The Church Has Always Known Theological Controversy (A Bit on the Peterson Thing)

athanasisu“Not again.”

That was my first thought when Eugene Peterson’s comments on gay marriage came out.

Regardless of the retraction, I knew the next few days would be ugly online. Various think-pieces (good and bad) would come, as would the tweets, the aggressive partisans, and the aggrieved bystanders in the middle, wringing their hands.

I don’t have a ton to say about Peterson himself, his comments, or the various reactions. I was frustrated initially, glad for the retraction, and saddened by the whole mess.

What struck me during this round, though, was the sense of fatigue. Maybe life online accelerates and magnifies our sense of controversy, especially since most people aren’t on Twitter. Still, it’s easy to get the feeling that we’re in a particularly stressful or conflicted moment in the church, and that this sort of thing will only become more common.

A friend of mine summed it up, asking, “Has it always felt so embattled to be in the Church?”

To which my response is, “Yes, actually. From the beginning, in fact.” It’s valuable to remember that for a moment.

You can read the rest of this piece over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

On Hating My Neighbor’s Holiness, Hating God, and Hell

hellI was struck by another passage in Charnock’s Existence and Attributes of God today that got me thinking about hell and judgment. In his discussion of God’s holiness, he touches on the various ways we can show contempt for it. One of the ways we do so is when we hate the holiness that is in our neighbor:

The purity of God is contemned, in hating and scoffing at the holiness which is in a creature. Whoever looks upon the holiness of a creature as an unlovely thing, can have no good opinion of the amiableness of Divine purity. Whosoever hates those qualities and graces that resemble God in any person, must needs contemn the original pattern, which is more eminent in God, If there be no comeliness in a creature’s holiness, to render it grateful to us, we should say of God himself, were he visible among us, with those in the prophet (Isa, 53:2), “There is no beauty in him, that we should desire him.”

Holiness is beautiful in itself. If God be the most lovely Being, that which is a likeness to him, so far as it doth resemble him, must needs be amiable, because it partakes of God; and, therefore, those that see no beauty in an inferior holiness, but contemn it because it is a purity above them, contemn God much more. He that hates that which is imperfect merely for that excellency which is in it, doth much more hate that which is perfect, without any mixture or stain.

For Charnock, God is the pattern and source of all holiness. God is purely holy and everything else is holy in a lesser and derivative way. It follows, then, if we turn and hate something in our neighbors that reflects the holiness of God, we are hating God’s holiness as well. If you hate the copy, you’ll probably hate the original. As Heidelberg Q & A 4-5 puts it, the law is summed up in loving God and your neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40), but unfortunately, my misery is that, “I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.”

Which got me to thinking about the idea of hating the holiness of my neighbor. Initially, that sounds wrong. Why would I hate my neighbor’s goodness? It’s probably good for me, right? Except, then I thought about for about 5 seconds and realized, “Oh no, I probably do this all the time.”

How often have I looked at my neighbor and secretly hated when they’re better than me? Not just talent-wise, but just as a person. That guy in class or at work who always seems to be honest, or helpful, or hard-working in a way that I just can’t manage. Or the one who just is so romantic and treats his wife so well. Or the one who seems oh-so-generous who makes less than I do. And so forth. I know I should appreciate it, but something in me chafes at it, partially because I know I should be that way, but I’m not.

At that point, it’s tempting to try and figure out they’re really not so great, or how that one thing they did to help was really just a way of getting one up on me, and so forth. I look at the honesty, the hard work, or the kind word, or whatever it is and try to unmask it as something else. I think we’ve all been there. It’s really possible for me to look at someone’s holiness–someone who is maybe further down the road of sanctification than I am–and be tempted to hate them for it, precisely because it shows me up for who I am.

And right then, I get how it’s possible to hate God’s holiness. If I hate my neighbor’s human, stained, and imperfect honesty, then how much more does the purity and truth of God gall me in some deep sense? Or if the kindness and understanding nature of my neighbor frustrates me because “nobody is that good”, how much of me secretly burns at God’s grace and merciful love towards the “wrong” sort of people?

That’s a scary thought. What’s even scarier is the thought that this just is the seed of hell.

Just go with me for a minute: think back to someone whose goodness you’ve been chafed at or been tempted to hate. Imagine giving in and just cultivating it. This is really miserable, right? Letting that sort of hate burn and stew in your chest till it gets hot and weighty and flares up whenever you see them–like getting acid reflux just by looking at food.

