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. 

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