“Coals of Fire” in Romans 12:19-20 -- By: John N. Day
BSac 160:640 (Oct 03) p. 414
“Coals of Fire” in Romans 12:19-20
Since the startling events of September 11, 2001, Western Christians have been confronted with an increased awareness of enmity: whether targeted violence, religious persecution, or general opposition. How should Christians respond to such enmity? At the conclusion of that “masterful summary of Christian ethics”1 rehearsed in Romans 12:9–21 comes the clarion call for kindness (vv. 19–20), kindness freely expressed under the assurance of divine vengeance.
Rather than being a haphazard collection of ethical injunctions, verses 9–21 evidence a highly stylized structure whose content is summed up in and subsumed under the introductory heading of ἡ ἀγάπη ἀνυπόκριτος, “genuine love”—a love that includes abhorrence of what is evil and adherence to what is good (v. 9).2 The verses that follow serve to explicate what that sincere or unhypocritical love looks like in several concrete examples. Within these examples the centrally located command to “bless” (v. 14) is given special emphasis, which evidently stems from Paul’s attempt to demonstrate that the dominant Christian virtue “reaches its climax in the love of enemies. Love is intended not only to permeate the relationship of Christians to one another but also to shape their attitudes towards those who even seek their ruin.”3 This
BSac 160:640 (Oct 03) p. 415
enemy-love finds its climactic image in “coals of fire” (v. 20), an image that has ignited and sustained a furor of debate across the centuries. What is the meaning and significance of the usage of this imagery here? Romans 12:17–21 reads:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil… .
Do not avenge yourselves, beloved;
but give place to [God’s] wrath,
for it is written: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”
says the Lord;
but “if your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him [something] to drink;
for in doing this you will heap coals of fire upon his
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