Natural Consequences

One thing we can learn from Jesus is that grace is not a buffer protecting us from God’s wrath, instead grace is simply the character of God. Furthermore, God has told us this, but words are not enough. It must be experienced within relationship to be fully grasped. We explored this in some depth in the previous essay. That essay might be summed up by saying Divine Grace must start as a lived experience before it makes sense as a theological doctrine.

The angry God motif is common enough in the Old Testament, and it ought not surprise us that it is there. We have been separated from God and separate ourselves from God. As a result when we experience Nature as uncaring and impersonal (Nature that seemingly arbitrarily creates havoc in our lives and society), we assume God has turned his back on us. The actual fact is we have turned our back on God because of our preference for sin. From this mistaken starting place, it is easy to assume that God is angry and judging. (More about this below.) But Jesus offers us a glimpse into reality that is quite different from our perceptions.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father is neither angry nor does he have a need to punish the prodigal. Instead he waits attentively for his son’s return. Thus Jesus speaks to the way we perceive divine reality: The prodigal assumes (as we do) that if he returns he will face severe consequences (ie, wrath) and prepares accordingly. He is completely wrong. The Father welcomes him with open arms and doesn’t even allow him to finish his confession! This is but one story of God-as-Grace (in contrast to God offering grace as a cover or shield for underlying divine wrath.)

Martin Luther interpreted medieval Roman Catholic doctrine in line with the Prodigal Son. Starting with divine wrath, he recognized that the balance sheet could never be balanced. This led him to proclaim a gospel of grace in sharp contrast to works. This is the source of the well-known Lutheran “alone” statements. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Upon this teaching (Lutherans call it the “material principle”) all other teachings emerge. While Luther’s insight fell like a bombshell on medieval Europe, he only got half way to the whole truth. Luther believed that the fundamental attitude of God toward sinners was not grace but wrath. For instance, while hidden away in the Wittenberg Castle, he wrote,

I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” [Quote from Steve Lawson, “Fortress of Truth: Martin Luther,” First Things, 9/11/2017.

Luther missed the necessary starting point. God isn’t in the business of punishing sinners. Just as the Prodigal Son’s eating of corn husks meant for the pigs was not his Father’s punishment for leaving the household. So, the calamities and judgments that befall us aren’t God’s doing but the natural effect of our leaving God’s household. The necessary starting point is not the Prodigal Son’s tragic condition, it is the Father, sitting on the porch, waiting for him to return so the Father can welcome him home.

This is how we should understood law (including the Mosaic Law). “Natural law” is not so much God’s demands upon us to live up to divine holiness, it is a divinely revealed description of how the natural world works. We humans turned our back on God. In mercy, God told what we would need to do in order to make our way in the world without the living presence of God within us. Breaking the Law doesn’t make God angry, it brings about effects that are simply part of the created order.

Alongside explaining the negative effects of abandoning the presence of God, Jesus offers a description of what living in the presence of God would look like. The Sermon on the Mount is his most concise summary, and given our experience, Jesus’ description sounds harsh. If we can move beyond our perception of the angry God, we can then recognize how gracious Jesus’ description of live with God (and God within us) truly is. We will explore this in more depth in the next essay.

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If God Is For Us

The place we must begin as Christians is that God is on our side. As Paul says, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people. He certainly opposed religious leaders who tried to misconstrue religion to make it burdensome. But his opposition was never against people in principle but always against those who stood in the way of the people coming to God.

The history of religions is rather different. Broadly speaking, religion (that which was thought up by us, not that which was revealed by God) grows out of the sense that we have displeased the gods. Religious practices were put in place to overcome that displeasure. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (a summary of Carl Jung) argues that this trope is beyond ancient, it is part of our primordial mindset.

Because the belief that the gods are against us, or at the very least, displeased, runs so deep in our consciousness, it is not surprising that it is a theme that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament. Since it is clearly present in the Old Testament, there is a tendency to say that this is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob truly is. It is a sentiment that is expressed in the extreme in Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a sentiment that the Apostle Paul wrestles with in his epistles. The theme has also shaped our interpretation of hell, wrath, and judgment.

