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The Wrath of God Revealed

The basic meaning of the verb ‘to reveal’ is something like, ‘to make known, to disclose, to bring to attention, to lay open.’ There are a couple of ways that we use the term, one obvious, the other a bit more subtle. Take, for example, the sentence, “the clouds drifted eastward, revealing the full brilliance of the sun.” That’s the typical way we use the word. Something hidden becomes manifest; something unclear is shown more fully. But take a second example, “the spy was revealed for who he really was.” The basic definition of something not known becoming known is preserved, but there is the further connotation that what is revealed is not a fuller or clarifying manifestation of what was previously a dull or obscure appearance. Rather, it is the connotation that a reality contrary to the initial appearance is found out.

The current pandemic has given us reason anew to consider again that perennial theological question of the wrath of God. The recent thoughtful and provocative Conciliar Post article, The Pandemic and the Wrath of God, is one among many that have raised the question, “Is this pandemic the result of, or evidence of, God’s wrath?”  Sam’s article is, as I say, thoughtful and I find in myself much sympathy with his wonderings.

I am inclined, however, in a more formal analysis of the wrath of God, to go in quite a different direction. Near the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans he states that “the wrath of God is revealed…” One question we could ask of the statement is whether ‘revealed’ ought to be taken in the first or second sense? Does Jesus Christ, the New Testament, even the world itself, reveal to us that God is indeed wrathful? Or, should we, upon theological reflection, take Paul’s statement in the second sense? Wrath itself is revealed, not more fully or clearly, but as an initial appearance that hid and obscured the true reality behind it: God is love.

Wrath of God in the New Testament

As Sam well noted, the Marcionite answer to the question of the wrath of God is really not a Christian option. This is not only because Christians through the ages have rejected the juxtaposition of the ‘god of the Old Testament’ and the ‘God of the New Testament.’ Marcion of Sinope himself was not so simple minded as to propose such a dichotomy. He knew that much of the New Testament as well stood in need of rejection or revision. His proposed juxtaposition, then, was between a wrathful god revealed in scriptures and a loving God revealed in Christ (as attested in some of the New Testament writings). Christians through the ages have also rejected this juxtaposition as well.

The Greek term ἡ ὀργὴ (wrath) appears in the New Testament a little over twenty times with reference to God’s judgment, either in general or with respect to particular peoples or evils. Nearly half of these instances appear in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. If you include ὁ θυμός (anger) in the analysis, there are several more instances respecting God to be found, mostly in Revelation (cf. 14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1). This is to say nothing of the scriptural witness to God’s judgements (αἱ Κρίσεις) which often in scripture (both Old and New Testaments) depict the effects of God’s “wrath” or “anger.”

These cursory notes are not meant to prove any point about what the NT means by the wrath of God. It is simply to note that the wrath of God is prevalent throughout. Thus, if the Marcionite tact of cutting those portions of the NT out is not the Christian way – and it is not – then we must allow scripture to speak. We must listen to it attentively.

Thinking Impassibly About Divine Wrath

Writing in 1654, the reformed scholastic theologian, John Owen (1616-1683), responded to the objections of one John Biddle, an English Socinian who had published that same year his own “A Two-fold Catechism.” In the catechism, Biddle raised the (age-old) question about passions in God. How can God be impassible, he rhetorically asks, when scripture so numerously attests to his having such passions as anger, fury, zeal, wrath, love, hatred, mercy, grace, jealousy, repentance, grief, joy, fear, etc.?

John Owen’s response is very typical of the Christian tradition (and not a whit less profound on account of it).[1] He asks first whether these passions ascribed to God in scripture are ascribed “properly,” that is,  “denoting such affections and passions in him as those in us,” or rather “metaphorically,” that is, “in reference to his outward works and dispensations.” If we affirm that latter only, he says, “then as such an attribution of them unto God is eminently consistent with all his infinite perfections and blessedness” (108).

Nearly all will agree that God, as God, is “perfect and perfectly blessed,” Owen remarks. It turns out, though, if you ascribe perfection and ultimate blessedness to God, you cannot for that very reason ascribe affections and passions to him properly. To ascribe affections and passions to God properly will “deprive him of his perfection and blessedness.” Owen is a bit infelicitous here. Thomas Aquinas more carefully says that there are some passions like love and joy that are properly ascribed to God, though not as appetitive passions, but as movements of the will.[2] This point is not lost on Owen, however, who later qualifies his overstatement along these lines: “Of love, mercy, and grace, the condition is something otherwise: principally they denote God’s essential goodness and kindness, which is eminent amongst his infinite perfections; and secondarily the effects thereof” (114).

With respect to Anger and wrath, then, these must be understood “in a suitableness to divine perfection and blessedness.” Citing Aristotle’s definition of anger—“desire joined with grief of that which appears to be revenge, for an appearing neglect or contempt”—and noting that Aristotle assigned this passion “mostly to weak, impotent persons,” Owen states: “Ascribe this to God, and you leave him nothing else.” (112) This is not to say that the theologian must clean up the Scriptures, Owen quickly adds. This is how the Holy Spirit, who is the primary author of Scripture, intends these predications of God to be understood (111). “For the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20)

He continues, referencing Aquinas again: “The anger, then, which in the Scripture is assigned to God, we say denotes two things: (1) His vindictive justice, or constant and immutable will of rendering vengeance for sin… (2)… the effects of anger are denoted” (111). Thomas had argued: “Anger and the like are attributed to God on account of a similitude of effect. Thus, because to punish is properly the act of an angry man, God’s punishment is metaphorically spoken of as his anger.”[3] Hence, says Owen, we cannot ascribe passions like anger to God properly. “Properly, in the sense by [Biddle] pointed to, anger, wrath, etc., are not in God… There is not one property of his nature wherewith it is consistent” (112).

