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The majority of Christian theologians have held that God is 'impassible' where impassibility means God's inability to be changed/affected by creatures, particularly in reference to his emotional life. This helped to distinguish the one true God from the pagan gods who could be manipulated with sacrifices or often seemed to lack control over their own power. However, many theologians today have argued for more qualified versions of impassibility in which God voluntarily, by choice, created the world in such a way as to allow it to influence his emotions and his decisions. Some theologians suggest it is incompatible to claim that an impassible God would impassibly choose to become passible, while others claim that he does so in a biblical-ly supported paradox. Does this seem logically/biblically/theologically problematic to you and if so help me flesh out potential objections. For context, much of the discussion seems to revolve around the nature of Jesus' hypostatic union.

The inability for God to truly suffer (be passible) is at the heart of virtually every Christian tradition's conception of God, since according to the IVPs Divine Impassibility: Four Views of God's Emotions and Suffering:

Despite modern bewilderment or offense taken at the strong account of divine impassibility, historically it commanded wide ecumenical backing, being maintained by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, and more. Among Protestants, it enjoyed sponsorship from figures as diverse as John Calvin, James Arminius, John Gill, and John Wesley. (21)

I need other perspectives on this topic. What are potential objections to the voluntary passibility?

An example of voluntary passibility is given by Professor Richard Bauckham (emphasis added):

It seems increasingly obvious that the Greek philosophical inheritance in traditional theology was adopted without the necessary critical effect of the central Christian insight into the divine nature: the love of God revealed in the cross of Christ. For the Greeks, suffering implied deficiency of being, weakness, subjection, instability. But the cross shows us a God who suffers out of the fullness of his being because he is love. He does not suffer against his will, but willingly undertakes to suffer with and for those he loves. His suffering does not deflect him from his purpose, but accomplishes his purpose. His transcendence does not keep him aloof from the world, but as transcendent love appears in the depth of his self-sacrificing involvement in the world. Finally, if Christians know anything about God from the cross, it is that 'the weakness of God is stronger than men' (1 Cor. 1:25).

  • It's relevant for all Christian denominations since according to IVPs Divine Impassibility: Four Views of God's Emotions and Suffering "Despite modern bewilderment or offense taken at the strong account of divine impassibility, historically it commanded wide ecumenical backing, being maintained by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, and more. Among Protestants, it enjoyed sponsorship from figures as diverse as John Calvin, James Arminius, John Gill, and John Wesley" (21). – ninthamigo Apr 29 at 17:32
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    "voluntary passibility" doesn't seem to be an established theological term (see Google search result) so to get better answer I think you need to define what you mean – GratefulDisciple Apr 30 at 4:52
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    God is known and understood by means of his own revelation of himself, That is to say, his revelation of himself, through chosen prophets and apostles, in documented holy scripture. Why is it, I wonder, that you are not content with what scripture has revealed of the one true God ? – Nigel J Apr 30 at 10:12
  • @NigelJ It is BECAUSE I care about what the scriptures reveal, and they appear to be at odds with the interpretive philosophy of the most of church history that I am trying to discover a way to affirm them (scriptures) without also rejecting the teaching of the Church that God must be entirely impassible. – ninthamigo Apr 30 at 10:27
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    Does scripture not deal with such matters (Romans chapters 1:1 to 3:20), but without using the terminology of philosophy ? Does it help to invent such terms and to debate about them, when they are not in scripture ? I find it all of no help and of no interest myself. I want to be saved : not 'clever'. – Nigel J Apr 30 at 11:10
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This short 2015 First Things magazine article The Impassible God of the Bible - Replying to Some Objections mentions one potential objection to the passibility of God.

Concluding paragraph:

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.

The paragraph can be read as a potential objection to God's passibility, even at the most obvious example where God is passible (the suffering of Christ for us), by saying that merely suffering together is not sufficient to be redemptive.

Using an analogy of God as an ideal psychoanalyst / counselor, God is willing to journey together with our suffering: cry together with us, angry with others who harm us, understand our pain, etc. But if the counselor is so overcome with our suffering that he/she becomes incapacitated with sadness / anger / hopelessness, how can the counselor help us?

Therefore, when the counselor is out of the counseling session, the counselor needs to be "impassible" when reviewing his notes about us. He/she needs to be able 1) to see our blind spots (which is not possible if the counselor cannot "get out" of our situation) and 2) to suggest avenues for healing.

