God Has Zero Wrath, Pt. 2: More From Augustine on a Patristic Commonplace

In my last post, I asserted that it was assumed by Augustine and the Church Fathers that God has no wrath. This was, for them, a basic catholic truth. It has been gratifying to engage with people’s responses to this article, and heartening to see those who found the piece enlightening or clarifying.

Unsurprisingly, some have expressed reservations about asserting that God has zero wrath: i.e., that the predicate ‘wrath’ is altogether removed from God, and indeed it is zeroed out without remainder. And indeed, I do mean zeroed out without remainder: not infrequently, what is called the ‘altogether negation’ of the wrath of God is exchanged for merely a ‘somewhat’ or ‘partial negation,’ an exchange whose cost is the love of God. Davenant board member Wyatt Graham did well last week to note a fundamental “asymmetry” between love and wrath. Building on this, when speaking in divinis, we need to always take care and determine the exact extent of that asymmetry: here, it is an asymmetry between something and nothing, rather than between more and less, as would be the asymmetry between saying e.g. that God is wise (nowise negated) and that God reasons (somewhat negated). Graham does well to compare to how arm is said of God, for armness is also altogether negated in divinis: saying that God has wrath is equivalent to saying he is a pile of dirt, and either denying this or merely raising one’s eyebrows cuts against the Fathers and medievals who held this with one voice and with absolute confidence and certainty.

No doubt this ‘altogether removal’ heightens reservations about this position. Indeed, these reservations are somewhat understandable in that for the last many centuries this has not been the universal position; rather, more common, especially among Protestants, is the idea that God somewhat has wrath (a ‘partial affirmation’), and that the predicate ‘wrath’ is not altogether negated of God (so a ‘partial negation’)–just so held Lactantius (whom fellow Ad Fontes blogger Andrew Koperski surveys here), whose position was rejected by the Fathers, as did many Reformed Orthodox.

One point that could be said in response to these reservations is that the altogether negation (in contrast to a partial negation) does not mean that wrath is nowise affirmed in divinis, as I had said in my original post. Rather, the kind of affirmation is not proper (e.g., how we say that God loves), nor is it improper (e.g., how we say that God reasons, laughs, etc.); rather, it is purely metaphorical, which is meant scholastically and concords with saying it through a certain analogy of proportionality (“just as an angry man, just so God”). God then when he punishes is just as a certain man who is motivated unto a similar effect through wrath in himself: this is the basic mode in which (quomodo) ira dei (the wrath of God) is affirmed by the Fathers, and requires the prior ‘altogether negation’ for its truth. Any flexibility or weakness on this ‘altogether negation’ disables the usage of wrath as a metaphor.

Augustine, as all Fathers and medievals without exception that I know of, holds this firmly and explains it very clearly in various texts. As ira dei (and similar names) frequently occur in the Psalms wherein God is especially anthropomorphized or humanized, Augustine handles its sense(s) in various of his Expositions on the Psalms. Brief consideration of some of these can fill-out our insight into Augustine’s mode(s) of saying ira dei.

An important text, and indeed the first relevant in his Expositions, is his comment on Psalm 2:5. My fellow Ad Fontes author Eric Hutchinson had mentioned this text in his recent post; here is my own translation:

Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and he will trouble them in his furor’ [Ps. 2:5]. For showing more plainly how he will speak to them, he said that he will trouble them as in his wrath i.e. in his furor. Now wrath and furor of the Lord God are not to be understood as perturbation of mind, but as force how he vindicates most justly, the whole creation subjected to him for this task. For most clearly we must review and hold that which is written in Solomon: ‘Now you, Lord of virtue, judge with tranquility, and us with great reverence you arrange’ [Wisdom 12:18]. Therefore, wrath of God is motion made in the soul which knows the law of God when it sees that same law is omitted by the sinner. For through this motion of just souls many are vindicated. Although wrath of God can be rightly understood also as the darkening itself of mind which follows those who transgress the law of God.[1]

The context is future judgment (cf. IV Sent d 46, the medieval commonplace for ira dei); therefore, God reveals himself maximally materially and sensibly (“planius”), and so says that ira informs his final judgment (portrayed here as a certain speech). To give the sense of this ira, Augustine determines two modes in which ira dei can be understood in the letters of holy Scripture: the first he prefers in this text and so is his focus and ours; but the second pertains to others (e.g. Romans 1:18) and so receives a quick gesture (broadly, ira dei can be said metaphorically for that very effect itself, the certain punishment which is the darkening of human intellect and deadening of human will, as we see in Romans 1:18ff). Again, the first is our focus here.

