God Has Zero Wrath: A Note on a Basic Patristic Teaching from Augustine

Eric Hutchinson recently published a fine translation on his Ad Fontes blog in which Augustine makes an important point about God’s wrath versus our wrath in the context of exegeting Psalm 2. Eric’s translation reads:

The wrath and rage of the Lord God, however, should not be understood as a disturbance of the mind, but as a force by which he takes vengeance most righteously, with all creation subjected to him to serve him. Indeed, we must examine and hold fast to what Solomon has written: But you, O Lord of power, judge with calmness, and you set us in order with great awe. The wrath of God, therefore, is a motion that comes about in a soul which knows the law of God when it sees the same law to be disregarded by a sinner; for through this motion of just souls many transgressions are avenged–although the wrath of God can also be rightly understood as the very darkening of the mind that overtakes those who transgress the law of God.

The explanation is from a sermon which Augustine would have preached to common folk. It is a helpful stepping stone for us to consider a coordinate point which Augustine–and all the Fathers–make about God’s wrath which sounds strange at first to our ears, but basic to the theology of the Fathers and later medievals.

That point is this: God has zero wrath. Never is it sinners in the hands of an angry God, but only ever sinners in the hands of a loving one. Nonetheless, although God has zero wrath, the human authors of holy Scripture, although entirely knowing that God has zero wrath, have complied with the custom of those who are simple and said that he actually does. Sadly, for many centuries now, this pedagogical adjustment has been misunderstood as being either the mind of these writers or the whole truth of the matter.

Augustine explains this more thoroughly in various places. Moving away from the sermons of the Expositions on the Psalms, consider his 83 Questions under q 52, where he explains Genesis 6:6, in which it is said that God “repented that he made man.” To give the right sense of this, Augustine pedagogically employs the certain mode how wrath is said in divinis (i.e., “of God,” quite roughly and often misleadingly speaking) as an analogy: in a way similar to how we say “wrath” of God, so do we say “repentance” in God.

For most of us today, the idea of God’s “repentance” is more immediately puzzling than his anger. The idea that God might get angry is not jarring; the idea that God might repent is. As we try to answer this question, we likely begin to do so by imagining that “repentance” is being used in an especially “figurative” sense of God—more so than “wrath” ever would be.

Yet this is not the move Augustine makes. The way in which he employs “wrath” in understanding Gen. 6:6 indicates that this insight is not only well-established but trivially obvious: from something very easy and obvious (i.e. how wrath is said), we can move to something more difficult (the repentance issue). In fact, Augustine gives a line of “trivial examples” divided into two categories: those which are principles of operation in the immaterial and material part of man (i.e. the “affections” wrath, jealousy, etc.), and then the bodily organs (hand, feet, ears, eyes, and face). Just as all these are said in divinis, just so penitence. Although (1) God doesn’t have these and (2) the wise know this clearly, nonetheless (3) the wise men of old have chosen to speak this way to the unwise.

We should be frank too about how unabashed Augustine is about speaking of “wise and unwise” and their respective modes of knowing things in divinis. On the one hand, those “who are more wise understand already that these” affections and bodily organs “are most distantly separated from God”: God not only has nothing of them, but the line of negations is very, very long. This the wise men know; but it is these very wise men who “did not hesitate to put these things in the books” and through whose own understanding and contingent decisions about the best way to speak outwardly to common people according to the common and humble conventions of the day it is said that God has spoken.

Sometimes, Augustine says, these wise men are using words “which the habit even of the stupidest use among themselves.” Common tongues vary throughout the centuries, and so too the words chosen by the wise. But aiming to communicate divine knowledge to shepherds and farmers nonetheless constrains and commits the wise authors of Scripture to usurping names from these tangled moments of history and putting them in divinis. For example, Augustine says, “it is very difficult for a man to avenge something without experiencing wrath”—so much so that we are habituated to speak of vindication in terms of wrath; therefore, these wise men, speaking to us for whom this difficulty is most evident and for whom this linguistic custom is well-established, have said that God, although he nowise has wrath, does indeed have wrath. Likewise, “husbands habitually care for the chastity of their spouse by having jealousy”: hardly will you find a husband who, upon his spouse being threatened, is not possessed by jealousy, and this human reality controls our names because as reality is, so it is known, and as it is known, so it is named. Thereupon the ancient writers “have used the expression the jealousy of God” because we would scratch our heads entirely at the suggestion that God acts for his spouse altogether without jealousy. For us, this would be to not be a husband, and so, Augustine says, the sages of old put jealousy into divinis so that we would be more assured and remain unalarmed. Yes, they also wrote that hands, feat, ears, eyes, face are had by God, because their audience was workmen and wanderers: wise men made the decision to speak thus “because of us to whom this exterior utterance [sermo] is made, who are used to working with our hands, walking with our feet.” Augustine concludes from these examples his point all along: “And in this mode then, (i.e. similarly to the above), repentance is said in divinis. Although those who know “with a clear mind” know otherwise, nonetheless we regular folks are “not easily accustomed” to think like this, and so repentance was adjoined for “humble human understanding.””

Ryan Hurd is a Teaching Fellow for The Davenant Institute.


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