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.


Val said...

So why did Jesus have to die?

Matt said...

Trust my mother to ask the tricky question! Short question, but impossible to give a short answer! But let's try …

First thing is to check what type of answer would come from the four primary accounts of Jesus life and death. If you answered purely on the basis of the Gospel accounts – without the interpretations added later by Paul or two millennia of theologians – Jesus died because people killed him. It was a result of human violence, not God's.

On top of that, it is clear that Jesus chose to allow himself to be killed, even provoked it. The term "sacrifice" has a couple of meanings: one can sacrifice a sheep, perhaps to appease the gods; but that is quite different from the self-sacrifice a parent might offer for the benefit of their children. I believe Jesus' death was a sacrifice in that second sense rather than the first. Jesus "gave himself".

But there is of course something more going on than those things. Even in the Gospels it is clear that there was a larger intention by God … some bigger story unfolding.

The Cross was God's way of confronting and undermining our human need for violence. The Cross shows that revenge is not necessary. In fact the history of revenge has shown its total ineffectiveness. "God does not sacrifice Christ through the cross for the sake of satisfying the law of retribution, but rather God sacrifices the law of retribution through the cross of Christ for the sake of redeeming humanity" (Daniel Belousek, Atonement, Justice and Peace p. 391).

God did not, and does not, need to punish anyone to forgive their sins. There are several examples in the Gospels where Jesus forgave people, and was immediately charged with blasphemy since "only God can forgive". But Jesus – God in human form – could forgive without anyone being punished and prior to his death. Jesus did not need to die in order for God to be able to forgive!

That's far from a complete answer. The Bible uses many metaphors and is quite ambiguous about how the mechanism works. But Jesus' death was very clearly for our sake, not because God needed it.

Matt said...

So mum then wrote: "Well the quote from Daniel Belousek needs some deep consideration for me to understand it. I basically get your meaning and agree with the rest."

... and I replied:

The way I understand the Belousek quote is that we typically hear that God *had* to punish someone because sin is so obnoxious. That seems to place some abstract law of retribution as a higher authority or a higher moral demand above God. But why should that be? Why does God *have to* take out revenge and punish someone? That's the kind of human thinking that God has steadily been trying to lead us away from since the beginning. One stage was for God to convince our forebears that punishment should never be more than an eye for an eye. Later, we were ready to hear from Jesus that if we were to be like God then we must love our enemies rather than seek any revenge or restitution from them at all. God nailed that old law of retribution to the cross.

Matt said... makes pretty much the same point as I am.