Thursday, March 23, 2006

An Angry and Gentle God in the Hands of Fr. Morelli

And Jesus said, "For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind." And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, "Are we blind also?" Jesus said unto them, "If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, 'We see;' therefore your sin remaineth." Jn 9:39-41

In a March 2006 article, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry or Gentle God?, Fr. George Morelli makes a rather astounding statement:

Jesus is never harsh and strident. He is never shown as argumentative by the gospel writers.

His article is built around criticism of Jonathan Edwards' famous 1740 sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; a sermon from which he quotes one single line:

The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow.

The point of his article is, as he states in his conclusion:

We are not "sinners in the hands of an angry God" but sinners in the hands of a gentle and loving God.

There can be no doubt, of course, that God is gentle and loving. Fr. Morelli does a very adequate job of marshalling Gospel evidence that Jesus, God Incarnate, was indeed, very loving and very gentle in His earthly ministry.

On the other hand, however, he ignores the other side of Jesus, that which was shown to the Scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites, and will be shown, in the final judgement to all those who reject His love, and who will be "cast into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Perhaps in this day when "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" is in vogue, and the Holy God who hates and punishes sin is seen as an "outmoded" and "unChristian" conception, Fr. Morelli's statement that Jesus was never harsh, strident, or argumentative doesn't seem so astounding to many. And indeed the word "harsh", which could be read as "unduly exacting", is probably not the right word to describe our Lord.

Jesus in his state of humiliation was justly angry (angry with cause, Mat. 5:22). He was threatening (Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees). He was wrathful (cleaning out the money changers), and He unflinchingly held sinners accountable for their sin (Ye shall die in your sins) but he was never "unduly exacting."

The picture that Fr. Morelli paints of Him reveals a thorough failure to read and understand the whole of the Gospels.

Indeed, the only counterexample that he uses is that of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the temple (Matthew 21:12,13), the import of which he then attempts to minimise with the following words:

While anger is expressed in this passage, it is too easy to portray Jesus as enraged; shouting and cursing the profiteers as He overturned their tables. A more plausible explanation is that Jesus was in complete self-control, firmly excoriating the money-changers while driving his words home with his actions, a point confirmed in the next passage that reveals He was immediately approached by the blind, lame, and children. St. Matthew writes:

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant; and they said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read, 'Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise?'" (Matthew 21:14-16).

The blind, lame, and children would never approach an enraged man. More likely, Jesus exemplified Theodore Roosevelt's adage to "speak softly but carry a big stick."

Leaving aside the mistaken idea that godly anger precludes self-control, Fr. Morelli's great error in this essay is that he casts aside a multitude of incidents in which Jesus, the angry Incarnate God, is strident and angry in his stern rebukes against his stiff-necked and hard-hearted people.

Let us consider, for example, the 23rd chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on mens shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead mens bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"

Let us also consider this, from the 8th Chapter of the Gospel of St. John:

I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father. " They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, "If ye were Abrahams children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father." Then said they to him, "We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God." Jesus said unto them, "If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth Gods words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God." Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, "Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?" Jesus answered, "I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth. Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death." Then said the Jews unto him, "Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, 'If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death.' Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?" Jesus answered, "If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God: Yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad." Then said the Jews unto him, "Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?" Jesus said unto them, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am."

And this, from the 20th Chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke:

And it came to pass, that on one of those days, as he taught the people in the temple, and preached the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes came upon him with the elders, And spake unto him, saying, "Tell us, by what authority doest thou these things? or who is he that gave thee this authority?" And he answered and said unto them, "I will also ask you one thing; and answer me: The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men?" And they reasoned with themselves, saying, "If we shall say, From heaven; he will say, 'Why then believed ye him not?' But and if we say, 'Of men;' all the people will stone us: for they be persuaded that John was a prophet." And they answered, that they could not tell whence it was. And Jesus said unto them, "Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things." Then began he to speak to the people this parable; "A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time. And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and sent him away empty. And again he sent another servant: and they beat him also, and entreated him shamefully, and sent him away empty. And again he sent a third: and they wounded him also, and cast him out. Then said the lord of the vineyard, 'What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him.' But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, 'This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.' So they cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do unto them? He shall come and destroy these husbandmen, and shall give the vineyard to others." And when they heard it, they said, "God forbid." And he beheld them, and said, "What is this then that is written, 'The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner?' Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder."

The above are only three examples of Jesus' strident, argumentative wrath with the intransigent Jews. In just a cursory read through the Gospels, I counted at least 40.

