Can we fear God?

Here are some somewhat disconnected and probably not very helpful thoughts:

Given the reconciling work of Christ in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” is God’s wrath eternally placated? We can add the conditionals of repent and believe, but the direction of, especially Protestant (and especially Modern Reformed), theology for the last hundred years is that God’s only word to the sinner is “forgiven” and “come into your inheritance.” Contrast this with the development in the Church into the Middle Ages which felt compelled to locate the atoning-substitutionary work of Christ in the eternal cost of sin but still allowing grievances against God to require temporal penalties. In other words, God can still be pissed; even though this wrath may always have the happiness and reconciliation of man as its end. The general mentality of mainline Protestantism, however, finds it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to think of a wrathful God, at least vis-a-vis the repentant (though a logical extension would easily put you in the universalist camp), except perhaps a dialectic of wrath and mercy revealed in Christ’s mission (but wherein God’s Yes overtakes the No in Christ’s redemption of fallen humanity). However, with the eternal-temporal distinction in Catholic thought, the free grace of God’s sacrifice for repentant humanity is still preserved, as is the possibility of God’s wrath and punishment toward these who are reconciled. Given that the end-game, so to speak, for God’s reconciling work is the purification of fallen man, these temporal penalties are naturally assimilated into this work of redemption and given both a negative (e.g., you deserve punishment) and positive (e.g., suffering unites us to God) aspect. This goes a ways to revealing how Catholics have been able to better deal with the problem of evil/suffering in a world already purchased by the blood of Christ, and, to be a little unfair perhaps, why Protestants have easily fallen into prosperity mindsets (and this is hardly a problem only among the evangelicals).


  1. Could you perhaps flesh out the Catholic approach in this example. How is it that the temporal penalties of God’s anger aren’t subsumed into the eternal satisfaction of Christ’s suffering?

    Might you answer that the eternal satisfaction is the ending of a journey that includes the temporal wrath but also moves past it? Then again, this “now-then” tension seems to be a hallmark of most modern theology, whatever the brand (minus the prosperity mindsets, of course).

    Also, do you think that Catholicism, in understanding an inherent connection between our own suffering and the suffering of the passion, is an appropriate way to mediate the tension (now-then, temporal-eternal, brokenness-wholeness, old creation-new creation, etc)?

  2. Nick,
    Thanks for the comment. I’m in the heat of exams. I want to give a thoughtful response to your comment, but won’t be able to until probably mid-week, next week. Meanwhile, I can use all the prayer anyone is willing to offer up (as usual, I’m not as prepared for exams as I should be, so I’m hangin’ on the hope of Divine Illumination preferably in the form of infused knowledge).

  3. “How is it that the temporal penalties of God’s anger aren’t subsumed into the eternal satisfaction of Christ’s suffering?”

    Not if eternal satisfaction is construed as entailing Christ as fully taking on the penalties of sin such that we are no longer subject to the penalties of sin other than their inherent ill. In other words, it is to take Isaiah 53:5 to mean that God is forever satisfied for our debt and will no longer count our sins against us in any way. However, if eternal satisfaction is taken to mean that, yes, God is forever satisfied with Christ’s sacrifice, but He is not satisfied with us as still captive to sin and degenerated by its effects, then I think your statement is correct. Thus, being saved by Christ’s sacrifice means, for us, a cruciform life where all that is contrary to eternal life (sin) is taken and extinguished by the effective Cross in our lives. Our penalties for sins in the form of suffering are then not condemnatory insofar as Christ has lifted the condemnation, which, “for those who are being saved,” is the very principle for why temporal penalties are part and parcel of our redemption. I find this to be quite persuasive and, though not resolving all difficulties, to be better than the average Protestant presentation of salvation.

    There is a now-then tension but nothing of the “at once, sinner and saint” sort which contents itself with the sinner part, often enough, until the eschaton or death when we will all be gloriously changed instantaneously. Instead, in the Catholic presentation, it is necessary that the change (which is to say, the Cross-Resurrection) be effective now [and completed before entry into heaven]. Sin can never lay idle in the saint; it continually faces the Cross and must be dealt with. This is how I would present the “inherent connection between our own suffering and the suffering of the passion.” God bless.

  4. Kevin,

    Though I still feel rather lost on this topic, I appreciate your approach. I would also guess that many Protestants would agree that any sort of soteriological approach that denies the current existence of sin penalties (and thusly the need for a cruciform life) would have to be somewhat loopy and not really a viable option.

