St. Isaac the Syrian on the wrath of God

Amidst the current controversy, some are pointing out that, despite being maligned as though they were novel signs of our wayward times, current trends of Christians questioning the negative attributes of God sometimes presented in Scripture, attitudes like jealousy and vengeance that we find intolerable in other humans, are hardly novel in church history. To underscore this, here’s a voice that most influential believers throughout church history have apparently tried to ignore:

St. Isaac the Syrian Icon

Isaac the Syrian, seventh century ascetic and Orthodox saint

That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy, or such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding (at all) can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God. Nor again can we possibly say that He acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scriptures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable. [p. 162-163]

It is not (the way of) the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction (in punishment) for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, (aware) how they would turn out when He created them – and whom (nonetheless) He created. [p. 165]

Just because (the terms) wrath, anger, hatred, and the rest are used of the Creator, we should not imagine that He (actually) does anything in anger or hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are employed in the Scriptures of God, terms which are far removed from His (true) nature. And just as (our) rational nature has (already) become gradually more illuminated and wise in a holy understanding of the mysteries which are hidden in (Scripture’s) discourse about God – that we should not understand everything (literally) as it is written, but rather that we should see, (concealed) inside the bodily exterior of the narratives, the hidden providence and eternal knowledge which guides all – so too we shall in the future come to know and be aware of many things for which our present understanding will be seen as contrary to what it will be then; and the whole ordering of things yonder will undo any precise opinion we possess now in (our) supposition about Truth. For there are many, indeed endless, things which do not even enter our minds here, not even as promises of any kind. [p. 171]

[from Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian). ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI . Translated by S. Brock]

It is surely significant that although very little of the first-hand writings of heretics and dissidents from early church history (such as Marcion or Arius) were permitted to be transmitted to us, Isaac’s and the still earlier voices of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa were never silenced. In other words, the Church never said “Farewell” to these men. By all means, let’s “reform” — back to a time when belief in an eternal hell wasn’t a litmus test for the right hand of Christian fellowship!

And now, like it or not, these ancient voices are being joined in one way or another by more voices every year.

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