Saturday, January 2, 2021

Who is God? What is man?

Who is God? What is man?

These questions are at the root of our being; they permeate our existence. In our time, we have tasted the bitter fruit of thoughtless and ultimately shallow answers to questions about God and man.

Certainly, to ask who God is presumes one knows or agrees that God is. Perhaps this is too much of a metaphysical commitment for some. Against any pushback, on this point, I would argue that everyone has a god or God. If we are sufficiently reflective, we find there is something to which each person directs their lives and in which they place their hope. Perhaps it is an abstract notion of human progress, an ideal society, the fully actualized self (whatever one might mean by self), or something else. One directs their life to something either within the cosmos or beyond it. One places their hope in something finite or infinite. Hard binaries apply. To ignore the question is to answer it.

The same is the case with man. Is man simply a random collection of molecules in motion? Blood and dust? Soul and body? Soul in a body? Something else? Perhaps man is a slavish animal, forever yielding to his passions. Or maybe he is just a little lower than the angels. Given any careful thought, each person has a notion of what they are and what other people are. If man is just a sentient animal, then I have certain duties and obligations. If man is more than that, then perhaps different imperatives take hold.

So far, so banal. Let me try to make a less trivial point.

One thing we can do as Christians is to provide better answers to the questions above, viz. Who is God and What is man. I believe we live at an opportune moment to re-inject our evangelization and theology with the classical conceptions of God and man. We are faced with a profound natural evil with the Covid-19 pandemic (as well as moral evil in some of the responses), and classical theism provides a much more robust answer to evil and suffering (human and animal) than do other approaches to God (such as theistic personalism). For instance, classical theism does not think of God as an object in the universe. God is not ‘in’ time nor is He moved by passions or emotions. He is not ‘a’ being, rather He is being itself. Thus, He cannot ever be thought far away, hidden, or uncaring because, as Augustine puts it, He is interior intimo meo et superior summo meo (“You were more inward to me than my most inward part and higher than my highest” Confessions 3.6.11). The Doctor gratiae helps inform us in a short sentence that an anthropomorphic god is not God. What we can in principle picture is not the God who is and causes to be. In a time when we need transcendence, the classic view of God provides in spades.


Further, what I think of as the classical conception of man – as a body/soul unity with a distinct nature and specified teleology (end-directedness) - will be especially helpful and explanatorily satisfying in the current environment. Returning to the topic du jour, the dehumanization that has occurred during the pandemic under the guise of health and safety is better captured by the classical conception of man than in other ways (materialism, substance dualism, etc.). That man is a rational and social animal with needs beyond mere physical well-being will resonate deeply with people both inside and outside the faith at this time. This presents a strong anti-dote to capricious inclinations in the public and private spheres. It helps us truly play the long game.

Medical/ethical questions are also better answered on the classical model of man. People have real questions about whether they should take the Covid-19 vaccine, to fight authorities for their business to stay open, advocating for the rights of elder family members, treatment and visitation of the sick and dying, and much more. The prevalent reductionist or quasi-eliminativist view of man raises the specter of utilitarianism. Thinking of man as a utility or pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding occasional actor on a stage brings up the inevitable “who should we let live?” questions that are impossible to answer on a non-arbitrary basis.

We are presented with major questions in life and these are unavoidable. Such questions become acute in times of crisis, as we are experiencing. Classical theism presents sound answers to these questions that are especially relevant for our times. We have a great opportunity to bring new evangelistic zeal, to take certain conversations head-on with confidence.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Book Review: iGods - How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives

A major issue faced by Christians is how to think about technology. We often rush to demonize or canonize things about which we understand little. The more acute forms of the technology question usually come from the realm of bioethics. For example, what will more advanced artificial intelligence mean for medical care? There are major questions about what should be done in the interest of disease research (e.g. embryonic stem cells) and treatment (e.g. search and destroy nanobots for cancer).


To a lesser, but highly visible extent, consumer technologies present us with many puzzles. These are the technologies we use in our daily lives. Many are more services than goods and initially stand more in the ‘nice to have’ camp versus ‘need to have’. Yet, we find they quickly move to an essential status for various reasons. 