Augustine gives this sense by determining both what is not and what is to be understood when it is said that God will speak to them in a certain mode i.e. as motivated by ira sua, ‘his wrath.’ On the one hand, perturbation or disturbance of mind is not understood, as we say that a certain man speaks from his wrath: this negation is common and universal, and echoes throughout the corridors of the church catholic. But on the other, a certain vis (force, power, etc: cf the Greek energeia) or motus (“moved-ment”) is understood: this vis (the active) or motus (passive) is posited in divinis when ira dei is said.

Notably, Augustine cites a certain authority which is the classic authority throughout the Latin tradition: Wisdom 12:18. Whether or not Wisdom is apocryphal is not our point or concern here. For Augustine, the halves of this verse prove what is not/is to be understood about ira dei, and so it makes us judge both of these and have supernatural certainty about the truth of such judgments. The former is because “you, Lord of virtue, judge with tranquility”: i.e. when God who has all power (virtus) and makes all created motions (motus) judges, he then is with tranquility i.e. without disturbance/perturbation. But at the same time, he then is “arranging us,” just as Dionysius says (Div nom c.12), so that we have “great reverence” or regard for his law.

Further, to Augustine’s mind, Wisdom 12:18 also determines the certain vis/motus involved: Augustine has described this as a certain vis “through which he vindicates most justly, the whole creation subjected to him for this task.” We are observing a juggling match of primary/secondary causality: the divine moving (“vis”) and created being-moved (“motus”) locked in-step. That reality is the reality intended by this name ira dei. Ira dei is nothing else except that very motion (“motus”) made by God (“vis”) in the soul, particularly when that soul (1) knows divine law and (2) sees that very law disregarded by the sinner in various acts, creating the need for divine vindication. That very motion through which vindication comes to be is the ira dei, for that motion is that through which many divine things become vindicated.

Similar but varying remarks occur throughout Augustine’s Expositions, and a few more places are worthwhile to confirm that according to Augustine ira dei is said in many modes in holy Scripture. For example, immediately after in 2, 11 [NOTE: references hereafter formatted as e.g. 2, 11 rather than 2:11 refer to the paragraph numbers within Augustine’s commentary on the psalm, not to the verse number], he says that ira dei is the very concrete effect through which vindication comes to be: the psalmic phrase is “when his anger will be shortly kindled,” “i.e.,” Augustine says, “when vindication will come”[2] on the last day. Later in Ps. 7, 5, Augustine says similarly that the very concrete punishment “the psalmist says is ira dei.”[3] We recall Augustine’s second sense of ira dei in 2, 5 above considered a certain punishment i.e. darkening minds and deadening wills.

Three other comments are notably expansive and unfold each other: those on 6, 3; in 7, 12; and in 78/9, 8. In 6, 3 (“reprove me not in your anger,” Psalm 6:1 in modern Bibles), Augustine refers also to the famous Romans 2:5 (storing up ira against the day of ira when God’s judgment will be revealed) and fills out the gesture he gave above in 2, 5. Ira, with us and among creatures generally, is “motion of soul provoking unto punishment to be inflicted.” This is a slightly distinct definition of ira from Augustine’s more basic taken from Aristotle (appetite of vindication), but certainly bespeaking the same reality. Here, ira is a principle of a certain operation i.e. punishment through which vindication happens. This motion “not as to a soul,” (i.e. not as it is said of a created soul), “is to be attributed to God,” about whom it is said: ‘Now you, Lord of virtues, with tranquility judge’.” Augustine then completes the syllogism for altogether negating ira: “Now what is tranquil, is not disturbed; therefore in God, the judge, disturbance does not fall.” Rather, this motion is “what happens in his ministers,” and it is said his ira (rather than e.g. theirs) because this motion (their ira!) “happens through his laws” implanted in their hearts: “what happens in his ministers, because it happens through his laws, is said to be his wrath.”[4] Ira dei is thus being said causally, not formally in divinis: it is not because God has ira, but because he makes this ira to be by making a certain law in the hearts of his rational creatures. The point is extremely important: the ira is in the (human?) soul as in a subject, and in that mode it is their ira. But it is said to be ira dei, God’s wrath, because God causes the (natural?) law through which man is made somewhat enwrathed whenever some creature falls away from goodness: we are natively (because God makes our natures) grieved and desire revocation of the creature and its goodness, whereupon we have a certain ira and God is said to have ira.

