Christ and the Judgement of God: The Limits of Divine Retribution in New Testament ThoughtWritten by Stephen H. Travis Reviewed By Thomas R. Schreiner
Stephen Travis has revised and updated his 1986 book in this new work. The book covers a lot of ground: retribution in the OT and Jewish literature (chaps. 2–3); judgment and retribution in Pauline theology (chaps. 4–13); judgment and retribution in the Gospels (chaps. 14–17); and judgment and retribution in Revelation (chaps. 18–19). The book is rounded out with an introduction (chap. 1) and a conclusion (chap. 20). The fundamental thesis of the book is that divine judgment is not fundamentally retributive, even if it has retributive overtones at times. The survey of the OT and Jewish literature is cursory. Though Travis sees a retributive element in both the OT and the other Jewish writings consulted, he downplays such in the NT.
Travis focuses on Paul in his study, arguing, for instance, that God’s wrath is a consequence of human sin and should not be construed in terms of an affection or emotion in God. Still, he maintains against Dodd that God’s wrath is personal, though the focus is on personal relationships rather than retribution. God’s wrath works itself out in personal relationships (being excluded from God’s presence), and those who are punished experience the consequences of their sins. In such instance retribution is not in view, Travis claims, because retribution cannot occur at the level of personal relationships. Furthermore, retribution is excluded if there are intrinsic consequences (rather than extrinsic) for what one does. Once one grasps Travis’s definition of retribution and perceives how he works it out in the chapter on wrath in Paul, the argument of the remainder of the book follows rather nicely. In virtually every case he argues that the judgment or reward in view cannot be understood as strictly retributive, since the text focuses on personal relationships and the intrinsic consequences of the actions taken. One might think that Revelation stands out as an exception, but even here Travis maintains that the symbolic language must not be pressed and that Revelation is in essentially the same orbit as the Pauline letters and the Gospels.
A number of interesting and important topics surface in the book, and it should be said that Travis’s tone is charitable throughout the book. There is a fascinating chapter on whether believers, according to Paul, can be perfect during this life. Travis discusses in his study of both Paul and the Synoptics whether or not there are rewards distinct from (and therefore above and beyond) eternal life, arguing that the reward texts refer to eternal life itself—not some additional reward. He asks whether believers can finally apostatize and concludes that the biblical text answers that question in the affirmative. Similarly, he claims that the evidence in support of eternal and conscious punishment is unpersuasive. In a book that discusses so many texts, it is inevitable that there will be disagreement here and there. So, contrary to Travis, I would argue that it is clear that genuine believers will never apostatize and that the final punishment is eternal and conscious.
The fundamental question, however, is whether Travis’s concept of retribution is persuasive. I would argue that his thesis fails. He actually sets up the book in such a way that retribution is ruled out from the outset since he says retribution cannot exist where there are personal relationships, and obviously any relationship with the God of the Bible is personal. Such a statement is a fundamental misstep right from the beginning of the book. God as the sovereign Lord and King is personal, and yet he may punish another person retributively (by paying back what they deserve). Another flaw is the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic consequences, as if the former rules out retribution. Again Travis presupposes the conclusion in his premises by claiming that there can be no retribution if the consequences are intrinsic. But such a distinction is foreign to the worldview of the biblical authors, for all consequences are the outworking of God’s sovereign and personal will, and hence the punishment may still be retributive, even though it is also depicted as the result of one’s actions. Travis opts for an either-or, when the biblical text (cf. 2 Thess 1:5–10) demands a both-and.
Travis attempts to separate himself from Dodd by repeatedly saying that even though judgment and reward are non-retributive they are still personal. One can appreciate his attempt to correct Dodd, but it remains unclear how God is personal on Travis’s terms. How is God’s judgment personal in Travis’s scheme when the focus is on the intrinsic consequences of what occurs, which he separates from God’s affections? Indeed, the claim that God’s wrath does not have an affective component is unpersuasive. His skirting over the massive OT evidence on the matter is quite unfortunate. And when it comes to the NT, he repeatedly makes reductionistic arguments. For instance, he claims that the wrath of God in Rom 2:8 cannot be retributive since the reward is eternal life (Rom 2:7)! How the conclusion drawn follows is quite mystifying. Similarly, he often remarks that if a NT text borrows retributive imagery from the OT, then we must not press the language of retribution, for it is traditional. But it can just as easily be argued that the language of tradition is adopted because the NT author believed it accurately represented (even if it is symbolic) God’s retributive punishment.
Travis has some fine insights in particular texts, but his rejection of retribution becomes the lens through which the NT is read. Given Travis’s view of retribution, we are not surprised, though disappointed, that he sees little emphasis on penal substitution in the NT. The thesis of the book, ultimately, must be assessed as unpersuasive.
Thomas R. Schreiner
Tom Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
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