Monday, June 30, 2014

What does it mean for God to be angry?

So I read a book called God is Impassible and Impassioned by Rob Lister. It's an excellent analysis of the debate over God's passibility for people who just don't have the time or mental energy to read the vast literature. In the second half Lister does a good job of developing the implications of God being impasible and emotive.

But he also takes Weinandy (slightly) to task for talking about impassibility strictly as God not experiencing anything analogous to human feelings, when in fact the doctrine is more about God's emotions always being voluntary rather than forced upon him by the world. In a footnote Lister says that God is responsive to the world, but never passive - his reactions, emotional and otherwise, are always chosen rather than evoked. It is worth noting, as Lister does, that Weinandy seems to have walked his definition back slightly - but I haven't yet read up on that.

As someone who (tentatively) endorses impassibility in the strict sense that Weinandy originally advanced, I want to talk a bit about what it means to have emotion.

Scripture often talks about God being wrathful - usually at Israel. What does this mean? If we narrow the scope to purely righteous anger at sin and evil, we are dealing with an emotion which humans occasionally experience and which it would not be heretical to ascribe to God. So far so good. What does it mean for God to be righteously angry?

We experience anger as a certain sensation. It is mental and physical but we do not reduce it to constitutive elements. It is provoked from us. None of these traits can be true of God. If his emotions are voluntary, then he does not experience sensations of anger - he either draws them upon himself or expresses them without "feeling" them. He does not have a body - he is spirit. He does have a mind, which seems in some respects like ours - order, logic, law of noncontradiction - but we see this only in how he talks to us, and how his actions match up with his words.

What I am saying is that God's righteous anger is something we see in his condescending actions towards us. We do not see God in himself, except as Jesus makes him known. And of course Jesus has emotions - he has taken on human nature. What I am saying is that God's energies, his extension of his power into the world, express righteous anger. But this does very little to establish that God chooses to be angry.

The anthropopathic language, in both Testaments, is clearly right and true. I would not hesitate to say in a sermon, "God is angry in this passage". By that I mean God is expressing anger, that anger is the pure and holy response to the situation; but I do not mean that God is wracked with fury. Because I do not have any special access to the face of God. God reveals how he chooses to relate to us, and we trust that his self-disclosure is founded upon truth. I emphasise we trust because we have no ability to probe God's immanent character apart from his self-disclosure.

And if God chooses to be angry, does he also choose to not be angry at evil? Is the atonement God's way of showing that he has flipped an internal switch in his relationship to his elect?

I am not arguing that an impassibilist has to hold to Weinandy's original strict definition. I am saying that if you want to talk about voluntary emotion in God, a la Lister, you have to maintain a very deep disjunction between divine emotion and human emotion on every level and attribute. The easiest way to do this, it seems to me, is to say God's energies - the economic trinity - expresses emotion to us. This self-disclosure is founded upon something true to God's nature ("the economic trinity is the immanent trinity, and Rahner is its prophet") but we don't understand the "something true" in God because we don't know God. We only know him as revealed through Jesus, and Jesus reveals God as united to human nature. The person we see when we look at Jesus is Jesus. Through him we see the Father, as every child is in some way the image of their parent, but we are first and foremost seeing Jesus. Not the Father or Spirit.

To conclude: God relates with anger. I don't think he is angry.

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