Thursday, 7 May 2009

God's wrath and disasters: does the New Testament wipe out the old?

A friend was looking for something to counter, in a debate around the watercooler, the article served up at Eureka Street by Mr Andrew Hamilton that predictably argues that while the God of the Old Testament might have looked as if he regularly unleashed a bit of wrath, the New Testament changes all that.

A God of justice as well as of mercy

So I'm going to put up some extracts from a talk by the wonderful Archbishop Fulton Sheen which I hope all will find helpful. Just to give you a flavour, let me put up his conclusion first:

"Thus we are brought back to the general theme of this series of broadcasts: America must return to God humbly and penitently, for if we forsake God, God will forsake us. He is not only the God of Mercy, but the God of Justice, and though He suffers some to sneer, "Where is your God now?", He in His turn will answer, "Where are their gods, in whom they trusted . . . let them arise and help you” (Deut. 32:37-28). We will be under Providence either by free response to His love or by submission to His Justice."

For America substitute Australia or Mexico. Or any other country of your choice.

Biblical interpretation principles

But first I just want to make an important point. Mr Hamilton's article appears to me at least to run completely counter to catholic principles of interpretation of the Bible.

Firstly, the Old and New Testaments are not at odds with one another as he implies with statements like:

"Another difficulty in attributing disasters to God's intention to punish sinners is that it assumes that you know the mind of God. The Old Testament prophets could claim this knowledge. But Christians have no warrant for making such a claim." [Are none today granted the gift of prophecy? I don't recall any NT verse saying that. In fact, quite the opposite, Acts 2:17 explains Pentecost by quoting the prophet: 'In the last days - the Lord declares - I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity, Your sons and daughters shall prophesy....' More than a few saints are generally accepted as having had charisms of this kind.]

Rather, as Vatican II's Verbum Dei makes clear there is a unity between the Old and New Testaments, with the New hidden in the Old and the Old revealed in the New (para 16).

Secondly, we are a Church of Tradition. The fact that, as he acknowledges, attributing disasters to divine punishment has a long history (and it goes back a few thousand years longer than he suggests!) is on the face of it a very strong argument indeed for its correctness. It is a yet another manifestation of the hermeneutic of rupture to suggest that if its old it is probably wrong!

Thirdly, one of the most common principles in our theology is 'both/and'. Mr Hamilton tries to argue that the Book of Job, Jonah and the New Testament set out to 'subvert' the view of a God of Justice, and replace it with 'God as lover'. But in reality, the Church has always taught that God is both a God of love and a God of justice. The case for a God of love is obvious to most people. Yet it is that love that also calls forth the need for justice, for without it, there would be no reason for us to act morally now - and that would have eternal consequences.

War, disaster and the God of Justice

So now let's look at Archbishop Sheen's take on the subject. It comes from a talk on God and war, but looks at the wider problem of natural disasters with some very pertinent points:

"A Christian does not look on war in the same way as one who lives by the spirit of the world. His point of view is different in two respects: First, he has a set of basic principles grounded on the Eternal Law of God by which he judges a given situation or problem, as distinguished from those who change their principles to suit a situation or who are guided solely by emotion; second, he believes in a Divine Purpose in history, as distinguished from those who feel the cosmos is the plaything of chance.

There are some who believe in God who will go part way with a Christian belief that a beneficent Providence presides over the universe. They would admit this Providence in the trivialities of life and might even quote the words of our Lord, "Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them” (Matthew 6:26).

But in practice they forget that the same Divine Providence is even more solicitous for men: ”Are not you of much more value than they?" "And if the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith” (Matthew 6:30). To such people God is behind the beautiful things of life like the song of a bird and the innocence of a lily; but storms and disasters, which even insurance agents call an "act of God," are considered by moderns as outside Providence or even as the defeat of Providence.

This exclusion of Divinity from the darker aspects of life the true believers in God refuse to accept. Precisely because we do believe that God’s purposes extend even to the fall of nations and the momentary defeat of the good, we are made the object of reproach if not of ridicule in times of war.

