The First Commandment, by David WarrenMarch 1, 2019
Why I’m Through Being ‘Pro-Life’, by Eric SammonsMarch 1, 2019
By Sandro Magister, L’Espresso, Feb. 28, 2019
While the world’s attention is riveted by the ordeal of Cardinal George Pell (in the photo), one must not leave by the wayside a surprising passage from the speech with which Francis concluded the summit of February 21-24 on sexual abuse against minors. It is where he says that “in people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God.”
It is rare, extremely rare for the “wrath of God” to be evoked in the words of the current pope, which are rather an unending downpour of divine mercy.
And instead this time he has ventured out onto this terrain that is arduous not only for him, but for the humanity of every time. Because already for the philosophical thought of Jesus’ time, for Seneca and Cicero, the “wrath of God” was something unthinkable and unutterable. And today as well, it is almost universally a taboo concept.
There wrote in this regard, in his 1953 “Essay on the mystery of history,” the brilliant Jesuit theologian Jean Daniélou, whom Paul VI made a cardinal:
“Few other expressions grate more on bashful modern ears. The Alexandrian Jews were already blushing over it in front of the Greek philosophers, and were striving to attenuate its significance. Today it appears unbearable to a Simone Weil, who, as Marcion once did, contrasted the New Testament God of love with the angry God of the Old. And yet love is also found in the Old Testament, and anger is found in the New. One must therefore accept things as they are: anger is one of the attitudes of the biblical God. And we will say more: this apparently anthropomorphic expression is perhaps the one that contains at its core the densest load of mystery and that helps us to penetrate most deeply into the divine transcendence.”
It is a search, that of the true meaning of the “wrath of God,” that occupied the Fathers of the Church right from the first centuries and that it is important to review today, seeing how the expression continues to give scandal. This is what has been carried out by Leonardo Lugaresi, a specialist on the Fathers of the Church and a professor at the University of Bologna, in an essay in the multi-author volume “Crisis and renewal between the classical world and ancient Christianity,” edited by Angela Maria Mazzanti and published in 2015 by Bononia University Press.
Lugaresi takes his cue from “that initial judgment of God on the world which accompanies the work of creation itself. The God of the Bible, in fact, “does not limit himself to creating the universe, but as he creates he judges that which he is creating and explicitly approves of it, recognizing its goodness and beauty, as the text of Genesis repeats no fewer than eight times.”
But then the creation is invaded by sin, and then the judgment, the “krisis” of God, becomes “krisis” of salvation with the sending of the Son, but at the same time “krisis” of wrath and condemnation for those who reject him.
“If we believe in a God who died for us, why on earth should we be afraid of a God who suffers?” argues Tertullian. And wrath, not separated from love, is one of these divine passions, of which Origen writes in this passage of his “Homilies on Ezekiel”:
“He descended to earth moved by pity for the human race, he suffered our pains even before enduring the cross and condescending to take on our flesh; if in fact he had not endured he would not have entered into relationship with the human condition. First he endured, then he descended and was seen. What is this passion that he suffered for us? It is the passion of love. Even the very Father and God of the universe, forbearing and very merciful and compassionate, does not he too perhaps suffer in some way? Do you not know that when he governs human matters, he shares human passion? […] The Father himself is not imperturbable. If he is besought, he feels mercy and compassion, he suffers from love and adopts those sentiments which, given the greatness of his nature, he could not have; for our sake he bears human passions.”
But in the “Contra Celsum” Origen says more. God’s care for the world corrupted by sin is indeed a “krisis,” a judgment that separates the good from the evil and expels the latter with wrath. However “wrath is not a sentiment of God, but each man procures it by means of the sins that he commits.” In other words, Lugaresi explains, “anger is not a component of the divine being, it does not pertain to God in himself, but it is a modality of the relationship between God and man. It is the response of the love of God wounded by man’s rebellion.”
It is again Origen, in the twentieth of his “Homilies on Jeremiah,” who clarifies the unique specificity of God’s wrath, similar to but also different from the “logos,” that “word” which is God himself:
“Just as the word of God instructs, so also his wrath instructs, […] and it is necessary that God should make use of that which is called wrath just as he makes use of the word. And his word is not like everyone else’s word. No one else’s word, in fact, is alive; no one else’s word is God; no one else’s word was in the beginning with God […] So too the wrath of God does not resemble the wrath of anyone else who is in anger, and just as the word of God has something different with respect to the word of anyone else, […] so also that which is called his anger has something different and foreign with respect to every kind of anger of someone who becomes wrathful.”
It comes as no surprise that this “wrath of God” should be unacceptable to the erudite pagans and the philosophers of the first centuries, as also to the heretical Christianity of Marcion and his followers down to our day, which contrasts the wrathful God of the Old Testament with the wholly and solely good God of Jesus.
Indeed, Lugaresi wonders “if precisely the propaganda on behalf of a wholly and solely good God is not one of the factors of the success of the Marcionism of yesterday and today.”
It was Tertullian, at the beginning of the 3rd century, who contested this heresy most directly, in his “Adversus Marcionem.” A God of kindness alone, he writes, “is an absurd perversion.” If he does not contend and does not become wrathful, if he does not oppose evil, nothing makes sense anymore: the commandments, the moral norms… everything is the same, everything is permitted. This would be a God “dishonest toward the truth, who is afraid to condemn that which he condemns and to hate that which he does not love.” A God who “accepts, once it is done, that which he does not permit to be done.”
For Irenaeus as well, in the “Adversus Hereses,” the solely good God, who never becomes wrathful, is an absurdity. He is incapable of relating to man and the world. He is a God who does nothing and therefore “is” nothing.
When instead wrath is precisely that which expresses the “vitality” of God, as the theologian and patrologist Daniélou once again writes in this second citation that closes Lugaresi’s essay:
“In its deepest essence, the wrath of God is the expression of the intensity of the divine existence, of the irresistible violence with which it engulfs all that manifests itself. In a world that continually draws away from him, God sometimes asserts his existence with violence. […] Far from making him like us, this expression has brought us to glean in him that by which he is most different from us, which is to say, in substance, the intensity of his existence, without proportion to our own.”
In short, it is not an accident that Pope Francis should have evoked “the wrath of God,” but a salutary flash of light on the living and true God, in the state of “crisis as judgment,” coessential with the faith in which Christians are called to live, not only today but in every time.