Now, imagine being stuck in a cubicle with that person every day of the week 8 hours a day; having to walk in every day and see them, talk to them, work with them. There’s something awful, tormenting about the thought of being stuck with someone whose existence galls you just by being there, and being better than you all the time. That hot, heavy, galling hate that you really have no opportunity to give vent to because deep down, buried within, some part of you knows it’s wrong.

Or, even worse, imagine the hate that comes when you’ve given vent to it and now you have to double-down on it to justify yourself because admitting you’re wrong is too painful. It’s like a chain-reaction that turns into a self-sustaining, cold-fusion-style hate generator that just keeps burning in your soul.

I think this is at the heart of the torment or suffering of the judgment of hell. Mark Jones points out in his recent book God Is (review here), there’s something not quite right about the notion of hell as “separation from God” (55). Instead, in hell, you’re in the presence of a “holy, righteous, and powerful God”, but you don’t actually want to be in his presence. Your soul has come to the point where there is “no desire for union with God” for there is no love for God without Christ. You are spiritually, ethically, and relationally “separated”, hating God, and yet there God is, shining with the holy beauty of a million Suns for all eternity. And you hate him.

And this is not unjust, is it? The good of heaven is chiefly the presence of God himself and only secondarily his gifts. But for those who don’t love God (and therefore don’t deserve or receive God’s created gifts), this presence would be hellish, for there would none of God’s gifts in creation to distract them. Judgment is letting them keep the hate in their heart, while subjecting them to its great object–God himself. It is justly handing them over, judicially ratifying the torment of self-chosen, soul-shriveling hate.

More poetically, Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov puts the principle negatively when he states that hell “is the suffering of being unable to love.” In many ways, this isn’t much of a different thought than you see in C.S. Lewis, or N.T. Wright, or Tim Keller, where hell is (in some sense) the end-point of the soul’s trajectory in this life, apart from Christ, into eternity. Or even Jonathan Edwards when talks about the “hellish principles” in our hearts that would set the world aflame if not restrained by God’s grace. Looking at the problem from the perspective of the hatred of holiness highlights a positive activity that is more than a painful absence, though.

This is obviously not a full-blown theology of hell, heaven, or the final judgment. Nonetheless, it seems something like this is a core component of the reality that much of the biblical imagery points to. When the Bible speaks of these eschatological realities, it’s not speculating about something far off and distant, but something nearby, close, and even dwelling within our hearts.

Of course, the point isn’t to dwell on this reality, but turn from it. And this is at the heart of the glory of Christ in the Gospel. In the cross of Jesus Christ, God makes known his love for us despite our hate (Rom. 5:8). And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, he sheds his love abroad in our hearts (Rom. 5:5), so that love might burn away all of our hate, and fill us to overflowing with the love of God whose consummation is the greatest glory of heaven.

Soli Deo Gloria

“God Is” by Mark Jones (Review)

God isJesus Christ testifies that eternal life is “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). With his latest book, God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God, Mark Jones aims to help you attain a little more of that eternal life now in the present.

I know of no better way to summarize the thrust of the work than Jones’s own preface where he writes:

“The true and living God is too much for us to bear, to handle, to conceive, to adore, to know, to trust, to understand, and to worship. The Incomprehensible One is simply too much for us in every conceivable way.

However, that the Son became flesh makes our human nature appear lovely to God. But he also makes God appear lovely to us. Take away Christ, the God-man, and we are reprehensible to God and he to us. But in Christ, God is well pleased with us and we with him.

We look at God through Christ, who makes the attributes of God more delightful to us.” (11)

Here is the heart of the work. Our greatest good is to know God. But God is beyond us, so he comes to us in Christ and reveals himself to us. God Is, then, is an exposition and introduction to the attributes of God whose signal contribution is keeping them tied squarely to the person and work of Jesus.

In many ways, Jones is following up works like J.I. Packer’s Knowing God and A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, and giving them a Christological twist. But that’s not all. Unlike more recent, academic treatments, in the style of the great Puritan and Orthodox thinkers like Charnock, Watson, and Leigh, Jones has also made it his aim to connect each attribute or “doctrine” to applications or “uses” in our daily lives, loving God and our neighbors.

