Eric Jobe’s recent series on justification (Part I, Part II, Part III) has spurred some discussion regarding the role of divine wrath in Orthodoxy. To simplify: Some readers seemed to believe that there was no place in Orthodoxy to speak of the wrath of God at all. Our salvation, to them, has nothing to do with deliverance from God’s wrath.
Rather than comment directly regarding this recent series on justification, I would like to focus on this related issue of divine grace and wrath. What follows here is a cursory exploration of the relationship between—and union of—grace and wrath in Orthodox theology. With an eye toward the actual experience of these realities, rather than a merely academic discussion, I hope, however briefly and inadequately, to end by addressing the existential side as well.
First of all: grace, which can alternatively be translated “favor.” The Greek charis is etymologically related chara (joy) and eucharistos (thanksgiving). The latter is literally a combination of eu, meaning good, and charis, grace. Lastly, the word is also related to charitas, the Latin equivalent to agape, the highest form of love.
Second: wrath. The Greek orge basically indicates what we might think of, extreme anger, though it is also used to speak of the wrath of pagan gods as well as that of the Lord in the Greek Old Testament. As for the idea of divine wrath, I think that the German philosopher Rudolf Otto may be helpful:
Anyone who is accustomed to think of deity only by its rational attributes must see in this “wrath” mere caprice and willful passion. But such a view would have been emphatically rejected by the religious men of the Old Covenant, for to them the Wrath of God, so far from being a diminution of His Godhead, appears as a natural expression of it, an element of “holiness” itself, and a quite indispensable one. And in this they are entirely right…. It cannot be doubted that, despite the protest of Schleiermacher and Rischl, Christianity also has something to teach of the “wrath of God.”
I find this helpful for several reasons, of which I will focus on two:
First, Otto, a Lutheran, here criticizes those who find the concept strange, in his day at least, for being overly rationalistic. In addition to and distinct from those rationalists, he also associates the denial of divine wrath with the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who while insightful is typically understood to be far from traditional in his conception of the Christian faith. Thus, it may be just as “Protestant” to deny divine wrath as to affirm it—this is not a simple matter of Protestant vs. Orthodox or East vs. West.
Second, Otto links divine wrath not with “mere caprice and willful passion” but with the holiness of God. Holiness is distinct from, though related to, righteousness. Before being a moral category, it indicates the mysterious, unsearchable, and otherworldly—the numinous (a term Otto coined)—which though beyond understanding can yet be experienced and, thus, described and even evoked.
It is this idea of holiness, I think, that Fr. Schmemann meant when he wrote,
“Holy” is the real name of God, of the God “not of scholars and philosophers,” but of the living God of faith. The knowledge about God results in definitions and distinctions. The knowledge of God leads to this one, incomprehensible, yet obvious and inescapable word: holy. And in this word we express both that God is the Absolutely Other, the One about whom we know nothing, and that He is the end of all our hunger, all our desires, the inaccessible One who mobilizes our wills, the mysterious treasure that attracts us, and there is really nothing to know but Him. “Holy” is the word, the song, the “reaction” of the Church as it enters into heaven, as it stands before the heavenly glory of God.
In the context of the life in Christ, what otherwise would evoke terror instead inspires worship, even love: “the end of all our hunger, all our desires.” So how might we reconcile this?
We could, with Schleiermacher, deny that the wrath of God has any place in Christianity at all. In this view, grace and wrath are opposed and irreconcilable. One must be denied in order to have the other.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
While Edwards does have a place for divine grace and love, to him God firstly “abhors you.” No doubt it is this sort of conception of God’s wrath, as an expression of divine abhorrence and hatred, that some of Jobe’s readers were worried about. Inasmuch as he would not go this far, both he and his readers probably stand on common ground in viewing this latter view as extreme and heterodox.
But what about the first? If we would not go all the way with Jonathan Edwards, how far does Orthodoxy go? Is Schleiermacher our only alternative?
St. Maximos the Confessor offers a helpful place to begin:
God, it is said, is the Sun of righteousness (cf. Mal. 4:2), and the rays of His supernal goodness shine down on all men alike. The soul is wax if it cleaves to God, but clay if it cleaves to matter. Which it does depends upon its own will and purpose. Clay hardens in the sun, while wax grows soft. Similarly, every soul that, despite God’s admonitions, deliberately cleaves to the material world, hardens like clay and drives itself to destruction, just as Pharaoh did (cf. Exod. 7:13). But every soul that cleaves to God is softened like wax and, receiving the impress and stamp of divine realities, it becomes “in spirit the dwelling-place of God” (Eph. 2:22).
