Do not “prejudge divine things from human”: Tertullian on Divine Anger

tertullianI have been doing a little digging in Tertullian’s work The Five Books Against Marcion the last couple of days. The five books cover an astonishing amount of ground (creation, hermeneutics, prophecy, goodness, Christology, etc.), which makes sense once you consider what a convoluted mess Marcion’s theology actually was. They didn’t call him the “arch-heretic” for nothing.

One important area is his treatment of divine anger.Obviously, the Marcionites thought attributing anger or wrath to God was unfitting, which partially motivated their rejection of large portions of the Old Testament and New.  Mark Sheridan has touched on the issue of the Fathers’ handling of Biblical anthropomorphism in Language for God in Patristic Tradition, and shown how the different strategies involved were concerned with making sure we were reading the Bible in a way that is “fitting” to God’s dignity and majesty.

Tertullian engages one argument from fittingness he thinks utterly flawed. He says that some say that if God is angry, or jealous, etc. then that leads to the thought that he is changeable, therefore corruptible, and open to death. He responds thus:

Superlative is their folly, who prejudge divine things from human; so that, because in man’s corrupt condition there are found passions of this description, therefore there must be deemed to exist in God also sensations of the same kind. Discriminate between the natures, and assign to them their respective senses, which are as diverse as their natures require, although they seem to have a community of designations. We read, indeed, of God’s right hand, and eyes, and feet: these must not, however, be compared with those of human beings, because they are associated in one and the same name. Now, as great as shall be the difference between the divine and the human body, although their members pass under identical names, so great will also be the diversity between the divine and the human soul, notwithstanding that their sensations are designated by the same names. These sensations in the human being are rendered just as corrupt by the corruptibility of man’s substance, as in God they are rendered incorruptible by the incorruption of the divine essence.

Tertullian argues that it’s folly to pre-judge realities predicated of God based on the human reality named with the same word. He doesn’t use the term, but he’s essentially arguing for a form of the doctrine of analogy. We must “discriminate between the natures” and realize that God’s “hands” and “feet” couldn’t possibly mean God has the same sorts of hand we do, only bigger.

In a similar way, we need to think of the movements of the soul of God (if we can speak that way), in a way that distinguishes the from our human experience of these realities. In humanity, these are corrupted and corruptible. But God is incorruptible, so we need to purify our conception of these realities before we think about whether this sort of “sensation” is truly dignified or worthy of God.  In which case, to think anger of unworthy of God on the basis of the fact that our sinful, corrupt, hasty anger would be unworthy of God is a crass mistake.

Tertullian makes the point that this principle is also applicable when it comes to the “good” qualities nobody has a problem with:

Then, again, with respect to the opposite sensations,—I mean meekness, patience, mercy, and the very parent of them all, goodness,—why do you form your opinion of the divine displays of these (from the human qualities)? For we indeed do not possess them in perfection, because it is God alone who is perfect.

His warning should be considered when we come to discussions about the love or compassion of God. Nobody tends to raise any red flags at the thought that God is love. Nobody’s trying to cut that doctrine out. But we still move far too quickly from our experience of love, of compassion, meekness, and goodness to trying to explain what God’s love, compassion, meekness, and goodness. We are corruptible, and so even the emotions we tend to thing of as “good”, can go bad. Mercy can become leniency, meekness can become cowardice, empathy can lead into over-identification and co-dependence.

He moves again to anger and then broadly speaks to a variety of affections which God can have:

So also in regard to those others,—namely, anger and irritation. we are not affected by them in so happy a manner, because God alone is truly happy, by reason of His property of incorruptibility. Angry He will possibly be, but not irritated, nor dangerously tempted; He will be moved, but not subverted. All appliances He must needs use, because of all contingencies; as many sensations as there are causes: anger because of the wicked, and indignation because of the ungrateful, and jealousy because of the proud, and whatsoever else is a hinderance to the evil. So, again, mercy on account of the erring, and patience on account of the impenitent, and pre-eminent resources on account of the meritorious, and whatsoever is necessary to the good. All these affections He is moved by in that peculiar manner of His own, in which it is profoundly fit that He should be affected; and it is owing to Him that man is also similarly affected in a way which is equally his own.

The Five Books against Marcion, Book II, chapter XVI

Tertullian’s rule is that God has affections, either negative or positive, only in such a way that they do not disturb his incorruptibility, goodness, or happiness. God is perfect and so every affection he has will be consistent with that perfection. And all movements he engages in out of those affections will only be those which are consistent with his ultimate goodness. We are not sure exactly what they are like in God, but we can be sure they will only happen “in the peculiar manner of His own.” And this is true of even those affections such as indignation, wrath, and anger.

While I’m not sure how much this tracks with later, more detailed, articulations of the impassibility of God, it does highlight a few helpful points.

First, Tertullian’s points themselves are just worth heeding. Distinguish the natures. Understand that you can’t simply read human experience up into God’s life without remainder, or the need to purify it on the basis of his perfection.

Second, while not all Church Fathers were comfortable ascribing anger and wrath to God, at least some (see also Lactantius’ De Ira Dei). They weren’t crass literalists, either. They knew about the limits of human speech and about the perfection of the divine nature. But instead of purging anger or wrath as the Marcionites (as well as some Fathers who nonetheless disagreed with them), they moved to purify, or clarify it, and not “prejudge divine things from human.”

It seems both of these lessons are still relevant today.

Soli Deo Gloria

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