As nation rises against nation, and as the innocent suffer on all sides we are asked: "Where is your God now?" That question has been asked in mockery at all periods of adversity.

Of old, the prophet Joel pictured the Jewish priests on the one hand praying to God, and the Gentiles, on the other, sneering at their faith. "Between the porch and the altar, the priests the Lord’s ministers shall weep and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people: and give not thy inheritance to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them. Why should they say among the nations: Where is their God” (Joel 2:17). And before Joel, King David prayed to be saved from the reproach of unbelievers: ”Help us, O God, our saviour: and for the glory of thy name, O Lord, deliver us: and forgive us our sins for thy name’s sake: Lest they should say among the Gentiles: Where is their God?” (Psalm 78:9-10). "Not to us, O Lord, not to us: but to thy name give glory. For thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake: lest the Gentiles should say: Where is their God?” (Psalm 113:1-2).... [Mr Hamilton makes the point that God is a 'soft touch', willing to avert promised disasters when the people repent. Yet he utterly fails to call for that repentance!]

The same God who permitted nations to be visited with their iniquities, who suffered others to be invaded for their needful reparation, is still the Lord of the Universe, the King of Kings. His wisdom transcends our understanding more than music transcends the sense knowledge of a mouse hidden in a piano. What makes us rise up against God in misfortune is our pride.

For the last two decades in our secular education and in our press we have seen the familiar theme: "I cannot accept a God who . . . ” [And in many comments in comboxes on this subject!] At the close of the last war one professor in a commencement address in a well-known theological school gave fourteen points upon which God would be acceptable to a democracy. If this insane blasphemy became generalized we should soon have the wood telling the carpenter the fourteen conditions upon which it would become a door....

...take it literally and never relinquish an absolute trust in the Providence of God even in adversity, sorrow, depression, catastrophe, and war. With Job we cry out: "Although he should kill me, I will trust in him: but yet I will reprove my ways in his sight” (Job 13:15). Starting from this basic trust in God, certain conclusions follow: We will not start with the assumption that we are innocent, and therefore assert that all our misfortune is undeserved. Henceforth, instead of asking, "On whose side is God?" we shall look into our own souls and say: ”On whose side are we?" [ie Job is a model not just of suffering endured even though someone may be blameless. Rather, he is also a model of how we should respond to adversity, looking first to our own faults.]

We shall constantly keep before our minds that the greatest tragedy of war is not economic loss or physical suffering but acquiescence in evil: ”And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). [In our society, the majority of catholics reject the Churches teaching on abortion, contraception and many other moral issues.]

The unbeliever can explain the tormentor in war, but he cannot explain the sacrifice of the soldier or the martyr. The believer in God can explain both. Suffering in all forms is, for the Christian, a mystery not a problem.

To get a square peg into a round hole is a problem because one fact does not fit the other fact. Suffering is not like that. It fulfills a purpose; even sin may be a "happy fault” if it brings Redemption.

Given the spectacle of the Son of God Incarnate stretched on a Cross through the corporate evil of men, and yet conquering their hate and sin by rising to a new life and pouring out forgiveness and pardon — I say, given that vision on Calvary, suffering and war and evil can be faced without losing hope either in humanity or in God. It was the prosperous Solomon who complained of the emptiness of life, not the suffering Job.

The Cross could once more marry us to God..."


mzala said...

Thank you for this response.The more I come across the words 'intelligent, mature, educated' etc. in so many posts, the more I begin to feel that some people are not comfortable with a God of Justice. Hence, the need to repeatedly stress a 'mamby-pamby' type of god.Why did church attendance(not only in USA) increase post 9/11? Sometimes it takes an incident/accident/disaster to remind us of the 1st Commandment. We ought to be grateful to Our Lord that we have the chance to repent and reconcile, whilst on earth.Methinks our 'education maturity and intelligence' aka pride get the better of us.

Louise said...

They want a tame lion.

Peter said...

I agree with your logic - the current approach of this Jesuit, and even Arbp Coleridge, is too rationalistic.

