The Nature of Divine Necessity for the Cross (A Quick Response to Vreeland)

the crossDerek Vreeland just wrote a follow-up to my response to his original blog-post. I’ve you’re interested, you can read those posts first. I appreciate the friendly conversation, but I do think Vreeland has mischaracterized my position, so I wanted to offer a little rejoinder on this important point. I’ll just quote the relevant section and then respond.

(I will just add that I am not for a moment claiming that the penal or retributive aspect of atonement is the only one at work. I gladly affirm the various historical motivations, Christus Victor aspects, and so forth. I do simply want to clarify things on this point.)

Here’s Vreeland explaining my position and offering an alternative:

In his amiable response to me, Reformed thinker Derek Rishmawy argues that “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.”[1] I agree it is possible for human beings to love and be angry simultaneously, but it would be morally reprehensible to say that I both love someone and react to that person with “judicial retributive anger” particularly if that anger took on the form of retributive violence.

Here I see no actual argument for the proposition that it is “morally reprehensible” for a person to both love someone and yet exact “judicially retributive anger”, just an assertion. This is problematic not only as an argument, but also because its an assertion that runs contrary to Scripture, which constantly depicts YHWH as both loving Israel and yet executing his retributive and just anger against it.

There are literally dozens of chapters in the Prophets–the very same ones where God proclaims his love for Israel–in which he says he will pour out his wrath, judgment, and anger on Israel for her gross sins. Off the top of my head, Ezekiel 7.  The coming exile is described precisely as the execution of wrath, judgment, anger in accordance with the wicked ways of Israel–the Israel God loves! In which case, we have to write off Ezekiel as a prophet for having a morally reprehensible conception of God. Probably Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea as well.

Rishmawy further claims I create a false binary when I argue God is always extending a yes to humanity and never a no. Rishmawy contends that God’s disposition is indeed yes towards us but no towards our sin—an important nuanced description that I did not find in J.I. Packer’s logic of PSA. So in Rishmawy’s view, the death of Jesus was necessary in that God has a “moral need for satisfaction.” In other words, someone has to pay the price in order for God to be able to forgive. This view, which is standard in Western (Roman Catholic/Protestant) theology, makes God accountable to something other than himself, a nebulous force which Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexandre Kalomiros called a “gloomy and implacable Necessity.”[2]

There are at least two confusions here. First, I don’t exactly say that “someone has to pay the price in order for God to be able to forgive.” Rather, I have argued that God pays the price in Christ precisely as the means of forgiveness. God doesn’t forgive as we do precisely because God is in a different position from us as the Creator, King, Judge, and ruler of all the world. And so, we might expect his forgiveness to look a bit different than ours.

Second, nobody’s talking about a “gloomy and implacable” necessity, and certainly not anything outside of Godself. To speak of God’s “moral necessity” is simply another way of speaking to God’s faithfulness to his own perfect goodness. God is not “bound by the chains of his own justice.”

Let’s put it another way. It is not a deficiency or lack of freedom that Paul is charging God with when he says “God cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 3:13). God’s inability to lie is the free expression of his essential nature as truthful in all of his ways. God is absolutely free to act in accordance with his fundamental nature as faithful and true. Similarly, to speak of God’s moral necessity to punish sin–to address injustice, to redress grievance, to name sin what it is through judgment–is not to speak of a lack of freedom, or a compulsion to some impersonal necessity outside of himself, but rather to name an expression of his freedom to be fully himself, just in all his ways.

One point that Vreeland fails to note (that I emphasized in my post) is precisely the point that God is not just any person. God is the Creator of the universe which sets him in a unique relationship of King, Judge, and moral guarantor of the order of justice within it. And he has committed himself and covenanted to treat righteousness and sin in certain ways within it. God has given himself responsibilities in that regard. In which case, God is bound by his own word, as it were. And a God who can just break his word whenever he wants isn’t a trustworthy God.

God is not compelled by anything other than love. As seen throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus, God can forgive sins at any time. As the living Word of God, Jesus regularly forgave sins without the need for retributive justice. The issue was not ‘who has paid the demands of justice’ but rather ‘who has the authority to forgive?’ Jesus—as God in human form—had the authority to forgive, and He did (see Mark 2:5-12). While it may be possible for human beings to express both love for a person and retributive anger, it is not possible for God because God is not a mixture of pure love and “holy” wrath. The requirement for retributive justice isn’t a part of God’s nature.

