Ante-Nicene Ressourcement: Interpreting The Anger of God (Part 2 of 4)

Ante-Nicene Ressourcement: Interpreting The Anger of God (Part 2 of 4) October 24, 2016

This is the second of four posts looking to the way various Ante-Nicene Fathers engaged the image of God seen in the Old Testament, with a specific concern on how they dealt with the way God’s anger was represented within it. For the first part, click here.

The Ante-Nicene Fathers who tried to take the Old Testament in as literal, straightforward fashion as possible often understood the problems which emerged from such a reading, but they also thought there were ways to provide reasonable solutions to those same problems. They admitted that not all texts should be read with the same hermeneutic, and that context of a particular text would help provide the reader as to how literal a particular passage should be interpreted. When talking about how God’s anger could be aroused, many interpreters suggested that the the key to understanding the text was to recognize God’s anger as a reflection of his justice, that God, being good, would judge and condemn sin. His anger was not an irrational anger. Indeed, it was related to and connected with his rational love for us, a love which looks at humanity, hoping to set it up in a just and harmonious order. Justice demands some consequences are to be established when it is violated, consequences which are then represented to us as punishments coming from God’s justified anger.  His anger represented his rational will working to rectify injustice in the world.

Saint Irenaeus By Lucien Bégule (photo Gérald Gambier) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Irenaeus by Lucien Bégule (photo Gérald Gambier) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
St. Irenaeus saw how many of the so-called Gnostics tried to convince Christians that the God of Moses was an irrational or evil God who rivaled the true God revealed in Jesus Christ.His judgments and wrath, they believed, indicated he could not be seen to work for the betterment of humanity. But if this were the case, then the “good God” who does not judge and condemn evil in the world does nothing for the establishment of the good in the world, making it questionable whether or not he is actually good or powerful:

Again, that they might remove the rebuking and judicial power from the Father, reckoning that as unworthy of God, and thinking that they had found out a God both without anger and [merely] good, they have alleged that one [God] judges, but that another saves, unconsciously taking away the intelligence and justice of both deities. For if the judicial one is not also good, to bestow favours upon the deserving, and to direct reproofs against those requiring them, he will appear neither a just nor a wise judge. On the other hand, the good God, if he is merely good, and not one who tests those upon whom he shall send his goodness, will be out of the range of justice and goodness; and his goodness will seem imperfect, as not saving all; [for it should do so,] if it be not accompanied with judgment.[1]

Tertullian responded similarly in his work against Marcion, indicating that the Old Testament presents the goodness of God in and through his justice. Thus, we find him talking about the relationship between the two similar to Irenaeus:

But yet, when evil afterwards broke out, and the goodness of God began now to have an adversary to contend against, God’s justice also acquired another function, even that of directing His goodness according to men’s application for it. And this is the result: the divine goodness, being interrupted in that free course whereby God was spontaneously good, is now dispensed according to the deserts of every man; it is offered to the worthy, denied to the unworthy, taken away from the unthankful, and also avenged on all its enemies. Thus the entire office of justice in this respect becomes an agency for goodness: whatever it condemns by its judgment, whatever it chastises by its condemnation, whatever (to use your phrase) it ruthlessly pursues, it, in fact, benefits with good instead of injuring. Indeed, the fear of judgment contributes to good, not to evil.[2]

And so, when it appears God is severe, Tertullian indicated that this was another way for us to see and understand how God does what needs to be done in order to preserve goodness:

Even His severity then is good, because just: when the judge is good, that is just. Other qualities likewise are good, by means of which the good work of a good severity runs out its course, whether wrath, or jealousy, or sternness. For all these are as indispensable to severity as severity is to justice. The shamelessness of an age, which ought to have been reverent, had to be avenged. Accordingly, qualities which pertain to the judge, when they are actually free from blame, as the judge himself is, will never be able to be charged upon him as a fault.[3]

But Tertullian also addressed the question of how and why we can accept a passion such as anger in God. Certainly, anger manifests itself in us in a way which is not always just, and so it is understandable why this would raise some questions as to how we are to understand God’s anger. The key is to remember for God, it is always connected to his justice, it is always good and rational, so his anger is not exactly like ours and so if we keep this in mind, then it turns out there is no reason why we cannot accept God being capable of anger:

So also in regard to those others—namely, anger and irritation, we are not affected by them in so happy a manner, because God alone is truly happy, by reason of His property of incorruptibility. Angry He will possibly be, but not irritated, nor dangerously tempted; He will be moved, but not subverted. All appliances He must needs use, because of all contingencies; as many sensations as there are causes: anger because of the wicked, and indignation because of the ungrateful, and jealousy because of the proud, and whatsoever else is a hinderance to the evil. So, again, mercy on account of the erring, and patience on account of the impenitent, and pre-eminent resources on account of the meritorious, and whatsoever is necessary to the good. All these affections He is moved by in that peculiar manner of His own, in which it is profoundly fit that He should be affected; and it is owing to Him that man is also similarly affected in a way which is equally his own.[4]

God’s anger, therefore, is a part of the rational order, and works against what is irrational, against the way we experience the passions, so that it remains not only acceptable in God, but is a quality which we would expect if he is to promote justice.


[1] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies in ANF(1):459.

[2] Tertullian, Against Marcion in ANF(3):307.

[3] Tertullian, Against Marcion, 309.

[4] Tertullian, Against Marcion, 310.


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