“Is the Wrath of God Eternal?” Patristic Reflections

imageA friend of mine was recently asked if the wrath of God was eternal. Those who view hell as everlasting or “eternal” conscious torment would more likely lean towards “yes”. Throughout Scripture, God’s judgement against human sin and rebellion is sometimes expressed in terms of Divine wrath or anger.[1] When applying “wrath” or “anger” to God, there are many qualifications to be made. St. Cyril of Alexandria recognized that human language is inadequate to describe the phenomenon of “Divine emotion” in Scripture. He stated:

Whenever therefore the Divine Scripture wishes to express God’s emotion against impious designs of whatever kind, it derives its language as on other occasions from expressions in use among us, and in human phraseology speaks of anger and wrath; although the divine essence is subject to none of these passions in any way that bears comparison with our feelings, but is moved to indignation the extent of which is known only to Itself and utterly unspeakable. [2]

Keeping this in mind, let us turn to the relationship between the wrath of God and human sin. If “wrath is the expression of the divine judgement upon sin”, then is God’s wrath truly “eternal”?[3] Before sin entered the world, before the fall of humanity, before the rebellion of Satan, there was God. There was the Logos. There was the Spirit. There was the Trinity. There was the God who is Love. In order for wrath to be “eternal”, it has to have no beginning and no end. Did God possess “wrath” before sin entered the cosmos? There are a few interpretive routes to take. One can assert that since God is immutable and does not “experience” time in terms of “past and future” because God exists outside of time, then the wrath of God is eternal. Those who hold to a view of “eternal” conscious torment are definitely more inclined to admit that God’s wrath is eternal.

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Learning From the Church Fathers: Imago Dei

In many settings, it is common to downplay “the worth of humanity” to avoid a “man-centered” theology. In these circles, it is more popular see others as “sinners” rather than “images of God”. One extreme outworking of this mindset is the famous sermon that depicts a condemned humanity in the hands of an angry God. In this sermon, the preacher depicts God as a wrathful archer who “keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with [sinners’] blood” and executes “his awful vengeance on the poor sinner”. St. Clement of Alexandria, writing from the 2nd century, sketches another picture of salvation…

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Early Church: St Ambrose of Milan and the Suffering Lord

So, Lord, you suffer. But it is my wounds, not yours, that cause you pain. You suffer, not because of your death, but because of our infirmities. We looked on you as one who suffered, when all the time it was not for yourself that you suffered, but for me. You were wounded, but it was for our sins. This state of woundedness was not something you received from your Father; it was something that you assumed for my sake. [1]

This commentary by St Ambrose of Milan on Luke 22.42 and Isaiah 53.3-4 reveals Early Church ideas about Christ and suffering. The 4th century Bishop remarks that it is our sins, and our sins alone, that cause Christ to suffer. However, Ambrose notes that Christ “suffered not as God and King, but as man. And even though Christ is both, you must know that it was as man, not as God, that He was nailed to the Cross.”[2] If Christ only suffered “as man”, then what does Christ’s suffering and death accomplish for salvation? How does Christ’s death on the Cross atone for sins?

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Interviewing Ikons: Michal Beth Dinkler

Michal Beth Dinkler is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Yale University. Her work focuses especially on the usefulness of narratological theories for the study of New Testament narratives. Her book, Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke (2013), demonstrates how close attention to speech and silence illuminates the plot, characterization, themes, and narrative rhetoric of Luke’s Gospel. Forthcoming publications concern rhetorical narratology and New Testament narrative, contemporary and historical interpretations of the Acts of the Apostles, and gendered imagery in the Gospels. Professor Dinkler co-chairs the Speech and Talk: Discourses and Social Practices in the Ancient Mediterranean World Section of the Society of Biblical Literature. She has previously taught at Loyola Marymount University and Harvard University (New Testament and Early Christianity), as well as Salem State University and San Jose Christian College.

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Interviewing Ikons: Paula Gooder

Paula Gooder is Canon Theologian both of Birmingham Cathedral and of Guildford Cathedral, a Lay canon at Salisbury Cathedral, a visiting lecturer at Kings College, London, an associate lecturer at St Mellitus, and a Senior Research Scholar of the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. After studying in Oxford, she spent 12 years in theological education: first at Ripon College Cuddesdon and then at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological education, Birmingham. Her research areas include the writings of Paul, with a particular emphasis on 2 Corinthians and Mysticism, Biblical Interpretation and the Development of Ministry in the Early Church. Her recent publications include Searching for Meaning: An Introduction to Interpreting the New Testament (SPCK, 2008), The Meaning is the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent (Canterbury Press, 2008), LentWise: Spiritual Essentials for Real Life (CHP, 2008), This Risen Existence: The Spirit of Easter (Canterbury Press, 2009), Heaven: A Rough Guide (SPCK, August 2011).

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“The Canon Within The Canon”: An Assessment of Brian Zahnd and Christocentric Hermeneutics

imageImagine a Calvinist and an Arminian in a room together reading Scripture. Eventually, there would be a strong disagreement between the two regarding some the meanings of some passages. Why is this so? Of course, all of us interpret Scripture differently – this is a truism in the (post-)evangelical climate of America. Christian Smith has also brilliantly discussed the issues of biblicism and the different sets of beliefs (theoretically, up to five million!) possible within Protestantism.[1] What are some better ways we can discuss these interpretive issues without throwing Bible verses at each other?

To discuss these issues further, I want to use the concept of “the canon within the canon”. This phrase refers to the key passages that make up the essence of Christianity for a particular group or interpreter.[2] These key passages determine the interpretation of “divergent” passages from the established core. For example, let’s say someone takes Luther’s statement seriously that justification is “the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine”. If one follows this approach, then one prioritizes the passages which explicitly discuss justification over and against other soteriological texts. However, disagreements over the meaning of a passage is not exclusively an Evangelical or Protestant issue. Catholics and Orthodox also have their respective disagreements concerning interpretation as well. One could even say that Orthodox and Catholics have their own “canon within the canon”! One could say that this “canon within the canon” could stem from the earlier practice of interpreting the “ambiguous” or “difficult” passages in light of the “clear” or “plain” passages. The difficulty is determining what is actually “clear” and what is “ambiguous”. What is clear to one may be ambiguous to another, and vice-versa.

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Searching For Meaning, Part VI: Textual Criticism

We now move into second section of Paula Gooder’s Searching For Meaning, which explores the world “within the text, or the concern to understand the actual words of the text regardless of the events that inspired them or the reader who is reading them” (xviii). This chapter covers textual criticism, which “seeks to discover, as far as is possible, the original version of the text found in a manuscript and to remove errors or alterations that have been made by scribes when they transcribed the document” (47). This differs from source, form, and redaction criticism as textual criticism works with physical copies of New Testament manuscripts, whereas the previous historical criticisms theorize on the development of a text. This methodology requires a functioning knowledge of Greek (or Hebrew, if one is working with Old Testament texts) and an understanding of ancient scribal transmission. This is, by far, one of the most technical methodologies within New Testament studies.

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