The Wrath of God (continued)

By Benjamin Harju

This post is in response to a comment made at the end of my last post: Wrath and Justification [here and here]. My response is too long to fit into comments, so I'm (yet again) moving my long-windedness to a full post:

Okay, let me take a stab at this. In reading part 1 of Fr. Hopko's podcast (I realize you cite part 2) on God's Wrath we find that he says the following:

As it says in the Letter of Peter in the New Testament: “He trusted Him who judges justly.” And even in the Letter to the Romans, you have this genitive of faith where it could be translated that we are made righteous by faith of Christ or faith in Christ. But even the faith of Christ, Jesus’ own trusting to God, trusting that God would vindicate him, but the big point—He doesn’t sin at all. He does no evil. Therefore, the wrath of God cannot be upon Him. There’s no way that the wrath of God can be upon Him. The wrath that is upon all the sinners and all the unrighteous, He takes upon Himself, and when he takes upon Himself the wrath that is due to all the rest of us—all the Jews, all the Gentiles, everyone who has lived, “there is no one righteous, no not one,” as it says in the Letter to the Romans, quoting of course the Old Testament Scripture. Then, the wrath of God is assuaged. There is no wrath against Him. God puts Him in the position of the wrath. He puts Him in the position of the sinner, but God’s wrath is not against Him. And because of that, that’s the paradox.

Here Fr. Hopko is not saying that Christ's satisfies God's wrath, as evidenced by the previous portion of the podcast. He is saying Christ stands in the position of God's wrath against sinners. We sinners are under wrath, and Christ carries our sins - the sins of all people of all times - and thus with the sins also the wrath of God. However, Christ saves from sin not by satisfying wrath but by being perfectly righteous. This is Fr. Hopko's point. Ever see one of those Dawn dish soap commercials? The drop of soap hits the scummy water and the scum disappears. Christ the Righteous, Innocent One has the same effect on our sins and God's wrath. He purifies the sins, which purifies the need for wrath. St. Luke is very clear that Christ is innocent, yet is condemned as if a sinner. The point is not that Christ is satisfying wrath, but that Christ is purifying from wrath.

So when Fr. Hopko says in part 2 of his podcast,

And God is well pleased in His Son, Jesus, because the Son takes upon Himself the sin of the world, and assuages divine wrath and redeems humanity and saves creation...

he is (in typical Fr. Hopko fashion) giving us an interconnected list of things Jesus does: takes on our sins, assuages God's wrath (through purification, not satisfaction), redeems us from our bondage, and thus saves creation.

Fr. Stephen is not in a discussion with Fr. Thomas Hopko, so comparing his statement with Fr. Hopko's isn't going to yield anything precise. Fr. Stephen is writing against the idea that God bullies us into faith: come along and no one gets hurt. Fr. Thomas Hopko, if you follow the length of his argument, shows that God's wrath is corrective, namely: you're going the wrong way - life and goodness is here! If you want wrath, I'll give it to you, but if you want mercy I'll give it to you - and I'm trying to get you to choose mercy by showing you what a choice for wrath gets you! That's not bullying (I'll come along because I'm afraid) but enlightening. Remember, there are people out there that know what wrath is and still choose it, because they love sin and darkness and not God.

Here the difference is between being concerned about portraying God as an abusive husband (Fr. Stephen) versus portraying God as a real, dynamic being who gives man a choice in the whole affair of being united to Him in blessedness or abiding in wrath, which thus makes wrath a chastisement appropriate to our calling in communion with God (Fr. Hopko).

Now, this doesn't mean that Fr. Hopko and Fr. Stephen might not have a lengthy discussion or debate over what is to be emphasized regarding the wrath of God. Fr. Stephen might not like it that Fr. Hopko speaks of assuaging the wrath of God, though not necessarily with how Christ accomplishes that. Fr. Hopko might be wary of Fr. Stephen's statements about God's unchanging-ness, fearing it to be overly Hellenized or Philosophized, but he's not going to disagree with the apophatic theology behind it.

What this demonstrates is that in Holy Orthodoxy we do not always have a clear-cut, systematic definition of things as in the West. You are witnessing Orthodox theologians in the act of trying to be faithful in the face of theological threats from Western Catholicism and Protestantism. It seems Orthodoxy is still hashing out the best way to approach the issue.

I will still attempt to say something helpful in all this. Take Fr. Stephen's comments in light of apophatic theology: we cannot accurately apply categories of wrath, repentance, rejoicing, etc. to God, because God is supra-beyond-what-we-can-know. He doesn't change, and we can't know Him in His being. In that sense, how can we say He has wrath (like we have wrath), when by that we mean something perceivable only on the human level? Thus it is an anthropomorphism. However, take Fr. Thomas Hopko's two podcasts on God's wrath - he covers so much in there! Especially realize that he wants us to take what is written in the Bible seriously and to avoid making God so unknowable in our minds that we nullify His wrath as something very real and something that is a part of who God is. He wants us to avoid nullifying God's real Personhood, that He does act with different energies, in differing way, and does so consciously and purposefully. Maybe Fr. Stephen doesn't appreciate Fr. Hopko's method - you should ask him. They don't have to agree as much as they have to fairly represent Orthodox teaching. Both do. How to balance this out may take some time - it may be the next controversy that needs hammering out!

Between the two, though, what does not need hammering out is whether or not Christ satisfies the Father's wrath. He does not. He purifies our sins, yes. He stands in the place of sinners, who are under God's wrath, yes. But He does not satisfy God's wrath. He may assuage it, which really just means He removes the reason for it, but He does not satiate some desire for justice through wrath that is in the Father. God is not like that.

I have noticed two aspects to God's wrath in reading Fr. Hopko and people like Fr. Stephen. There is the ontological situation of man, where outside of Christ man is under the wrath of God. This comes from lacking blessed communion and having only broken communion. My original comments in the previous post make this conclusion. There is also the wrath, though, that God intentionally afflicts on man for the purpose of calling him to repentance. In this case man, in failing to faithfully adhere to the high calling he has in his relationship with God (and this supposes having a communion relationship with God) is chastised by God for the purpose of repentance. God's wrath is thus a result of both our ontological orientation (broken communion) and our personal, self-determined activity (blessed communion). God is not a robot, dispensing according to whatever button we push, but a unity of real Persons with a dynamism that goes far, far beyond our ability to adequately describe, but yet that is really and truly personal.

The Scriptures teach that God is love. I know that doesn't sound very apophatic, but I've found this colors the way God is perceived in Orthodoxy. Since He is love, people feel His wrath because He is love. Sometimes we can describe this through the lens of our ontological and existential incompatibility with God (broken communion) and sometimes we can describe this through the lens of having God as our Father and being His children (blessed communion).

If one is looking for a concise description of God's wrath in Orthodoxy, then I'm afraid one might be disappointed. In the question there is worry about Western distortions, lack of experience among Orthodox theologians in responding to those distortions, and a general lack of interest in the question in the first place. There isn't much reason to hammer this out in Orthodoxy, unless you're being confronted by an influx of Western Christians (which we are, so perhaps we'll get better at answering the question as time goes on).