Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Suffering of the Impassible God (Chapter 1)

Gavrilyuk begins his attack against The Theory of Theology’s Fall into Hellenistic Philosophy by attempting to demonstrate that both Hellenistic philosophy and the Bible itself are more diverse and complex in their views on divine emotions than the Theory suggests.

Hellenistic Philosophies

There was no single Hellenistic understanding of divine emotions and involvement with the world. Cicero bore witness to this fact in 1 BC:

There is in fact no subject upon which so much difference of opinion exists [speaking of “whether the gods are entirely idle (nihil agant) and inactive (nihil moliantur)” or controlling all things], not only among the unlearned but also among educated men; and the views entertained are so various and so discrepant, that, while it is no doubt a possible alternative that none of them is true, it is certainly impossible that more than one should be so.

Sextus Empiricus confirms that such was the still case in the second century AD. To simplify things, Gavrilyuk focuses on the dominant views within three competing schools: Epicurean, Stoic, and Middle Platonic.


The Epicureans accepted the traditional belief that gods possessed immortal bodies and were anthropomorphic. They taught that divine happiness consisted in not being influenced by anything external. According to Epicurus, gods are ‘strangers to suffering; nothing can cause them any joy or inflict on them any suffering from outside’. The gods are not subject to experiences judged on the basis of hedonistic ethics as negative, such as anxiety, fear, grief, anger, envy, fatigue, and pain.

Yet, even the Epicureans believed that the gods have what Gavrilyuk calls “emotionally coloured features.” They believed that the gods are happy, and that human happiness largely comes through the gods. Part of what keeps the gods happy is their complete lack of involvement in human affairs. This meant that the gods were not so weak as to care (and thereby become emotionally dependent) about any creature. It also meant that humans had nothing to fear from the gods.

Common folks didn’t much care for the Epicurean view on these things. It seemed like they were rejecting religion entirely. Even the Stoics and Middle Platonists picked on the Epicureans for denying providence.


The early Stoics did believe freedom from pathē was the ideal – for humans. The god of the Stoics, on the other hand, was not part of the discussion since it was impersonal, “identified with the fiery breath, or with the world-soul, or with the seminal reason of the world, or even with the world itself.”

Yet, not every Stoic description of god (or the gods) is impersonal. As part of their critique of popular myths, Stoics insisted that the gods did not become angry or hurt anyone. Some Stoics believed that demons helped and watched over humanity. Some were rather devout and taught that the gods heard and responded to prayer. They articulated a complex view of providence.

To conclude, the Stoics held two distinct views: (1) God is material and impersonal, and guides the world as an immanent seminal reason; (2) gods are non-anthropomorphic powers who care both for the operation of the world and for humans. The problem of divine emotions was largely irrelevant to both views.
Middle Platonic

The Middle Platonists held more consistent views. They believed that beyond the world of the seen was a higher realm, the realm of ideas.

This conception of reality involved several pairs of antithetical oppositions; sensible and intelligible, becoming and being, material and formal, corporeal and incorporeal, visible and invisible, temporal and eternal, mutable and immutable, passible and impassible. Correspondingly, the universe had the following basic structure: the highest levels were occupied by the invisible, immaterial, and intelligible things, or ideas; the lowest levels were populated by visible, material, and sensible entities; whereas the intermediary levels were assigned to the objects to which boths sets of descriptions could be applied.

The supreme and impassible God interacts with the material world only indirectly, through lower gods. Like the Stoics, Middle Platonists affirmed God’s providential care for all nations. “It is true that among educated pagans, whose philosophical views tended towards later Platonism, the divine impassibility did acquire the status of a universally shared opinion.” This was, however, a later development. Though first mentioned in Aristotle, the Fathers “show no awareness” of this obscure point.

Mystery Cults

In order to stress the diversity of Hellenistic thought, Gavrilyuk points to the gods of the mystery cults. Those gods suffered and were passionate.

The meaning of apatheia

Not only did the various philosophical schools disagree about the desirability of apatheia, whether human or divine, they also took the term to mean different things – and the disagreement continues to this day. The Fathers were also aware of this debate, and added their voices to the mix.

The term was first used as a technical term by the Stoics. The main point of contention is whether apatheia denotes literal freedom from all emotions. Critics have tended to take the term quite literally. Jerome, for instance contended that in order to be impassible one must be vel saxum, vel deum, either stone or God.

While the early Stoics did have a negative attitude toward passions, later Stoicism, while continuing to use apatheia as the term for the ideal state, granted that some feelings are profitable for the formation of character. It is noteworthy that, “Quite apart from the influence of Stoicism, the term pathē had a negative connotation for the Greek-speaking world which the term ‘emotion’ does not have today.”

In contrast to the trend since Freud to look at the expression of strong emotion as a healthy thing, Hellenists supposed that the expression of pathē was destructive to human nature and clouded moral judgment. We now perceive emotions to play an important part in moral judgment.

Anti-anthropomorphic and Anti-anthropopathic Tendencies in the Bible

Gavrilyuk begins this section by conceding that, “It must be admitted that the Bible ascribes to God a much wider range of human emotion than any philosophically minded pagan of the Hellenistic would ever find appropriate.” But Gavrilyuk contends that “the biblical authors themselves” sometimes find the descriptions of God’s emotional life to be “problematic.” Certainly, God does not experience love, hatred, anger, or jealousy quite like we do. For example, Gavrilyuk contends that, unlike us, “God does not seek gratification of his own desires in love, but pursues only the welfare of his creatures.”

Diversity Within the Canon

Scripture teaches that God repents (Gen 6:5-7; Ex 32:12-14; Deut 32:36; Jud 2:18; 1 Sam 15:11; Ps 90:13; 106:45; 135:14; Jer 42:10; Hos 11:8-9; Jon 3:9-10; 4:2). The Bible teaches that God cannot repent (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Hos 13:14). Gavrilyuk rejects the idea that these seeming contradictions should not be harmonized. He contends that the canon demands that we seek to read the Bible in a coherent way.

Gavrilyuk sees in the OT prohibition of idolatry an implicit rejection of anthropomorphism. He criticizes passibilists for not treating this subject extensively enough when claiming that the biblical material supports their theologies.

Now we get to the heart of his argument here. The translators of the LXX downplay anthropomorphic and anthropopathic elements in the Hebrew Scriptures. Exodus 32:14 goes from ‘Yahweh repented of the evil’ to ‘the Lord was moved with compassion.’ Abraham’s prayer, ‘Oh let not the Lord be angry’ becomes ‘let it be nothing, oh Lord, if I speak’ (Gen 18:30). The Hebrew, ‘that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel’ becomes ‘that there be no sin among the children of Israel’ in the LXX (Num 1:53). God does not ‘pass over’, as in the Hebrew, at the first Passover. Instead, what he does is ‘cover’. Such adjustments are not consistently made in the LXX. Yet, the tendency is unquestionable.

Isaiah 63:9 is commonly cited in discussions of (im)passibility. It reads thus in the KJV: 'In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old' (Isa 63:9). The LXX on the other hand reads: ‘And he became to them deliverance out of all their affliction: not an ambassador, not a messenger, but he himself saved them, because he loved them and spared them.’ Jeremiah 31:20 is another example of the anti-anthropopathic tendencies of the LXX translators. ‘My bowels are troubled for him’ became ‘therefore I made haste to help him.’

Gavrilyuk sees all this as evidence that there was already an anti-anthropomorphic/pathic tendency within pre-Christian Judaism prior to the influence of Hellenism. He cites Fritsch’s opinion that the LXX was sufficiently different from the Hebrew Scriptures to present a different picture of God. The fact that the early church read the LXX certainly has changed the face of theology ever since.


Anthropomorphisms are a sort of necessary evil for Philo. Such descriptions are “helpful pedagogically for admonishing and educating simpler minds.” Anthropomorphisms always needed proper apophatic qualifiers.

Philo’s interpretations were shaped by the Bible he read – the LXX. So Philo did not read ‘God is not a man’ in Numbers 23:19, but rather, ‘God is not as a man.’ When he interpreted Genesis 6:6-7 he noted that there were some people (‘careless inquirers’) who got it quite wrong by supposing that the text means that God repented of creating the human race. The Hebrew text does indeed say that God ‘repented’ and was ‘grieved’ when he saw the violence of the race. The LXX, on the other hand, says, ‘God considered in his mind that he had made man upon the earth, and he thought upon it.’ To claim that God repented and grieved over creating man was completely unacceptable to Philo because it contradicted foreknowledge and presented God as changeable. In this same passage the LXX says that God was angry. Philo makes clear that this does not mean that God is subject to anger or any other passion. Such emotions are part of “human weakness.” He did, however, purport that joy, compassion, mercy and such like are characteristics of God. These God shares freely with his people.

Closing Thoughts (Chapter 1)

I appreciate the information Gavrilyuk has gathered (though sometimes I wish it was organized a bit more clearly). But I’m still not convinced of his conclusions.

He’s obviously right that there was no single Hellenistic view of divine emotions and involvement with the world. But I don’t recall anyone making such a simplistic claim. Certainly, no one is suggesting that the theologies of the Hellenistic mystery religions influenced the Fathers. Plato, on the other hand, has often been credited for having an influence on the Fathers. And Gavrilyuk grants that later Platonic impassibility became the standard view among educated Hellenic pagans.

His contention that the LXX translators were part of a larger anti-anthropomoric and anti-anthropopathic theological stream within pre-Christian Judaism may well be true. Unfortunately, he doesn’t back up his claim with evidence. Did the LXX translators get it right? What if they got it wrong and thereby misled the Fathers?

Maybe I’m being a bit nit-picky, but I was turned off by his description of our Lord’s words, “my bowels are troubled for him” as a “reference to the divine digestive system.” This strikes me as cheap and disrespectful. 

I wonder why he did not explore (im)passibility in the NT. Perhaps he’s just taking on his opponents where they have been making their attacks. Regardless, I wish he had explored the NT material in order to attempt to demonstrate continuity or discontinuity between the Hebrew Scriptures, the NT, and the Fathers on the subject at hand.

Chapter 2...