It is not just atheists who reject the father god of traditional theology; the image of god that has developed within traditional Western Christianity also causes problems for those who regard themselves as staunch believers.
The portrayal of a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all loving, and morally necessitated to torture us, or at least allow us to be tortured for all eternity, because we are not perfect as He is Perfect; is a portrayal of a being that has properties that appear not only mutually incompatible, but also incompatible with the qualities of Jesus Christ, the human being that the New Testament identifies as the Incarnation of God.
This dichotomy of character was referenced last May by Northern Irish man, Pastor James McConnell of the Metropolitan Church, Belfast. Pastor McConnell had caused controversy, by declaring in a sermon, preached in the Metropolitan Church on 18th May 2014 and then uploaded to the internet, that Islam was Satanic. In a subsequent Radio Ulster interview, in an apparent attempt to disassociate his religious beliefs with the God of Islam, he declared that his God was Jesus.
The soundness of Pastor McConnell’s theology of the Trinity has been questioned on previous occasions, and when you listen to the still available televised interviews it is obvious to anyone who does not hold the same bias, that his thinking is strongly noodled by Confirmation bias.(1,2,3)
It is not just mavericks like Pastor McConnell that can be witnessed struggling with traditional Trinitarian beliefs. In an interview in Bristol Cathedral in September Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed reservations about God, that didn’t apply to Christ.
“We know about Jesus, we can’t explain all the questions in the world, we can’t explain about suffering, we can’t explain loads of things but we know about Jesus,” Welby said. “We can talk about Jesus – I always do that because most of the other questions I can’t answer.” Asked what he did when life got challenging, Welby said: “I keep going and call to Jesus to help me, and he picks me up.”
Matthew Weaver Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God 18th September 2014
This statement of belief in only one member of the Trinity is consistent with Justin Welby’s decision to have Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s emotionally powerful hymn, In Christ Alone, played at his inauguration as Archbishop of Canterbury.
This hymn is hardly a resounding defence of the traditional trinitarian theology, but is rather a celebration of a type of Unitarianism. “In Christ alone my hope is found,” is the first line; note the absence and even denial, of faith in everyone and everything else including the other members of the Trinity, implied by the use of the word, alone..
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;
John 14:16 King James Bible
The role traditionally associated with the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is in this hymn also assigned to Christ.
My Comforter, my All in All,
here in the love of Christ I stand.
Keith Getty, Stuart Townend In Christ Alone
It is not however the Unitarian sentiment of this hymn that caused the controversy or got it excluded from the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Glory to God, but these lines.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied
The hymn selection committee, had wanted to use a different version of this hymn, which they had found in another publication, one that replaced, “The wrath of God was satisfied,” with “The love of God was magnified.”
It turned out that this new version had not been authorized by the writers and they refused to allow the change.
Keith Getty explained his reasoning for the refusal to Collin Hansen of the Gospel Coalition.
The main thread of what we see revealed throughout the Old and New Testament is the need for man to be made right with God. The provided path toward reconciliation came through Christ’s predetermined and perfect sacrifice on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath once and for all. The two hymnal committees wanted to change the lyrics to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross magnifies God’s love for the world. And indeed, God’s love was magnified on Calvary’s hill. Yet the way this occurred was through Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves—shedding his own perfect blood to atone for our sins.
Mr Getty doesn’t argue that those who wish to change the words are wrong to think that the crucifixion demonstrated the love of God, he just believes that the more vital message is that Christ died to save us from the wrath of God.
He does admit that this is confusing, but that God’s wrath is not like our wrath. Though on a straight forward reading the wrath described here seems exactly like our wrath; anger so irrational that it really doesn’t care that those that it strikes out and hurts are the innocent.
A lack of trust in a deity that behaves this way is a reasonable response, and one that the evidence of this hymn suggests Keith Getty has actually made; while waving his firm belief in the righteous wrath of God, as a talisman of orthodoxy.
Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, has supported Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s position, identifying the committee who collated the new hymn book as a sort of wrath denying bunch of wishy washy liberals.
Though it turns out that he like Keith Getty thinks that the word wrath doesn’t really have the same meaning when applied to God, as when applied to people.
The problem comes when we use an anthropopathic term like “wrath” and apply it univocally to the God of eternity. Before long, we have constructed “a god who looks like me,” to use the title of a recent book of feminist theology. Then caricatures of divine wrath proliferate: God having a temper tantrum or acting like a big bully who needs to be “appeased” before he can forgive or, as is often alleged with reference to the atonement, practicing cosmic child abuse.
Timothy George No Squishy Love July 2013
One of the things that struck me as a child about the Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, was that even if the cloth had been real, but visible only to the wise as the weavers alleged; every fool in the crowd, would have seen the emperor’s patched underwear.
In a similar way even if Keith Getty and Timothy George are right and the word wrath has a different meaning when applied to God, not all of the people singing this song will have the deep knowledge of theology and language necessary to recognize this; and are likely to understand the words,”The wrath of God was satisfied,” in a way which makes God the Father appear a monster. And therefore despite the popularity and emotional appeal of In Christ Alone, that wisdom lies with those who rejected a song likely to cause some maybe most of those singing it to blaspheme.
