At the end of Paul’s discussion on the future of Israel in Romans 11, Paul says something on the surface that seems quite paradoxical: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (Rom. 11.32). In these remarks, Paul subverts the anthropology of the Wisdom of Solomon and some other Second Temple literature that suggested that there was a fundamental divide between Israel and the Gentiles, so that Israelites were given the capacity to be righteous in a way that the Gentiles were not. However, as Paul’s foray into the distinction between the descendants of Israel and God’s people in Romans 9-11 integrates both the present condition of many Israelites hardened against God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ, and God’s faithfulness to Israel through using the Gentiles to make them jealous, we are left with an impression of God’s sovereignty that he goes on to call God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge in Romans 11.33.
In the story of God’s relationship with Israel and the nations that Paul recounts, it is a story that can only be described as both God hardened and God showing mercy. It is a story where God is both working against human agency and God is at work to restore humanity to His live-giving purposes. It is a story where God’s faithful love and God’s wrathful judgment are interlocked together.
I would suggest that how we understand the relationship between God’s love and God’s wrath is one of the most pressing exegetical and theological tasks Christianity has today if it seeks to be able to engage fruitfully with the secular world. For better or worse, with some truth and with some falsehood, many Scriptural-grounded Christians known as judgmental, with a judgmental religion about a wrath-filled God. In rejection of the image of judgment and wrath, many Christians have taken progressively progress stances towards the minimizing and ignoring of Biblical passages about judgment… except when their own moral principles are violated and they then act with the judgment and anger that they deny in others. Being able to bring together an understand in God’s love and wrath in a comprehensible manner is a task that has implications for both Gospel discipleship and ecclesial unity.
To do this, I want to put forward two relatively abstract concepts that are actually simply to understand once you grasp them. I present these concepts as abstract, however, as exegetical and theological studies has a sharp predilection towards the valuation of the abstract as better more and reliable than the concert.
The two concepts are diachronicity and and multifunctionalism. I have discussed both concepts to varying degrees on this blog, but these are two abstract concepts that are related to analyzing the complexity of life lived through time.
Diachronicity simply means recognizing how things occur across time, as distinguished from concrete synchronicity, where we look at how something is working at a specific point time, or abstract synchronicity, where we evaluate whole periods of time according to a single, abstract model. Diachroncity entails that we pay attention to how things develop and change over time, from one event to the next. One example of dichronicity is a common narrative of how two people who are opposed to each other can, surprisingly, become friends. Through time, they change and transition from enemies to friends, even though there may not be any one, clear point where this change took place.
Depending on what you are focused on, multi-functionalism has many discipline specific synonyms. In semantics, multi-functionalism is known as polysemy, where a single word can be used to take on different meanings, sometimes, even simultaneously. In biological and evolutionary sciences, the concept of exaptation is used to describe a trait of an organism that originally served one purpose but has been adapted to serve another purpose. At the core of multifunctionalism is that any thing we analyze that is part of life, words, concepts, objects, etc. have various potential functions, and often these functions co-occur in the same instance. For instance, when a jury delivers a verdict in a trial, it functions to both make a decision that impacts both the parties of the plaintiff and the defendant. We often miss this multifunctional nature in life, however, as we often get zoned into specific frames by which we interpret something, such as the consequence to the plaintiff or the defendant, and we can lose track of the fullness of what has occurred.
I bring these concepts up because the Scripture understanding God through time of history and human life and because God subverts and rises above the way we try to conceptually frame God. When we try to understand God synchronically, especially when we try to understand God in an abstract synchronicity that applies across time, we begin to numb our sense of the diachronic and multifunctional ways that God acts. However, I want to be clear, diachronicity and multifunctionalism is not a trait of God, but rather a description of how we as humans either do or don’t understand God.
The distinction between the diachronic and multifunctional construal of God and the abstract, synchronic construal of God is like the difference between the Hebrew narrative witness to God and Hellenistic philosophy teaching about God. Both can induce a sense of faith, a sense of awe and worship. However, there is one fundamental difference between the two perspectives: we perceive the truthfulness and validity through diachronic and multifunctional construal because of the way it accounts for the complexity of the ‘information’ we are taking in, whereas we perceive the truthfulness and validity of synchronic construal because of how the perceptions of coherence is a powerful cognitive motivator. Thus, when it comes to understanding God, a diachronic, multifunctional perspective opens us to understanding God in the various ways God makes Himself known in the various context He makes Himself known in. By contrast, abstract synchronicity by itself is largely motivated by internal desires for simplified consistency, for a parsimonious account of how things, people, or even God are.
This becomes a particular problem when it comes to God. When we try to understand people in an abstract, synchronic fashion, treating them as an abstract persons, their words and actions will commonly contravene and contradict whatever highly abstract sense of that person one has. Only those who are the most hardened in their demands for perceptual and cognitive consistency, often times with a entrenched sense of their own rightness, will refuse to hear the evidence that says they are wrong. Otherwise, we learn over time how people can surprise you and be different from what you thought.
