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:

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]

St. Isaac the Syrian (orthodox icon)

St. Isaac the Syrian (image via Wikipedia)

For more discussion of these and other related thoughts by Isaac the Syrian, the seventh century ascetic and Orthodox saint, see this good discussion, whence the above quotes.

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 (Saint!) 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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  • Josh

    I’m confused by your last statement about “an eternal Hell.” That doesn’t seem to be what St. Isaac was discussing. I know you know that, but my point is that I don’t doubt that sometimes we mistake anthropomorphism for literal descriptions of God in Scripture. But there are “negative” qualities to the things God does. Some things God has to do just aren’t that fun.

    I’m interested to see what Bell’s book is really about. And I know this wasn’t the point of your quoting this, but I thought I should point out that some doctrines of the church can be questioned b/c reasonable, scripture-based doubt can be raised about them, but the doctrine of Hell is not only orthodox, it’s scriptural. At least I see enough scriptural support for an eternal place of separation from God (little devils with pitch forks and such may be taking it too far). It’s not the most pleasant part of our faith, but it is what it is.

    • Hysteria aside, Rob Bell will probably not turn out to be a universalist, but a conditionalist (annihilationist), someone who believes that hell extinguishes and does not eternally, consciously torment. The arguments against universalism may turn out to be irrelevant, but one of the abiding criticisms of both conditionalism and universalism is that it’s motivated by a recent desire to paint God as cuddly. The above quotations help demonstrate that the understanding of God as defined by love and not by petty, retributive justice has a long and proud tradition behind it. The point of the post is to say that inasmuch as universalism or conditionalism is an attempt to rub the rough edges off of God, it springs up out of a very old understanding of what Jesus taught us about God’s nature. In other writings, it’s clear that St. Isaac did not believe in an eternal hell and taught a restoration of all things, which is also scriptural. (This is an internal biblical contradiction, with apocatastis developing as, I believe, a supersession.)

      The doctrine of eternal conscious torment for humans is hardly scriptural, by the way. And even if it were, it wouldn’t make it moral or true. Those who realize that and yet choose to believe it to make some arcane theological construct work almost deserve to believe it. But God is more merciful than we are. 🙂

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  • Corey

    Isaac of Syria is considered a saint as well as St. Gregory