We often hear that too much screen time on digital devices causes overstimulation and lack of focus, yet these devices are now so ubiquitously integrated into our daily lives that parting with them is conceptually impossible. You might as well tell someone to amputate their right arm (or head).  We feel a little uneasy about how much we rely on Google or our smartphones. Do we really know much of anything anymore? I mean, raise your hand if you can competently use a Rand McNally Atlas. I’m guessing that only people over the age of 40 have their hand up (or maybe even know what I am talking about!). Maybe geography is not a good proxy, but you probably know what I mean. It is hard to unplug. But the pesky why questions come up, and when they do most of us prefer to kick the can down the road. Some answers are just not on a Google search or a Quora post. And it has become quite convenient to leave the "why" and "what for" to someone else while I pull up my DoorDash app and listen to more streaming music on Spotify. 

In this book, Craig Detweiler asks us to take a step back from our devices and…think. Yes, the actual human act of engaging our moribund intellects without outside algorithmic assistance. Yes, to think without first genuflecting to the streaming ticker at the bottom of the news channel, website, app, or push notification. The reader is challenged to carefully consider how consumer technologies act upon us and what spiritual, cognitive, and behavioral changes follow.

Although a book from 2013 can seem outdated in our Jetsons meets 1984 era, I found it to be relevant and beneficial in many respects. Since the dawn of time, technology has shaped the lives of humanity. A major tailwind for this book is the way Detweiler circles the wagons around a working definition of technology (Chapter 1) that holds up well throughout the book and bears close scrutiny. It is more than gadgets and viral videos. Detweiler connects the reader with the techne of the ancient Greek thinkers and those before and after them who created and cultivated things toward the goal of harnessing, predicting, or controlling aspects of the world to facilitate some form of human flourishing.

The author nicely interweaves themes from the Genesis 1 ‘dominion/subdue’ mandate and Genesis 2 work directive. He also brings an important eschatological perspective into the fold, reminding us that there is a telos (end, objective) to technology that is beyond itself, and encouraging us to explore what that might be.

iGods provides helpful profiles on the history and business model(s) of four major consumer technology companies. Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Detweiler also briefly covers YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. A return to basics helps us to know more precisely what these companies do that adds sufficient value to command so much web and headspace, not to mention money. If you have ever wondered how Facebook became so popular, you will find some good starting answers here. If you are really interested, you can dig further into some of the abundant source material provided in the endnotes (some of which might be a bit dated).

The personal and theological implications of these technologies in our lives is helpfully explained throughout. I especially appreciated the concluding chapter, which tied the previous analyses together nicely when they seemed to otherwise be quite siloed. It would have been helpful to read more on how a parent might approach technology, offering ideas to handle the constant dilemmas we face about screen time, content filtering, and gaming. The latter of these was a bit of an oversight in its absence from the book. Gaming is of course now an 800 lb. gorilla in the digital world, with Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite and the like gobbling up server space and bandwidth at a breathtaking pace.

Detweiler seems to just barely glance upon some of the issues creeping up from the underbelly of digital consumer technologies. For example, the ease with which illicit content can be made and disseminated is not sufficiently covered as a perilous downside. Perhaps these issues were beyond the scope of the book. From a Christian standpoint, we must acknowledge that sins made easier by technology can be that much more insidious. Further, there is an important question about how much moral culpability a company might have in making such material available and profiting from it, directly or indirectly.

This book is worth reading and would be especially helpful for Christian parents and those in ministry who face the constant dilemma of how to reach more people for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in a digital age. Read it with an open mind, though perhaps not on a Kindle or iPhone.

 iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives

By Craig Detweiler

2013. Brazos Press

Friday, November 27, 2020

Does God Hear the Prayers of Unbelievers?

This question comes up from time to time and it seems important to address for several reasons. From a Christian perspective, it first speaks to the goodness/benevolence of God. For example, one can imagine a person wondering how an all-loving God could not hear the prayers of an orphan child in a war-torn country, the child not knowing a thing about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, maybe the question hints at the evil/hiddenness objections to God. Secondly, the question gets at the notion of prayer itself. We need to inquire into the nature of prayer, how it works, and so forth. Further, when thinking about this issue, we must consider certain distinctions often thought to exist between believers and unbelievers. Christians might think it problematic if believers and unbelievers were both on the same plane in terms of prayer. If they were, at least some promised benefit of being a believer would be voided or diminished.



