge themselves but give place to “wrath.” This is possibly why so many translations read “wrath of God” in chapter 12, anticipating that Paul here says that the governing authorities are God’s servant to carry out wrath. It is unlikely, therefore, that in referring to our obligation to give place to wrath, Paul meant to refer to the day of judgement. Instead, Paul was referring to the means of administering justice that God has appointed, rather than private acts of vengeance that we carry out on our own behalf (or on behalf of our friends or family). The civil authorities, say Paul, do not bear the sword in vain, but instead because they are an institution appointed by God to punish offenders.

As Paul knew only too well, the civil authorities crucified Jesus, the paradigm of the innocent victim.

Naturally, this should not suggest that Paul thought that civil authorities are infallible. As Paul knew only too well, the civil authorities crucified Jesus, the paradigm of the innocent victim. Similarly, Paul knew that private individuals are fallible. Indeed, if justice resided in the private hands of a million individuals, we would have a million different standards of justice and retribution – a million different temperaments, some naturally peaceful and some aggressive and violent, a million different assessments of degrees of guilt, a million different levels of size, strength and ability to mete out physical payback and so on. And here is one of the virtues of public justice: It is meted out by a standard that, however fallible, is much, much more consistent than would be justice dished out at the hand of every individual who thought they or somebody else had been wronged (yet another determination that is made by a public process rather than a private reaction).

Justice is public. Some of us have had the sickening experience of watching amateur footage of police or military taking matters of justice into their own hands, resulting in the sound of a gunshot as the accused lay cowering on the ground, as the camera is forced to turn away momentarily.  

Were they guilty? What exactly did they do? Says who? … These questions and many others are the reason that justice is subject to a public process.

Were they guilty? What exactly did they do? Says who? How can we have any faith that the claim is true? How do we know you didn’t coerce or bully somebody into corroborating your story? Did they really say what you claim they did? Who should we believe? These questions and many others are the reason that justice is subject to a public process. Even if you cannot bring yourself to show concern that everyone else is granted open and public access to justice, the most self-interested of people still have a reason to maintain that justice must be public, rational and measured: One day it could well be you on the stand, accused of something you did not do. Instead of ending up face down in a ditch with a bullet in your head while your killer maintains that he was just getting the payback he was owed (when in fact you’re as innocent as a newborn babe), you, surely, want your case to be heard by an impartial audience. But even if you’re not moved by such considerations, accepting the Christian faith and the teaching of Scripture doesn’t leave you with any choice (other than the choice of simply rejecting Christian teaching).

Two or three witnesses: It doesn’t matter if you catch them red-handed

I recall a different discussion on a similar (but not quite the same) case where I referred to the offender – a man who had been caught in the act – as the “alleged offender.” More than one person took umbrage at this. How could I call him this? He was caught! Similarly in the most recent discussion, I was told that since the father had caught this man in the act, there was no doubt, and hence nothing stopping him from rightly carrying out private retribution. As we’ve already seen, anyone who takes the teaching of Scripture seriously certainly does have something stopping him (and yes, it usually is a male who thinks and acts this way so I say “him” quite deliberately). But Scripture also has a direct answer to this claim to private vengeance on the basis of certainty.

This time we’ll turn back to the Torah, the body of law of the ancient nation of Israel. In Deuteronomy 19 there are some regulations for public trials. Verse 15 is a particularly well-known requirement for witnesses: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.” (NRSV)

Even if a person is an eyewitness – they were right there when the crime was committed – they do not have the automatic right to dish out vengeance, no matter who the offender is and no matter who the victim is. Instead the matter had to be brought before a judge, and their testimony had to be weighed along with any other evidence, and in fact that person’s testimony by itself was inadequate to bring about a conviction. This is a bitter pill of public justice for some people, no doubt, but there it is:

One person’s testimony is not enough.