The question here, of course, is what notion of love we’re speaking of. If we get our notion of love from what God has revealed of himself on the basis of who he has shown himself to be and what he has said in history, then that is a love which is apparently not contrary to justice, including retributive justice. Of course he is not a “mixture” of love and holy wrath. But again, nobody is claiming that and I remember specifically rejecting such an utterly silly, caricatured formulation. I say that God is perfectly simple, in which case all of God’s attributes are mutually defining. God’s love is holy, his faithfulness is just, his power is wise, and so on and so forth. What that does mean is that we can’t lift one attribute out of the context of the revelation of all of God’s other attributes, bend it out of shape, and then make it defining in such a way that it perverts the shape of all the rest.

Indeed, when God gives the meaning of his name on Mt. Sinai after the Golden Calf incident, he declares himself to be “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:6-7) I mean, he puts retributive justice alongside mercy and forgiveness right at the center of his self-description at one of the most defining moments in Israel’s history. This is a tension, yes, but one that is enacted and clarified historically on the cross. One of the glories of penal substitution (and satisfaction) theories is precisely that they affirm both forgiveness, mercy, AND satisfaction of retributive justice, recognizing both sides. Vreeland’s false binary forces us to choose.

As for Jesus’ ability to forgive sins, I totally agree he has that. But if I had time, I would argue he enacts that on the basis of his own future sacrifice, just as God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sins through the Temple system was all pointing to and dependent on Christ’s once and for all sacrifice on the Cross. In that sense, the efficacy of Christ’s work is trans-temporal. (This is one of those places where having a metaphysically-built-out conception of God helps you think through your soteriology).

Otherwise, you have to see that Vreeland’s argument–just like the Socinians who originally made it–is essentially a radically and crassly voluntaristic conception of God’s justice. When you unchain it from his nature and you just make it an prerogative he has, God can sort of judge retributively or not, based on his mood. Some sins he punishes, others he doesn’t.  Again, this makes God inconsistent and undependable.

Instead, on something like a satisfaction or penal substitution view, whenever we see God not judging or restraining punishment, we can see as a wise exercise of his patience or forbearance towards someone even though all sin will one day be dealt with (Romans 2:4; 3:25; 2 Peter 3:8-10). All sins are punished and even still, mercy and grace are extended towards repentant sinners.

God isn’t indifferent when it comes to sin. God is a God of judgment, and God’s judgment flows from his love. God will hold us all accountable for our sin, but God’s mercy is not dependent upon His own “moral obligation” to see that someone is punished for sins. God’s mercy is dependent upon His love alone.

I’ll just wrap it up and point out a few last things.

First, I really don’t see that Vreeland has properly disentangled the notion of judgment flowing from love from the notions of punishment or retribution.

Nor have I seen him explain why retribution–God treating sin as it deserves, in accordance with the truth of what it is–is a bad thing. Scripture affirms all over the place that God will indeed “render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Rom. 2:6-8) Indeed, Jesus himself teaches this retribution in many of his parables (Matt. 25, esp. 31-45). I could list out dozens and dozens of verses, but you get the point. 

Second, mercy is actually a notion conceptually dependent on retributive justice. The implication is that you deserve judgment, but God in this moment doesn’t treat you as you deserve and as God (in some way) ought to. Yes, love is the motivation of mercy. But again, on a penal substitution view, God gets to be everything he says he is in Scripture. He gets to do everything he says he will: he punishes sin while forgiving sinners and so much more.

And that’s ultimately what I’m after: a God who gets to be all of himself in all that he does–love, mercy, and even justice.

Well, I’ll wrap it up there for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin on “He descended into Hell” (Guest Post by Tim Keller)

KellerToday I have the honor of hosting an original, guest post by Dr. Timothy Keller, chairman and co-founder of Redeemer City to City, VP of The Gospel Coalition, and former pastor and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. 

Is it right for preachers to speak of Jesus experiencing the loss of the Father’s love on the cross?  After all, orthodox Trinitarian theology teaches that at the ultimate level, ontologically, the Father did not ever hate the Son. The Trinity remains completely unbroken. Indeed, when the Son was dying for us he was offering the Father a ‘pleasing sacrifice’ and a ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

But then what was the “forsakenness” that Jesus experienced on the cross? If in the ultimate sense he did not lose the Father’s love, what did he lose?  Is it wrong to say that when Jesus was on the cross he experienced estrangement from God? Is it wrong to say that he lost any sense and even assurance of God’s love?

Preachers will do well to read Calvin closely when he expounds the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” (Institutes II. 16. 8-12)

Calvin argues this Jesus ‘descent into hell’ was not merely descending into physical death and the grave. He believes it represents biblical teaching that Jesus suffered not just bodily pain but all the torments that a soul in hell, cut off from God’s presence, would experience. He “bore all the punishments [evildoers] ought to have sustained” with only one exception, that those torments could not keep hold of him forever. He “suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked.” (II.16.10). Calvin does not mince words here. “Not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man. (II.16.10) And he says: “Surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard. It is as if God himself had plotted your ruin.”  (II.16.11)

That is what Jesus experienced on the cross. As far as Christ’s experience was concerned, he lost everything he had with the Father, just as a damned soul would. He lost God’s presence, favor, communication, and therefore any feeling sense of God’s love.