In this post, I hope to sketch out some basic answers to the question of whether God hears the prayers of unbelievers. My answer is that God does hear the prayers of the unbeliever, and this should cause us to rejoice in His goodness. God’s hearing the prayers of unbelievers in no way diminishes those of the believer. Even a long series of blog posts could not address all the antecedent questions and implications. However, I will do my best to also address some objections to my affirmative answer. 

We might first say that in His omniscient and omnipresent nature, nothing is unknown to God. Thus, any utterance of a believer or unbeliever is known to God and thus ‘heard’ by God. The matter at issue is whether God might grant the petitionary or intercessory prayers of unbelievers. By believer, we mean one who is a Christian. In several New Testament passages, viz. Luke 18:13 and Acts 10:1-33, an unbeliever prays and God hears and honors or grants the petition. 

Here one might claim that God the Holy Spirit had first regenerated the heart of the sinner in these instances so that we simply have only believers are praying to God. But this rendering goes far beyond the biblical text, especially Acts 10 when the Holy Spirit comes to Cornelius and his house as a consequence of his prayers. This approach would turn on a combination of equivocation on the term ‘pray’ and a disjointed, perhaps question-begging, argument in favor of a negative answer to the inquiry. Something along the lines of “only believers can truly pray, therefore only believers’ prayers can be answered.” The price tag for such a position would be far too high, assuming what it seeks to prove and further presuming the petitionary utterances of a believer and an unbeliever directed to the transcendent are two essentially different things.* The act of prayer itself, in terms of communication of a need, desire, etc. cannot be rendered essentially different based on the eternal state of the person when they are communicating it. For if they are essentially different things, then the question cannot even be raised. If only believers can pray, then it would make no sense to ask if God can hear the prayers of unbelievers, because unbelievers cannot perform the act. So, asking the question presupposes that, in a general sense of the term, both believers and unbelievers can pray. 

We can furthermore look to the Old Testament where the people of Nineveh prayed that they might be spared (Jonah 3:5-10), where Hagar asked God to protect Ishmael (Genesis 21:14-19), and in 1 Kings 21:17-29, where Ahab fasts and mourns over Elijah’s prophecy concerning his posterity. In each of these cases, the petition requested by the unbeliever was granted by God. It would be spurious to suggest the events/outcomes asked for in these cases happened by chance or other reasons not related to the prayer. Such a suggestion would strain exegetical credulity beyond the breaking point, representing an ad hoc approach ultimately leading to incoherence by undermining consistent interpretative methodology. For example, if we explained away the prayers of the people of Nineveh in some other way as God not hearing (and granting them), then whatever means of explanation would introduce extra-textual speculation that could be inserted at any juncture to fit one’s desired end. 

We must say that God indeed hears the prayers of unbelievers and may answer them in the affirmative or negative in accordance with His abundance of mercy, grace, and justice. 2 Peter 3:9 tell us that God is not willing that any should perish, but all should come to repentance. In view of this passage and others, in the providence of God, He may grant or will the efficacy of any prayers for this purpose. To say that God cannot use the means of hearing and answering prayers of the impenitent to bring about His unfolding plan for creation would be to presume far too much upon the grace and goodness of God that we impugn His character. In the Summa Theologiae II.II.83.16, Thomas Aquinas argues that if an unbeliever prays in accordance with sinful desire, God may grant the petition so as to bring about or accelerate the end (telos/purpose) of justice (or events leading to it). But if the unbeliever prays from a good desire, out of pure His mercy, God may hear the prayer if the one praying beseeches God for certain things. 

Aquinas' distinction is helpful in showing how we can exclude idle words or figures of speech from our evaluation. A robber muttering "I hope the big guy upstairs is taking a snooze right now, hehehe..." immediately before a bank heist is not praying. Neither would someone using the Lord's name in vain or uttering other euphemisms. Neither a believer nor an unbeliever is praying when speaking or thinking this way. As commonly understood, prayer is an act of religious piety or reverence, directed toward something beyond or greater than oneself. 

I will now consider some objections to God hearing the prayers of unbelievers, proceeding in a Summa Theologiae style for the sake of brevity and (hopefully) clarity. 

