Is God Always Angry? Turning to History

jonathan_edwardsSince writing my book The Fury of God, I have been challenged by some as to whether or not God’s anger is inherent to his being. Specifically, is anger an “attribute” of God? I do not consider myself a stalwart theologian by any means. I do, however, believe that theological stalwarts of history have consistently answered this question with a resounding “YES!”

With that in mind, I am going to humbly submit to the writers of the past who have, more ably than I ever could, articulated these deep truths well. I begin with the great 18th Century American Theologian, Jonathan Edwards. In a treatise entitled, Remarks on Important Theological Controversies he discusses, “The Divine Decrees in General, and Election in Particular.” He begins this section with these words,

Whether God has decreed all things that ever came to pass or not, all that own the being of a God own that he knows all things beforehand. Now, it is self-evident, that if he knows all things beforehand, he either doth approve of them, or he doth not approve of them; that is, he either is willing that they should be or he is not willing they should be.

Here, Edwards asserts that God’s foreknowledge demands that God not simply knows that a thing is, or will be, but that he also have a feeling, or disposition, towards those things that he knows of. Edwards goes on to contend that God must also, therefore, know perfectly what will, and what will not, come to pass. He establishes certainty in the Godhead through foreknowledge and then writes this,

Contingency, as it is holden by some, is at the same time contradicted by themselves, if they hold foreknowledge. This is all that follows from an absolute, unconditional, irreversible decree, that it is impossible but that the things decreed should be. The same exactly follows from foreknowledge, that it is absolutely impossible but that the thing certainly foreknown should precisely come to pass.

From here, Edwards launches into a discussion about the happiness of God that directly relates to our discussion,

 It will universally hold, that none can have absolutely perfect and complete happiness, at the same time that any thing is otherwise than he desires at that time it should be;…then God, if any thing is now otherwise than he wills to have it now, is not now absolutely, perfectly, and infinitely happy. If God is infinitely happy now, then every thing is now as God would have it to be now; if every thing, then those things that are contrary to his commands. If so, it is not ridiculous to say, that things which are contrary to God’s commands, are yet in a sense agreeable to his will?

Herein lies the crux of the problem. If God is perfectly, absolutely, infinitely happy with how things are now, then he could not be perfectly, absolutely, infinitely happy having them be any other way. In other words, it is false to posit, philosophically or otherwise, a time when God was perfectly happy in which he was not exactly disposed, as he is now, to be all that he is presently (or at any other point in time.)

Everything Is Ever Before Him: J.I. Packer and John Calvin

packerNobody expresses this concept better than modern theological stalwart J.I. Packer. In his Concise Theology he discusses transcendence and helps us to gain a better grasp on how this works,

 God is limited neither by space (he is everywhere in his fullness continually) nor by time (there is no “present moment” into which he is locked as we are.)… As he upholds everything in being, so he has everything everywhere always before his mind, in its own relation to his all-inclusive plan and purpose for every item and every person in his world.

Here, Packer is asserting that because God is limitless he experiences, or knows, all things as if they are present to him at all times. Every moment of human history is right in front of him, all the time. Packer goes on to assert that this is how it has always been,

God is immutable. This means that he is totally consistent: because he is necessarily perfect, he cannot change either for the better or for the worse; and because he is not in time he is not subject to change as his creatures are.

If God knows everything, and has all events which will certainly occur before him, and he is never changing, then he is exactly as he has always been at this very moment all the way back to eternity past. This includes his feelings,

God’s feelings are not beyond his control, as ours often are. Theologians express this by saying that God is impassible. They mean not that he is impassive and unfeeling but that what he feels, like what he does, is a matter of his own deliberate, voluntary choice and is included in the unity of his infinite being.

That’s a pretty cut and dry statement. God’s feelings (all of them) are “included in the unity of his infinite being.” To say it another way, all of God’s feelings are exactly how God wants them to be, and that’s precisely how they’ve always been. Packer goes on,

all God’s thoughts and actions involved the whole of him. This is his integration, sometimes called his simplicity… One aspect of the marvel of God… is that he simultaneously gives total and undivided attention not just to one thing at a time but to everything and everyone everywhere in his world past, present and future (cf. Matt. 10:29-30)

MTE5NTU2MzE2MTcyNDg2MTU1Arguably the greatest protestant theologian, and 16th Century Reformer, John Calvin says essentially the same thing in his Institutes of Christian Religion,

When we attribute prescience to God, we mean that all things always were, and ever continue, under his eye; that to his knowledge there is not past or future, but all things are present, and indeed so present, that it is not merely the idea of them that is before him (as those objects are which we retain in our memory) but that he truly sees and contemplates them as actually under his immediate inspection. This prescience extends to the whole circuit of the world, and to all creatures.