Calvin knows that the strength of his language will make some people nervous. He rightly assures readers that there is no rupture in the Trinity. Though Christ experienced God’s wrath, “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him…. How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God?” (II.16.11) This of course sounds confusing to many listeners. Jesus received the wrath of God and yet God was not angry with him? But that fits the Biblical data. Calvin sifts this data and shows us that ontologically, there was no alienation. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that Father never loved and admired his Son more than when he was dying to save us.

But existentially, Calvin wants us to know and preach that Jesus was as bereft of God’s love and presence as a damned soul. Of course the Father continued in his love for his Son, but on the cross Jesus lost all sense and experience and any practical possession of it. He felt like a soul in hell. On that Calvin is emphatic. He goes on to argue against those who rightly stress this continual love of the Father to the Son but who go on to over-emphasize it to the point of trivializing or minimizing what Jesus suffered. Here Calvin speaks directly to those who don’t want us to ever say that Jesus existentially “lost the Father’s love.”

Calvin engages those who say, for example, that Jesus did not actually feel forsaken or estranged. “They hold it incongruous that he would fear for the salvation of his soul.” (II.16.12)  But Calvin insists that Jesus did indeed lose his assurance of God’s love and did fear for his soul. He insists that Jesus “wrestled hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell” and so “he was victorious and triumphed over them.” (II.16.11)

Calvin addresses others who say that although Christ feared death, he did not fear God’s curse and wrath, from which he knew himself to be safe.”  (II.16.12) These are people who say that Jesus never feared or felt the loss of God’s favor and presence. He feared, perhaps, the pain of physical death, but he never felt damned and cut off from the Father’s love. They believe that Jesus on the cross thought, as it were, “Though I’m physically suffering I know the Father loves me, and this will be over soon.” Calvin says this makes Jesus more “unmanly and cowardly than most men of the common sort”. Why, he asks, was Jesus in such torment in Gethsemane? If Jesus was only afraid of physical pain and death, then plenty of human beings, who “bear it calmly” have faced death better than Jesus. (II.16.12) Instead, Calvin argues, he was trembling before the spiritual torments, “the terrible abyss”, of the loss of God’s presence and love, the experience of being “estranged and forsaken.”  If Jesus did not face and experience the dreadfulness of damnation, and the feeling that he was not “safe”, but lost and cursed, then he didn’t really take the penalty we deserved.

In summary, Calvin goes so far as to say that Jesus, in order to truly be our substitute and pay our penalty, had to have feared for his soul and his eternal safety. That is how severe a loss of the Father’s favor and love he experienced.

I think Calvin’s warnings are important.  If we say that Jesus never felt the loss of God’s love on the cross, then it diminishes his astonishing faithfulness. When he quotes Psalm 22, calling the Father “My God”, he not only calls God by his covenant name, but he is invoking a Messianic psalm with a triumphant ending.  If he did this when he felt nothing of God’s love and presence—as Calvin argues—it was then an act of obedience unique in the history of the universe. He clung in hope to God’s covenant love even when feeling utter divine abandonment, even when in hell.  Jonathan Edwards’ great sermon Christ’s Agony explains why. To the first Adam God said—obey me and I will be with you. But he didn’t. To the second Adam he said—obey me and I will forsake you and cut you off. Yet Jesus still obeyed.  Unlike Captain Ahab, who said, “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee”, Jesus said, as it were, “from Hell’s heart I will obey you still.” Calvin adds,  “For even though he suffered beyond measure, he did not cease to call him his God, by whom he cried out that he had been forsaken.” (Institutes, II.16.12).

Let’s heed Calvin’s warning not to think or hint that, ontologically, the Father ceased to love Jesus or, existentially, that Jesus did not lose all sense and assurance of that love. We must neither veer into the appearance that the Father was abusing Jesus nor into minimizing the depths of the suffering of Jesus on the cross for us.

Calvin summarizes his argument against those who, he believes, diminish the sufferings of Christ.

“From this it appears that these quibblers with whom I am contending…. have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.” (II.16.12)

Keller, Jones, Turretin, and the Love of God on the Cross

Tim Keller posted one of his gospel aphorisms on Facebook a couple of days ago that got some people riled. He said:

Now, on the face of it, this could be a very problematic statement. My friend Mark Jones has gone into why. Essentially, on one straightforward read, this is playing right into a tritheistic split in the godhead that many critics of penal substitution assume is going on. But contrary to that, orthodox theology has always held the Father has never stopped loving the Son, especially in his moment of greatest obedience to him on the cross.