Objection 1: It seems God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers because unbelievers are separated from God by their sins (which are not forgiven), and God can only hear the prayers of those whose sins are forgiven. 

Reply to Objection 1: This reasoning fails to take divine benevolence and providence fully into account. God may hear (and answer) prayers of the impenitent for providential reasons, to bring about effects through both His primary causal efficacy or via secondary causes. Further, this objection presupposes a certain soteriological framework which need not be conceded.

Objection 2: God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers because these prayers are typically uttered in pagan or cultic practices. It is not befitting of God to hear prayers offered to demons, Satan, other deities, or physical objects and manifestations of nature.

Reply to Objection 2: In their ignorance, some unbelievers pray to things like statues, demons, natural forces, and the like. God can use these prayers to providentially bring about effects that further His benevolent and just ends for creatures. He can will that a pagan prayer be answered to a cultic deity for purposes of that person’s ultimate repentance or for purposes of bringing about temporal consequences and justice for wicked acts. 

Objection 3: Moreover, unbelievers pray for evil things that are not the proper objects of prayer. 

Reply to Objection 3: We know only good things come from God (James 1:17). So, we can say God does not affirmatively answer prayers which are for evil ends/means. All things in creation operate under the auspices of divine providence. If, for example, the demise of a man comes after the prayers of another man asked for that outcome, it is for some other providential reason the event occurred and not because the prayer has been answered affirmatively.

Objection 4: Prayer is an act of worship, and unbelievers cannot worship that which they hate or do not know. 

Reply to Objection 4: Whenever someone prays, an act of worship is being done in a manner of speaking. For the unbeliever, they pray in ignorance of ultimate truth. Yet, in such an act, if they are praying, they are worshipping something or someone. Such an act might be misdirected or disordered, but it does not follow that God, therefore, does not hear them. 

Objection 5: God hearing the prayers of unbelievers would diminish the prayers of believers.
 
Reply to Objection 5: There is a manifold purpose in prayer, as there are manifold types of prayer. We are primarily focused on petitionary and intercessory prayer, which when uttered by an unbeliever do not detract from those of believers. As Aquinas says, the prayers of the believer may be meritorious for them, whereas the prayers of the unbeliever cannot be (even if God hears/answers). Further, nothing can diminish the beatitude of those in Christ, because of the infinite love of God that abides in them. In the incomprehensible plenitude of His being, God is able to hear the prayers of the unbeliever without diminishing the grace He bestows upon those who love Him.

Objection 6: James 4:3 says “you ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.” This letter is addressed to believers. Thus, how much more an unbeliever cannot receive because their motives are worse than a believer. 

Reply to Objection 6: The answer to this objection is addressed in replies to objections 2 and 3.

Objection 7: Psalm 66:18 says “if I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” It must be said the unbeliever often, or always, prays with wickedness in their heart because of their sins. 

Reply to Objection 7: The answer to this objection is addressed in replies to objections 2 and 3.

Conclusion

That God hears the prayers of unbelievers should redound to His glory and praise. In His eternal benevolence, God can use the means of such prayers to bring about His ends. We know God loves His creation and delights in using divergent means, some of which are far beyond our comprehension, to attain His desired outcome. Isaiah 55:11-12 helpfully reminds us that God’s ways are higher and better than our ways. Such ways include the prayers of unbelievers. 


*Such an argument would presuppose a soteriological construct on which one cannot even pray to be saved but is saved first to enable them to pray. If one does not grant these theological precommitments, which would need to be successfully argued, then one cannot use this in support of a negative answer to the question at hand. For example, I surmise on perhaps some forms of Calvinism, one might hold that only believers can pray because God has enabled them to pray by unconditionally regenerating them. But this position would still run afoul of the issues mentioned. I see such a move as unhelpful in ultimately answering the question, because it undermines the question and further muddies the water with upstream debates. It is hard to see anything inherently problematic for the Calvinist to affirm God hearing or even answering the prayers of the unregenerate.
















Monday, May 11, 2020

Tainted Love?


This is not a post about the early 1980s cover song by the English synth-pop group Soft Cell. Rather, it is about something I heard in a sermon on Mother’s Day which advanced the claim that the love of an earthly mother is great, but such love is tainted. Tainted by sin. The only untainted love is from God.