For instance, when Jones treats the patience of God, he turns to key Old Testament texts which testify to God’s forebearance, his willingness to restrain judgment so that sinners might be saved and his purposes would stand. But then, he turns to point out Christ’s death on the cross is the key to God’s patience. There God enacts his justice against all the sin formerly past over, saving sinners, but maintaining his holy nature. As application, Jones points us to the comfort of knowing God’s patience with us through Jesus, which then points us to the way we ought to be patient with others.

Or again, speaking of God’s glory, Jones points to the essential glory of God, the display and sum of his attributes in all of their beauty, as well as “glory” we ascribe to God in praise. But then, he turns to Christ and speaks to the way he displays the glory of God in human flesh. This, in turn, gives rise to a very careful discussion of the unique glories which Christ has as a composite person, the Godman, as well as his glory as the mediator who accomplishes salvation on our behalf.  By way of application, Jones points to our joy in worship of a great God, the beauty of being able to commune with this glorious God in Jesus, and our hope to experience this glory in person when Jesus returns in unveiled glory.

Jones goes on like this for some 26 chapters, touching on God’s independence, justice, love, holiness, immutability, and so forth, as well some surprising “attributes” like God’s name, his triunity, and his being “anthropomorphic.”

I’ll just be blunt and say it’s a good book that I think most should consider buying and reading. Jones is a friend, but I have worked my way through every page these last couple of weeks as devotional literature and found it very challenging and encouraging. I know I’ll be returning to it regularly whenever I want to think or write on a particular attribute of God. That said, I’ll add a couple more notes.

First, a word about style. The subtitle calls it a “devotional guide”, and I did use it as a sort of devotional, but you should know that’s a bit misleading. Indeed, I suspect Jones didn’t pick that subtitle. What I mean is that while the book is not an academic work, it’s not what passes for much popular, devotional literature, either.

The chapters are short, maybe 5-7 pages, but they are dense with theological instruction, biblical citation, and (fantastic) quotations from theologians like Watson, Charnock, Leigh, Pictet, and occasionally a “modern” like Bavinck. He’ll do little historical dives and let you know about debates regarding the necessity of satisfaction for atonement, or the way the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) play into our understanding of an attribute. Distinctions like ad extra and ad intra are sprinkled throughout.

Now, I think this is a very good and helpful thing. I really hope more popular theological literature moves in this direction. And if you find yourself intimidated at that thought, I would encourage you to read it anyways and allow yourself to be challenged. Still, I just figured I’d let you know.

Second, if you are a pastor who is struggling to think of ways to connect theology, and especially the nature of God, to your people in the pulpit and in your counsel, I think this is a good model to look at. You don’t have to follow Jones everywhere he goes either in application, or even in particular content points. But what he is doing is modeling a way of tracing the impact of how we think about God into every area of our worship and life.

We were made “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The aim of the gospel is God in Christ. He is our great end and our great joy. Reading God Is, is not a bad place to pursue more of him.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Immutable and Infinite Holiness of God

burning bushStephen Charnock’s treatment of the Holiness of God in The Existence and Attributes of God stands as the high watermark on the subject among Reformed Orthodox theologians of the period. Working my way through it, I’m struck by its comprehensive and seemingly exhaustive definition, defense, and exposition of the attribute. There’s much to dive into, but one particular section on the ontology of God’s holiness struck my attention.

To set it up, briefly, Charnock defines God’s holiness as:

Positively, It is the rectitude or integrity of the Divine nature, or that conformity of it, in affection and action, to the Divine will, as to his eternal law, whereby he works with a becomingness to his own excellency, and whereby he hath a delight and complacency in everything agreeable to his will, and an abhorrency of everything contrary thereunto.

God’s holiness is his utter purity of will, the love of the goodness which he has and is, as well as his opposition to everything opposed to that goodness which he is.

He goes on to clarify that this attribute is not a secondary, or ancillary perfection of God’s life, but one that is “essential and necessary” to his being. God would not be God without God being holy. God has been holy from eternity and will be holy forevermore.

Following this, he clarifies that “God only is absolutely holy: ‘There is none holy as the Lord’ (1 Sam 2:2).” This may strike some of us as odd because many things are spoke of in Scripture as holy besides God. In fact, isn’t holiness one of the communicable attributes which creatures can share with God? What could Charnock mean?

Well, he means that God’s holiness is qualitatively distinct and original to God. It’s not just that God is holy, he is, in fact, holiness itself. He only is originally holy and everything else is made holy as it is related to him (“by derivation”). Things set apart to the Lord become holy precisely because they are the Holy God’s. It’s borrowed holiness, in a sense, sort of like the light of the moon is borrowed from the Sun. And even then, their purity is just a dim reflection of the purity and holiness of God.

