Almost three decades ago, theologian Ronald Goetz spoke of the rise of a “new orthodoxy” in Christian thought. He was referring to twentieth-century theology’s enthrallment with the theme of the suffering of God.

By the time Goetz wrote, that theme—of God hanging there on the gallows with the innocent sufferer, in the timeless image Elie Wiesel offered in his book Night—had come to dominate many forms of Protestant theology. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had written from a Nazi prison that “only the suffering God can help.” Jürgen Moltmann, in the wake of the revelation of the full extent of the Holocaust, had authored a book called The Crucified God. And figures as diverse as the process theologian Alfred North Whitehead, who characterized God as “the fellow-sufferer who understands,” and the Japanese Lutheran Kazoh Kitamori, who spoke of “the pain of God,” had ushered in a way of thinking about divine majesty and power as God’s ability and will to share in human misery. Across the spectrum, from both pulpits and pews, the “new orthodoxy” came to reign: God suffers in God’s own nature.

Now, years after Goetz’s report, that “new orthodoxy” is beginning to show some cracks. Its emotional and rhetorical force hasn’t diminished. Yet criticisms of it have begun to be heard from multiple quarters.

Feminist and liberation theologians have questioned the new orthodoxy’s valorization of divine helplessness, expressing concern over whether the emphasis on God sharing our abuse and death may underwrite our own passive acquiescence to violence. “[D]oes not all this talk of the suffering God,” Johann Metz asks, “reveal something like an aestheticization of all suffering?”

From another angle, defenders of the Church’s creedal heritage have worried that unqualified talk of divine suffering forfeits our reason for worshiping God as Other, as wholly and radically transcendent. If God is a fellow-sufferer with us, full stop, is God then no longer the one lauded by the Hebrew prophets as the Creator who is fundamentally unlike us?

From still another angle, historical theologians and scholars of the Church Fathers have pointed out that the “new orthodoxy” wrongly imagines the early Church as a naïve handmaiden to Hellenistic philosophy. Theologians such as St. Cyril of Alexandria and others who spoke of “the suffering of the impassible God” were not so out of step with the Scriptural narrative as the “new orthodoxy” would have us believe. When they spoke of God’s eternal bliss and immutability, they weren’t surrendering to a static, Greek conception of God so much as they were seeking to understand the implications of Scriptural affirmations such as “I Am That I Am” (Exodus 3:14).

In short, the “new orthodoxy” has come under fire. Browsing the new arrivals shelf at your local theological library, you’re now as likely to find titles by the Catholic dogmatician Matthew Levering, the Orthodox historical theologian Paul Gavrilyuk, and the Reformed theologian Kevin Vanhoozer on why we need to continue to speak, with the early Church, of God’s inability to suffer—and of God’s voluntary assumption of our human nature, in Jesus Christ, in order to share, and thereby overcome, our suffering—as you are to find another volume on God’s suffering in the divine nature itself. The tide is shifting again, and there is a new (read: older) “new orthodoxy” afoot.

What do we gain, though, if we set aside the “new orthodoxy” of divine suffering and return to an older one? I can think of at least three potential benefits.

In the first place, we may become better attuned to the ways that older, seemingly irrelevant or even harmful bits of the Christian tradition may be worth preserving, even if their strengths aren’t immediately obvious in late modernity.

One of the rallying cries for post-Holocaust theology has been that a stoic, unchangeable God, impervious to human desolation, is no God at all. Consequently, according to Moltmann and others, the only God we can believe in now is a God who suffers, and the ancient Christian doctrines of divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility must be discarded. But notice what happens when we question that conclusion. Driven back to the early Christian writings themselves, we may become freshly attentive to how those allegedly dangerous doctrines functioned in their original setting. Asking ourselves whether the Church Fathers intended to promote a distant, detached deity, we may become newly sensitive to the complex trajectories and repercussions of early Christian theologies.

And what do we find with that newly awakened textual sensitivity? Just this: that, far from being unconcerned about the human plight, the Church Fathers were motivated by their theology of salvation in upholding doctrines of divine immutability and impassibility (God’s transcendence of human suffering and passions). Their doctrines of salvation prompted their—allegedly aloof and insensitive—understandings of God.

“God’s Logos is by nature immortal and incorruptible and Life and Life-giver,” wrote Cyril. Only so is God able, through sharing our human flesh in the Incarnation, to impart eternal life to that flesh, rather than succumbing to our death and being extinguished by it. When it comes to rescuing us from death, and not merely enduring death along with us, only the impassible God can help.

Second, in returning to the older Christian consensus on God’s transcendent impassibility, we may find that fresh pathways are opened up for Jewish-Christian dialogue. This point may seem counterintuitive at first, since one of the main claims of the “new orthodoxy” is that it can offer a better reading of the Hebrew Bible. The God of Israel is passionate, dynamic, responsive, we were often told in twentieth-century scholarship. The biblical prophets herald a God who is involved with his people and therefore a God who suffers, not the impassible God of the Church Fathers.

Yet, as many Christian exegetes are now recognizing, this reading may, if left unqualified, lead readers to overlook or downplay those places in the Old Testament that emphasize the Creator’s irreducible difference from creation. And this recent Christian concern, in turn, may open the door to new conversations with Jewish readers of those same passages in the Hebrew Bible. In a fascinating twist, as theologian Michael Allen has observed, recent Jewish interpreters—for instance, Michael Fishbane in his book Text and Texture—have interpreted texts like Exodus 3 and Isaiah 40–55, with their high doctrines of divine freedom and sovereignty, “in much the same way that Augustine and Christian tradition has: God’s Naming demonstrates God’s transcendence, necessitates analogical discussion of God, [and] negatively qualifies any claim to speak of God.” Perhaps paradoxically, reaching back to an older Christian orthodoxy paves the way for a forward-looking interreligious dialogue.

Third, in returning to an older orthodoxy at this particular juncture in Western cultural life, we may remind ourselves that the early Church had its reasons for turning its back on the dynamic, vulnerable, passionate pantheon of pagan deities. Not only did the Church believe that these gods had been shown up as shadows and parodies in light of the true God’s self-revelation. The Church also believed that these gods, for all their bluster and ongoing involvement in human affairs, could not answer the deepest human need: deliverance from our enslavement to sin and death, not mere solidarity and fellowship in the midst of that enslavement.

It is one thing to confess that God has seen and known firsthand what life is like in our prison cell. To be sure, there is a certain comfort in that confession. It is another thing, however, to know—as the early Church did—that in entering that cell, God brandished the key to unlock its door and lead us out. For the latter to happen, we needed not only a fellow-sufferer who understands but a Creator and Redeemer whose deity is made manifest in and through his humanity, whose power is revealed in his death and resurrection. 

Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

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Articles by Wesley Hill


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