On God’s Wrath

If you haven’t already, read these two excellent posts (one by Eric Hutchinson and another by Ryan Hurd) on Augustine and God’s anger. Insofar as Augustine plays such a titanic role in Western theology and in the interests of more historical color, I think it’s worth comparing Augustine’s highly Stoic understanding (as Dr. Hutchinson rightly notes) with that of an older Christian author. Predating Augustine by a few generations, the author in question has a tendency to play historical skunk in the theological garden party.

Our malodorous mammal is named Lactantius (c. 250–c. 325), and setting aside whether he ranks as one of the “Fathers,” Jerome at least counted him among the illustrious “ecclesiastical writers” of Christian history up to that point (in ecclesiae eius scriptoribus enumerandis).[1] Certainly, he was among the most prominent Christian intellectuals of his day, eventually serving as Constantine’s court intellectual and tutor to his son. A few decades before Augustine’s birth, Lactantius penned On God’s Wrath, a short book which defends the notion that God gets angry and which Jerome himself called pulcherrimum (“most fine”).[2] The existence of the text alone creates a fascinating juxtaposition with Augustine’s own views, but some of the phrasing deserves extra attention.

For example, whereas Augustine seems to think the language of God’s anger essentially constitutes a linguistic condescension of the wise to the foolish, Lactantius claims exactly the opposite. To him, those claiming God has no anger are Epicureans or (especially) Stoics who have come up with a “wholly agreeable and popular” (favorabilis admodum ac popularis) but half-baked doctrine.[3]

As Lactantius develops his case, he argues that the impossibility of God’s anger necessitates the impossibility of real favor, love, mercy, and even patience. “For if God is not angered by the impious and the unjust, by no means does he love the pious and the just.”[4] Perhaps unexpectedly, for most of the text, Lactantius is debating with the philosophers on their own terms rather than appealing to Christian scripture. He does, however, note toward the end: “The prophets filled with the whole divine Spirit talk of nothing other than his favor toward the just and his anger against the impious.” This testimony, he asserts, is “enough” on its own terms to prove his case.[5]

But perhaps he redefines anger down into something more compatible with Augustine and the Stoics? On the contrary, “It is not right (fas),” declares Lactantius, “that he not be moved (moveri) when he sees such things happen and to bestir himself (insurgere) unto vengeance on the wicked, and to destroy the pernicious and harmful, so that he takes care of the good.”[6] Elsewhere: “Really, what can God’s action be except the administration of the world? If he really bears the care of the world, then God pays attention to the life of men and the actions of individuals, and he desires (desiderat) that they be good and wise.”[7] This language is quite close to tripping Stoic definitions of “disturbance” or “passion,” and it is certainly not divine impassibility.

According to Lactantius, the Stoics went wrong when they could not distinguish righteous and unrighteous anger. While the Stoics traditionally framed anger in terms of revenge (often expressed and felt physiologically), Lactantius much prefers the Aristotelian definition rooted in moderation: “the desire (cupiditas) to put pain to rest.”[8] This, he supposes, is a much better picture of God’s anger, whose will never loses control of his anger, as so often happens with human beings and even animals.[9]

None of this is theologically dispositive, of course. We may still prefer Augustine’s version in the end, or else perceive less obvious affinities between him and Lactantius. If we are to take Augustine at his word, however, it seems we would have to count Lactantius among the “foolish” who cannot see past overly literal language of the divine nature. Given their similarities in profile—both were prominent Latin Christians in their day, both were experts in rhetoric, both came from North Africa—it would have been interesting to see them debate the issue had they lived at the same time.

  1. From the preface to his De illustribus viris.
  2. De illustribus viris 80.
  3. See De ira Dei 5.1–2. See also 5.8: Speciose ista populariter que dicuntur et multos inliciunt ad credendum . . . . All translations are my own.
  4. De ira Dei 5.9: Nam si deus non irascitur inpiis et iniustis, nec pios utique iustosque diligit.
  5. De ira Dei 22.3. The fuller text: Prophetae uniuersi diuino spiritu repleti nihil aliud quam de gratia dei erga iustos et ira eius aduersus inpios loquuntur. Quorum testimonia nobis quidem satis sunt, uerum his quoniam non credunt isti qui sapientiam capillis et habitu iactant, ratione quoque et argumentis a nobis fuerant refellendi.
  6. De ira Dei 16.5: Non est enim fas eum, cum talia fieri uideat, non moueri et insurgere ad ultionem sceleratorum et pestiferos nocentesque delere, ut bonis omnibus consulat.
  7. De ira Dei 17.4: Dei uero actio quae potest esse nisi mundi administratio? Si uero mundi curam gerit, curat igitur hominum uitam deus et singulorum actus animaduertit eosque sapientes ac bonos esse desiderat.

  8. De ira Dei 17.13: iram esse cupiditatem doloris reponendi.
  9. De ira Dei 21.


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