Ante-Nicene Ressourcement: Interpreting The Anger of God (Part 3 of 4)

Ante-Nicene Ressourcement: Interpreting The Anger of God (Part 3 of 4) October 26, 2016

This is the third 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, and for the second, click here.

Clement of Alexandria by André Thévet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Clement of Alexandria by André Thévet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
While some Ante-Nicenes desired to engage Scripture in as simple and straightforward manner as possible, others thought the text was written with all kinds of hidden meanings, and the external narrative could be of little to no consequence to the true message of the text. While not wanting to entirely dismiss its apparent historical content, they were not always concerned about it, and believed that the authors behind the texts in Scripture itself were not always concerned about it. This fact they believed could be seen by the way Scripture sometimes presented events which could not have happened as described. When Scripture presented a paradox or an outright contradiction to its audience, this was meant to inform the reader to look beyond the literal reading of the text for its actual, intended message. Those who were concerned with what philosophers could and did know about God wanted to make sure their reading of Scripture did not contradict reason. Noting that Scripture should not to be read as a simple, straightforward text was the means by which  they began to harmonize Scripture with philosophy.

Those who came from or were influenced by the Alexandrian Catechetical School were those most likely to consider what the philosophers taught and try to reconcile their wisdom with Christian theology. This was especially true in regards the philosophical position of the impassibility of God. Holding to the value of such a doctrine, they knew they had to provide an alternative reading of Scripture than the one given by St. Irenaeus or Tertullian. Thus, when Scripture was too anthropomorphic in its presentation of God, it had to be interpreted as metaphor. St. Clement of Alexandria suggested that God condescended to have Scripture written in a way which met the immediate needs and abilities of its audience, and so revelation, which came in and through human prophets, would be “enfleshed” by those same prophets:

Here again arise the cavillers, who say that joy and pain are passions of the soul: for they define joy as a rational elevation and exultation, as rejoicing on account of what is good; and pity as pain for one who suffers undeservedly; and that such affections are moods and passions of the soul. But we, as would appear, do not cease in such matters to understand the Scriptures carnally; and starting from our own affections, interpret the will of the impassible Deity similarly to our perturbations; and as we are capable of hearing; so, supposing the same to be the case with the Omnipotent, err impiously. For the Divine Being cannot be declared as it exists: but as we who are fettered in the flesh were able to listen, so the prophets spoke to us; the Lord savingly accommodating Himself to the weakness of men.[1]

In this manner, many agreed with the presupposition that God could not possess human passions because they agreed that God transcended the human condition. But they still supported and defended the Old Testament and its presentation of God, a presentation inspired by God to reach its intended audience and help them to come slowly to a better knowledge and understanding of God. Those who denied the Old Testament did not understand how God could and did condescend to human weakness, and so met people with what limited knowledge they had at the time and from there, slowly directed them to a better understanding of himself. Indeed, he had the text written so that once the letter of the text as understood as being but a casing for the real intended message, the text could then be read and the truths which were placed in it could be revealed.  Moreover,  those who desired the most pure representation of God, the most transcended understanding of God, failed to understand how and why human language could never be able to establish it and so all representations of the absolute would be but conventions that point beyond themselves and to the God which transcended the imperfections of human speech.

Origen Illustration from "Les Vrais Portraits Et Vies Des Hommes Illustres" by André Thévet via Wikimediacommons
Origen from “Les Vrais Portraits Et Vies Des Hommes Illustres” by André Thévet   [Public Domain] via Wikimediacommons
Origen furthered the basic insight of Clement by providing substantial explanation as to how we are to engage Scripture and not be caught up with an overly-literal reading (On First Principles), and then demonstrated the outcome of that method through his many homilies and commentaries. He was far more thoroughgoing at addressing the question of exegesis than those who came before him, which is why many view him as the founder of “Biblical Theology.” He focused on how we could take cues in the Scriptural text which indicated why the text was never meant to be read in a fundamentalist fashion: self-contradictions, he believed, were put in there to alert the reader that there was a hidden meaning to be discerned. The original audience understood the style of the text, and so knew, with the writer, not to engage the text so simply. But given time, this insight was lost, so Origen believed it necessary to be trained in the reading of Scripture and how to take its many cues so as to be led to the correct beliefs about God.  While it was often the case that this was much clearer with the Old Testament, Origen pointed out that careful reading of the New Testament often ended up requiring the same exegetical principles. And so, he would conclude, the reasons some Gnostics would use so as to deny the Old Testament could only end up being used to deny the New as well:

And now, if, on account of those expressions which occur in the Old Testament, as when God is said to be angry or to repent, or when any other human affection or passion is described, (our opponents) think that they are furnished with grounds for refuting us, who maintain that God is altogether impassible, and is to be regarded as wholly free from all affections of that kind, we have to show them that similar statements are found even in the parables of the Gospel; as when it is said, that he who planted a vineyard, and let it out to husbandmen, who slew the servants that were sent to them, and at last put to death even the son, is said in anger to have taken away the vineyard from them, and to have delivered over the wicked husbandmen to destruction, and to have handed over the vineyard to others, who would yield him the fruit in its season. And so also with regard to those citizens who, when the head of the household had set out to receive for himself a kingdom, sent messengers after him, saying, “We will not have this man to reign over us;” for the head of the household having obtained the kingdom, returned, and in anger commanded them to be put to death before him, and burned their city with fire. But when we read either in the Old Testament or in the New of the anger of God, we do not take such expressions literally, but seek in them a spiritual meaning, that we may think of God as He deserves to be thought of.[2]

The problem, then, was not with Scripture. Those believers who followed a simplistic reading of the text gave material support for its critics, for they affirm a poor reading of the text, the same reading its critics also want people to believe so they can justify their rejection of it. Origen, on the other hand, made it clear that Scripture is of value because it is revelation from God, but this could be affirmed insofar as it was read “spiritually,” that is, insofar as it was read according to the higher meaning hidden within the letter of the text:

Now the reason of the erroneous apprehension of all these points on the part of those whom we have mentioned above, is no other than this, that holy Scripture is not understood by them according to its spiritual, but according to its literal meaning. And therefore we shall endeavour, so far as our moderate capacity will permit, to point out to those who believe the holy Scriptures to be no human compositions, but to be written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and to be transmitted and entrusted to us by the will of God the Father, through His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, what appears to us, who observe things by a right way of understanding, to be the standard and discipline delivered to the apostles by Jesus Christ, and which they handed down in suc­cession to their posterity, the teachers of the holy Church. Now, that there are certain mystical economies indicated in holy Scripture, is admitted by all, I think, even the simplest of believers.[3]

Origen engaged more than the question of God’s wrath, but all forms anthropomorphic representation of God in Scripture. He  showed ways we could understand such representations so that they did not contradict what reason could come to know about God.  Philosophers were right in talking about God’s impassibility; any authentic reading of Scripture must be read with a hermeneutical lens that was shaped by this fact.  Origen suggested, more than possibly any other at his time, that we must develop proper exegetical tools if we want to understand Scripture. He wanted people to realize Scripture must not to be taken at face value, that it was written for those who seriously wanted to learn what God had to say to them. As for why God had the text written in this fashion, the reason was simple: human psychology. If everything was written out in as simplistic a form as possible, not only would it be unattractive and boring, what was readily given to us would be seen as relatively unimportant. That which we struggle to obtain we appreciate more; so to have within Scripture many levels of truths makes Scripture not only capable of attracting our attention, but will keep us actively engaging it. For as  long as we keep finding new and greater truths hidden within it, we will be encouraged to go back and look for them and see how they can help us in our lives.



[1] St. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata in ANF(2):363.

[2] Origen, On First Principles in ANF(4), 277-8.

[3] Origen, On First Principles, 357.




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