One person’s testimony is not enough. In our day and age when other means of investigation are available to us, this law might have been written differently. Fingerprints, security camera footage, DNA evidence and so on – all of these things can be used in place of eyewitness testimony now. Nonetheless, the point here is that even if you can personally be absolutely sure of the guilt of the accused, all of the evidence must be brought to bear in a trial, your own certainty being inadequate on its own. If you decide on the spot, as the witness to the crime, that you are going to take vigilante action and repay the offender (remember, we are not talking about acting to defend the victim), then quite obviously you would be circumventing this process. If you are allowed to so act, then what is to stop another killing you when you are innocent, only to claim that they were carrying out vengeance (a claim, obviously, that you would no longer be in a position to rebut). We want the legal protections afforded by passages like Deuteronomy in our own case, and like it or not, the public process for justice to be done applied to all equally, whether they were innocent or guilty.

Killing in broad daylight: Death for Vigilantes

There are two broad types of law in the Torah: Apodictic law and casuistic or case law. Apodictic laws are written as prescriptions, like “You must not kill” or “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Casuistic laws, on the other hand, teach by example. “If somebody were to do this, then this is how you should respond.” The law cannot include every possible scenario in life that you might encounter, so the community is supposed to look at the principles at work in the examples offered as cases and apply those principles to other cases.

On pertinent example of a casuistic law is in Exodus 22:2-3. “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him.” (ESV) In other words, if a thief breaks in at night and in the scuffle he dies, then the benefit of the doubt is given to the homeowner, but if it happens during the day, then the case is treated as an unjustified homicide. No doubt we are expected to take further details into account, but there’s an important principle here. When somebody breaks in at night, the situation is potentially much more risky, you can’t see what you’re doing, you might be unsure how many people you are confronted with, and you might not even intend to kill anybody. You can be pretty sure that whoever is in your home in the middle of the night means you harm.

In the daytime, however, things are different. It would then be much more difficult to claim that you accidentally killed somebody. It would be much easier for you to escape if need be. The situation is inherently less dangerous, so any act of force on your part will need to be considered on its merits. One thing is clear, however. The mere fact that a person has broken into your property does not warrant you attacking them (but again, the question of what you can do if they attack you is another matter). If you attack him under these circumstances and he dies, you are a murderer.

But what about: Looking for a loophole to put my fist through

Unmoved by my appeals to these biblical passages (although my appeals were made in fewer words than they are here), one of my interlocuters assured me that the Old Testament supported the stance that it is right to seek private vengeance on wrongdoers in situations like this. So I made a request: Show me. I asked for an example where a person is a member of a society where there is a judicial remedy available to them (in particular, the nation of Israel whose laws we have a record of), but where they took vengeance in a private capacity, and the action receives clear approval. As we have already seen, the Old Testament law appears to come down firmly against such actions.

This interlocutor fell silent on that point, opting not to offer any examples. I believe I know why, but there may be other reasons. But another took up the challenge and offered several names: Phinehas, Jael, and Samson. These examples disprove my general claim about vigilante actions. But a cursory examination of any of these cases falls well outside what we are looking for. None of these is an example of a person finding out about a person committing a crime, and instead of taking the matter to the courts, taking private vengeance on the wrongdoer. Let’s look at them in reverse order:

First, Samson. Samson was captured by the Philistines. He was a prisoner in enemy territory, not in Israel. What legal remedy was available to him? You can read about his death in Judges 16:23-31. He had been blinded by his enemies, and the Philistines would treat him as a public spectacle. Famously, Samson used his great strength to bring down the pillars of the building, killing himself and many Philistines too. There is just no comparison here to a person who observes a crime and steps in to personally punish the criminal. This, if anything, is an act of war. Treating this as a model for civil justice is absurd, any more than a plot to assassinate Hitler should be mirrored in the way we carry out civil justice.

Next, consider the case of Jael in Judges chapter 4. For context, a foreign King, Jabin of Canaan, had oppressed the Israelites for about twenty years. They would have been at war with him, but in effect, he and his army (under a commander named Sisera) had them under his thumb. Deborah, a judge in Israel, planned with Barak to gather an army and draw out Sisera’s troops for battle. Sisera fled his chariot on foot. Jael, married to a Kenite (a non-Israelite) was able to deceive Sisera into think thing he was safe in her tent, where he hid and fell asleep. Jael then drove a tent peg through his head, killing Israel’s enemy. And so (verses 23-24), “on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. Then the hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Jabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Jabin of Canaan.” You can predict already how I will respond to this example.

