For a few weeks now, I’ve been running with this pericope from an essay by the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe:
‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’
Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.
God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.
God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’
Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.
To many contemporary Christians, to assert that God does not change seems to fly in the face of their understanding of God, particularly the pathos-filled God of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed many modern theologians go even farther than insisting that God changes, making the claim that God feels. Even- God suffers.
What was formerly denounced as a heresy (patripassianism) is now, functionally at least, the new orthodoxy among Protestant theologians.
The argument typically proceeds thusly:
In contrast to patristic thought, biblical thought depicts a God who is intimately and passionately involved in the world. The ancient Christian notion of divine impassibility (that God does not suffer) is blamed on the pernicious influence of Greek philosophy upon nascent Christianity.
After all, the argument erroneously goes, it was the pagan gods who were static and feelingless towards the world, whereas the God of Israel is active, sympathetic, emotional, even to the point of suffering with his people.
Greek philosophy, in other words, led to the deterioration of an originally unadulterated system of biblical belief. Such a caricature however ignores the fact there is no uniform Greek view on the matter of God’s suffering nor is there a unified biblical view, for the same Hebrew Bible that depicts the cuckolded God suffering lady Israel’s infidelities also depicts God self-identifying as ‘he who is’ and asserting that that same God does not change (Malachi).
Herbert McCabe discusses “the involvement of God” in the world in his book God Matters. McCabe addresses this question of the impassibility of God, that is, is God involved in the world in such a way so as to experience suffering?
Many modern theologians dismiss Church Fathers like Thomas Aquinas for saying too much about God’s nature philosophically without deferring sufficiently to God’s self-revelation, Christ.
For example, McCabe cites the founding father of passibility, Jürgen Moltmann on Aquinas’ Five Ways:
The cosmological proof of God was supposed by Thomas to answer the question utrum Deus sit, but he did not really prove the existence of God; what he proved was the nature of the divine, . . . Aquinas answered the question “What is the nature of the divine?,” but not the question “Who is God?” (Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, 12).
In fact, McCabe points out this is exactly what Aquinas avoided. Aquinas believed we cannot know what God is, that is his nature. We can only know what God is not in his nature. For Aquinas, even God’s self-revelation in Christ does not change the incomprehensibility of God.
As McCabe writes:
it is extremely difficult for readers of Aquinas to take his agnosticism about the nature of God seriously. If he says ‘Whatever God may be, he cannot be changing’ readers leap to the conclusion that he means that what God is is static. If he says that, whatever God may be, he could not suffer together with (sympathize with) his creatures, he is taken to mean that God must by nature be unsympathetic, apathetic, indifferent, even callous. It is almost as though if Aquinas had said that God could not be a supporter of Glasgow Celtic, we supposed he was claiming God as a Rangers fan. (McCabe, God Matters 41).
McCabe reminds us then that we should be careful not to jump to conclusions when we read that God “cannot be changing.”
“As with the Celtic and Rangers, it does not follow that, if God is not affected by, say, human suffering, he is indifferent to it. In our case there are only two options open: we either feel with, sympathize with, have compassion for the sufferer, or else we cannot be present to the suffering, we must be callous, indifferent. We should notice, however, that even in our case it is not an actual ‘suffering with’ that is necessary for compassion, but only a capacity to suffer with. Sharing in actual pain is neither necessary nor sufficient for compassion, whose essential components are awareness, feelings of pity and concern” (McCabe God Matters 44).
God, McCabe argues, cannot literally be understood to have “feelings” of compassion.
McCabe explains that when we have compassion for others, when we are present to another’s suffering we want nothing less than to fully take on that suffering, but we cannot do this because we are always outside the other person.
Compassion is all we have and there is always frustration involved in remaining outside of the other person, that is, not being able to fully be with the other.
By contrast, God, as Creator cannot be outside of his creature; “a person’s act of being as well as every action done has to be an act of the creator” (44).
So, “if the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its centre holding it in being” (45).
McCabe holds that our compassion is a feeble attempt to be “what God is all the time: united with and within the life of our friend” (45).
Like Augustine and Aquinas before him, McCabe affirms that it’s in being transcendent that God is intimately involved with each creature much more than creatures could be with one another.
McCabe then goes on to argue that the popularity of a suffering God goes hand-in-hand with a misunderstanding of the incarnation.
McCabe looks back to the Council of Chalcedon, which affirmed the one person of the Jesus as truly human and truly divine.
The Chalcedonian formulation, McCabe points out, allows us to say “quite literally that God suffered hunger and thirst and torture and death” (46).
The traditional doctrine of the incarnation allows us to affirm that the Son of God assumed a human nature and therefore God suffered in his human nature.
But this is not the same thing as saying God suffered in his nature.
We can say “The Son of God died on the cross” and also “God died on the cross,” but while God signifies Jesus’ divine nature, McCabe reminds us, it refers to what has this nature, that is Jesus of Nazareth.