The Character of God: Recovering the Lost Literary Power of American Protestantism

By Thomas E. Jenkins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
The Problem of God's Anger

For nineteenth- and twentieth-century theologians, the great problem with the biblical depiction of God and Jesus is that they sometimes seem to feel a visceral anger. Moreover, this anger may occur in complex combinations with their love. There is no neat polarization of emotions here. For theologians intent on depicting God as a neoclassical or sentimental character, these biblical passages have presented a real difficulty. Indeed, this may be the chief problem underlying efforts to depict God in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestant theology. Liberal theologians found help here in new forms of biblical criticism and doctrinal interpretation. But this did not solve the problem entirely and in some instances aggravated it. Conservatives, for their part, while maintaining allegiance in theory to traditional Protestant doctrines that had recognized God's anger, still developed neoclassical characterizations of God. Conservatives, like liberals here, were influenced by neoclassicism and sentimentalism because of the extraordinary authority of these styles in the nineteenth century.


The Prestige of Neoclassicism and Sentimentalism

Neoclassicism made it possible for the first time in the history of the West to think of great literature as distinctly Christian. The critical revolution here was remarkable. For the first 1,700 years of Christianity, it had been almost axiomatic that the great writers came from ancient Greece and Rome. This meant that they were pagan. Of course, Christians faced similar problems with classical philosophy. But at least Plato and Aristotle had been suspicious about the pagan gods. But in the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, Ovid, and others, the pagan deities played major roles. This left Christians with a real problem. They could see the stylistic power of these writers, but they distrusted the pagan content. In late antiquity, Augustine set the pattern that carried through the Reformation: the classics were to be studied for their style rather than their content. This, however, could go a long way. Martin Luther,

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