Charnock wants to drive home the qualitative difference between our holiness and God’s holiness. He compares God’s holiness with the holiness of the angels whom he has blessed with holiness and says their purity comes up short, causing them to cover their “feet out of shame in themselves” (Cf. Isa. 6). They know that:

…though they love God (which is a principle of holiness) as much as they can, yet, not so much as he deserves; they love him with the intensest degree, according to their power; but not with the intensest degree, according to his own amiableness; for they cannot infinitely love God, unless they were as infinite as God, and had an understanding of his perfections equal with himself, and as immense as his own knowledge. God, having an infinite knowledge of himself, can only have an infinite love to himself, and, consequently, an infinite holiness without any defect; because he loves himself according to the vastness of his own amiableness, which no finite being can.

Since love to God’s own perfection and goodness is the heart of holiness, only the perfection of God can muster it. Only the Triune God has the infinite capacity to love his infinite beauty properly, “according to the vastness of his own amiableness.” (I love that phrase.) And it’s precisely for that reason that his holiness is qualitatively distinct from all finite, creaturely holiness. What an astonishing and marvelous thought!

And it’s here we come to the fascinating passage that struck my eye.

Following off of this insight into the importance of God’s infinity for appreciating the distinctness of God’s holiness, he moves on to consider its immutability by comparison with changeableness of angelic and human nature. It’s a long quote, but worth it:

Holiness is a quality separable from them, but it is inseparable from God. Had they not at first a mutability in their nature, none of them could have sinned, there had been no devils; but because some of them sinned, the rest might have sinned. And though the standing angels shall never be changed, they are still changeable in their own nature, and their standing is due to grace, not to nature; and though they shall be for ever preserved, yet they are not, nor ever can be, immutable by nature, for then they should stand upon the same bottom with God himself; but they are supported by grace against that changeableness of nature which is essential to a creature; the Creator only hath immortality, that is, immutability (1 Tim. 3:16). It is as certain a truth, that no creature can be naturally immutable and impeccable, as that God cannot create any anything actually polluted and imperfect. It is as possible that the highest creature may sin, as it is possible that it may be annihilated; it may become not holy, as it may become not a creature, but nothing.

The holiness of a creature may be reduced into nothing, as well as his substance; but the holiness of the Creator cannot be diminished, dimmed, or overshadowed (James i. 17): “He is the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness or shadow of turning.” It is as impossible his holiness should be blotted, as that his Deity should be extinguished: for whatsoever creature hath essentially such or such qualities, cannot be stripped of them, without being turned out of its essence… The sun is essentially luminous; if it should become dark in its own body, it would cease to be the sun. In regard to this absolute and only holiness of God, it is thrice repeated by the seraphim (Isa. 6:3)…the holiness of God is so absolutely peculiar to him, that it can no more be expressed in creatures, than his omnipotence, whereby they may be able to create a world; or his omniscience, whereby they may be capable of knowing all things, and knowing God as he knows himself.

Humans and angels are changeable (mutable) beings. We came into existence and can wink out of existence. Our natures can shift from good to evil and evil to God.  We have fallen, but thankfully we can be saved and sanctified to God once more (humans, at least). And we only stay holy by the mercy and sustaining perfection of God’s work in us.

And yet in the starkest contrast, God is unchangeable. He is immutable. There is no shadow of turning with him. And this holds true of his holiness as well. There isn’t the slightest chance that God could ever be less than the infinitely pure love of good. It is the distinct, sine qua non of the divine life. It is inseparable from him.

Besides the magnificence of this vision of God’s absolute holiness, what struck me about this was how thickly ontological this discussion was. It’s all too easy and common in some contemporary discussions to make clean distinctions between God’s “ethical” or “moral” attributes emphasized in Scripture and his more “metaphysical” or “ontological” ones derived from philosophical or “Greek” speculation. (Typically, the distinction is pressed by theologians looking to revise the ontological ones.) Charnock doesn’t play that game.

In fact, it is precisely the “metaphysical” or “ontological” qualities of God–his infinity and his immutability–that distinguish and characterize God’s holiness as his own. It is the limitless and unchangeable purity, rectitude, and love of all that is good and according to his own perfect will that makes God’s holiness what it is.