My suspicion is that is not what Keller has in mind, but is speaking loosely about the experience of the Son as the Godman. I’ve written elsewhere that the Reformed speak of the Godman’s suffering on the cross per the logic of Chalcedon:

When we speak of the Son suffering the consequences of sin or judgment or wrath or God’s abandonment, we speak truly but we speak according to his human nature. We have to be able to say the divine Son suffered these things because Jesus is the divine Son. We confess according to Scripture that “God purchased the church with his blood” (Acts 20:28). But we also have to say the Son suffered according to, or by virtue of, his human nature. This is why Reformed Orthodox stalwarts like Francis Turretin insisted Christ is our mediator according to both natures with “each nature contributing what is its own—the human indeed the substance of the work (or passion); the divine, its infinite value and price” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 14, Q. II, V). Or as Wilhelmus à Brakel put it, “It was an infinite person who suffered according to his human nature, and thus his suffering was of infinite efficacy and value, ‘having obtained eternal redemption for us’ (Heb. 9:12)” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1: God, Man, and Christ, 482).

In which case, I think it is a reasonable guess to suppose that Keller is speaking of Jesus’ experience of the loss of God’s infinite love in his experience on the cross.

Indeed, returning to Turretin, we see him articulating something like this at length in his careful scholastic way.

The punishment of desertion, suffered by Christ (of which he complained, Mt. 27:46) was not a bodily, but a spiritual and internal suffering. It arose not from any torment (however dreadful) which he could feel in his body…but from a most oppressive sense of God’s wrath resting upon him on account of our sins. Now this desertion is not to be conceived of as absolute, total and eternal (such as is felt by only demons and the reprobate), but temporal and relative; not in respect of the union of nature (for what the Son of God once assumed, he never parted with)l or of the union of grace and holiness because he was always blameless (akakos) and pure (amiantos), endowed with untainted holiness; or of communion and protection because God was always at his right hand (Ps. 110:5), nor was he ever left alone (Jn. 16:32). But as to a participation of joy and felicity, God suspending for a little while the favorable presence of grace and the influx of consolation and happiness that he might be able to suffer all the punishment due to us (as to the withdrawal of vision, not as a dissolution of union; as to the want of the sense of divine love, intercepted by the sense of the divine wrath and vengeance resting upon him, not as to a real privation or extinction of it.) And, as the Scholastics say, as to the “affection of advantage” that he might be destitute of the ineffable consolation and joy which arises from a sense of God’s paternal love and the beatific vision of his countenance (Ps. 16); but not as to the “affection of righteousness” because he felt nothing inordinate in himself which would tend to desperation, impatience or blasphemy against God. (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 14, Q. II, VI)

The long and the short of it in that very long, very carefully qualified paragraph is that while the Son doesn’t lose God’s infinite love simpliciter, he loses “a sense of God’s paternal love and the beatific vision of his countenance” for a while, not absolutely, but relatively, and so forth. In loose language, we could say that the Son loses his experience of the love of God. At least that’s what Reformed Orthodox stalwart Turretin seems to say.

Now, it’s true that elsewhere Keller has expanded statements like this to point out that the background of the Son’s loss of the experience of God’s paternal affection is his eternal relationship with the Father. That expansion may or may not be worth correcting. Though, it does seem initially plausible that Christ’s knowledge of himself as the Son who experienced glory with the Father in eternity past (John 17:5) could have contributed to the shock and pain of his experience of the “punishment of desertion.” While we speak according to the natures, and we don’t confuse them, we don’t separate them either. But I won’t take a hard line here.

Now, I don’t claim that my read of Keller through Turretin is obviously the right read. I do think it is at least as plausible this is the fleshed out thought behind his aphorism, if not more so, as the one that Jones is worried about. I suppose from there, the discussion we might have is how careful we ought to be with the communication of idioms in our preaching. I have little worry that Keller is preaching heresy, though.

Soli Deo Gloria

(One additional note: this is just one post on Facebook out of years of Keller’s sermons on the cross where one might find counterbalancing statements. I will say that I have heard enough of them to know that on those occasions he references Christ’s quotation of Psalm 22, Keller has pointed out that Christ still calls God “my God”, and is likely invoking the rest of the song as an act of trust in the Lord’s faithfulness to him. The implication is that the fundamental unity of the Trinity remains unruptured even through the experience of wrath. That sort of thing ought to be factored in as well.)

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