Last week I published my January web column for First Things on some recent scholarly discussion of the doctrine of divine impassibility. In brief, that doctrine is that God is unable to suffer (that’s the basic definition of the word “impassibility”). More technically and precisely, it is the denial that God is liable to suffering in God’s own nature the way creatures are in theirs. Being creatures, we are not only the subject of actions, but we receive, or suffer, the actions of others. God, who is “not part of the metaphysical furniture of the universe,” in Stanley Hauerwas’s memorable phrase, is not able to undergo the actions of creatures in the same way. God has no “fellow creatures” who might impinge on God’s turf, as it were. There is no shared ontological plane or space whereby God might become subject to any vicissitudes of creaturely action. My column was trying to highlight a few of the reasons many theologians are returning to such a view of God and creatures, often described as “classical theism.” The twentieth century witnessed a massive move away from the doctrinea “new orthodoxy”but more recent ecumenical theology, with its various strategies of ressourcement, has wanted to revisit and reclaim the older orthodoxy of divine impassibility.
After my column was published, I heard from several friends and colleagues who were dissatisfied with it. In particular, they were concerned that I was saying that simply because the doctrine of impassibility has a patristic pedigree, it must be worth salvaging. My friends pointed out that the Church Fathers did, just occasionally, get things wrong, and this may well be one of those instances. As one friend commented on my post, “The problem with an understanding of impassibility that renders God ‘unable’ to suffer is that it serves as a metaphysical a priori that is neither self-evident in Scripture, nor necessary in order to hold a fully biblical, orthodox and coherent understanding of God.”
I want to say a couple of things in response to this line of thinking, which will hopefully clarify what I was up to in my column.
First, I want to suggest that whether impassibility is a “metaphysical a priori”a conviction brought to Scripture from somewhere elseis precisely what’s up for debate in recent theology. To say that the doctrine is not “self-evident in Scripture, nor necessary in order to hold a fully biblical . . . understanding of God” is to state one side of the argument, not an agreed-upon conclusion. The recent biblical and patristic work I gestured toward in my columnthe work of folks like Michael Allen, Paul Gavrilyuk, Matthew Levering, and Kevin Vanhoozer, to which I’d add names like Donald Gowan, David Bentley Hart, Janet Martin Soskice, and Scott Swain, among othersis aimed at showing that impassibility is an entailment of specifically biblical affirmations.
Their argument, in brief, is this. It is, chiefly, the biblical doctrine of creationthat God is responsible for anything existing at all (Acts 17:24-25; cf. Isaiah 42:5; Wisdom of Solomon 13-15)that requires us to speak of God as categorically different from creatures. Doctrines like simplicity, immutability, impassibility, and the like are attempts to unpack that qualitative Creator-creature distinction.
Furthermore, the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14) is, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “a name and a non-name at one and the same time.” It is a personal name that allows Moses to grasp God’s narrative identity in time: “[I am] the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:15). But it is also a non-name insofar as it indicates the utter freedom, self-existence, and otherness of God: “I am who I am” implies “the One who is,” the God who lives from and for himself, needing no external maintenance for his ongoing lifeindeed, needing nothing external to be at all. Thus, as D. Stephen Long has put it, “[T]he so-called metaphysical ‘attributes’ of God that so many modern theologians have questionedexistence, simplicity, perfection, limitlessness (infinity), eternity, immutability, and impassibilityare less indebted to a Greek metaphysics and more explications of the giving of the divine Name in Holy Scripture.”
The places in Scripture, therefore, that represent God suffering or undergoing pain or changing God’s course in response to creaturely life are to be understood in a qualified or analogous sense. God changes and repents and reactsbut not with any change or repentance or reaction that we creatures recognize as univocal with our own. Thus, in one of the prime biblical instances in which God is said to change God’s mind (1 Samuel 15:10, “I regret that I made Saul king”), we are told just a few verses later that God does not change God’s mind (15:29, “Moreover the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind”). Divine passiondivine undergoingis qualified in order to signal that we err if we project our own changing minds and passions onto God. God condescends to speak to us in language we can understand, but God’s own life is qualitatively, not just quantitatively, different than ours.
It is of course perfectly possible to disagree with this way of thinking. But what I was trying to describe in my column is that a new form of engagement with the doctrine of divine impassibility is afoot, regardless of whether one accepts it as a welcome development or rejects it as a misbegotten errand of retrieval. This new form of engagement with the doctrine not so much an argument from tradition (“The Church Fathers said it, so it must be right”) as it is an argument from reexamination of the tradition (“Here is how the Church Fathers made their case, and it’s different from what we were told about their arguments in twentieth-century ‘suffering of God’ theologies”). Put simply, biblical and patristics scholars are demonstrating that the Church Fathers didn’t simply borrow impassibility in an uncritical way from their ancient contexts; rather, they subjected it to exegetical and theological scrutiny, and marshaled exegetical and theological arguments for their own reworking of it.
Finally, I may say something about what this reassessment of divine impassibility means for the Incarnation. This is, as one of my friends wrote, the crux of the issuepun intended! In much of the recent work I mentioned in my column, the argument is that it is only by returning to the doctrine of impassibility that we can make full sense of the claim that it is, in fact, God who suffered for us in Jesus Christ. Consider the way the Catholic philosophical theologian Robert Sokolowski has put the matter:
The reason the pagans could not conceive of anything like the incarnation is that their gods are part of the world, and the union of any two natures in the world is bound to be, in some way, unnatural, because of the otherness that lets one thing be itself only by not being the other. But the Christian God is not a part of the world and is not a ‘kind’ of being at all. Therefore the incarnation is not meaningless or impossible or destructive.
Put positively, because the Christian God is radically transcendent (which “impassibility” gestures toward), therefore God can take human nature to himself without displacing it or destroying it. And because the transcendent God has taken human nature to himself, the suffering which God undergoes in that nature is redemptive, rather than simply passive victimhood and solidarity with us. Because it is God who suffers in Christ, that suffering is not simply the suffering a fellow-sufferer who understands but is instead the suffering of One who is able to end all suffering by overcoming it in resurrection and ascension and immortality. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is only by affirming impassibility that we can maintain the deepest soteriological import of the suffering God takes on himself in and through the Incarnation.