Sunday, March 24, 2013

Suffering Impassible God (Impassibility as an Apophatic Qualifier)



Suffering Impassible God (Impassibility as an Apophatic Qualifier)

“This chapter offers a preliminary analysis of the function of the divine impassibility in select patristic sources without special reference to the Christological debates on the incarnation.” The Fathers did not emphasize impassibility. They wrote much more about God’s love, mercy, anger, and compassion than his impassibility.

Gavrilyuk contends that, contrary to the claims of the proponents of the Theory of Theology’s Fall into Hellenistic Philosophy, the Fathers did not associate apatheia with divine apathy or indifference. He presents three functions of impassibility in patristic thought:


  1. Distinguishing the true God from the gods of mythology
  2. Affirming God’s impassibility was not incompatible with his “emotionally coloured characteristics, e.g., love, mercy, and compassion.” And especially anger.
  3. Impassibility was part of apophatic theology. It was primarily an ontological rather than a psychological term.
God is Unlike Pagan Deities
The gods of mythology were passionate and weak. Even pagan philosophers (beginning with Xenophanes in the sixth century B.C.) accused polytheists of illegitimate anthropomorphism. Christians continued the assault against pagan concepts of the divine.

For the most part, early Christian apologists simply echoed the arguments that had long been leveled against the gods of mythology. These arguments included: 1) the events of mythology were no events at all, simply fables; 2) If there were any kernel of truth in the stories at all it lay in the lives of ordinary humans who were later elevated to divine status after death; 3) Some of the gods seemed to be only the personification of certain (rather undesirable) human passions.

Christians did make at least one new contribution. They contended that the demigods were in fact evil demons – fallen angels. “Christians did not hesitate to identify all the immortal inhabitants of Olympus with these unseemly creatures, the demons.”

The gods of mythology were subject to passions. Justin points out that, in contradistinction to the Christian God, Persephone and Aphrodite were “stung to madness by love for Adonis,” others lusted for women, Thetis was worried that her son Achilles “should destroy many of the Greeks because of his concubine Briseis.” Contrasted with such gods, it is clear that the Christian God is impassible. God is not a slave to intense and irrational emotional outbursts of anger, envy, lust, greed, hatred, and vengeance.

By making clear that God is unlike the gods of pagan religions, the Fathers prepared the way for their declaration that the Christian God possessed “God-befitting emotionally couloured characteristics such as mercy, love, and compassion.” “Divine impassibility meant first of all that God is in total control of his actions and that morally objectionable emotions are alien to him.”

God’s Anger
As we have seen, around the time of Christianity’s birth educated pagans had, as a whole, come to affirm divine impassibility. The Fathers, while critical of the ignoble acts and emotions of the deities of the folk religions that surrounded them, were themselves criticized by their educated neighbors for believing in a deity who was sometimes subject to similar emotional displays. To them, the Christian understanding of impassibility was too weak.

Speaking of divine anger in the OT, Julian said:
The philosophers bid us imitate the gods so far as we can, and they teach us that this imitation consists in the contemplation of realities. And that this sort of study is remote from passion (δίχα πάθους) and is indeed based on freedom from passion (εν απάθεια κειται), is, I suppose, evident, even without my saying it. In proportion then as we, having been assigned to the contemplation of realities, attain to freedom from passion (εν απάθεια), in so far do we become like God. But what sort of imitation of God is praised among the Hebrews? Anger and wrath and fierce jealousy (οργή καί θυμός καί ζήλος άγριος).

This critique is representative of many others of the time.

Seneca, evidencing the popularity of the Stoic claim that anger is always beneath even an earthly philosopher, let alone God, claimed that “the philosophical schools were in agreement that God is free from anger.” Some Christian apologists, such as Athenagoras, Aristides, and Arnobius, accepted the dominant view of the day and insisted that God is never angry, since anger is always evil.

Marcion, who rejected the OT and its warlike God, spurred the Fathers on to develop a more nuanced account of divine anger. Most of the Fathers (Gavrilyuk emphasizes Irenaeus and Tertullian here) stubbornly held to their conviction that God’s anger is fitting – a manifestation of his justice. Irenaeus wrote:

That they [the Marcionites] might take away the vindictive and judicial power from the Father, imagining that to be unworthy of God, and thinking that they had found a god angerless (sine iracundia) and good, they taught that the one [god] is a judge and the other is a savior, ignorant of the fact that they were taking away the intelligence and justice of both deities.
In an endeavor to articulate the importance of God’s anger, Tertullian introduced a new expression – ‘judicial sentiment’ (judiciaries sensus). Tertullian contended that if God could not be angry several other characteristics would be lost as well. He could not be just, merciful, good, or intelligent if he could not be angry.

The Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (Gavrilyuk suggests an early third century dating and Syriac origin) presents a view that, like Tertullian’s connects justice and anger:
[T]he philosophers say that god is not angry, not knowing what they say. For anger is evil whenever it disturbs the mind (mentem turbat) so that it destroys right judgment. That anger, however, which punishes the wicked does not bring on disturbance of the mind (perturbationem menti non infert), but is, I may say, one and the same affection which allots rewards to the good and punishment to the wicked. For if he should give blessings to the virtuous and to the wicked and bestow similar remuneration on the good and the evil, he would appear unjust rather than good.
This prominent strand of early Christian thinking insisted that without divine anger there can be no divine justice.

Lactantius further developed the Christian response to the philosophers’ denial of divine anger. He refuted the Epicurean’s total rejection of providence. Then he went on to contend with the Stoic belief that anger is always evil – a belief that some were quite strongly committed to. “Seneca went so far as to say that even when a horrible crime, like the killing of one’s father and the rape of one’s mother was committed before the philosopher’s very eyes, a true lover of wisdom should remain tranquil and would strive to avenge and protect his relatives without anger.” Lactantius insisted that anger was fitting when directed toward the punishment of the wicked. When crimes are committed in God’s world (which Lactantius compares to a household), it is right for God to punish those crimes. God’s anger is always just. “Justin, Theophilus, Cyprian, Commodian, and others shared the conviction that anger was a powerful tool for expressing condemnation of sin.”

But does God feel anger? Clement of Alexandrian and Origen say no. They taught that the Bible attributes anger to God so that holy fear will fall upon the simple. Of course Clement and Origen knew that such language wasn’t to be taken literally. Likewise, John Cassian denied that God himself felt anger. Rather, the wrath of God was something humans felt. Augustine too sometimes held this subjectivist view of divine anger.

Tertullian, Lactantius, Novatian, and Cyril of Alexandria weighed in on the other side of this debate. Though they were careful to nuance the assertion, they did maintain that God felt anger. God is never overpowered by anger. He is always in control of his anger. And he is always angry for the right reasons. Yet, God does indeed feel anger. Tertullian (who affirmed divine impassiblity) said that the ‘human soul has the same emotions and sensations as God,’ believing that our emotions are part of the imago Dei in human beings.

Similarly, at least in some places, Augustine contends that God does experience a variety of human emotions.
[A]lthough God cannot suffer [anything evil] (deus nihil [mali] pati posit), and patience (patienda) surely has its name from suffering (patiendo), we not only faithfully believe in a patient God (patientem Deum), but also steadfastly acknowledge Him to be such. Who can explain in words the nature and the quatity of God’s patience? We say He is impassible (nihil patientem), yet not impatient (impatientem); nay, rather, extremely patient (patientissimum). His patience is indescribable, yet it exists as does His jealousy, His wrath, and any characteristic of this kind. But, if we conceive of these qualities, as they exist in us, He has none of them. We do not experience these feelings without annoyance (sine molestia), but far be it from us to suspect an impassible God (impassiblem Dei) of suffering any annoyance. Just as He is jealous without any ill will, as He is angry without being emotionally upset, as He pities without grieving, as He is sorry without correcting any fault, so He is patient without suffering at all.
Augustine doesn’t deny divine emotions, but contends that they lack all the negative aspects of human emotions.
Impassibility as Apophatic Qualifier of Divine Emotions
Divine impassibility doesn’t tend to show up alone. Gavrilyuk contends that proponents of the Theory of Theology’s Fall into Hellenistic Philosophy have often overlooked this context. Impassibility comes up along with other declarations of what God is not. God is not visible, finite, effable, created, corruptible, mutable, or passible. Some of these apophatic statements should not be taken to their absolute logical limits. They all serve to show that God is transcendent. He is unlike his creatures.
His dissimilarity to creatures runs both ways. For instance, God is said to be invisible. This, however, may be primarily a statement about our (at least for the time being) creaturely limitations. We cannot see him in his fullness. “[T]he adjectives invisible, incomprehensible, and inexpressible qualify to see, comprehend, and describe God. These qualifiers do not function in such a way as to rule out God’s ability to disclose himself to humans. In this case, negation functions as superlative.”
So, when patristic theology insists that God is not passible it does not mean that God has no emotions whatsoever. The Fathers did not portray God as apathetic or indifferent. The term apatheia was only intended to convey that God does not experience emotions precisely as we do. Well…until we start talking about the incarnation.

Closing Thoughts (Chapter 2)
I really enjoyed this chapter. I was a bit surprised to see how much Gavrilyuk’s evidence  still seems to support the idea that Hellenistic philosophy influenced patristic theology(e.g. Athenagoras, Aristides, and Arnobius all insisted that God was never angry). I had gotten the impression that he was going to utterly demolish the Theory.
I liked the handy listing of which Fathers took a more subjectivist view of divine anger and which believed that God felt emotions in himself. At this point, Tertullian’s understanding resonates with me. I suspect that human emotions are part of the vestigial imago Dei.
It’s been interesting to see how often the philosophers suppose that God (or gods) serves as an example for humans. So, if God doesn't get angry then humans shouldn’t get angry. If we applied that sort of thinking in reverse, going from prescribed NT ethics for humans to God (who we’re surely called to imitate), would we suppose that God is emotional?
The NT commands and condemns many emotions. It also commands imitation of God. This may be a way around the objection that language about God’s emotions is only anthropopathic. Even if we grant that, if we are called to rejoice, be glad, weep, pity, and practice patience should we not suppose that God’s emotional life is somehow alike?
Speaking of patience or longsuffering, Augustine’s introduction of patience into this discussion interests me immensely. How can a being who never suffers be said to be patient?