Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Grammar of God, Part III: Adjectives, Emotions, and Tense

Way back in January, I started a series I intended to continue for a while called "The Grammar of God," which for whatever reason was left dormant with only two entries. The first explored the difference between God described as holy and God being love; the second teased out the theological (not impractical!) implications of the holy God being love in his essence. With so much time having passed, and no real telos for the series as a whole, instead of a specifically oriented series exploring a particular issue I now plan to use it as a way haphazardly to address issues of language and God as they arise.

Language is the supreme conduit through which we know and speak of God, the medium of engagement between human beings and the divine as well as between one another, the way we sing and speak and listen and share. Our language reveals our deepest priorities and our deepest prejudices; what a church does and does not speak tells everything. Do we say "sin" or "mistake," "charity" or "justice," "Trinity" or "deity," "holiness" or "love"?

But so often we take our language for granted, as if either the language of Scripture or our ecclesial tradition is self-justifying, unquestionable. Our theological language, because it is so important, because it is so freighted with the heights and depths of human life, must be under constant scrutiny, lest we fall into patterns of speech that are outdated, hurtful, unloving, or unhelpful.

For example, in John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright, in a footnote on page 52, Piper quotes Wright from his commentary on Romans:
It should go without saying that this in no way implies, what the start of the verse has already ruled out, that God is an angry malevolent tyrant who demands someone's death, or someone's blood, and is indifferent as to whose it is.
In response, having called this statement "mystifying," Piper says:
What is subtle and misleading about this sentence is that it starts with the denial of pejorative things about God and then ends up denying, with no distinction, things that Wright himself has affirmed. The sentence is written in such a way as to make Wright's own true view almost unrecognizable. What is to be denied and what is not? Is God angry? Yes. Is he malevolent? No. Is he a tyrant? No (too many false connotations), but he is certainly totally in charge. Does he demand someone's death? Yes. Blood? Yes. Is he indifferent as to whose it is? No. This is not a helpful way to explain what one thinks. It seems to me that he undercuts with this sentence what he has spent great effort defending from the text of Romans.
I want briefly to address the way in which adjectives, emotions, and tense work in the description of God we find here in Piper. "Imaginative construal" is a helpful notion when engaging or constructing a description of God, because, while of course as Christians we believe that God is (a) reality, we also cannot see him with our eyes or touch him with our hands. God exists to a large extent as a work of our imagination -- not a product, but a work, that is, our minds and hearts engage imaginatively when we attempt in any comprehensible way to come to terms with the invisible, eternal, transcendent, loving God of the cosmos. (Hence the corollary between the obvious dearth of Christian artistic imagination in today's society and the quality of the church's life. There is a connection!)

Let's focus on one small part of Piper's response, where he says, "Is God angry? Yes."

Is God angry? It seems like a simple sentence. But what does it imply?

It does not imply merely that God can be angry. Nor does it state that God is angry about something or with someone. (Piper may be implying certain things in the context of the chapter, but that is negligible for the larger point.)

The sentence simply states that God (the God of the Bible) is (presently, right now) angry (mad, incensed, upset). What kind of imaginative construal results from this type of sentence?

One does indeed get the image of a tyrant malevolently or indifferently demanding death. And because it is not limiting the emotion to a certain time or object, God is forever angry. Right now, at this very moment, burning like fire, God is angry. It's only one step from there to say (or feel) that right now God is angry with you -- for sinning, for not doing enough, for not being enough, for failing. And people feel this way and hear this message from churches all the time -- God is stinking angry, pissed off, ready to squash puny humans ... until right at the last moment, for the elect and/or those who have faith in Jesus, his anger is appeased and he relents. But even for believers, God remains angry constantly, the exacting of his anger, in every conscious moment, perpetually being quenched only in the propitiating death of Jesus.

Apart from the terror and stultifying insanity this view of God engenders, it is easy to see how such a simple sentence can lead to it: "Is God angry? Yes." Emotions, and the adjectives we use to name them in God, and the tense in which we employ them for God, matter greatly.

Would, instead, that our language always, in every moment, reflect the God who is always and at every moment -- love.

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