Is this right?

And if so, what exactly is supposed to be the insight? Can it be anything other than to remind the listener that they are only, at best, perpetually “snow-covered dunghills” (to borrow an analogy from Luther that has permeated post-16th-century Christian thought)? Another mere platitude? Can it be anything other than a pious affirmation from the pulpit that everything a human person does is spoiled and tainted by sin? Because we are born in sin, want to wallow in sin, and never escape sin until death frees us from the shackles of our rotten flesh. Because we are on the wrong side of glory, nothing we do is without some flaw or ulterior selfish motive. Or so the thought process goes.

This cannot be right.

First, we must ask how it is that a term like love can be understood to entail privation, lack, or defect. Love is best and most coherently understood as "willing the good of the other." It is sometimes helpfully expanded to "willing the good of the other, for the sake of the other." And good is typically understood as that which is intrinsically good for the other as such, which entails both temporal and eternal goods. In other words, that which is genuinely perfective of the other person as a body/soul unity. When we read the oft-quoted “love” chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, we see that love is patient, kind, not boastful, etc. All these actions are directed toward the good of the other and show the giving away of the self for the other. 

Thus, if we accept the Christian traditional and biblical definition of love, and there are many good reasons to do so, then love cannot be tainted. It cannot be tainted because a tainted love is not loving at all. It would fail to meet the criteria (it would not be willing the good of the other, selfless, kind, and so on.). So, we must either acknowledge that a mother can love, or she cannot love. If sin taints love, then the act is not love. Sin-tainted actions toward another are something else other than love. They might resemble love in many ways but will not be love.

Christians believe that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16); it is His essence. We believe that divine love can be participated in. To a finite degree, just like existence itself, rational creatures participate in the love that is God. Therefore, we should think of love in terms of degree rather than kind. When we love, if it is indeed love, we dip our toe into the infinite pool of the divine. Or we can dive in. We can swim forever. It is still the incomprehensible bliss of God in which we participate. Nothing about this pool can be tainted. The water is pure and warm.

In much of the Christian tradition, love is conceived as a divine gift. If this is in any way true, then it becomes even more improper to think it is tainted. It is a gift from the giver who has no limit or imperfection. The perfect giver cannot give what He does not have, and He does not have imperfection. What is more, we can pour out love to others without limit because love (God) is the infinite wellspring of goodness.  

When an earthly mother loves, she most definitely loves without blemish. She may not love all the time. There are times, perhaps many, when she is imperfect. But her selflessness, kindness, patience, and all she does for her children (or grandchildren, adopted children, foster children, sponsor children…) in love are glimmers of the divine light, splashes from the pool of blessedness. Sometimes the splash is larger, but the water is the same. The act of love, if it is love, is not something that admits of flaw. It may be a kernel, but it is there nonetheless. It will be lesser in magnitude than Love itself, but there is at least an analog, lest our understanding of love evaporates into the aether of equivocation and nothingness. We can love in a finite, participated way. Yet we love all the same, and with no reason to think acts of love are less because we are less than we will, in totality, one day be.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Dialogue on Divine Impassibility

Conciliar Post has been very kind in posting my dialogue with Christopher Warne on divine impassibility. Chris was very gracious in his replies and addressing my points. He addresses my most recent post in the comments at the link above. I am very grateful to him and Conciliar Post for the opportunity. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A Further Response to "The Passibility of God - Part 1" at Conciliar Post

Christopher Warne has kindly responded to my critique of his essay at Conciliar Post on divine impassibility. I thank him for that and have appreciated this exchange. In what follows I will offer a response to his follow-up. If he responds further, I will post a link and leave the last word with him out of respect for his writing the thought-provoking originating essay and our points of departure being well-sketched by now.  


Warne takes up three points from my response. The first concerns my comments on Greek philosophy, which leads him to set forth a crucial aspect of Moltmann’s argument against divine impassibility. Warne follows Moltmann in denying impassibility because only a passable God can love, as he writes “To ignore or explain away this biblical evidence [for passibility via love] through greek philosophy or ‘Church Tradition’ is to surrender the Triune God for the impassible God of Greek Philosophy.” I respectfully disagree with this for several reasons. 