So, when we merge the thoughts of Packer, Calvin, and Edwards, we come to the conclusion that an essential part of God’s inherent being is that he perfectly knows (and ordains) all things, and that he is perfectly, absolutely, infinitely happy with those things which he knows and has ordained. His feelings, anger being one, are eternally exercised towards the objects of those events/beings which he has most intimately known and happily ordained. God’s general disposition, then, is in the exercise of the fullness of all his attributes all the time because all things are ever and always before him.

God’s Attributes: Pendleton

pendleton.j.mI now turn my attention, briefly, to a lesser known 19th Century theologian and Baptist Preacher, James M. Pendleton. In his Christian Doctrines—A Compendium of Theology, Pendleton gives a simple but essential definition of an attribute of God:

The attributes of a thing are so essential to it that without them it could not be what it is; and this is equally true of the attributes of a person. If a man were divested of the attributes belonging to him, he would cease to be a man, for these attributes are inherent in that which constitutes him a human being. If we transfer these ideas to God, we shall find that his attributes belong inalienably to him, and, therefore, what he is now he must ever be.

Pendleton here asserts what we’ve already concluded from Edwards, Calvin, and Packer. He further asserts that an attribute is “inherent” to a thing, such that if that thing does not have that attribute, that thing will cease to be what it is. Therefore, if God were ever devoid of any of his unique attributes, he would cease to be God. Pendleton concludes that “what [God] is now he must ever be.”

Now, some may contend that God’s anger is not an essential part of his being. This, again, is where I return to immutability and omniscience. Note Pendleton, first, regarding immutability,

As to the moral attributes of the divine character, they also are unchangeable. They bear the stamp of perfection. If God, however, could change in his moral attributes, it would imply imperfection in his moral character… God in his moral as well as in his natural attributes is immutable, and therefore his character is unchangeable…

If it is true that God never changes in his moral character, how does this affect his omniscient awareness of all things? Again, Pendleton regarding omniscience,

We speak of knowledge as of the past, the present, and the future. What shall we say of God, to whom the past and the future are not distinguished from the present, and whose knowledge, therefore is not successive, but perfectly simultaneous?… Being everywhere in all parts of his vast dominions at all times.

Pendleton, in alignment with all the others we quoted thus far, affirms that God is everywhere present at all times, always. If this is true, and it is, then how can we ever intelligently assert, philosophically or otherwise, that there was a point at which God was not angry? To assert this is to strip him necessarily of his omniscient awareness or his immutability. You either have to say God didn’t know (omniscience), and therefore was not angry, or that he did know, but he wasn’t angry (immutability). Neither of these is true, and therefore it is an inherent, essential aspect of God’s being that he not only know a thing, but that he always feel exactly the same way about that thing.

The Wrath of God as an Essential Attribute of God: A. W. Pink

200px-ArthurPinkStill, does this prove that anger, wrath, or fury are necessary, inherent, attributes of God? I think so, but let’s turn to a man who had absolutely no problem acknowledging God’s wrath as an inherent attribute of God. In his work Attributes of God, A.W. Pink happily devotes a whole chapter to “the Wrath of God.”

Yes, many there are who turn away from a vision of God’s wrath as though they were called to look upon some blotch in the Divine character, or some blot upon the Divine government. But what saith the Scriptures? As we turn to them we find that God has made no attempt to conceal the fact of His wrath. He is not ashamed to make it known that vengeance and fury belong unto Him. His own challenge is, “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god with Me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal; neither is there any that can deliver out of My hand. For I lift up My hand to heaven, and say, I live forever, If I whet My glittering sword, and Mine hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to Mine enemies, and will reward them that hate Me” (Deut. 32:39-41). A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness. Because God is holy, He hates all sin; And because He hates all sin, His anger burns against the sinner: Psalm 7:11.

For those who are familiar with Pink, you know that he will mince no words, and he wields the sword of Scripture as ably as any theologian could ever hope to. Here he says, unequivocally, that God is pleased to reveal, more than even His love, His divine disdain for sin. He continues,

Now the wrath of God is as much a Divine perfection as is His faithfulness, power, or mercy. It must be so, for there is no blemish whatever, not the slightest defect in the character of God; yet there would be if “wrath” were absent from Him! Indifference to sin is a moral blemish, and he who hates it not is a moral leper. How could He who is the Sum of all excellency look with equal satisfaction upon virtue and vice, wisdom and folly? How could He who is infinitely holy disregard sin and refuse to manifest His “severity” (Rom. 9:12) toward it? How could He who delights only in that which is pure and lovely, loathe and hate not that which is impure and vile? The very nature of God makes Hell as real a necessity, as imperatively and eternally requisite as Heaven is. Not only is there no imperfection in God, but there is no perfection in Him that is less perfect than another.

