Love and anger.
I've been long reflecting on models of the atonement. At college, before ordination, I did a study -complete with pilot study of Evangelical church members- of how people became Christians with aparticular interest in whether a sense of guilt and forgiveness was an important aspect (basically, 'no' except for a minority ). So, in respect of PSA (penal substitutionary atonement) I found Scot McKnight's article here Center of Atonement | Theology, News & Notes | Fuller helpful in sketching out some of the issues behind the PSA debate of late:
The Neo-Puritans believe that the most genuine, authentic experience of the gospel and personal salvation is to comprehend in a profoundly humiliating encounter with the utter holiness of God that a person is a wretched and vile sinner, and therefore also knows both that he or she deserves nothing but wrath and hell but has experienced, by the sheer grace of God, an elective salvation so that he or she has been welcomed into the arms of the Father through the Son’s propitiatory and reconciling work. (Their worship follows this pattern.) My contention is that penal substitution is required by the gospel of the Neo-Puritan. To question this is to question everything.I tended to agree with the proposition that the Evangelical gospel seeks to answer a question few people in our society ask: 'how do I find deliverance from my guilt?'. So a lot of Evo preaching heads into the business of guilt arousal rather than finding ways to respond to the other questions being asked. And because for many Evangelicals, in fact, the existential dread of wrath and a guilty conscience is actually not a very prominent/real subjective experience, they don't actually 'tell' the PSA story that well or with much conviction. Indeed it tends to be mangled or scrimped and heard as, well, "cosmic child abuse". it is possible to articulate PSA with a degree of care to avoid that charge (as, I think, Jim Packer did and a helpful example ofwhich is set out here) -but then you have to be prepared to talk Trinity -and that may not be helpful in an evangelistic situation with limited time. The other effect is to pretty much put a wrathful idea/image of God centre-stage which actually works in popular imagination against the one of the primary attractions of a Christian theology that God is love.
Most people see wrath and love as mutually exclusive; and so that needs looking at. Most people don't really understand forgiveness. These dysunderstandings are linked. And the real challenge is to tell the Cross story in a way that holds love central, puts wrath into a congruent perspective and clarifies forgiveness. Anything else is going to miss the mark -NT-theological pun intended.
So I want to sketch out such an approach. It is a kind of 'practical theology' account in that it starts with a consideration of human forgiving and supposes that analogies to divine forgiveness are possible (else why let 'forgiveness' figure so highly and frequently as a concept in Scripture?). To get some better idea of the human dynamics you might want to look at the 2004 posts I made under the 'forgiveness' tag. in those posts you will see me trying to uncover the psychological dynamics of forgiveness and hints of how this might relate to God's forgiving. In this latter respect, a more recent post commenting on what I think is a Barthian approach may show something of the genealogy of my thinking.
I am taking it, too, that forensically-centred, cosmic-battle or exemplary approaches may not claim any last words -as McKnight argues in the linked article.
Love and anger: closer than we often think
I want to start with love then anger then forgiving and being forgiven. God is love, and many reckon that anger has no part to play in our thinking about relating to God because love and anger are conceived to be mutually exclusive. However, as I learnt from CS Lewis, we should remember what love is and involves. In my experience love can be a driver of anger. Lest that sound too oxymoronic, let's notice that in fact most people would actually think there was something wrong with a parent who did not get indignant (and I think that is a form of anger) or even outraged if their child is mistreated, bullied, or discriminated against. That anger is born of love for the child. The anger is directed to challenging and righting or at least mitigating the wrong being done to the child. I note, with interest a recent editorial in the Guardian that seems to point in the same direction: outrage and indignation arise from caring about the good.
However, that is not holding the two emotions towards the same person simultaneously, so the illusion of the incompatibility of love and wrath could be maintained. Maintained, that is, until we consider the matter more fully still. Perhaps the child is being bullied by her brother, who is just as cherished as his sister. Does the parent fail to be angry about the wrong because the perpetrator is loved? No. The parent is cross, and cross with the brother yet the brother remains loved. JM Barrie's Tinkerbelle was said not to be able to have two emotions at once on account of being so small. We being bigger can. And God being, in a sense, bigger yet certainly can have both 'emotions' at once and do so in relation to millions and billions. Even so we should note that the two emotions are actually not so different but share a commonality: without love, there would be no anger. Without anger, we doubt the depth of the love.