First, it turns on a highly idiosyncratic and inadequate conception of divine love. Warne quotes Moltmann as follows “If love is the acceptance of the other without regard to one’s own well-being, then it contains within itself the possibility of sharing in suffering and freedom to suffer as a result of the otherness of the other (Crucified God. 230)”. One problem with this definition is that we are told that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Love is predicated of the Triune Divine Essence itself, and not as a contingent attribute. Divine love on Moltmann’s view, as explicated by Warne, collapses into the creaturely. On such a view, sans creation, God would have at best incomplete love in Himself. But we should not think there is anything in the Divine Essence that would have the potential for suffering. As I argued earlier, suffering is a form of evil, a lack of some good or a desire for something one does not have, and thus cannot be predicated of a perfect God. God sans creation is perfect love; He does not need creatures to be love itself and to love Himself. Yet the only direction Moltmann’s definition can take us is toward a deficiency in God. It flattens the actuality of divine love and further threatens the ontological hierarchy (as it were) of Creature/creature. The “acceptance of the other” aspect in the definition of love given is also curious. I submit such phraseology would be an incorrect understanding of human love, let alone divine love. 

Further, there are thus far no good arguments or reasons to think it is true or necessary that for God to love us He must suffer. It does not follow that suffering and love necessarily go together in God. The positive case cannot be because suffering and love run together in man. Even if mutual suffering were a necessary condition for human love, which is contestable in itself, we would need further reasons to think it was the same in God, either in Himself or toward man. The proof texts on offer for this put us in the same place as the other proof texts for divine passibility; we are forced to interpret, judge, and rightly order them in light of the full revelation of God. And I argue that the texts offered in support of a passibility in God are best understood as not making literal metaphysical predications of the Divine Essence. For one thing, as I argued in my first response, an impassible God is the only God who can unconditionally love us and redeem us. So the only way to make systematic sense out of the entirety of redemptive revelation is to affirm impassibility in God. 

It also remains to be shown how suffering which spills over from the human to divine nature in Christ is biblical and within the bounds of orthodox Christology. That was one of the points I was driving at by citing part of the Athanasian Creed. Chalcedon might be of further help in clarifying this point

“...Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son…”

I fail to see how Moltmann’s view does not comingle and therefore confuse the divine and human natures of Christ. The passibility via love position demands that the human and divine natures suffer on the cross and that the Father and Holy Spirit suffer as well. It is puzzling that Moltmann finds the passibility of Christ in His human nature insufficient to reconcile love and human suffering. 

The next point taken up by Warne is that impassibility is unbiblical. He references a point I made on biblical passages often used as proof texts for divine passibility. Yet, there are also passages that speak of God having eyes (Habakkuk 1:13), arms (Deuteronomy 26:8), legs (Genesis 3:8), and lungs (Genesis 2:7, Job 27:3). Surely these passages are not communicating a literal truth about the Divine Nature itself. For if one opted for such a wooden understanding of these texts, we might be left with a very powerful creature, but not a Creator. We must adjudicate the texts speaking about God in metaphorical or anthropomorphic language with a view toward internal coherence and consistency. 

What I aimed for in my initial response was an acknowledgment that these passages have been understood to communicate things like mutability and passibility in God. The arguments for such an interpretation are not good. One of the main reasons is that they force contradictions upon the Bible about the nature of God because we would be forced to affirm and deny things about God in the same sense and at the same time (i.e. is He spatially extended, with large feet, or is He spirit and omnipresent?). If the Bible is the Word of God, it cannot contradict itself about the nature of its divine author. In sum, one can read the Bible and arrive at many divergent conceptions of God. Which one wins out? This is precisely where theology’s handmaiden comes to our aid. Psalm 18:2 tells us that God is our rock and fortress. Other passages say the same. Metaphorical language, to be sure. But it communicates a core truth to us about God; He is not shaken nor moved. This is why we can go to Him for refuge. Yet, if our fortress is being damaged, how can we confidently flee there? We could not. God is our help (Psalm 54:4, Hebrews 13:6) but He really cannot be if He needs help from suffering. 

