Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Suffering of the Impassible God (Introduction)

The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought
The doctrine of divine (im)passibility piqued my interest the moment I first learned of it in Bible College. I even wrote a paper on the subject in Systematic Theology II (in which I argued against it). I simply could not understand how impassibility could ever have been accepted in the first place. I’m still trying to get it. That’s why I’m reading this book. It’s considered among the best books on the subject. I’m excited to finally be reading it. It’s my intention to take my time with this book, summarizing it and sharing my reflections here.

From what I can tell, this will be the best treatment of the Father's view of impassibility I’ve read so far. I believe it will fill gaps left by Weinandy’s Does God Suffer? and Hallman’s Descent of God. In the revised edition of The God Who Risks Sanders gave credit to Gavrilyuk for enlightening him on the seemingly self-contradictory patristic perspectives on (im)passibility

From impassibility to passibility
Gavrilyuk begins his book by acknowledging that most of today’s theologians accept the premise that God suffers. Though this view contradicts much church tradition, it has become the new orthodoxy.

According to Gavrilyuk, it has now become common to dismiss the patristic concept of apatheia without giving serious study to its function in the writings of the Fathers. The allegation that the Fathers were unduly influenced by Hellenistic philosophy has come to be taken for granted by many in contemporary theology. Gavrilyuk questions this new conventional wisdom (which he calls the “Theory of Theology’s Fall Into Hellenistic Philosophy”), refuting everyone from Adolf von Harnack and Abraham Heschel to Jurgen Moltmann and Joseph M. Hallman.

How much does God suffer?
He points out problems with unqualified Divine passibility. Unrestricted impassibility appears obviously unbiblical. But so does the other extreme. If God is utterly passible, we have problems. If that is true, then God is subject to all emotions. But certain emotions are clearly beneath the holiness of God (e.g. “greed, lust, fear, or anxiety”). It might also imply that God can be so overcome by emotion that he becomes helpless, which is obviously not true of the God of the Bible.

Gavrilyuk argues that in order for God to endure some forms of suffering he must have a body and soul or something like them. In order for God to suffer just as we do he must share a human nature. This resonates with patristic thinking.

Then there’s the question of whether, if God suffers, his suffering is voluntary or not. Few Christian theologians would want to argue that God cannot foresee and exercise sovereignty over any suffering that comes his way. There is nothing virtuous about suffering for no good reason. If God suffers he must suffer in a purposeful way (Paul Fiddes agrees).

Jesus loves me?
But what of compassion? Isn’t it the essence of compassion to ‘suffer-with’? Gavrilyuk spends some time on this point. He considers this part of the “archargument” against impassibility. If God is the loving God of providential care and compassion, how can we call him impassible?

Obviously, God acts compassionately. But Gavrilyuk argues that suffering is not a necessary part of compassion. Take the surgeon for example. His compassionate action of practicing surgery would only be weakened by entering into the suffering of his patient. Imagine a house on fire. People are suffering inside. A crowd gathers. Some members of the crowd begin to weep and howl. One even has a fit and passes out. Another sets herself ablaze in order to suffer with the people in the house. Then a man, unmoved by emotion, recognizes that the people need help, and, risking his own life, saves the people in the building from a fiery death. To Gavrilyuk, the question of who showed genuine compassion in this situation has an obvious answer – the rescuer.

This analysis of human compassion applies by way of analogy to the case of divine
compassion in the incarnation. Divine compassion presupposes both impassibility and passibility. It is the main contention of the patristic understanding of the incarnation that God, remaining fully divine, became human, accepted the limitations of human existence, subjected himself to voluntary suffering for the salvation of the world and triumphed over sin, death, and corruption in the end. God is impassible inasmuch as he is able to conquer suffering and he is passible inasmuch as he is able to suffer in and through human nature.

Closing thoughts (on the Introduction)
Though I’m not quite convinced by his arguments about compassion, I am certainly enjoying learning from this book. I was first introduced to the Theory of Theology’s Fall Into Hellenistic Philosophy while attending Bible College. There at the college library and online I found the Theory expounded by Open Theists (whose ideas captivated me at the time, and still do for that matter). It looks like this book is going to correct my thinking a bit. I’m glad for that, especially since I’ve come to respect the Fathers more since my Bible College days. It’ll be nice to be convinced that they were not self-contradicting or syncretistic when it came to the subject of divine pathos. 

If you have any thoughts on the subject please share them. I'm always eager to learn. 
Next post Chapter 1