To put Owen’s point in other words (the words of Thomas): “Thus with us it is usual for an angry man to punish, so that punishment itself is signified by the word anger, when anger is attributed to God…”[4] To speak of the wrath of God, as Paul does at the beginning of his Roman’s epistle, is to speak of God’s justly ordering the created realm; a realm that is indwelt by sinners. Aquinas again:

“Since, then, the will of God is the universal cause of all things, it is impossible that the divine will should not produce its effect. Hence that which seems to depart from the divine will in one order, returns into it in another order; as does the sinner, who by sin falls away from the divine will as much as lies in him, yet falls back into the order of that will, when by its justice he is punished.”[5]

For Owen and Aquinas, then, anger and wrath do not indicate a passion in God, but they do indicate that justice is in God. Divine justice is that attribute whereby God is not only all harmonious in himself, but also that by which he orders the created realm appropriately according to his purposes and ends wisely decreed. “Likewise, whatever is done by Him in created things, is done according to proper order and proportion, wherein consists the idea of justice. Thus justice must exist in all God’s works.”[6]

To sum up, those who understand the Scriptural language of the anger or wrath of God as depicting a God moved by some passion toward an external act of judgement have it wrong; that is to say, they misunderstand the Scriptures and the God to whom Scripture testifies. Yet, Scripture does indeed speak of the anger and wrath of God. And thus, we are licensed to so speak as well. Indeed, the theologian is not only permitted so to speak, but taught so to speak by Scripture. The theologian’s task is to speak what she has heard. The way we are to understand this speech, though, is very important. The wrath of God picks out the external acts of God, including his punishments for sin and evil, whereby he orders all the created realm to its proper end.

The Wrath of God and the Pandemic

What I really appreciate about Sam’s post is that it conveys the real difficulty of this question. It is not simply a theoretical difficulty, either.

Careful engagement with this question will move the discussion of God’s wrath out of the category of ‘the gods’ (this Sam did very well) yet without placing God in the category of ‘the Claus’ (Santa, that is – I fear Sam’s post tended in this direction). To put it another way, we ought to take up the discussion of God’s wrath under the caput of God’s providence. This is what Owen was trying to get at by his phrasing of “vindictive justice” – a constant and immutable will to correct, that is, to ­reorder, what had gone astray.

God’s anger is not his flying off the handle. It is not his cheap attempt to hurt us because we first hurt him. Rather, it is his good, just, and loving ordering of free creatures by means of punishment. Perhaps the better analogy is given to us in that most famous of psalms. “The Lord is my shepherd.” He leads me on not by leash and collar, but by promise of gentle waters and green grass, on the one hand, and by the threats of rod and staff, on the other. He does not vacillate in his leadership, one minute lovingly bidding me onward while the next wildly thrashing with his staff. He remains always the steady, faithful shepherd. I, however, who do vacillate, need both promise and threat if ever I am to attain those still waters and soft meadows.

Is this coronavirus a moment of his staff? Once we all acknowledge that we are not talking about God as passionately vengeful, I think this question can only be answered in one way: yes. This is precisely the sort of thing Paul is referring to in Romans chapter one. The wrath of God is being revealed, in the sense of made known (not in the sense of being exposed as contrary to an initial appearance), in the disarray, the chaos, the suffering of the world. Coronavirus is just one small part of that long list of sufferings; but it is one part. And as a part, it reveals the wrath of God.

It is just at this point—just when we give this answer—though, that we must quickly hasten to our Lord’s lesson in Luke 13. Sam notes an important point when he says that “Jesus rejects the assumption that suffering is explicable in terms of the sinfulness of the sufferer.” Yet, Jesus also has no qualms about turning the theoretical question posed of him in Luke 13 into a very personally applicable answer: “unless you (all) repent, you (all) will likewise perish” (Lk 13:3).

Saying that coronavirus is manifest of the curse, and that the curse is God’s judgement for human rebellion, and that God’s judgement for human rebellion is for bringing about his purposes in his free, rational creatures, does not permit me to point my finger at others, to declare their sin to them. It does not give me license to take to Facebook or Twitter and declare that God has had it with American ________ (fill in the blank). The point of giving this answer is so that I will repent.

Since, as Peter tells us, the judgement of God begins in his own household, perhaps the Book of Common prayer has it right: “Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality…”

 

 

[1] John Owen, Vindiciae Evangelicae, or the mystery of the Gospell Vindicated, and Socinianism Examined (Oxford, 1655). In The Works of John Owen, ed. W. H. Goold, 24 volumes (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965) vol. 12. Page references here refer to the Goold edition.

[2] ST I, q. 20, a.1, ad. 2.

[3] Summa Theologiae (ST), I, q. 3, a. 2, ad. 2.

[4] ST, I, q. 19, a. 11, ad. 2.

[5] ST, I, q. 19, a. 7, resp.

[6] ST, I, q. 21, a. 4, resp.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. He holds a PhD from St. Louis University, a MAHT from Westminster Seminary California. He, his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids live in Southern California.

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