However, because we do not perceive God in the same way that we perceive other persons, but rather our knowledge about God in Christian circles is primarily, but not necessarily exclusively, constrained to how we actively interpret the Scriptures, and not as much how we take time to notice what the Scriptures say and reflect, we often readily miss and overlook signals that would call our abstract, synchronic understanding of God into question. I cite as an example Genesis 11.5, where God’s knowledge about what was happening in Babel was conditioned to his coming down to see it. Such a construal conflicts with the classical theism’s portrayal of God as omnipotent, which thinks that God possess knowledge of all that is true at all points of time, by implicit suggesting that God did not know what was happening Babel at some point. For the classical theist, this text is actively construed as an example of anthropomorphism, and as a result, any hint in the narrative that God is not omnipotent according to their definition is rendered null and void, without any abiding exegetical evidence in favor of that interpretation. The end result of this is that Augustinianism, Aquinianism, Calvinism, and even the more systematic portrayals of Wesleyan theology can often finds themselves insulated from the complex contours of the Scriptures, overlooking how their synchronic portrayal and understanding of God does not always fit the witness and testimonies we have to God.
So, to bring this to the relationship of God’s love and wrath, I want to put forward a simple premise that we should understanding God’s love and wrath closer to the way we might understanding human love and anger, even as we recognize that the way God loves and has wrath is different from when we love and get angry, what humans love and get angry about, and how we act when we love and get angry.
To present an example from my own life, I will tell a story that I am intimately familiar with. The story as a whole is not my story to tell, so I am leaving out many of the details, except how what happened was relevant to me. Many years back, I had a close female friend of mine be taken advantage of by a man who I never met. I saw the devastation it took on her life. One time in her fear, she did something to hurt a mutual friend of ours, and I was angry at how she treated him and ended up hurting her in the process. Because of how I hurt her and probably because I, unfortunately, emotionally resonated so much with her story from how I had been taken advantage of, I became very protective of her, but in a way that I would let her tell me what she needed from me. I had been attracted to her on a romantic level, but I knew that she was no place to have that with me even as I sensed she was attracted to me also and very attached to me. So, instead, I became something of a “surrogate boyfriend” to her, to give her a male she could spend time with and trust but without any of the traumas that might come from romantic relationships.
In the time of that relationship, I experienced both a deep, agape love for her and also a deep, judgmental rage against the man who took advantage of her. Human love and human wrath were both a part of my experience, but there were directed at two different people: love for the innocent victim and wrath towards the evil perpetrator. I additionally become instinctually protective of her when it came to other men, though not wrathful, even as I tried to never be controlling of who she decided to date later on down the road.
Love and wrath, beauty and rage, all wrapped up into a specific period of my life. I don’t know how successful I was in helping her in the long run and I know I experience a rage that tempted me to a direction I did not need to cross. So my love and wrath were imperfect, human forms of love and wrath. But yet, I would say that insofar as we understand God as a relational being that we are made in the image of, this way of bringing together God’s love and God’s wrath is the way forward.
We see this in the cross of Jesus. In regards to God’s relationship to Jesus, we can understand this as an event of sorrow as His Son is brought to death. His wrath and rage is to be directed towards those evildoers that wrongfully condemned Jesus, even though Jesus chose to give His life willingly. And yet, as the Song of the Suffering Servant that prefigures Jesus sings of, the Lord delighted (חָפֵ֤ץ) in crushing His servant (Isa 53.10). This is not because God’s wrath is leveled against the Servant as some of the more extreme adherents of penal substitution might suggest of God’s wrath towards Jesus, but because it will eventually lead to the Servant’s blessing and and the prospering of God’s desire (חֵ֥פֶץ). The crucifixion, and resurrection, of Jesus is the event in which God’s redemptive love would break through powerfully in the world.
Yet, simultaneously, the crucifixion of Jesus is, also, an event in which the evil and wickedness of humanity, particularly as it was embodied in the leadership and people at that particular time, is also met with wrath. While the realization of this judgment would take a few decades in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that Jesus foretold, and even longer in overturning the Roman Empire, and even longer in the universal resurrection and judgment, we see that the crucifixion of Jesus is also the way in which God’s wrathful judgment excludes the evil and wicked men who did not believe in Jesus (John 3.18).1
This doesn’t readily make sense in an abstract, synchronic perspective. It is too complex and ambiguous to be satisfactory for those who want simple coherency and consistency that they can fully wrap their heads around and control. But, for those who us who have drunk deeply of the Scriptures and can testify to the complex, multi-faceted ways that God works in our lives, we can concretely understanding why it is that the abstractions of diachronicity and multifunctionalism provide a concrete way to make sense of how we come to know God the way that God made Himself known to Israel and the way He makes Himself known to us and the entire world in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
In other words, this is why Calvinism misses the point. In other words, this is why God’s wisdom can not be so simply understood by the style of thinking encouraged by Hellenistic philosophy.