This is clearly not a case of somebody discovering a crime within their society and then taking personal vengeance rather than taking it before the court. 

This is clearly not a case of somebody discovering a crime within their society and then taking personal vengeance rather than taking it before the court. Indeed, there is no court before which a case like this could have been taken. This is war, Israel attacking the oppressing army, and Jael was acting for the Israelites in killing the commander of the enemy army.

And lastly, the example of Phinehas. In Numbers chapter 25, when the Israelites were still being led by Moses and had not yet entered the promised land, they stayed at a place called Shittim. There, the men of Israel began to have relationships with the women of Moab, and actually started to worship their gods, primarily Baal. According to verses 4-5, God commanded Moses and Moses ordered that anybody who had “yoked” themselves to Baal should immediately be put to death. This was religious contamination, and God gave a directive that it be stamped out immediately. Phinehas, a man of the priestly line (a grandson of Aaron) spotted a foreigner, a Midianite woman, and an Israelite man, and followed them back to their tent, where he carried out Moses’ instructions and killed them with a spear (verses 6-8). This is an interesting case, because yes, Phinehas acted as an individual, but in fact that is precisely what God commanded on this instance – a fairly unique instance at that. So this was not a case of a man responding to an offence that would appropriately be handled by the courts, taking matters into his own hands. This was a period of Israel’s history – in her infancy – when she had not yet entered the land and although she had been given laws, she was still also being lead directly by one man, Moses, who gave instructions to the people.

If we try to use any of these examples to overturn the principles that we saw earlier about civil justice, we fall victim to a fundamental (but common) confusion, namely confusion between description and prescription. Description just tells us what happened. It may have been commanded by God, it may not have been. It may have been moral ideal, it may not have been. It’s a record of events, not a set of rules. Prescription on the other hand has a normative force – that is, it tells the audience how to live. It provides rules or principles. This is the role of law, or of the epistles of Paul and other Apostles, or the teaching of Jesus. Confusing these two categories can have truly bizarre results. I recall reading in a book about marriage of a man who walked around the woman he wanted to marry seven times. After all, the Israelites marched around Jericho seven times and then the walls fell down, so surely the walls of this woman’s heart would crumble! Even if we overlook the interesting (!) allegorical method of biblical interpretation, you get the point. That story isn’t there to tell us how we should do anything. It’s just there to tell us what took place. On the other hand, a commandment like the one found in Deuteronomy 20:19-20 certainly does have application to situations in which nations may find themselves:

If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.

True, when nations engage in warfare today they don’t tend to use wooden siege machines, but there’s a clear principle here about not destroying the ability of the land to produce food because of your cause against the enemy. This is what a prescription looks like.

Suck it up, tough guy.

As it turns out, we don’t need to rely on descriptions of events and our ability to discern principles that apply to our own situations when it comes to what the Bible has to say about taking private vengeance (although no doubt there are some narratives that can inform us of important principles). This is a situation to which Scripture speaks directly and clearly, giving instructions that any of us should be able to understand. Do not take vengeance into your own hands. Justice is public. Even when you are personally certain of another person’s guilt, that does not set aside the public, orderly and transparent way in which justice must be carried out.

Keep a leash on your hormones, fellas. What you might think is your personal liberty and right as a chest-beating man retaliating on behalf of those whose job it is to protect, what you may actually be is a proud man who doesn’t want to set aside his ego and definitely doesn’t want God to interfere with his anger and love of violence. If you’re going to call yourself a Christian, then ideally you’ll willingly embrace what Scripture says and work on your character until you love it. But if you’re not there yet, you’ve got to swallow it and submit anyway. Suck it up, tough guy.