This is good news. For God’s holiness is a crowing attribute among the rest, giving them their distinct character:

As all would be weak, without almightiness to back them, so all would be uncomely without holiness to adorn them…As sincerity is the lustre of every grace in a Christian, so is purity the splendor of every attribute in the Godhead. His justice is a holy justice; his wisdom a holy wisdom; his arm of power a holy arm (Ps. xcviii. 1); his truth or promise a holy promise (Ps. cv. 42). Holy and true go hand in hand (Rev. vi. 10). His name, which signifies all his attributes in conjunction, is holy (Ps. chi. 1); yea, he is “righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works” (Ps. cxlv. 17): it is the rule of all his acts, the source of all his punishments. If every attribute of the Deity were a distinct member, purity would be the form, the soul, the spirit to animate them. Without it, his patience would be an indulgence to sin, his mercy a fondness, his wrath a madness, his power a tyranny, his wisdom an unworthy subtilty. It is this gives a decorum to all.

Praise God, then, that it is this holiness which is unchanging and without end.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Love and Wrath, the Yes and No, of a Simple God (A Quick Response to Vreeland on Atonement)

wrath among the perfections of God's lifeI hate to ever criticize a fellow bearer of the most excellent name of “Derek” (especially if he spells it correctly), but I had a few thoughts on a recent post by Derek Vreeland over at Missio Alliance. Entitled, “Is Penal Substitutionary Atonement Necessary?“, Vreeland attempts to do some parsing around the difference between penal substitutionary atonement and propitiatory satisfactional atonement in the wake of the SBC resolution on the matter.  I won’t summarize the argument, as you should go read the piece and then come back.

Before I raise some complaints, I’ll say two positives. First, it’s a careful piece with an irenic tone. Vreeland goes out of his way to try to avoid caricaturing views he’s critiquing as positing a bloodthirsty, savage god. And, second, praise be to that God, he takes the time to interact with someone like Packer, noting agreements where possible, which is a good sign.

That said, I had some some quibbles, so I’ve sort of hastily written a few out since someone asked me about the piece online.

First, about the proper translation of hilasterion as “propitiation”, “mercy seat”, or “expiation.” I’ll simply note that the “mercy seat” reading, which was supposed to be the advance over propitiation or expiation, doesn’t obviously rule out a propitiatory dimension of the term, especially since that was the most common meaning in the Greek. You have to imagine the LXX writers used it to translate kapporeth for some reason. More importantly, even if the denotation is immediately expiation, that doesn’t necessarily remove the notion of turning away wrath. As Fleming Rutledge recently noted in The Crucifixion (p. 282), you could easily have a “propitiation via expiation” logic at work, since getting rid of sin would presumably turn away God’s wrath by removing the object of God’s wrath. (And while we’re on the subject, Rutledge is fantastic. Here’s my review.)

Second, we come to the status of wrath. I’ll just quote this paragraph:

Anger or wrath is not a literal attribute of God. As used by Paul in Romans, wrath is a metaphor for God’s eschatological judgement. God is not a mixture of love and wrath or love and anger. God is essentially a holy community of persons within whom there is no anger. God is pure love. God judges not from a place of judicial retributive anger, but from a heart of love.

This seems confused to me.

First, classically, God is not a mixture of anything, including his attributes. God is simple, not composed of parts. We might think of his attributes or perfections as simply the One God considered from a particular angle. Hence they are not in conflict with one another but in perfect harmony and, importantly, mutually-defining.

Now, there are all sorts of debates in Church history about how to think of God’s wrath. Whether it’s a primary attribute of God’s eternal nature (love, holiness, etc), or whether it’s something like a secondary attribute derivative of another kind of like mercy. Mercy is God’s goodness in action as it encounters an object of pity and in need of aid. God has always been good, but now in history we encounter his goodness in a new way in our state of need.

In the same way, we might think of God’s wrath as God’s inherent righteousness in the encounter with sin and sinners who violate God’s shalom and set themselves against him and their neighbors. The underlying reality of wrath, then, just is God’s eternal righteousness or justice, which is God himself. For a rich discussion on this point, I’d commend Jeremy Wynne’s monograph Wrath Among the Perfections of God’s Life. 

Connected to this, there is absolutely no reason to set up a false binary between “love” and “judicial retributive anger.” It is entirely possible to love someone and be angry with them. And not just in a petty way, but precisely out of love it is possible to absolutely be furious with someone’s self-destructive choices which hurt themselves and others. (On which, see this article by Tony Lane on the relationship between Wrath and Love.)