But if God isn’t like this, why has God allowed the idea that he is angry with us to persist and even creep into scripture? The answer comes when we consider what was important to Jesus. His interaction with the woman at the well was typical. She was concerned with right theology. Being a Samaritan, questions about the correct place to worship—the Jewish Mt. Zion or the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim—were foremost. But Jesus essentially brushed correct theology off by saying, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (Jn 4:23). Instead he was far more interested in her life struggles than her theology. When he probed her mind, it had nothing to do with theology. “Go call your husband and come here” (v 16). Her life, it turns out, was a wreck, and Jesus was far more interested in getting her human relationships sorted out than sorting her theology.

“Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be a question that must be answered, not by the Rabbis in the synagogue (or the priests and theologians in the seminary) but by you and I as we walk or drive to work. As we read the Old Testament with this sensibility revealed by Jesus, we realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was as Jesus said and not like the old gods who were easily piqued and demanded that everything be just right. The living God demonstrated that he wanted those ancient wanderers to come along side God and wander with him. God is profoundly relational, and that’s what took center stage, not the need to get all our ideas about God exactly right.

I’ve never had foster kids, but as a pastor I’ve seen a number of them placed in the homes of congregation members. When the foster parent says, “I won’t beat you; you’re safe here,” it’s largely an empty statement, because it’s not the child’s experience. That is a message that can only be expressed through presence and action, not words. After several times when the kid messes up and is not beat, after several months of living in an environment that is actually safe, then the kid himself or herself will begin to say, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” It does little good to tell the child, don’t cringe in fear. The good foster parent ignores that while working hard to create an authentically safe place. It is a truth that is revealed, not by words, but only in action and relationship.

We have come to believe in a wordy revelation. We hold the Bible in our hand and think that this is the divine revelation. But in a profound sense, it is not. The revelation is God who didn’t bother correcting all of the ancients’ misconceptions with mere words, but rather busied himself by creating a safe home (to carry on our analogy) so that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could figure out on their own that, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” The revelation isn’t what Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Paul wrote about Jesus, in a far more fundamental sense, Jesus himself was and is the revelation. To return to the woman at the well, Jesus didn’t start out by saying he was the Messiah, he let her figure it out on her own. And then when she finally put into words the outrageous idea that the Messiah might actually be present, he affirmed her insight. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (Jn 4:26).

Like the foster child, it does little good for God to tell us how to think and act. There is a primordial sensibility seemingly structured into our genetic makeup, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, that the gods are against us and probably enjoy messing with us. (Consider the story of Job.) The only way past that sensibility is to live through it and ultimately beyond it.

And so we end, full circle, where we began. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people.

Satan and the Holy Trinity

Jonathan Tobias, an Eastern Orthodox priest, said in a recent talk, that the devil and other evil powers are ignorant of Trinitarian and Christological theology because it can only be known by revelation of the Holy Spirit. This is why the Devil allowed Jesus as much free reign on earth as he did. This is why Jesus was able to enter Hades and accomplish his final victory over death. The Devil didn’t (and probably doesn’t since it comes through revelation) know that Jesus was fully God. If he was a human, or even some sort of demigod, Satan could have defeated him; conversely, if he truly knew the depth of who Jesus was, he never would have messed with him. Granted, this is speculative, for it is never revealed anywhere, but as a thought experiment it opens up a door that is critical to proper interpretation of scripture.

If we don’t take seriously (1) the trinitarian nature of God and (2) the truth that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human, and (3) if we don’t appreciate the fact that this was not revealed in its fullness until the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we simply cannot understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

From the Old Testament we know that no one can see God and live. Said another way, any time God approaches us frontally, with no intermediary in between, we will be destroyed. That sounds a lot like our human conception of wrath. An Old Testament person, even an Old Testament saint, would be excused for thinking that God is a god of destruction who may even have it out for humanity, given the experience of the people of God from the time of the expulsion from Eden to John the Baptist (who is typically understood as the last Old Testament person).

