Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Wrath of God (2)

So if God is not wrathful in the sense of a pagan angry deity what does the language of wrath in Scripture refer to? For it is certainly saturated throughout the Old Testament, nor is it absent from the New Testament. The answer is that Scripture testifies to a developing understanding of the nature of God and wrath. In Paul for example, it is a theme in Paul’s writings, but there tends to be “wrath” rather than “the wrath of God”. Of some twenty to twenty five references to wrath, only two or three are to the wrath of God. Mostly Paul refers to wrath as a concept.

Julian of Norwich – who lived at the time of the Black Death and saw immense suffering in her lifetime – understood that God is not concerned with punishment. The understanding of God in Christian faith is not a pagan one, whereby we have to appease someone who is angry or else, but rather that God is supremely love. Julian of Norwich talks about a courteous love, that God is loving to the exclusion of all other attributes. This does not mean that what is described as the wrath of God or vengeance or punishment in the Old Testament is not describing something real. It is to say that the presentation there has more to do with how the Old Testament peoples understood wrath than it has to do with the nature of God as revealed in Christ himself. After all, a wrathful, punishing God would not get involved in this process of allowing himself to be sacrificed in order to heal. Jesus rarely refers to the Old Testament directly, but there is one passage in Hosea which he quotes twice and it is this: “Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy not sacrifice.” God is eternally consistent in acting from love.

So what is a properly Christian understanding of wrath? Wrath is when we experience the consequences of our own sin. In medieval theology it was accepted that there were two ways of understanding God – there was the book of nature (creation) and there was the book of revelation (the Bible) – and both books allowed the reader to discern the nature of God. In particular, contemplating the creation can lead you to affirm the Creator. It can’t lead you to affirm Christ, that’s the realm of revelation, but you can through natural reason come to the conclusion that God exists. Corresponding to this, I think there are two ways to understand wrath, one referring to a natural process, one referring to a human process.

As Christians we understand that the world is made through Christ, that the world is consistent, that it can be understood, and that is what we call the logos. This is one of the foundations for the development of science in the Western world: because you can trust the maker of the world to be consistent, therefore you can apply scientific method to discern truth. The scientific method depends upon these prior theological assumptions, for where you have got a panoply of gods intervening arbitrarily then it is impossible to obtain consistent, reliable and repeatable data.

So natural theology perceives that the world is consistent and bound by laws that we can see and understand, and these laws reveal the nature of the Creator. If the world is consistent and bound by laws then that means that the transgression of those laws has particular consequences. If you put your hand in fire you will get burnt. There is no monitoring entity saying 'you've broken the rules by putting your hand in the fire! Now I've got to punish you by burning your hand!' No, there is simply a hand being placed in the fire and being burnt as a result. This is the first sense in which the language of wrath can be applied: wrath is when we experience the consequences of our actions.

to be continued...

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