What’s more, it’s also entirely possible to love someone with a perfect love and recognize they have violated the law in a way that renders them liable to judgment and be angry at them for precisely that reason. Recall that since God is simple, God’s love is holy, pure, and righteous. In which case, God’s love is not the sort of love which lies about sin, failing to recognize it, name it as what it is, and treat it accordingly (which is precisely what is judicial, retributive anger does).

In which case, it’s manifestly not a matter of finding the right balance of wrath and love, which would indeed be a troubling and silly suggestion.

This brings me to the next point:

The problem Jesus came to address was not the problem of a “holy” God of justifiable wrath punishing a world of sinners. Jesus did not come to die for our sins to remove God’s hostility and turn God’s no towards us into a yes. God’s attitude towards us has always been yes. Jesus came to reveal to us what God is like (John 1:18). When God in Christ encountered sinful people, did he punish them? Did he express God’s no to them? Did he condemn them? Did he exhibit hostility towards them? No! God forgave them, healed them, and restored them. As a God of love, God certainly does not approve of sin. However God’s rejection of sin and evil doesn’t imply that God is personally offended by sin and needs to be “satisfied” in order to forgive.

Again, Vreeland builds on that false binary. God can love someone, have a fundamental stance of “yes” towards them, but still have a moral need and responsibility to say “no” towards their sin (and towards them insofar as they are the authors of their sins). In other words, the infinite God can have something approaching a multilayered volitional stance towards his creatures as created in his Image, but distorted through their sin.

Here’s one thing to keep straight about this: God’s “need” for satisfaction isn’t the “need” of a petty, insecure person. It is the moral “need” of the obligation of God as the perfectly righteous King, the Lord, the Judge and Guarantor of the order of the whole earth to maintain justice within it and keep his word of blessing and cursing according to the Law he has set forth. In which case, to sin against him isn’t just a matter of mere personal insult, but rather a legal violation of the justice and goodness of all creation. And so judgment is a serious condemnation, a “no” against it.

That being said, there would be something perverse about God if we couldn’t affirm that his judicial “no” to sin as the Lord, King, and Judge wasn’t still a very personal one. It’s not a matter of mere disapproval. Recall for a moment a brief catalogue of sin: idolatry, murder, adultery, rape, racism, war, robbery, child abuse, pride, sex trafficking, etc.. If God really is the loving King personally committed to the good of his creation, there is a sense in which he has to be personally offended by such atrocious violations of the shalom he desires. Anything less than a personal wrath, a personal, righteous opposition to sin that must be dealt with, robs us of a God of personal love.

Beyond that, I’d add that this still isn’t a simple matter of turning a “no” of judgment into the “yes” of forgiveness. Instead, it is saying a fundamental “yes” to humanity and forgiving us by executing the “no” against sin through the judgment of the cross. I’ve made this point at length before, but God being God means God forgives in a unique, Godlike way, which means doing away with sin and guilt to which he must stand opposed and treat as it deserves.

I mean, this has been clear (in the Reformed tradition) as far back as Calvin who stated it is precisely the Father’s love which motivates his sending of the Son in order to remove the obstacle of our sin and guilt which intervenes between us (“by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ”). Or to put it differently, God isn’t moved from wrath to love because of Christ’s death. He’s moved by love to satisfy his wrath against us by removing our guilt and enmity through the blood of his cross.

I would go on, but this is already too long, but I think you get the gist of my point. While I appreciate Vreeland’s work, I think it buys into too many false binaries about love and wrath as well as fails to appreciate the sort of need involved in the notion of satisfaction be ultimately helpful for us on this point.

If you’d like more along this line, I’ve got my big post on objections and answers to penal substitution. Also, since Vreeland cited it, I suppose I’ll link my review to Wright’s atonement book, whose exegesis of Romans 5 and 3 (and 8, for that matter) I found confused.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Experienced Pain, Truth, And Developing Doctrine

job and friendsI recently saw a discussion online about hell. In the course of things, one person noted their childhood trauma connected with teaching on this doctrine. Another (or possibly the same) went to suggest they couldn’t possibly see how growing up with a particular view of hell didn’t lead to childhood trauma. The doctrine itself was inherently trauma-causing and the implication was that this in itself counted strongly against its truth. Others chimed in, both for and against, either disagreeing or trying to defend the doctrine in question.