Timothy George in a subsequent post claims that some commentators have tried to wiggle out of their problem with wrath by claiming that their objection was not to the word wrath, but the word satisfied, and its reference to the satisfaction theory of the Cross proposed by Anselm, (c. 1033 – 21 April 1109) the first of the scholastic philosophers, and the first Archbishop of Canterbury, to be Primate of All England – he only agreed to take the job when he was assured that the Archbishop of Canterbury had preeminence over the Archbishop of York.
One response has been to say that the committee’s problem with the hymn lyric was not so much the noun wrath as the predicate adjective satisfied, although other comments suggest that the real problem was indeed the concept of divine wrath or anger. In any event, the key culprit in this alleged misconstrual is said to be the medieval theologian Anselm.
Timothy George No Squishy Love Part II August 2013
Anselm was the originator of the ontological argument, an argument resting on a definition of God, that understood as Anselm understood it, made it impossible to conceive that God did not exist.(4) His definition of God, was, that than which no greater can be conceived. He argued that this concept is so clear, that even a godless fool understands what it means.
One of the characteristics of greatness as understood by Anselm was that it was not tainted by passion.
How God is sensible (sensibilis) although he is not a body. –God is sensible, omnipotent, compassionate, passionless; for it is better to be these than not be.
The Proslogion Anselm 1077-1078
In Anselm’s theory it was not the wrath of God that was satisfied by the Cross. It couldn’t be because the god that was the greatest thing that he could imagine to exist was not tainted by what he considered a human weakness, passion of any kind. It turns out that the greatest thing that Anselm could imagine was a passionless medieval tyrant writ large, who was driven by his own nature to seek satisfaction for the loss of face caused by Adam’s sin. Anselm’s vision of god was a Prince of this World writ large, whose righteousness lay in his might. What was satisfied by the Crucifixion according to Anselm was this god’s honour.
The god of Anselm’s theory is controlled by his own nature, which must have the honour due to it. The god of “In Christ Alone,” is driven by a wrathful passion, which requires satisfaction. To identify either of these beings with the God whom Jesus called Father, is a slur on fatherhood.
Timothy George argues that a belief in the wrath of God is necessary to understand the message of the Bible.
Why do many Christians shrink from any thought of the wrath of God? R.P.C. Hanson has said that many preachers today deal with God’s wrath the way the Victorians handled sex, treating it as something a bit shameful, embarrassing, and best left in the closet. The result is a less than fully biblical construal of who God is and what he has done, especially in the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ.
Timothy George No Squishy Love July 2013
Yet he in the same article demonstrates that he understands it as a sort of metaphor, i.e. not literally true, as demonstrated by the following quote, also from No Squishy Love
“The problem comes when we use an anthropopathic term like “wrath” and apply it univocally to the God of eternity.”
He himself appears to see no irony in the inconsistency between his condemnation of other Christians as wrath denying heretics, and his own denial that the wrath of God is literally true. By criticizing others as wrath deniers he is able to disguise from himself the reality that he has a problem with the concept of God’s wrath. For him it is acting as what theologian Peter Rollins describes metaphorically as a poltergeist, a repressed truth, which has in this case been projected on to the other, rather than dealt with.
Adam Copeland who was on the hymn selection committee, has pointed out that the hymn book, Glory to God, has plenty of references to the wrath of God in it. He also notes how easy it would be to produce ridiculous and misleading accusations of heresy for many of the hymns chosen. And makes the following comment.
I remain hopeful we won’t get stuck in unhelpful, uninformed debates, throwing hymn verses at one another in some unending game of “Why the Denomination Sucks: Hymnal Edition.” (Hint: your winning reasoning always has to do with your previously-held beliefs and self-satisfied finger-pointing.)
Adam J.Copeland The Wrath of God, the PCUSA, and a New Hymnal August 2013
While his annoyance is understandable, I think he is mistaken in regarding his critics as self-satisfied. The irrational nature of their attacks suggests a deep-seated unease with their own beliefs, which they are alleviating by scapegoating others.
No Guilt in Life?
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This line in Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s hymn is also worrying. People do, as Keith Getty says, take their theology from hymns and this line with its denial of experienced reality is dangerous. Guilt like pain is a warning that something is not right. It is anger directed against the self, a recognition that you have not matched up to your own internal standards.
For Christians, as Keith Getty recognizes, the Cross provides both evidence of the seriousness of our failure and the place where burning self-wrath can be nailed.
Truth put to music remains with us. It’s why we still sing the powerful lyrics of hymns written centuries ago. Speculation and questioning about theology will come and go, but truth remains. Consider these words of Horatio G. Spafford, penned in 1873: My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!/ My sin, not in part but the whole,/ Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,/ Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
If we directed our anger, judgement and cruelty only at ourselves, Christ would not have died. He was crucified by humans. We who project our wrath, hatred and cruelty unto others and scream out for vengeance. We who seek human scapegoats to blame for the evil of this world. .
At the Cross, God in Christ, took on all the cruelty and hatred of the world, and showed the world for what it was.
28 Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things.
29 And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.
30 As he spake these words, many believed on him.
31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;
32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
John 8 King James Bible
To see the Cross with Christ alone carrying the sins of the world, is to dishonour the Father.