Warne then argues that divine passibility does not entail mutability. I understand this to mean that God has passions and suffers but does not undergo change. Warne’s argument here ultimately appeals to paradox, God is unchanging yet somehow also suffers. The difference between paradox and contradiction has been well noted in these types of discussions. However, I cannot see anything but a contradiction here. If God in His essence is passible, immutability must be given up. There is no other coherent way to understand suffering without some kind of change in God. 

Much more could be said in response. I am grateful to the Lord for the opportunity to discuss a wonderful and challenging subject. I would like to thank Christoper Warne again for his writing and time spent in his response. And I hope we can shake hands and discuss this and other matters in person one day.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Response to "The Passibility of God Part 1" - Conciliar Post

In an essay dated September 18, 2019, Conciliar Post guest writer Christopher Warne addresses the attribute of divine impassibility. Warne’s writing is critical of impassibility, leaning heavily on the theology of Jurgen Moltmann. The purpose of this article is to respond to Warne and briefly sketch some reasons why Christians should embrace divine impassibility as an essential attribute of God. 

Warne argues almost exclusively from Moltmann and Richard Buakham’s analysis of Moltmann. The argument is not broken down formally, but for the sake of brevity could be rendered as follows: 

  1. If divine impassibility is true, God could not suffer. 
  2. God suffered on the cross of Christ.
  3. Divine impassibility is not true.

[1] is just a simplified stratum of divine impassibility. There are deep metaphysical roots to this divine attribute, it does not stand in isolation from antecedent predications of God and His attributes developed through a combination of robust natural and revealed theology. In this context, passibility can be understood to carry with it the connotation of a patient in a doctor/patient relationship. The doctor (or agent) acts upon the patient to bring about health (a change in state). For one to be a patiens, to endure or suffer, means that one must be capable of change. The adherent of divine impassibility argues that there is nothing in God that is changeable in principle. It is not that God merely cannot suffer in an emotional way, but that God is not acted upon by extrinsic forces whatsoever. 

It appears from Warne’s implicit endorsement of Moltmann that impassibility is first ruled out by way of prolegomena. Impassibility imbibes too much of a Greek flavor for reconciliation to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One cannot help but pause at this well-poisoning rhetorical device. The specter of Greek philosophy spoiling Christian theology is often addressed with simple hand-waving. Instead of acknowledging the possibility that the Greek philosophical schools could have latched onto some potentially helpful facts about God and the world (however incorrect or incomplete some their thought might be in light of biblical revelation), some theologians insist on a false dichotomy.  “Jerusalem vs. Athens” is issued forth by pious fiat. If one agrees that all truth is God’s truth, then the extent that thinkers in the Platonic or Aristotelian traditions arrived at truths by natural reason should be thought of as an aid to the Christian faith instead of an impediment.

The impassibility of God has been defended by many theologians, from the patristics to the scholastics to the Reformed divines. These thinkers have addressed the significant Trinitarian and Christological questions that naturally arise in such a discourse. Perhaps they argued wrongly, but the reader is due more than a quick dismissal of these historical thinkers and the doctrine of divine impassibility under the guise of ideas being infected by pagan philosophy. There is a genetic fallacy lurking here. 

Leaving prolegomena to the side for the moment, the key point of departure would be on [2] in the above argument. For the argument to go through, this premise would need to be true or at least more plausibly true than false. For this premise to be true, the defender of this argument - or any Moltmann-esque position - would have to demonstrate that God in His Divine Essence suffered at Calvary. It is to argue that God per se suffers. By arguing this way, Moltmann (and possibly Warne by endorsement) conflates the two natures of Christ in direct contradiction to revelation and orthodoxy. 

To quote from the Athanasian Creed (emphasis is the authors)

For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man. God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the substance of His mother, born into the world. Perfect God and Perfect Man, of a reasonable Soul and human Flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His Manhood. Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but One Christ.