So the first thing to notice is that love generates anger when the beloved is harmed. That anger is directed to rectifying the harm, the wrong. In so doing it can be directed to the wrongdoer (especially where the wrongdoer identifies with the wrongdoing).
The second thing to notice is that the anger doesn't nullify the love and that we (and God who is ever greater) can both love and be angry with a beloved (I note that I can't find a simple transitive verb for 'be angry at' ...).
Let's note too, that it doesn't necessarily require that someone else be involved. We parents can be cross-out-of-love with children who harm themselves or even just put themselves in harm's way. Witness the parent who rescues a child from running in front of a moving car -quite often relief competes with anger and the child may be scolded as well as hugged.
So, I argue, God-who-loves-us is enraged-out-of-love for us when we harm ourselves or harm others whom he loves. And this love-born-anger is about the desire for the best, the welfare of the beloved and the love-born-drive to right the wrongs involved.
In brief, this means that if we think that it is great that God is Love, then we have to be prepared that such love has to be outraged by the wrongs done to the beloved. If it is not so outraged, then it is not love: it is indifference, or apathy, but not love. We should also frame this consideration globally: God loves everyone. So when I wrong someone else, I am wronging someone whom God loves. When someone wrongs me, they are wronging someone whom God loves. When I harm myself or even just fail to be my best, I am wronging someone whom God loves.
None of this is to say that what I've just presented exhausts what human anger is about. I've presented anger in a more noble form. It is of course possible to find human anger that is not rooted in a virtuous or godly love for others. It can be irritableness -or worse- at being inconvenienced or slighted or pouting about such perceived mistreatments of ourselves (or sometimes significant others). In a few words, it can be selfish or narrow-minded or 'petty'. But before moving on from that observation, let's notice that even these instances are still the same dynamic as the more noble version we first considered, it's just that they are based in less noble motives. It's not so much that the anger is wrong, but that the 'wrong' it seeks to right is not really wrong or it is selfish or petty or unworthy.
The interesting and important thing even here is that the dynamic is nevertheless basically the same. A wrong is done to someone (or something) that we hold in our affection or esteem -it may even be ourselves. We react out of love for whatever-it-is with a desire to right the perceived 'wrong': a desire that carries a surge of energy to take down/away the wrong and wrongdoer/s. The main problem is that the wrong may not be really wrong or disproprotionate or even misperceived. With regard to that latter: most of us have probably known times when we have been cross about a wrong done to us or to others, an injustice. Only to find that anger deflate as we discover that in fact it was not wrong or unjust; we'd got wrong what was happening, misinterpreted and so misapplied our anger. It is not so much the anger that is wrong as the misjudgement, lack of charity, quickness to think ill or whatever other lack of charitable disposition. It is most fundamentally about truth and humility.
And this is part of the problem for PSA. It tends to sound as if it is portraying God as displaying an anger that is rooted in taking umbridge at a slight to his honour or that his rather arbitrary rules have been ignored or flouted. It is not seen as related to noble love but something rather petty. God should just 'get over it' is the thought that lurks so easily as a next step from that perception.
In subsequent posts I hope to take the argument further in the following sorts of ways:
What's this got to do with forgiveness?
To answer this we need to consider, first of all, a working definition of forgiveness. We then have to relate it to what we've noticed previously about love-born-anger and love itself. And we should note at the outset of this bit of enquiry that there is much misunderstanding of forgiveness around -just as there is about love and anger.
Can this apply to God in relation to humans?
God-talk is inescapably analogical. The question is how far and how truthy is the the analogy?
Next post in series...
Posts in the series:Posting 9 Analogy: human to divine and back again
Posting 8 Eikonic forgiveness explored further
posting 7 The Eikon of forgiveness
posting 6 The cost of forgiving
posting 5 Counter mimesis
posting 4 Reacting to being wronged
posting 3 To know all is to forgive all?
posting 2 Forgiveness in human life
posting 1 Love and Anger