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

Careful About Being Too Careful of What You Read

questOne of the things I’ve learned over the last few years of reading theology is that caution and discernment ought to be exercised in our caution and discernment in our sources for theology.

What do I mean by that?

Well, let me give you an example I ran across while reading Stephen Holmes’ excellent work The Quest for the Trinity. (I highly recommend this so far!) Tertullian was a church leader in Carthage in the North of Africa in the early part of 3rd Century and one of the greatest theologians in the West up until that point.  His writings are voluminous and he was a staunch apologist and defender of the faith against such heresies as those of Marcion, the Gnostics, and the anti-Trinitarians.

Ironically enough, later in life, embraced the teachings of Montanism–a “New Prophecy” that ended up being condemned by the Church as a heresy. It was during that time that Holmes says Tertullian penned an important text entitled Against Praxeas, which ended up becoming one of the most important texts for solidifying and shaping Latin Trinitarianism. While Holmes contends that Tertullian didn’t essentially add anything new to the doctrine of the Trinity, or work it out fully, he still refuted a number of dangerous heresies and he basically cleaned up the discussion and gave the Western church the language it needed to codify it and protect it (trinitas, person, substantia, etc).

This is all the while being technically a heretic in another area of doctrine.

What are we to make of this? Well, I think it serves as a caution that we ought to be careful about being too careful about who we read, or even who we think can teach us truth. There is a a healthy care that students of theology should take in who they select as their main sources of theological inspiration. For instance, if your major inspiration for theological development, or your only precedent for a particular position, are the rationalist Socinians in the 16th Century, that’s a good sign you’re probably on the wrong track.

Still, the Church Father Origen said some really weird things that were eventually rightly condemned by the Church. But his concept of eternal generation, in the right hands, was gold for theology, and his commentaries, defenses of the faith may still be read with intellectual and spiritual profit. God can and has used even those theologians and philosophers whose views have suffered serious deficiencies and flaws to strengthen the faith of the Church.

I’m a pastor, so I take care about the books I tend to recommend, especially with my students. If I suspect that it will lead unsuspecting students astray, I won’t recommend it. Or if it has a redeeming value beyond some issues, I will strongly caution about the aspects of a work that are could distract from its overall value. Yet pastors and other students of theology need to beware of cloistering ourselves in the comfortable halls of our own favored theological neighborhoods. I can admit in my own life, when I’ve found out that a certain author espouses a view on the atonement or God’s covenants I find defective, I’ve been tempted to simply steer clear altogether and not “waste my time.” But that would be a mistake.

We ought to be careful about dismissing the theological offerings of theologians who differ from our favored tradition in theology. As a Reformed Christian I can (and have!) read Wesleyans, or even Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theologians with great profit, both in areas of overlap as well as areas of theology I strongly differ. Just because I disagree with them on justification or the nature of sanctification, that does not mean I can’t glean insights or have my own theological convictions sharpened and strengthened.

My brief point, then, is: be careful of what you’re careful of. Be a discerning reader. Know yourself well and have friends and mentors who can challenge you and keep you on the rails. But for the student of theology, hyper-active fear of reading the “wrong” material might be something to be something to guard against as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

When Can We Stop Conversing and Believe Some Stuff? A Ramble on Intellectual Narcissism

landingI’ve written before about current failure of intellectual imagination that plagues our current, cultural conversations, especially around conversion narratives. If you used to believe something for stupid, sinful reasons, then that’s the only reason anybody could hold the position you used to hold. If people haven’t updated their beliefs along the lines you have, it’s because they haven’t read the arguments you have, so they simply need to be enlightened.

What follows is a ramble on another, related angle on the same problem.

Of late, I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency to assume people are in our same intellectual position with respect to an issue that’s up for debate. For instance, if you’ve never really struggled with doubt, it’s very hard to put yourself in the position of someone who is wrestling with issues that just seem obvious and intuitive to you. In theological circles, it may be tempting to write it off as pure perversity and rebellion, rather than real intellectual and moral tension.

On the flipside, if you’ve got doubts, then it’s hard to deal with someone who doesn’t currently seem to be sharing them. Their certainty on the issue can be off-putting, or, even more, unthinkable. It’s difficult to imagine that someone has wrestled as hard as you have and then come out on the other side and still holds the beliefs you used to hold, or different beliefs, or indeed, any strong beliefs on this at all. This actually seems to be more than case nowadays, especially because our culture puts a premium on heroic doubt. I don’t remember where he said this, but Matthew Lee Anderson has pointed out that in the current intellectual climate, beliefs aren’t as valid, or true, unless we’ve passed through some period of angst, or torment over them, otherwise they appear as inauthentic expressions of bad faith.

I was thinking about all of this as I was reading Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics. While he probably pushes too hard in one direction, he talked about the fact that it’s fine to search while you haven’t found the truth, but once you found it, land and be content with the truth:

But at the outset I lay down (this position) that there is some one, and therefore definite, thing taught by Christ, which the Gentiles are by all means bound to believe, and for that purpose to “seek,” in order that they may be able, when they have “found” it, to believe. However, there can be no indefinite seeking for that which has been taught as one only definite thing. You must “seek” until you “find,” and believe when you have found; nor have you anything further to do but to keep what you have believed provided you believe this besides, that nothing else is to be believed, and therefore nothing else is to be sought, after you have found and believed what has been taught by Him who charges you to seek no other thing than that which He has taught.

I take him to be saying something like this: When you go seeking for a spouse, the point is to find one, right? Now, once you find one, you’re not supposed to keep searching are you? That’s not to say you’re not still learning, or exploring–but it’s of a different character now. Before I was looking for a land to settle in, but now I’m exploring the land I have. Before I was searching to find a wife. Now I’m “exploring” my wife, looking to grow and learn in the context of an already settled relationship. This is no less stimulating, adventurous, or somehow closed-minded–it’s just the way relationships work. Depth and love are not the result of constant foundation-testing and tinkering, but in building once those things have been tinkered, tested, and settled on.

Something similar is true about theological truth. I’ve searched a bit and have already landed on the Apostles Creed. That’s not up for grabs for me anymore–at least, not in a live way, really. Now, I suppose theoretically someone could provide me with defeater beliefs for it and I’d give it up, but not for now. For now I have cast my bet, rolled the dice, and landed on a basic outline of Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Lord who reveals God as Triune, salvation by God’s grace, and so forth. The question now is learning to understand what I’ve come to believe in a deeper fashion.

Where’s all of this going? Well, I suppose it comes to a few questions. Are you okay with ever landing? Is your approach to faith one that dictates we should we continue doubting and testing the same things over and over? Or, when it comes to cultural conversations on hot-button issues, do we have to keep having the same conversation? Or rather, am I expected to constantly come into every conversation with the same level of hesitancy as you do, or be deemed inauthentic and totalitarian? Can I be confident of my beliefs even as I’m tender and understanding of yours?

In the other direction, do you enter every conversation with the expectation that people have reached the level of confidence and security that you have? In other words, is every expression of uncertainty and doubt an expression of rebellion and perversity, or do you give some space for those who are still piecing it through?

I don’t have a conclusion here other than something I try to remind myself of all of the time: when dealing with people you disagree with, try your best not to be an intellectual narcissist.

Soli Deo Gloria