As it turned out…

Now that I’ve set out the version of events that all parties to the discussion agreed to and offered what I think is a clearly biblical perspective on the issue of private vengeance, let’s return to the original act of violence that sparked this discussion in the first place. When somebody first provided me with a link to the news story about the father’s attack on the young child molester, this detail wasn’t included. But my friend Peter Grice (who was not one of the parties with whom I disagreed) later provided a link to this version, which included more information (including the fact that the father actually intended to kill the man):

Jason Browning, 35, said he wanted to kill Raymond Frolander when he allegedly caught the 18-year-old naked with his son.
After beating Forlander to a bloody pulp, Browning told WKMG he went into the kitchen to get a knife.
“My son is the one who stepped in front of me and stopped me,” Browning said. “My son saved his attackers life, so who’s really the hero in this situation?”

As I said to Peter at the time, the situation reminded me of Isaiah’s prophecy: “A little child shall lead them.”

Glenn Peoples

For your listening pleasure: Living Sacrifice, “Local Vengeance Killing.”

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{ 14 comments… add one }

  • Giles July 27, 2014, 11:24 pm

    I have thought a lot about this. Here in the UK we had upwards of 10,000 girls, some as young as 11 or 12, who were gang raped and forced into prostitution while police refused to act, the press refused to report it and the first person to speak of it was prosecuted. All because the authorities were afraid of a word. The abusers were predominantly from minority groups, and the victims mainly white and British, so they feared being called racist. The police not only refused to act, they often destroyed evidence and sometimes arrested parents for trying to free their children.
    Now I think we would all agree that one can use force to free one’s child. But your question arises in the case where one’s daughter is now free but her rapists are walking abroad, maybe sending you videos of her being raped (this happened, still no police action) and the authorities are doing nothing. Other girls are still being raped. What do you do?
    I agree the biblical answer would not allow revenge. Any vigilantism would need to be justified in terms of stopping ongoing crimes, not revenge.
    But I can’t do it. I know what I would do and it wouldn’t be pretty. Still, I wont pretend a biblical warrant. This is a very hard teaching.

  • Glenn July 27, 2014, 11:47 pm

    “Any vigilantism would need to be justified in terms of stopping ongoing crimes, not revenge.”

    Agreed, and I’m glad that we do agree. And sure, some cases will be much, much harder than others. The story that sparked this particular blog post is pretty simple, but some cases aren’t, especially as we move along the spectrum into societies that are truly dysfunctional and there really isn’t anyone doing anything about anything. What is required there is likely going to be different than what is required in the types of societies into which these commands were given.

    The path to improvement in the UK situation that you describe is police reform. Encouraging vigilante payback as the way to address the problem sets up rules that have a knock-on affect. But yes, we agree about what is right in a situation like that – and also about the fact that sometimes it’s a very hard teaching.

  • Giles July 28, 2014, 12:43 am

    It’s probably a cop out to say I couldn’t obey. But it would be insanely hard. I certainly agree that such provocation should be counted a powerful mitigation when sentencing vigilantes. But we must resist the temptation to rewrite the teaching to our own convenience.

  • odgie July 28, 2014, 5:18 pm

    Giles:

    I’m not questioning the veracity of what you are describing, but could you direct me to some linked references? I am in the middle of an ongoing argument with someone about the issue of politically-motivated selective prosecution and what you are describing is a textbook example of what my adversary says “doesn’t happen in the civilized world”. Thanks.

  • Giles July 29, 2014, 12:10 am

    I think he means to the UK pimping scandal. Please google UK,pimping,gangs and Times. “Times” because the Times newspaper did much of the best work and you need to filter out the many racist sites exploiting this case. The 10,000 figure is an estimate, but when the Home Secretary Jack Straw ordered police to act 385 girls had to be given protection in the town of Blackburn alone. It’s not even a city. This went on for twenty years. There has been a Government report, but no police have been prosecuted as far as I know. The earlier press reports don’t reveal the full scale, it took time to uncover the full horror and scandal.