The most important of Pink’s assertions, to our discussion, is that God could not be God if wrath were not in him. Remember, Pendleton asserted that an attribute is something that, if removed, would cause the thing to cease to be what it is. Pink argues that for God to be without his wrath is for him to be without an aspect of his perfect divinity. It is a good and right thing to hate wickedness, and if God does not hate wickedness, if ever there was a moment (logically or chronologically) that he didn’t disdain it with every fiber of his perfect holy being, he would not be perfectly holy, and would cease to be God.

Why Is God’s Wrath Inseparable from His Being? B. B. Warfield

b-b-warfield-portrait1Why is this subject of the fury of God so important? Why do I find it necessary to spend years writing a book, and countless more hours responding to anonymous social media users? Why can’t I just chant with the majority of evangelicalism, “Love, love, love, God is only love?”

I can’t because, as my book explains, we cannot truly understand the love of God, the grace of God, the mercy of God, without contemplating the fury of God. At the heart of this issue is the very Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As I was researching for this post, I stumbled across a beautifully written quote by the great Princeton theologian Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield. It serves as a crescendo of God’s immutability, his omniscience, his divine decree, his love, and his wrath. Read closely,

While reiterating the teaching of nature as to the existence and character of the personal Creator and Lord of all, the Scriptures lay their stress upon the grace or the undeserved love of God, as exhibited in His dealings with His sinful and wrath-deserving creatures. So little, however, is the consummate divine attribute of love advanced, in the scripture revelation, at the expense of the other moral attributes of God, that it is thrown into prominence only upon a background of the strongest assertion and fullest manifestation of its companion attributes, especially of the divine righteousness and holiness, and is exhibited as acting only along with and in entire harmony with them.

Warfield, here, acknowledges that to assert God’s love devoid of his other attributes is to miss the thrust of the Biblical record which everywhere holds them in juxtaposition to one another. Warfield continues,

God is not represented in the Scriptures as forgiving sin because he really cares very little about sin; nor yet because He is so exclusively or predominatingly the God of love, that all other attributes shrink into desuetude in the presence of his illimitable benevolence. He is rather represented as moved to deliver sinful man from his guilt and pollution because He pities the creatures of His hand, immeshed in sin, with an intensity which is born of the vehemence of his holy abhorrence of sin and His righteous determination to visit it with intolerable retribution; and by a mode which brings as complete satisfaction to His infinite justice and holiness as to His unbounded love itself. The Biblical presentation of the God of grace includes thus the richest development of all His moral attributes, and the God of the Bible is consequently set forth, in the completeness of that idea, as above everything else the ethical God.

Finally, Warfield turns to the cross and shows that God’s love, and particularly his unmerited grace, depends upon his anger towards sin,

The infinitude of His love is exhibited to us precisely in that while we were yet sinners He loved us, though with all the force of His infinite nature he reacted against our sin with illimitable abhorrence and indignation.

In the cross, the full brunt of God’s love, mercy, and grace was poured out upon us. At the same time the full brunt of his anger, wrath, and fury towards our sin was poured out upon his son Jesus Christ. To strip God of the eternal nature of his anger is to strip the cross of its eternal meaning. As much as we want God to be “love, love, love” we ought to also be delighted to declare with the angels that he is, “holy, holy, holy.”

Works Cited

  1. Calvin, John. 2009. “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” p. 610. Hendrickson Publishers. Peabody, MA.
  2. Edwards, Jonathan. 2004. “The Works of Jonathan Edwards – Volume 2.” Remarks on Important Theological Controversies. p. 525-527. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody MA.
  3. Packer, J.I. 1993. ” Concise Theology – A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.” p. 28-30. Tyndale House. Wheaton, IL.
  4. Pendleton, James M. 2004. “Christian Doctrines – A Compendium of Theology.” p. 42-63. Judson Press. Vally Forge, PA.
  5. Pink, A.W. 2014. “The Attributes of God – 16. The Wrath of God.” http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Attributes/attrib_16.htm. Accessed August 15th, 2014. Providence Baptist Ministries.
  6. Warfield, B.B. 1932. “The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield – Volume IX.” Studies in Theology. p. 110-112. Baker Books. Grand Rapids, MI.