The hinge, according to St. Maximos, is our own disposition. His view is not Pelagian, however, because the divine energia are clearly primary: remove the warmth of the sun and neither will wax soften nor will clay harden. In both cases, the reality behind the experience of grace and the experience of wrath is really one and the same: “the rays of [God’s] supernal goodness.” As Vladimir Lossky put it, “At the second coming of Christ … [t]he love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.”
Here we see the role of righteousness and sin (and by extension, justification). And I would add, it is not just a matter of “the second coming of Christ” but also a present reality. As St. Ambrose wrote, “The wicked man is a punishment to himself, but the upright man is a grace to himself—and to either, whether good or bad, the reward of his deeds is paid in his own person.” Or, as C.S. Lewis put it in The Great Divorce, “[A]t the end of all things … the Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”
So the divine light, the love of God, to the righteous is grace and to the wicked is wrath. As such, the idea of divine wrath has an important place in Orthodoxy as indicating the experience of those who actively work against the energia of God’s gracious love. This view offers a third option between Edwards on the one hand and Schleiermacher on the other. But, one might wonder, is there any biblical precedence for this? While Holy Tradition is broader than the Scriptures, it would be odd if such a fundamental subject were completely absent in them.
I cannot here offer a thorough survey of the Scriptures on the subject, and surely they have more to say than I can explore, but I think they do, in fact, contain this same theology.
That there is an idea of wrath as a terrible experience, even in the New Testament, is clear enough from Hebrews 10:31: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” In context, the passage is speaking about God’s vengeance against those who defied him during the Exodus, which is meant to serve as a warning for Christian readers. In addition, the concept of divine wrath is mentioned in nearly every chapter of Romans, including the concern to be “saved from wrath” (5:9).
We can see grace and wrath come together as I have outlined above, depending on one’s disposition, in St. Paul’s teaching on the Eucharist: “[H]e who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). Thus, whether one approaches the altar worthily or unworthily, the same reality results in different experiences. What is a gift of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins to one is “judgment” to another. Notably, this is not just a future experience but a present one, including infirmity, sickness, and death.
As recipients of God’s grace in the mysteries of the Church, we ought to be vehicles of that grace to the world. But, yet again, the effect is twofold: “[W]e are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,” writes St. Paul. “To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). Similarly, we might think of the proverb:
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
For so you will heap coals of fire on his head,
And the Lord will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21-22)
So long as we assume the proverb isn’t recommending some sort of passive-aggressive works of kindness—and I’d say that’s a safe assumption—what makes the difference here is that the other person chooses to be “your enemy,” not that one should mean to hurt such a person. It is the disposition of hatred in their hearts that makes one’s enemies unreceptive to love. Such love, to echo Lossky, is “an intolerable torment” to those consumed by envy.
For fear that this essay, if concluded here, would still be too abstract, consider the miracle of the great catch of fish recorded in the Gospel According to St. Luke:
When [Jesus] had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:4-8)
In the presence of the holy, St. Peter finds himself terrified, crying out, “Depart from me!” He is conscious that Jesus is no mere man but “Lord,” and furthermore he becomes aware of his own moral unworthiness (“I am a sinful man”). Jesus did not approach him in anger or malice, but the experience of supernatural love is more akin to wrath than grace for St. Peter.
Puritans like Jonathan Edwards believed that one must first experience God’s wrath in order to be reborn of God’s grace. Regrettable as his rhetoric is, Edwards really did hope his hearers would then experience God’s grace. From an Orthodox point of view, this is wrongheaded in divorcing regeneration from baptism. He also fails, however, to see the unity of these two in the light of divine love, coming down far too heavy-handedly.
From the Orthodox perspective outlined herein, however, we can reframe the experience of God’s wrath with a stronger emphasis on hope. The Gospel story above ends with Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid!” (5:10) and inviting St. Peter and his friends to follow him.
There is something terrible about the hidden and unsearchable aspect of God, but that is not all. There is also something equally unpredictably and mysteriously good: grace—a comfort and joy that transcends all the suffering, chaos, evil, and sin in this world and in our hearts. And to experience the former in hope really can open our eyes to the latter. To weep at the sight of Christ crucified for us can open to us the reality that there he spreads out his arms to embrace us. There, though sinners we may be, we see in the crucified hands of God a love of unsearchable, unfathomable, and even terrible depths. It is a love, to quote the Song of Songs, that is “as strong as death” (8:6) and even stronger, transfiguring the source of our deepest fear into joy.