Fr. Morelli has, perhaps with the best of intentions, misrepresented the character of our Lord Jesus Christ in his article. Evidently he cannot see that Jesus can have more than one attribute; that he cannot be gentle and loving and angry and strident.

Yet that is precisely what the Scriptures have revealed to us. Our Lord Jesus Christ always responded to each situation in the appropriate manner.

It is worthy of note that he also misrepresents Jonathan Edwards. Perhaps Edward's sermon is overly harsh. I cannot say that it is one of my particular favourites. But the work does not, especially on the basis of one line, merit Fr. Morelli's assessment:

Clearly Edward's harsh tone and emphasis on anger portrays a vengeful and merciless God.

It is precisely because Edwards believed in the mercy of a loving God Who gave His own Son as a ransom for many, Who opened the doors of salvation to those who are perishing, that he preached this sermon.

Consider some more of his words:

And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! To see so many rejoicing and singing for joy of heart, while you have cause to mourn for sorrow of heart, and howl for vexation of spirit! How can you rest one moment in such a condition? Are not your souls as precious as the souls of the people at Suffield, where they are flocking from day to day to Christ?

Are there not many here who have lived long in the world, and are not to this day born again? and so are aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and have done nothing ever since they have lived, but treasure up wrath against the day of wrath? Oh, sirs, your case, in an especial manner, is extremely dangerous. Your guilt and hardness of heart is extremely great. Do you not see how generally persons of your years are passed over and left, in the present remarkable and wonderful dispensation of God's mercy? You had need to consider yourselves, and awake thoroughly out of sleep. You cannot bear the fierceness and wrath of the infinite God.-And you, young men, and young women, will you neglect this precious season which you now enjoy, when so many others of your age are renouncing all youthful vanities, and flocking to Christ? You especially have now an extraordinary opportunity; but if you neglect it, it will soon be with you as with those persons who spent all the precious days of youth in sin, and are now come to such a dreadful pass in blindness and hardness. And you, children, who are unconverted, do not you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God, who is now angry with you every day and every night? Will you be content to be the children of the devil, when so many other children in the land are converted, and are become the holy and happy children of the King of kings?

And let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now harken to the loud calls of God's word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord, a day of such great favours to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others. Men's hearts harden, and their guilt increases apace at such a day as this, if they neglect their souls; and never was there so great danger of such persons being given up to hardness of heart and blindness of mind. God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and that it will be as it was on the great out-pouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles' days; the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded. If this should be the case with you, you will eternally curse this day, and will curse the day that ever you was born, to see such a season of the pouring out of God's Spirit, and will wish that you had died and gone to hell before you had seen it. Now undoubtedly it is, as it was in the days of John the Baptist, the axe is in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that every tree which brings not forth good fruit, may be hewn down and cast into the fire.

Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation: Let every one fly out of Sodom: "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed."

I have commented on Fr. Morelli's article not to deny the goodness, gentleness, or loving-kindness of our great God, or to establish the idea that God is mean, cold, and vicious. Rather, I defend here the idea that we must accept Him as He has revealed Himself to us, not turning to the right hand or the left. There is a significant trend today in Orthodoxy to deny the wrath and justice of God in favour of entirely "non-juridical" conceptions, to assert that God, being goodness and love, and not subject to passions, cannot have any measure of dispassionate wrath; that the good God would not consign anyone to the fire. A key example of this is Alexander Kalomiros' very popular lecture, The River of Fire.

The position militates against a great deal of the revelation though. In fact, Jesus Himself spoke more about Gehenna than any other figure in the Scriptures. Certainly it is true that when we speak of God's wrath, anger, jealousy, etc., we are speaking by analogy. God, again, is not subject to passions. But the analogy would not exist, indeed, He would not have used these descriptions of Himself, were there not a core of shared meaning. Thus, in the apophatic tradition of Orthodox theology, we understand that God's anger is not precisely the anger we have, but that it denotes His attitude toward sin and rebellion.

But Fr. George Morelli, following the modern trend (one shared by liberal Protestantism), to make God good and loving while denying His hatred for sin, His Divine wrath against the rebellion of His creature, and His eternal justice which will cause some to be told to depart into outer darkness, has preached for us a truncated Gospel.

Jesus Christ is the Truth, and anything that seeks to emphasise some of His attributes at the expense of others serves not the Truth, but a lie; a lie that makes our Lord less than what He Is.

And a lie is never so dangerous as when salvation is at stake.

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