Saturday, 16 April 2016

God is not angry, says Clement of Rome

While reading the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, I paused over something he wrote about peace.

This letter, written about 96 CE, is one of the very earliest documents we have (other than New Testament texts) from the young Christian movement. Clement was bishop of Rome and was writing to encourage the church in Corinth, especially about an internal dispute on which they had asked Clement's advice.

Early in the letter, Clement writes "Let us cleave, therefore, to those who cultivate peace with godliness, and not to those who hypocritically profess to desire it" (chapter 15) and then gives examples of the type of humility we should imitate. Jesus of course is one of his prime exemplars.

Then, in chapter 19, he writes: 
The humility therefore and the submissiveness of so many and so great men, who have thus obtained a good report, hath through obedience made better not only us but also the generations which were before us, even them that received His oracles in fear and truth. Seeing then that we have been partakers of many great and glorious doings, let us hasten to return unto the goal of peace which hath been handed down to us from the beginning, and let us look steadfastly unto the Father and Maker of the whole world, and cleave unto His splendid and excellent gifts of peace and benefits. Let us behold Him in our mind, and let us look with the eyes of our soul unto His long-suffering will. Let us note how free from anger He is towards all His creatures.
Putting aside the gendered language, what stands out to me from this passage is the firm belief that God is not angry. Another translator declares God free from wrath rather than anger.

This is the witness of an early bishop, whose understanding of God is derived from what the apostles learnt directly from Jesus that God's disposition towards the world is not driven by wrath or revenge. If that is the case, then there is no need for God's wrath towards the world to be redirected against Jesus.

This is not a denial that Jesus "bore our sins": Clement explicitly applies that thought from Isaiah 53 to Jesus. But Clement did not think that the reason Jesus died was to assuage the anger of God. Why? Because when you reflect on the examples of people who have been faithful to God such as Jesus, David, Job their humility points to a God who is without anger.