In the same way, God, while being impassible, can still identify with our suffering. I think the doctrine of impassibility of God properly understood still allows for this, and thus passages in Scripture where God is portrayed as angry, pained, compassionate, etc. can coexist with His impassibility. One way is to go with this writer's approach by "reflecting deeper on the doctrine of God and the Trinity as well as Christology."

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    I really appreciate your last paragraph, and I think it helped me cut through to the core issue of the relation of God's simplicity to human complexity. What I found interesting as a protestant was that the impassibility espoused there seems to want to discard penal substitution. But another question for another day! – ninthamigo Apr 30 at 6:39
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    @ninthamigo My personal welcome to the site, and I look forward to your penal substitution question. What I'm somewhat not comfortable is "God judged Christ with the just condemnation of sin." I know that's standard Protestant theology, but Eastern Orthodox seems to emphasize Jesus's triumph at the cross instead. See also Eastern Orthodox on penal substitution. – GratefulDisciple Apr 30 at 19:59
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I would think that impassibility refers not to God's inability to become incarnate and experience suffering, or simply life as a man in that nature, but to God's invulnerability to pre-existing phenomena or laws of any kind, of which suffering if merely an instance or example. Suffering usually comes from some form of punishment, survival mechanisms, etc., but this can't apply to God who precedes everything absolutely and is subject to no laws at all. In other words, impassibility is probably best viewed as the inability (so to speak) of God to be helpless 'victim' to suffering, and not His inability to, if He so pleases, experience suffering in a human nature.

Indeed, doesn't He somehow have to have experienced human suffering, and everything else, in some way, purely through His intimate, immediate, eternal, knowledge of absolutely all things?

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  • It seems you are expressing a form of voluntary passibility i.e. God can be passible if he chooses to (if he is never overcome by his passions). You make a really interesting point that at least in terms of knowledge he must 'experience' our passions/suffering! However, I'm more of this opinion already and am looking for OBJECTIONS to voluntary passibility to help me think critically about my beliefs. – ninthamigo May 1 at 23:09
  • @ninthamigo On first reading, Richard Bauckham's position seems quite compatible with the traditional notion of impassibility, and is similar how Sola Gratia beautifully describes it. So if you define "voluntary passibility" this way, why would there be objections? What's problematic seems to be usual definition of "passibility" exemplified by 20th century theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann. I found Bauckham's Themelios article of his position but I haven't read it. – GratefulDisciple May 1 at 23:21
  • @GratefulDisciple I made a mistake in my comment above - I should have described this as 'voluntary impassibility' - i.e. identical with my own view. My understanding is voluntary impassibility suggests in the God-man that the human person of Christ suffers and God suffers paradoxically with him - willingly through his choice to be incarnate. But Bauckham seems to imply, with Moltmann, that the suffering of Christ is an echo of the eternally passible heart of God-self even apart from the cross. This is not what I understand to be impassibility but passibility, a view which seems to break (con) – ninthamigo May 1 at 23:41
  • with the affirmations of all major denominations that God in God-self is impassible (in some meaning of the term). Bauckham says that: "The cross is the expression in this world of the suffering in the eternal heart of God." – ninthamigo May 1 at 23:42
  • If God knows the end from the beginning, and if we are not willing to limit the extent of this knowledge, then God the Father has always seen His son on the cross, always seen His son risen from the dead, always seen His son coming again and judging and reigning forever and all of this has always been His plan from before Creation. In the Divine economy, Christ suffered prior to Creation. The sufferings of Christ, then, can't be labeled Divine Passibility when it was the pre-creative foreknown purpose. – Mike Borden Jun 6 at 15:21
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The Hypostatic Union of Christ, who is the second Person of the Godhead, in no way infringes upon the impassible nature of God. For Jesus acts according to each nature, separately, as each nature is completely separate from the other. As Sam Renihan states in his book, God Without Passions, a Primer, “the divine [nature] never [becomes] the human, and the human never [becomes] the divine. The London Baptist Confession (1689) says “Christ... acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself.” I would highly recommend reading (if you haven’t yet) the aforementioned book, as well as Renihan’s more comprehensive companion work, God Without Passions, a Reader, to more fully grasp this concept.

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  • "as each nature is completely separate from the other" Not according to Chalcedon: "acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably" – curiousdannii May 2 at 0:46

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