But did you come across anything from the fathers or the popes that supports the view that such punishments (as opposed to the last days) do happen?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post which is very important to our current days of confusion and disbelief. Recently a priest in Holland compared abortion and euthanasia to the slaughter of humans in the Nazi concentration camps. Of course he is now under attack from all the usual suspects for saying such a thing.......Or attributing hurricane Katrina (Fr. Wagner, Austria)to God's judgement on major corporate sins.......Is not HIV the result of un-natural and to God deeply offensive behaviour?
One cannot even say or think that. It would be hurtful, hateful and spiteful, wouldn't you know......
As long as we continue to reject the notion of sin, reject God in our life altogether, or at best as "God is Love,we are all good people then of course we will continue to pay the price......Swine flu anyone? God is not mocked.......Let us pray and be faithful to Him all the days of our life.
Gerrit Blydorp, Niantic, CT, USA

Cardinal Pole said...

"The same God who permitted nations to be visited with their iniquities ..."

Permission is really the key to understanding this, I think. It's not (or at least, isn't likely to be) a question of God intervening directly (which is what most would object to), but rather, permitting certain evils. And if people weren't behaving so debauchedly I think that God would be permitting a good deal less of natural disaster.

As for the broader topic of the loss of the sense of justice: one sees this all to often in Conciliar Churchmen, even the ones with orthodox reputations. Terra, did you see Mr. Gillibrand's coverage of the head of the German Bishops' Conference, Msgr. Zollitsch, misrepresenting the meaning of the Redemption? As long as the New Missal remains an official rite such confusion will continue, since it is the liturgy of the 'Paschal Mystery', not the Sacrifice of Calvary in all but manner of offering.

Cardinal Pole said...

Oh, one other thing: as you alluded to a while ago Terra, we can hardly expect to be members of society and not share in each other's suffering. By reason of the common good we share in the benefits of our social nature; why not the costs too? Could anyone imagine a campaign of prayer for drought relief that requested that only virtuous farmers receive rain?! (The carbon-neutral farmers, I suppose.) It seems that many people have come to believe in an unjust deity, one who is all reward and no punishment.

Terra said...

Peter - I haven't looked through to find whether there is something systematic in the Fathers (certainly lots of discussion in commentaries on various OT incidents), theologians or older Popes. But there are numerous calls down the ages for fasting and penance to avert God's anger. And take a look at the collects in the missal for things like time of famine:

"...that the hearts of men may acknowledge that such scourges spring from Thy wrath and are stayed by Thy mercy..."

There are similar invocations for earthquake, etc.

And the post-synodal exhortation on penance that AB Coleridge cited is actually pretty explicit:

"According to the Babel story, the result of sin is the shattering of the human family, already begun with the first sin and now reaching its most extreme form on the social level.

No one wishing to investigate the mystery of sin can ignore this link between cause and effect. As a rupture with God, sin is an act of disobedience by a creature who rejects, at least implicitly, the very one from whom he came and who sustains him in life. It is therefore a suicidal act. Since by sinning man refuses to submit to God, his internal balance is also destroyed and it is precisely within himself that contradictions and conflicts arise. Wounded in this way, man almost inevitably causes damage to the fabric of his relationship with others and with the created world. This is an objective law and an objective reality, verified in so many ways in the human psyche and in the spiritual life as well as in society, where it is easy to see the signs and effects of internal disorder." (para 15)

matthias said...

I detect in the writings of Mr Hamilton a subtle form of dualism beginning. does he seem to be implying that God changed between the Testaments? He needs to be reminded of the 53rd chapter of the Prophet Isaiah as one example, of the continuity between the Testaments.
Sinners are under the Judgement of God until they repent and surrender to Christ. Disasters or not. As a footnote ,Danny Nalliah should have spoken up in October when he had his dream of fire,rather than wait till afterwards.Agabus of the New Testament gave prophesy to the Church as a means for preparation for an apporaching famine. Nalliah faled as a prophet,in that context. He displayed spiritual and cultural arrogance