  • Doug Wilkinson July 29, 2014, 3:38 am

    I basically agree with the principle that you’ve derived for this situation. However, I think it’s worth considering the actual point Paul was making in order to see the scope of his advice as clearly as possible. In his generation he was expecting “vengeance” and “wrath” as part of an eschatological event. Jesus, Peter, and Paul make references back to Deuteronomy 32 as a foundation for this expectation. In the Song of Moses, at some point in the distant future, God will have had enough with the Israelites under the Old Covenant and would bring the sword on them in vengeance for having crossed him. Jesus, Peter, and Paul expected that the Jews were going to be the recipients of wrath as a point of vengeance exacted by the Romans in fulfillment of this prophecy. Paul is basically telling his readers to stay out of it. His readers in Romans and in other epistles were experiencing all sorts pressure from Jews (in some cases they were killing Christians), but Paul is telling them not to fight back. Instead, let the Romans do it since they were chosen by God as an instrument to implement his vengeance.

    This contextualized version of the passages you quote above may or may not change the final principle that is derived, but I think it’s worth considering what it meant to the original audience before we distill such a principle. There is nothing wrong with spiritualizing scripture in order to derive principles, but if we don’t realize that’s what we’re doing it has the potential of leading to error.

  • Glenn July 29, 2014, 6:50 am

    That’s certainly not what I think Paul is doing, Doug. Indeed, he treats the Roman agent of wrath in Romans 13 as being the same as any other appointed authority – for there is no authority, he says, other than that which God appointed, and he is an agent of wrath, and “that is why you pay taxes.” What? Christians in the Empire pay taxes so that Rome will punish Israel?

    I’m not spiritualising this, you are – surely!

  • Doug Wilkinson July 29, 2014, 7:34 am

    Do you acknowledge the eschatological nature of vengeance and wrath in this passage? If not, I suggest you read Andrew Perriman’s book on Romans. If so, then I’m only following the literal interpretation of the passage according to the audience relevance. You can’t interpret something literally unless you are doing it according to how the original audience would have literally understood it in their day. It is proper, then, to spiritualize the text in order to come up with principles that apply to us since we don’t live in the same circumstances. Spiritualizing is not bad. It’s just important to have the literal meaning first before you do it so that the result is a proper conclusion.

  • Glenn July 29, 2014, 12:25 pm

    Doug, no, I don’t think that Paul’s disussion about submitting to the civil rulers to whom we pay tax and who are agents of wrath is eschatological in nature. Drawing just from what Paul says here, Doug, what reasons would you offer for thinking that this is really the point?

  • Doug Wilkinson July 29, 2014, 4:19 pm

    It’s not enough to just draw from what Paul is saying in this chapter of this letter. You have to view the passage from the point of view of the first century church. You have to back off and see who Jesus, Peter, and Paul said were the children of wrath. They were storing up a measure of wrath in a generation that was going to be shown vengeance by God for their apostasy. We know that this vengeance was promised to be carried out by the Romans. And, we know that it would happen within the generation living at the time. With that background, Paul’s admonition to forgo vengeance against those who’d stored up wrath for themselves is a pretty obvious statement that Rome would take care of business soon enough. The promise of that justice of God being expressed through their destruction of Jerusalem is one of the core messages of Paul (see 2nd Thess. 1). The reason that the principle that you derived from this passage can be more or less applied by Americans is that we have a legal system that is usually capable of putting guilty people in jail. Therefore, since there is a functioning system of retribution by the nation over the characters involved there is a close parallel. The parallel becomes weaker if you live in a place with anarchy, but that’s not really a direct issue here. Some who take this passage as simply advice to pay taxes and obey the law have spiritualized it too far by losing track of scenario in which the first century church found itself. The only way to approximate a literal understanding of the passage is to take the eschatological background into account. Again, I recommend Andrew Perriman’s book on Romans for a more detailed argument on that.

  • Glenn July 29, 2014, 7:25 pm

    “You have to back off and see who Jesus, Peter, and Paul said were the children of wrath.”

    Doug, naturally we have to take context into account. But interpreting a passage of text is a bit like taking a photo. Yes you have to step back far enough to get the context into the shot, so it’s not just a close up of a face.