But Trinitarian theology allows us to see this from a different perspective. God no longer has to “confront” (a negative term, rooted in the experience of the Old Testament) us “frontally” (same root as “confront”). Rather the Son, through the miracle of the incarnation, can clothe himself with flesh. The glory of God, that burns and destroys our sinful self, is veiled and toned down. Suddenly we gaze into God’s face (in Christ) and not be destroyed, and what we discover is that love was there all along, rather than wrath.

Similarly, the Holy Spirit (fully God) can enter into us and exist in veiled form, and transform us from the inside out so that we can increasingly experience the blazing love of God without being burned and destroyed.

My childhood was spent in the Bible Church. I was a pastor in the mainline Presbyterian church, but because of my background, a number of people I rubbed shoulders with were part of the very conservative branches of Presbyterianism. For both groups the wrath of God is a big deal. In the Orthodox Church, on the other hand, divine wrath is rather specifically downplayed for specific theological reasons. The catch is that the reasons both groups emphasize what they do has to do with presuppositions. As a result the subject of the wrath of God is very difficult to talk about across presuppositional divide of the two groups.

Fr. Jonathan’s remarks provide an interesting bridge across this presuppositional divide, since both groups take Trinitarian theology very seriously. What is the relationship between wrath and love? While not having the status of dogma, it is certainly a commonplace within Orthodoxy to say that they are the same thing. Take heaven and hell for instance, which are the same place, according to the story. The difference between the two is that those who know God and have entered into union with him experience the burning brightness of God as holy love and communion (heaven) while those who don’t truly know God experience the same thing a the flames of wrath (hell).

On the face of it, this explanation seems too esoteric and paradoxical for most of my Protestant friends. But Fr Jonathan’s remarks may help explain the seeming paradox. After Eden, God was an outsider to the world from the perspective of human experience. He was person behind the messengers that came to Lot; he was the flame in the burning bush; he was the lightning and cloud that came from heaven down to Mt Sinai, engulfing it, and hiding his glory. Conversely, the Son of God came into the world from the inside out. Creation first experienced him inside the womb. He was the helpless baby the angels sang about, the shepherds wondered about, and King Herod tried to kill. This was possible because the flaming love of deity was clothed with flesh. People and all creation could look upon him and what they saw, without the eyes of divine revelation, was a baby, a boy, a human, an odd Rabbi who was crucified by the Romans.

But those who accepted the revelation of who he actually was by faith (“Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you” Mt 16:17) began to be transformed and began to do the work necessary to become transformed, so that eventually, through the eyes of faith, they could begin to see Jesus as what he really was — the Son of God, that is, God himself. What they experienced was love, acceptance, warmth, but also awesome power that worth fearing. And this is something that as a Protestant who liked the idea of a friendly God, who was like a father with whom I could snuggle when I was sad (as in the John Fischer song, “Rest In Him”), is worth remembering: Love can be towering and overwhelming. It can be at the same moment, inviting and frightful.

So it is, according to this line of thought, that the difference between wrath and righteousness, judgment and love, is the revelation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and its embrace by the believer.

Psalm 90, Adam, and the Wrath of God

I’ve been catching up on my reading while I’m in Mississippi. As often happens, reading theology leads me to write.

In this case, during my devotions I noticed a striking connection between Psalm 90 and the story of God expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

At the same time I was reading Brian Gerrish’s Grace and Gratitude, where he mentioned in passing some things John Calvin had said about the wrath of God.

Everyday we eat lunch at the cafeteria in the military school where my brother-in-law teaches. We arrived in Mississippi before the boys attending summer term left. It was obvious not all were filled with bliss and gratitude for the opportunity to get their high school education at a military school.

… “Double, double, toil, and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble.” …

So where does this “witches brew” of ideas and circumstances bring us? To a theology paper! (Of course!!) A proper paper doesn’t lend itself to html, so I wrote up a proper paper and put it in the archives as a pdf file. You can find it here.