In 7, 12, Augustine says that the ira dei is that same wrath itself in the soul of his ministers (recall above in 2, 5, “ad ministerium,” “for this ministry”): this “ira through which God punishes is not in him, but in the souls of his ministers who obey the precepts of truth.” ”Precepts of truth” here is a correspondent phrase to “his laws” in 6, 3, and is the “great reverence” of Wisdom 12:18 with which we are arranged or outfitted. Through these certain ministers (the highest angels–recall Dionysius Div nom c 12) are commanded “even the lower ministers who are themselves called angels of ira.”[5] Here, the ira dei is the whole created motion from top to bottom in the divine economy, from the highest intelligences down to the lowest who themselves impose punishment and so, because they are most proximate to the effect, themselves are called angeli iracundiae, “dispensers of judgment.” The point is striking: here, the ira dei is the universal moved-ment (recall above in 2, 5: the “universa creatura subiecta”) which Paul calls the groaning of creation in Romans 8:22. Indeed, ira dei is nothing else except that very groaning itself, which is even called God’s groaning because he makes its order to be.

In 78/9, 8–9, we see all these components come together:

“Obviously the ira and zelus dei are not perturbations of God, as not a few who do not understand the Scriptures argue; but by the name ira is understood vindication for iniquity, and by the name zelus, the exaction of chastity, [the former] so that the soul does not despise the law of his Lord and [the latter so that it] does not depart from his God through fornication. Therefore, these in the effect itself in affliction of men are turbulences, whereas in the disposition of God are tranquilities, about whom it is said: ‘Now you, Lord of virtues, with tranquility judge.’”[6]

Ira (and similarly zelus, “zeal” or “jealousy”) are movements and so perturbations in the men being employed as ministers, whereas in God they are not movements but tranquilities: here Augustine is once again conscribing secondary/primary causality.

Ryan Hurd is a Teaching Fellow for The Davenant Institute.

  1. Tunc loquetur ad eos in ira sua, et in furore suo conturbabit eos: planius enim ostendens quomodo ad eos loquetur, dixit, conturbabit eos; ut in ira sua, hoc sit, in furore suo. Iram autem et furorem Domini Dei non perturbationem mentis oportet intellegi, sed vim qua iustissime vindicat, subiecta sibi ad ministerium universa creatura. Praecipue namque pervidendum est et tenendum illud quod scriptum est in Salomone: Tu autem, Domine virtutis, cum tranquillitate iudicas, et cum magna reverentia disponis nos. Ira ergo Dei est motus qui fit in anima quae legem Dei novit, cum eamdem legem videt a peccatore praeteriri; per hunc enim motum iustarum animarum multa vindicantur. Quamquam possit ira Dei recte intellegi etiam ipsa mentis obscuratio, quae consequitur eos qui legem Dei transgrediuntur.

  2. id est, cum vindicta venerit.

  3. hanc poenam dicit iram Dei adversus diabolum.

  4. motus est animi provocans ad poenam inferendam: qui tamen motus, non tamquam animae Deo tribuendus est, de quo dictum est: Tu autem, Domine virtutum, cum tranquillitate iudicas; quod autem tranquillum est, non est perturbatum. Non ergo cadit in Deum iudicem perturbatio; sed quod in eius ministris fit, quia per leges eius fit, ira eius dicitur.

  5. ut non sit in ipso ira qua punit, sed in animis eorum ministrorum qui praeceptis veritatis obtemperant; per quos iubetur etiam inferioribus ministeriis qui vocantur angeli iracundiae, ad punienda peccata, quos iam non propter iustitiam, qua non gaudent, sed propter malitiam poena humana delectat.

  6. Ira porro et zelus Dei, non sunt perturbationes Dei, sicut nonnulli Scripturas quas non intellegunt arguunt: sed nomine irae intellegitur vindicta iniquitatis; nomine zeli exactio castitatis, ne anima legem Domini sui contemnat, et a Deo suo fornicando dispereat. Haec ergo ipso effectu in hominum afflictione sunt turbulenta; in Dei autem dispositione tranquilla sunt, cui dictum est: Tu autem, Domine virtutum, cum tranquillitate iudicas.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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