Archives For Impassibility

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes:

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1.

“Nothing less than a strictly immutable (unchanging) God can provide the explanation of the world’s existence, and that, in consequence, the world must be, in the fullest sense, contingent and altogether unnecessary to God.

Various objections….complain that, on such a view, God could not have the intimate interest and concern with his creatures that is manifested in the Christian religion…while this would certainly be true if God was a finite being, it is not true if God is infinite. I do not believe that this is a logic that theology can intelligibly forsake.”

2.

“The first problem [in believing that God intended sin and evil in order to manifest redemption, i.e. Adam’s fault was to display the glory of the Cross] is that it reduces God to a being whose nature is not love (even if at the end of the day he turns out to be loving)…and should not evoke love in return.

If God’s identity is constituted in his triumph over evil [if God predestined that he should be the crucified God] then evil belongs eternally to God’s identity.

And his goodness is not goodness as such but a reaction…One risks here converting the Christian God into a god of sacrifice…a god forged in such fires may evoke fear and awe, but not genuine desire.”

3.

“A God who can become, who can acquire determinations, who has his future as potential and realizes his future through dramatic self-transcendence- a God who changes and suffers, that is- is not God but a god.

Christianity in this respect has always quite properly been identified as atheism.”

“God does not have to suffer or change in order to love us or show us mercy- he loved us when we were not, and by this very ‘mercy’ created us- and so, as love, he can overcome all suffering. Love is not a reaction [for God] but is the possibility of our every action. God’s love requires no pathos to evoke it, no evil to make it good [because God IS Love].”

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes. First, though, a few vocab words are in order to orient you to DBH’s argument:

Apatheia: the attribute of God, held by the ancients, in which God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, is unaffected by objects outside of himself.

Impassible: the ancient doctrine that God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, does not suffer due to the actions of another.

Immutable: the ancient belief that God, as eternal and existing outside of creation, does not change.

So then…God does not change- not ever- and God is not changed- by us.

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Here are the $ quotes:

“The contents of the creed do not constitute simply some system of metaphysical affirmations, but first and foremost a kind of ‘phenomenology of salvation’; the experience of redemption- of being joined by the Spirit to the Son and through the Son to the Father- was the ground from which the church’s doctrinal grammar arose.”

 

“The Christian understanding of beauty emerges not only naturally, but necessarily, from the Christian understanding of God as a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting and joy.”

 

“Liberal theology’s dogmatic wasting disease- of which no symptom could be more acute than the reduction of the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendictic twinge- was one of progressive and irrepressible abstraction, a moralization and spiritualization of salvation that made of Christ the unique bearer (as opposed to the unique content) of the Christian proclamation.”

 

“If the identity of the immanent Trinity (who God is in himself) with the economic Trinity (who God is as revealed by his works) is taken to mean history is the theater within which God- as absolute mind, process or divine event- finds or determines himself as God, there can be no way of convincingly avoiding the conclusion that God depends upon creation to be God and that creation exists by necessity (because of some lack in God); so that, God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its true gratuity.

The God whom Genesis depicts as pronouncing a deliberative ‘Let us…’ in creating humanity after his image and as looking on in approbation of his handiwork, which he sees to be good, is the eternal God who is the God he is forever is, with or without creation, to whom creation adds absolutely nothing.

God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his personality as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large…

God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely diverse, infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity and freedom; which is to say that God is possessed of that loveliest ‘attribute:’ apatheia.”

 

“God does not even need us to be ‘our‘ God.

All we are, all we can ever become, is already infinitely and fully present in the inexhaustible beauty, liveliness and virtue of the Logos, where it is present already as responsiveness and communion; thus God indeed loved us when we were not.”

 

“Immutability, impassibility, timelessness- surely, many argue, these relics of an obsolete metaphysics lingered on in Christian theology just as false believe and sinful inclinations linger on in a soul after baptism; and surely they always were fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a God of election and love, who proves himself through fidelity to his own promises against the horizon of history, who became flesh for us (was this not a change in God, after all?) and endured the passion of the cross out of pity for us. Have we not seen the wounded heart of God, wounded by our sin in his eternal life?

This is why so much modern theology keenly desires a God who suffers, not simply with us and in our nature, but in his own nature as well; such a God, it is believed, is the living God of scripture, not the cold abstraction of a God of the philosophers; only such a God would die for us.

At its most culpable, the modern appetite for a passible God can reflect simply a sort of self-indulgence..a sense that, before God, though we are sinners, we also have a valid perspective, one he must learn to share with us so that he can sympathize with our lot rather than simply judge us; he must be absolved of his transcendence, so to speak, before we can consent to his verdict.”

 

“The Christian doctrine of divine apatheia, in its developed patristic and medieval form, never concerned an abstract deity incapable of loving us…the juxtaposition of the language of apatheia with the story of crucified love is precisely what makes the entire narrative of salvation in Christ intelligible. It is an almost agonizing irony that, in our attempt to revise trinitarian doctrine in the ‘light’ of Auschwitz, invariably we end up describing a God- who it turns out- is actually simply the metaphysical ground of Auschwitz.”

For being conditioned by history such a god is ultimately culpable for that history.

St Thomas AquinasFor 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.”

He continues:

“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.