This creed nicely summarizes key aspects of orthodox Christology, spanning the panoply of biblical revelation and apostolic teaching. The emphasis on the human nature of Christ is especially important for the present case. For nothing precludes us from affirming Christ’s suffering, undergoing change, or being passible in His human nature. But Moltmann’s argument is not that Christ suffered merely in His human nature, but that He suffered in totality (divine and human). Moreover, for Moltmann, each divine Person suffers in their divine nature. From his view, for God per se to not suffer with man would mean God could not be loving or omnibenevolent. A loving God does not stand apathetically unaffected by the sufferings of His beloved. This is the meta-position Moltmann brings to exegesis and what militates against divine impassibility. Yet, it is only by conflating the divine and human natures in Christ that [2] can be affirmed, and this is precisely what the defender of impassibility - and orthodoxy - must deny. Moltmann’s argument falls apart on pain of contradicting biblical revelation about the two natures of Christ. His argument can also be shown to fail because the impassibility of God is demonstrated independent of biblical revelation. 

For Moltmann, traditional Christology is deficient in the face of evil and suffering. He demands that the Divine Essence itself be moved by His creatures, lest God be apathetic, distant, cold, uncaring. However, in so arguing, Moltmann (and Warne perhaps) undermines the very attributes he seeks to uphold. There are several important aspects of divine impassibility that safeguard our salvation and guarantee God’s unchanging love for us. 

If God is passible, He is changeable. There would then be things outside God (humans, at least), that bring about processes in Him (shifting mental/emotional states). God would then be in process and subject to the whims of created beings. He would be mutable, and radically so. The implications for divine sovereignty would be dire, for some things are necessarily outside of His control and discretion. For God to suffer would mean that He would lack something or have something taken away from Him, joy or happiness perhaps. He would have emotional needs and He would be deprived of some good by virtue of suffering and therefore we could not say He is perfectly good in His essence, but only contingently good (and never actually so post-human creation, because humans would always be causing His suffering with their sinfulness). A passible God would necessarily be on the same ontological plane as creation and would exist in a proverbial back and forth that would be eerily similar to the non-Christian religions and philosophy which advocates of divine passibility try to eschew. The attribute of divine transcendence is lost if God is passible. A passible God is finite. For these reasons and many others, affirming divine passibility is highly problematic.

On the other hand, if God is impassible, then He retains transcendence over the created order. He retains His unique ontological status, and thus He is fully able to stand apart from and rectify evil and injustice. The impassible God is One who can unceasingly love man, for He is not subject to shifting feelings. The impassible God loves with a perfect love. He can only love those who suffer,  which is all mankind to varying degrees because He is free from any need. He is infinite love, He is love itself. He does not love because of something extrinsic to Himself, but because it is His very unchanging, unaffected essence. As David Bentley Hart writes, “no pathos is possible for God because pathos is, by definition, a finite instance of change visited upon a passive subject, actualising some potential, whereas God's love is pure positivity and pure activity.” (The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, 167). 

To be sure, divine impassibility has a venerable cadre of critics. In addition to the arguments Warne presents from Moltmann, detractors of impassibility often cite a lack of support in the biblical texts and philosophical problems with the metaphysics and implications of the doctrine. For example, the Bible describes God as suffering (Genesis 6:6, Psalm 78:40, Ephesians 4:30) and there may be a exegetical limit to how much of this can be situated in metaphorical or anthropomorphic language.  And it may be argued that the underlying metaphysics (God as Actus Purus, etc.) of impassibility would preclude any change whatsoever, even Cambridge changes, or that impassibility results in some variation of modal collapse. Space constraints will preclude an explication of these criticisms and defense of impassibility against them, but they have been addressed at length elsewhere (see for example Weinandy Does God Suffer). More could also be said on the arguments from natural theology that support impassibility, the language of predication of divine attributes, and so forth. It should suffice for now that the historical-theological arguments of Moltmann, et. al. offered by Warne are not at all injurious to divine impassibility. Instead, the idiosyncratic tendencies, structural weakness, and heterodoxy of these positions show the strengths of upholding impassibility in God.

That there is an inherent limitation in human understanding of the divine and human natures in Christ and intra-Trinitarian relations should not lead us to question what revelation provides. When we abandon divine impassibility, we give up far more than we could ever gain. We turn away from the God who said to Moses “I AM, “ we turn away from the God who upholds the universe by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3), and we, therefore, end up turning away from the Lord Jesus Christ who is true God and True man. Our Lord did suffer along with us in His human nature while remaining perfectly, beautifully, transcendently, and redemptively loving in His impassible divine nature.