    But if you find that you’re having to step further, further and further back until the object is just a speck against the backdrop, something’s not right. It truly looks to me like you’ve been asked to explain your view of a particular passage – Romans 13, and you seem quite unable to do so without drawing lines between that passage and some quite unrelated passages, stepping further and further back until the passage is just a speck, and then taking liberty to draw on pretty much any biblical theme you want.

    You do not need to see who Jesus, Peter, and Paul said were the children of wrath in order to understand this passage. The fact that other passages use this one particular word (or even two particular words) doesn’t justify making connections between this passage and those other passages where the same words pop up like some sort of strange Scofield reference Bible. It’s just not here in Romans 12 and 13. Evidently we do not agree about that.

  • Joseph Dear August 10, 2014, 1:09 pm

    I don’t think civil justice and eschatological wrath need be mutually exclusive. I don’t see why Paul had to have meant one to the exclusion of the other. After all, the text itself just broadly mentions wrath and doesn’t give any exclusions. So what if it’s something like this:

    Romans 12: Don’t avenge yourself, but leave room for the wrath of God.

    I know “of God” isn’t in the Greek, and that was a key point in your claim that eschatological judgment being in view is implausible, Glenn. But that is irrelevant, given Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 32:25. It may not literally say “the wrath OF GOD,” but obviously it is speaking of God’s wrath, since Paul quotes God saying “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” God is the one who repays. That doesn’t exclude His use of agents, though.

    Romans 13 – With that in mind, submit to civil authorities. One of the reasons God puts them in existence, in fact, is to serve as ONE way in which evil is punished.

    Given that we all agree that Paul and the Bible do teach a judgment in which justice will be meted out perfectly, why wouldn’t we think that would come to mind for the 1st century readers? Certainly Paul and the Romans believed that there would be such a judgment, and that they would be avenged. So why would Paul ONLY be talking about governments? Why would he only be talking about an agent that, even in a relatively civilized and well-run government like 50’s Rome, could only be expected to address a small fraction of all wrongdoing? After all, aside from issues of corruption, some evil things are not illegal. Or if they are, the wrongdoers don’t always get caught. Or as you even point out, a safety measure that God put in the Old Testament law was that even if they were caught, 2 witnesses were required. What then of all the people who committed crimes in front of the victim, and yet got away with it? Why would Paul appeal strictly to government then?

    The fact that Paul’s directive is so broad, addressing the whole church without specification and saying not to avenge themselves, and applying to this broad group the reason, being the vengeance (of God), says to me that such his argument is a broad one that would apply to the various groups, not just those who would reasonably expect justice at the hands of government. These people were already believers, and God’s wrath in many forms had been mentioned in the letter several times already. Why wouldn’t we expect judgment day to be part of the reference to vengeance?

    I think that while you interpret the end of chapter 12 as being the foreword to Paul’s teaching one civil authorities, I view it as a general principle, one which serves as a perfect segue to the teaching on government, since that is ONE way that God can bring justice.

    I do agree with your overall point about vengeance, though (all the more, since I interpret the passage as I do); defense of self and other people does not justify inflicting more harm than…

  • Glenn August 10, 2014, 2:43 pm

    Joseph, I think that’s all (probably) consistent with what I’ve said. What I object to as it has no warrant at all in the text is that Paul is in fact speaking about eschatological wrath in connection with those who Jesus and/or Peter called “children of wrath.” That’s just not an idea we should entertain.

    But sure, give place to wrath in its appropriate, divinely ordained form, whether it’s at the hands of civil government or in the last judgement. In this context, the form that Paul shows concern for is wrath as handed out by civil government, but the principle applies more widely, namely to God’s direct dishing out of wrath as well.

  • Giles August 28, 2014, 2:11 am

    If anyone wants an update on the UK pimping scandal google Rotherham and abuse. 1,400 girls gang raped in this town alone. As usual police refused to act and the council covered it up. Again no police officer or care worker has been prosecuted or even sacked.

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