I didn’t have time to jump in at the moment, but I’ve been chewing on the issue for a bit. Not so much the doctrine of hell, but more generally what role considerations about a doctrine’s adverse psychological effects ought to play in doctrinal construction. So I wanted to test out a few tentative thoughts on the issue.

Words Matter. Let me begin by saying I am not doubting the experiences of trauma of those who were claiming it in that conversation. I don’t know some of them and I don’t have reason to doubt the ones I did know.

I will say, I do think there is a general tendency towards carelessness with words on this point, though. A friend of mine who is doing work in the area of trauma and theology has helpfully pointed out that words like “trauma”, “abuse”, “trigger”, and so forth, have specific, technical meanings related to qualitatively different sorts of psychological conditions and events. This is missed when we sloppily overuse them and apply them broadly to any generally unpleasant or disturbing experience (as is sadly common today).

This is unhelpful because it can illegitimately (even if unintentionally) be used to gain unfair and manipulative leverage in conversations by those who are not actually trauma sufferers. What’s more, in so doing, it actually minimizes and waters down the experiences of said, actual trauma sufferers.

Be Careful Not to Universalize Your Particular Experience. On that point, while I wouldn’t for a moment want to ignore or deny their experiences of dread and psychological distress connected to the doctrine, I would also caution we mustn’t deny the experience of those who did not have those same experiences. Because it seems empirically not the case that growing up with this particular view of hell is universally and necessarily traumatic, even if it sadly was so for some.

I’ll dangerously use myself as an example. I grew up being taught some version of that same doctrine from a very early age. It wasn’t something my parents or Sunday School teachers dwelt on obsessively, but they didn’t ignore it. And while I remember a short season in junior high being quite worried about judgment (I had been cursing at school and it haunted me at night), I eventually came to an assurance of the gospel and it passed. It’s not to say I don’t still find the reality of it troubling, or worth wrestling with—much the way I do many other awful realities. But it is not something that has left a lasting, psychic scar on me. And I know a great many of my friends and families and members of various churches who could say the same. What’s more, it’s entirely plausible that a larger survey would reveal the non-universality of this doctrinally-driven trauma far beyond my anecdotal evidence. Indeed, if we expand that survey across the globe and across the history of the Church, that seems manifestly obvious.

I suppose I am making a version of the argument against cultural imperialism in theology. One of the things that’s become clear over the years is that people from other times, cultures, and places read the Bible and experience Christian teaching in different ways than affluent, Post-Enlightenment Westerners. Go back a thousand years in church history. Or maybe a thousand miles across on an ocean. Texts we find shocking, they do not. Texts they find shocking, we do not. And it would be presumptuous to assume that our cultural-driven theological instincts automatically give us more insight. They don’t necessarily give us less insight, either. But considerations like that ought to give us pause.

My point is that we similarly shouldn’t be psychological or experiential imperialists, assuming the texts or doctrines which trouble us particularly, will trouble or shock others in the same way. There is a certain intellectual and empathetic myopia involved there—one which I have found myself guilty of on numerous occasions—which needs to be reckoned with. My experiences, my position, my place, my psychological make-up incline me in a particular direction theologically. But so do others. And it’s not that I need to always assume I’m wrong, but I need to acknowledge that. And this is true not only for positive experiences, but also negative ones and how we related them to our doctrine.

One example that comes to mind is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over suffering and evil. Some find the idea that God has a purpose (either immediate or mediate) behind allowing their pain and suffering—the loss of a child to early death—to be one of horror and disgust. Others find it absolutely necessary to maintain any sort of faith in God’s goodness in the face of the exact same tragedy. At that point, we have two instances of sufferers reacting to the very same teaching in diametrically opposed fashion. Whose psychological experience with that teaching should be weighted more strongly? Whose comfort is more trustworthy?

Truth Can Be Troubling. Following on this, we must keep in mind that the truth of an idea, may indeed be troubling—even traumatic. Growing up on a mountain, a child may be taught to take care not to shout too loudly in certain areas lest they trigger a rock slide, or an avalanche. They may then come dwell on that idea incessantly and obsessively. This is sad and possibly psychologically traumatic. Now, this may be a good reason to not live on that mountain, but it would not be a reason for rejecting the belief that avalanches are a liability in in their locale. The truth of the reality is fairly independent of whether it is potentially traumatic to believe it.

