10 March 2006

Who's Reconciled to Whom?

It seems that much of Western soteriology, since at least the time of Anselm, hinges on the notion that our sin so angers God that, in His rage, He lashes out against us in punishment. Undoubtedly, it is this notion that pushed Luther to stress the Gospel over against the Law.

However, the notion that God gets angry is theologically difficult for several reasons. First, it suggests that God has a conflict within Himself--anger vs. love. Second, it suggests that, like us, God cannot control His temper. Third, it suggests that God is only primarily love--not essentially love. Finally, it sets up a dualism within God--a dualism that becomes manifest in the Holy Trinity when (according to this notion) the Father takes out His anger in unrelenting fury, wrath and rage on His beloved Son.

To be sure, we speak as if God is angry. Just as we speak as if He has abandoned us, forgotten us, or turned a deaf ear to us. But when we speak this way, we must acknowledge that we are speaking anthropomorphically; in other words, we're thinking that God acts as we do, or we're speaking in terms of how it seems or looks or feels to us. If our biological father gets angry and lashes out at us when we do something wrong, (so we think) then so must our heavenly Father.

This notion, however, not only drags God down to our level, ascribing to Him our uglier characteristics. Worse yet, it creates in our minds and hearts a notion that the Father's mercy is fickle or fleeting--or, at least, dependent upon some act that pleases Him or appeases His wrath. But doesn't this talk about appeasing God's wrath ultimately make us higher than God? For then God is manipulated by our pleasing or appeasing acts. Or we can, in some way, control God's "moods."

A common answer is to say that we cannot appease God because we are wicked and (as we think the Psalmist is saying about us), "God is angry with the wicked every day." (Ps 7.11) Hence, only the Son of God appeases His angry Father. Put colloquially, "God, in His fierce anger, must destroy you; but He is conflicted, and so instead destroys His Son who miraculously survives and rises to live another day and, having done so, pleases His Father and calms His rage so that it's now safe to stand before Him."

But now we're back to a Trinitarian dualism; and to dragging God down to our level of economics by which owners are appeased by successfully negotiated mediation. But that's not the kind of Mediator Our Lord Jesus is. He doesn't mediate by standing between a furious father and his pathetic creation; or by taking the blows of an angry (abusive?) God that were occasioned by the ruination and corruption of His creation by totally depraved men. This suggests that the problem really is with God; and that the Father needs to be reconciled to us. (Read AC III carefully.)

The truth is that the problem lies within us--the corruption of flesh which is manifest in sin and results in death. But the death it results in is not so much the grave (although that is a vivid picture of this death); rather, it is the death of our relationship (or communion) with our heavenly Father. To restore this communion with the Father, the Son doesn't reconcile the Father to us, but us to the Father. And His reconciliation is not solely or even chiefly by the event of His death and resurrection, but by His Passion coupled with the sending of the Holy Spirit. (For what good is Our Lord's death and resurrection if He doesn't breathe out His Spirit on the Church; that is, if the benefits are not delivered into us and planted home within us?)

This picture of God not only releases us from the problems described above when we believe that God is consumed with anger over against His creation. It is also biblical. For this is the biblical witness: the Father is merciful and compassionate; and from that mercy gives His Son into the world not to pay for what we've done or to appease God's wrath, but to reconcile and restore us true life in the Father; and this reconciliation is begun for us and achieved by the Son releasing His Spirit upon all mankind in His Church so that, in Him, we might be united to the Son who then gives us full access to the Father.

Now can such a picture be reconciled with the notion that the Son of God came into the world to appease the Father's wrath and reconcile the Father to us? And can anyone who holds to this biblical understanding really maintain that "God hates you because God hates sin and you are sin"? Those who do have, most regrettably, slidden into heresy.

1 comment:

William Weedon said...

Tracking along the same lines, this essay by Howard Webb is rather helpful: