Friday, April 5, 2013

The Suffering of the Impassible God (Docetism Resisted)

The Suffering of the Impassible God

This chapter is so full of fascinating and important stuff that it’s been hard to choose what to leave out. At times I’ve wanted to quote pages on end. I continue to try to fairly represent Gavrilyuk’s work and leave off commentary until the end of the post.

“Docetism Resisted: Christ’s Suffering is Real”

Gavrilyuk now turns to Christological debates in the early church. Current scholarship tends to divide the Fathers into two camps – the impassibilists (the majority view) and the passibilists (the minority view). Sometimes the evidence for placing individuals in these camps is slim.

In previous chapters Gavriyuk has sought to demonstrate that this either/or approach to (im)passibility is inadequate. This proof-texting approach to the Fathers has failed to take into account the broader context of patristic belief and practice. “Instead of merely assembling theopaschite statements as presumably conveying a biblical idea of divine involvement, we will do better if we consider both impassibility and passibility as corollary terms necessary for an adequate account of the incarnation.” 

A Tension Introduced
From the beginning, Christians lived and died declaring faith in the crucified one. The NT includes (creedal) hymns devoted to the crucified Jesus. They tend to include three emphases – 1) pre-existence, 2) earthly ministry (including suffering and crucifixion), and 3) exaltation. Philippians 2 is a key example.

Many proto-creedal statements (such as those found in the writings of Justin Martyr) followed the same pattern for the second article – pre-existence, earthly ministry, and exaltation. Somehow, the one who is attributed ‘divine status’ is also said to suffer. Gavrilyuk contends that this creates a ‘tension [that] is stark and obvious.’ Origen put the tension this way: ‘he who was in the form of God saw fit to be in the form of a servant; while he who is immortal dies, and the impassible suffers, and the invisible is seen.’

Theology of Martyrdom
Early martyrs sought to ‘follow the footprints of the Lord’s passion’.[1] Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church of Rome (on his way to execution): ‘Allow me to be the imitator of the sufferings of my God (πάθους του θεου μου).’ But Ignatius did not expect to suffer perpetually. He anticipated his following of Christ in suffering to lead to glorious freedom from suffering. In his letter to the Ephesians Ignatius declared that Christ was ‘first subject to suffering and then beyond it.’ Justin Martyr echoes this understanding in his writings – the destiny of those who imitate Christ is one of freedom from suffering (εν απαθεια). They will be raised ‘incorruptible, impassible, and immortal.’

Various New Testament writers insisted that Christ suffered but once (Rom 6:9-10; 1 Pet 3:18; Heb 7:27; 9:12, 26-28; 10:10). Likewise, many pre-creedal statements and ‘all later synodal creeds’ proclaim that Christ suffered sub Pontio Pilato. Jesus suffered at a specific point in time and space. 

Then again, the NT writers also speak of participation in Christ’s sufferings. For this communion to be possible it seems there must be some way that Christ continues to suffer. We cannot suffer with him if he is no longer in any way open to suffering. When Paul encountered the risen Christ he was told that he was persecuting Jesus (Act 9:4). And Paul later professed to bear the marks of Jesus in his body (Gal 6:17).

This idea of participatory suffering is found in the early Christian account of martyrdom, Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis. Felicitas, a young woman, is one of five martyrs in the story. Prior to their execution she prematurely gives birth. When a guard sees her going through the pain of birth he comments that she will not be able to handle the suffering she will endure from the wild animals in the amphitheater. She responds, ‘I suffer now myself that which is natural. But then, another will be in me who will suffer for me, because I am about to suffer for him.’

The concept of mystical union with Christ in the hour of martyrdom is found in various martyr-acts.[2] “In contrast to Whitehead’s portrait of God as ‘a fellow-sufferer who understand’, in the scene of Blandina’s death [in The Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons] Christ offers more than just a helpless commiseration. His suffering gives the power to withstand torture.” In the same letter deacon Sanctus endures excruciating torture including a red-hot iron applied to ‘the most delicate parts’ of his body. He was able to bear it because it was Christ who suffered in him and did great wonders, destroying the enemy and showing as a pattern to the rest that there is nothing terrible where there is the love of the Father, nothing painful where there is the glory of Christ.’ As deacon Sanctus was tortured the second time his first wounds were miraculously healed.

The earliest extant paschal sermon, by Melito of Sardis, contends that the Logos suffers not only in martyrs but in the OT saints as well:

It is he who in many endured many things: it is he that was murdered in Abel, and bound in Isaac, and exiled in Jacob, and sold in Joseph, and exposed in Moses, and slain in the lamb, and persecuted in David, and dishonored in the prophets. It is he that was enfleshed in a virgin, that was hanged on a tree, that was buried in the earth, that was raised from the dead, that was taken up to the heights of the heavens.

Interestingly, this same Father also made use of apophatic terms such as immortality and impassibility. Melito’s participatory view of OT suffering was not widely held among the Fathers. Instead, patristic theology tended to see a mere foreshadowing in the OT which would ultimately be realized in the incarnate work of Christ.

“Pagan Reactions to Worship of the Crucified God”
Pagans scoffed at the idea of a crucified God. A graffito from the second century gives poignant expression to the sentiment. A boy is seen kneeling in front of a crucified man with a donkey’s head. Below this drawing, on the same wall, is carved: ‘Alexamenos worshipping his god.’ Somehow, the belief that Jews worshipped a donkey came to be widespread. It was even reported that the holy of holies used to have a donkey’s head hanging on the wall. The graffito managed to mock Christians and Jews at the same time.

Christians were mocked through literary satire as well. In The Passing of Peregrinus martyrs were portrayed as objects of Christian worship. Jesus was presented as just a divinized martyr. The people who followed these martyrs were naïve and gullible.

Religiously devout pagans sometimes took even more serious offense to the crucified God. To them, such wholehearted commitment to an executed criminal should itself be considered a crime. Many feared that the gods were angry at the Christian’s single-hearted adoration of Christ.

Philosophically minded pagans raised their own objections. They contended that the Christians were being inconsistent. How was the invisible, omnipotent, impassible God seen, tortured, shamed, and crucified? Another declared that if Christ were really God he should ‘have disappeared suddenly from the cross.’  

Impassibility in Docetism
Docetism, narrowly defined, contended that Christ only seemed to have a human body. A more inclusive definition allows for various ways of dividing Jesus the human and the divine Christ. These two brands of docetic Christology shared in common the belief that the divine 
Christ did not personally experience human life.

The Docetists held that certain aspects of Christ’s ministry were beneath God’s dignity. They shared this conviction with their Hellenistic neighbors, and perhaps hoped to make the Christian faith more palatable to its cultured despisers. The Docetists did not worship a shamefully crucified slave. They worshipped a mighty God. For some of these folks the cross was valuable as a sort of cosmic symbol, never mind the historical cross. While on the one hand they would indulge in the wildest speculations, on the other they went to extremes of apophatism. They would rather reject the humanity of Christ than limit their doctrine of impassibility.

Docetism Rejected
Gnostics combined opposing theologies. They humanized the erotic gendered gods of mythology even further, making them subject to fears, anxieties, and burning lusts. Yet right in the middle of such theology they also engaged in the apophatic method. Some suggest that the inconsistency is only apparent. The Father is above all while all lesser deities are quite passible. Irenaeus rejected this view as illogical. If, as the Gnostics claimed, all lesser deities emanated from the Father (like rays from the sun) then they should be like him. He contended that logic dictates that either the Father is passible along with all his s divine offspring or he and they are impassible.

The patristic response was to simple. Rather than try to minimize or remove the scandal of the cross (as the Docetists attempted) they unapologetically affirmed it. Such lowly activity as the incarnation, suffering, and crucifixion of Christ were all deemed fitting because they were for our salvation. The only actions truly unworthy of God were the deceptive actions attributed to him by the Docetists. The Fathers insisted that the Impassible indeed suffered.


Closing Thoughts (Chapter 3)

I’m fascinated by the theology of martyrdom. I don’t recall ever running into these ideas before. Melito’s statements intrigue me. Do we enter the suffering of Christ by his participation in our present sufferings? It makes me think of a verse that has long puzzled me – Col 1:24.

The mystery of God’s way is unquestionably amazing. In spite of his transcendence and power, in spite of his triune self-sufficiency, the Father sent, the divine Son condescended and suffered, and the Spirit enabled and applied the work – all to reconcile us to himself. I’m amazed at such love – whether you call it passible or impassible!

Chapter 4





[1] Irenaeus of Lyons
[2] Martyrium Polycarpi and The Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons for example.