I would go on to point out, though, that even good truth, inappropriately introduced or dwelt on, could probably cause trauma, or at least have adverse psychological effects. Let’s be a bit Freudian and use sex as an example. That nearly every child has been begotten by an act of sexual love between a mother and a father is a good and beautiful truth. That God created sexual love as a pleasurable experience is as well. Both are good for people to know.

Yet we can all agree that exposure to pornography at a young age (or at all) would be a wrong, distorting, and harmful way to learn about them. Or, turning away from the immoral, it seems quite possibly traumatic to be introduced to these truths at the age of 7 by walking into your parent’s bedroom at the wrong moment, forcing a subsequent explanation. This could easily have adverse effects that, in the right sort of child, lead to sad, unhealthy fixations later on in life. But this being the case by no means counts as an argument against the good truth of the reality of sex. It is an argument for bedroom locks, discretion, and a game-plan for talking to your child about sex in an appropriate fashion.

A Diagnostic, Not a Criterion. But then is there any place someone’s psychological experience of a teaching should play in the way we think about it? I think there is. But we must not confuse what kind. I would suggest that it at least plays the role of a diagnostic light on your dashboard, warning you that something needs to be addressed.

Now, what needs to be addressed is not always immediately clear. Someone might experience great distress—unhealthy pain—at a doctrine for a few reasons. First, yes, the teaching itself is possibly flawed. I’m not saying that’s never a possibility. It definitely is. Second, it could also be that the teaching is not flawed but it is being taught and applied in a harmful and unhelpful fashion which needs to be addressed.

For instance, it’s possible to take doctrines and distort them—even wonderful doctrines about forgiveness, reconciliation and grace can be used abusively. Here the social and moral context of the teaching proves toxic and that toxicity affects how it is being received. Or, it could be that a doctrine is being taught not wrongly, or falsely, or “abusively”, but is being over-emphasized or without being properly set in the context of the rest of Christian truth.

One friend pointed out that doctrines like hell, or the fear of losing your salvation (or that you’ve never had it) can take on an extra psychological pressure in environments where much emphasis is laid on having a visible “conversion” experience, a second blessing, etc. The monastic context in which Luther struggled against the judgement of God might be another. Or one thinks of Kierkegaard’s testimony about the effect his father’s tumultuous personality paired with a pietistic focus on Christ’s sufferings hand on him as a young child. An individual doctrine isn’t doing the work here alone, but rather the way it functions alongside everything else.

All this to say, widespread experience of adverse psychological effects associated with a doctrine can definitely alert us of a problem we need to address. But it’s not immediately clear the solution is doctrinal revision. Often it is a call to greater pastoral discernment about the uses of doctrine, not the doctrines themselves. As the old maxim has it, “improper use does not nullify proper use“, but we can’t be so busy defending good doctrine we never stop to think about how to use it properly.

Avoiding Projection. To sort of round things out, I suppose one worry at the back of my mind is that an instinct to rewrite, or to tweak, Christian teachings in order to make sure it’s always psychologically affirming in some direct way, can turn our theology into a species of projection. Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said all theology was basically our anthropology magnified to the Nth degree and then projected up onto the screen of heaven. Freud makes a version of the same argument: God as wish-fulfillment. Believing in God is the comfort of having an ideal earthly father, simply projected into eternity.

And the thing is—when it comes to a lot of theology—they have a point. Much modern theology explicitly buys the premise that we’re basically just coming up with revisable metaphors for God that work for us and contributing to “flourishing”—however Late Moderns have come to define the term. In other words, my worry is conceptual idolatry, despite the admirable motive of concerns for those in pain.

All of this comes around to how do theology for the Church. It’s an obvious truism that all theology is done by humans, from particular perspectives, who inevitably have their favored theological paradigms informed by their experiences. But are we at least trying to give priority to God’s self-revelation, his self-testimony in the Gospel and recorded in Scripture? Are we at least attempting to let God’s Word beyond our experiences speak a word of comfort about God into our experiences? Or do we explicitly make our variable, subjective, and relative experiences, cultures, and intuitions function as a normative authority or criterion?

Again, I’m not saying we never rethink doctrine, or how we’re teaching in light of people’s adverse psychological experiences. What I am saying is that we must make sure that these realities drive us to humble ourselves before Christ’s voice in Scripture—to hear what we may have missed, to have him clarify what we have muddled, or to have him reaffirm what we might be tempted to dispense with in our haste and pain. For ultimately it is his words–even those which initially confuse and confound us–which heal our deepest wounds.

Soli Deo Gloria