    However, though both Protestants and Catholics recognize the tension, they seem to differ on its location. To my mind, the Catholic would recognize the tension between heaven and earth, which emphasizes an ontological distinction though not necessarily a temporal one (hence they can step into heaven in worship, like Eastern Orthodox, which gives them a more present mystical element). As such, there’s little vision of a “new heavens, new earth” schema since the goal is earth => heaven. On the other hand, I imagine the Protestants emphasize the temporal aspect instead, which plays down the mystical experience of the divine and end up with more of a now => then sort of tension. The latter approach has the downside you mentioned, of contenting “itself with the sinner part… until the eschaton or death”, though it has the upside of emphasizing the new creation theme. The problem is that Protestants typically see both earth => heaven and now => then together, losing any sense of new creation.

    To my mind, I appreciate how NT Wright runs at this, emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit as a “downpayment” or “foretaste” or “anticipation” of the glory to come, thusly emphasizing both the present-ness of new creation (like unto Catholics), while acknowledging the temporal tension (like unto Protestants), and all the time leaving new creation as the primary category (which has all sorts of fun Biblical resonance).

    I still see the Catholic categories as more approachable to these sorts of issues (eg emphasizing the medieval concepts of friendship with God and man, or seeing the Church community and the life of the Church (ie tradition) as important Spirit-filling categories), but I think there’s a certain level of institutional humility in recognizing the temporal tension, in recognizing that “we’re trying to do right, but we’re just not there yet”. The Catholic approach comes close to it in emphasizing the individual life of “passion” (the cruciform life), but seems to want the Church as a whole to be exempt from that life, from that communal brokenness. I wonder if this is because it recognizes that individuals aren’t quite where they should be yet, but doesn’t recognize that the Church isn’t where it should be yet.

    Maybe I’m missing something or just arguing word choice or something, but those would be my thoughts. If you have any thoughts or comments, shoot me an email.

  5. Sorry for the delay in getting around to responding. I think you’re spot on, especially with the “ontological distinction” of Catholic thought. What I’m emphasizing is the Catholic insistence on, what can be called, pre-heaven complete sanctification. This is how Catholics are better able not only to avoid “cheap grace” but to have a positive accounting for suffering — it is the only way to heaven, even if you have to be purged in the hereafter. Apart from Christ, suffering and evil can only be negative, and so you have stoics, eastern philosophies, and modern day secularists “rising above” suffering through various modes of detachment. This is, most emphatically, not the Christian path of handling suffering, where you immerse yourself in the suffering of the world in order to purify it. Now, I think Protestants can make a better accounting for suffering than typically done, but it is clear that Catholics have the upper hand. However, the Catholic temptation is to turn this into a works-righteousness which forgets why God became man and died on the cross. Far too many Catholic construals of salvation leave you wondering why God just didn’t send the Spirit to strengthen us on our journey of perfection.

  6. How do you think this relates to authority in the Catholic approach? To what extent is papal authority cruciform? Would that idea even be in line with Catholic thought?

  7. Hmmm, interesting. I’ve never quite thought of relating it to authority. In regard to clerical office (papal or otherwise), there is an intrinsic “function” that is neither authorized nor alterable by the person who bears the office — power to forgive sins, consecrate the eucharistic elements, etc.; which is to say, it does not arise from anything in the person but is confered on him. However, these new “abilities,” by virtue of their authorization by Christ and their continuation of Christ in the world, will be a stumbling block to the world, just as living the faith to all Christian. This will entail a suffering which can bring one closer to God and partake in the new creation won by Christ. This is even more intensified in the papal office, with the added responsibility to represent the Church in its unity and Christ as its head (ergo, Vicar of Christ), but it will only entail a beneficial cruciform existence if appropriated by the office-holder. Pope JPII would be a perfect example of this happening; Pope Alexander VI would be the perfect example of this not happening. I don’t know if this in any way connects with what you’re thinking, but those are my thoughts.

  8. Thanks, Kevin. I didn’t have a clear sense of where I wanted to go, just wanted to get your thoughts on the idea that church leadership must itself be cruciform. Most of my experience with Catholic thought has been through various apologists. When they explain the Catholic life, they are often quite good at discussing the importance of suffering in the life of each individual. But when it comes to discussions about Church leadership, it often seemed as though the conversation began and ended with a kind of absolute authority. It’s as though everything suffered, except the divine surety coming out of the mouths of the leaders.

    Now obviously this is a gross misunderstanding, but if often bothered me in those discussions that everything seemed cruciform except for their discussions of authority. In those cases, divinity had little to do with losing and everything to do with winning. After all, it seems like any theology of leadership or authority would need to revolve around that servanthood seen in Christ. Thanks for mentioning JPII though, since he is a wonderful picture of a man trying to live out that very idea.

  9. ‘Far too many Catholic construals of salvation leave you wondering why God just didn’t send the Spirit to strengthen us on our journey of perfection.’ … And Protestant one’s too.

    Thanks Kevin for directing me to this post.

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