Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Suffering of the Impassible God (Patripassian Controversy)

Last chapter dealt with Docetism, which denied the full humanity of Christ in order to affirm his full (impassible) divinity. Now Gavrilyuk turns to another Christological controversy – Patripassianism. This controversy dealt with Christ’s relationship with his Father. How was the Father involved in Christ’s earthly ministry?

Noetus, Sabellius, Praxeas, and Callistus were the key figures in this controversy. Unfortunately, we do not have any of their writings. We learn of their views only through the writings of their theological opponents. This is problematic because we can’t be sure that the actual views of these men are accurately presented by those who disagreed.

The Patripassians were Modalists. Weinandy points out that the issue was not so much about impassibility as it was about the Trinity. The Modalists believed that the one God manifested himself sometimes as Father and sometimes as Son. This belief entailed that the Father suffered on the cross.

Harnack contended that no one actually believed that God suffered, it was only attributed by theological opponents. Gavrilyuk believes Harnack went too far in saying this. Surely someone said it, or else, ‘we’d have to imagine that all third- and fourth-century anti-Patripassian theologians were valiantly fighting with windmills.’ There is evidence to believe that Noetus, at least, taught that the Father suffered. Noetus’ view, as reported by Hippolytus, was a simple one: ‘If I acknowledge Christ to be God; He is the Father himself, if He is indeed God; and Christ suffered, being Himself God; and consequently the Father suffered, for He was the Father Himself.’

Hippolytus didn’t refute the claim that God suffered. He acknowledged that ‘the impassible Word of God underwent suffering through the flesh.’ What he did have a problem with was Noetus’ teaching that the Father became the Son. He refuted Noetus by pointing to some of the passages that show that Christ spoke to the Father, not himself. He also appealed to the rules of faith, ‘which spoke of the Father and the Son as coexisting entities, not as successive temporal modes of God.’

We do not know about what Noetus thought of the relationship between the humanity of Christ and the suffering of the Father. Also, Hippolytus’ presentations of Noetus’ though does not clarify how it can be said that the Father suffered if he was in the mode of Son during his suffering.

At the time when they wrote against Praxeas and Callistus, Tertullian and Hippolytus were both on the outs with the church and had other, unrelated, disputes with their Patripassian adversaries. This being the case, it’s reasonable to question just how charitable (and accurate) their interpretations are. [1] To add to the difficulty, Callistus excommunicated Sabellius (whose name later became synonymous with Modalism).

Hippolytus admits that Callistus was careful not to say that the Father suffered. Callistus rather said that ‘ton patera sumpeponqenai tw/ uivw.’ To Hippolytus this was nothing more than a word game. Likewise, Tertullian had to admit of Praxeas that he did not teach that the Father suffered on the cross, the Father only ‘compassibilis est.’ Tertullian thought this a feeble attempt to avoid the charge of Patripassianism. To him, being compassible could mean nothing other than ‘to suffer with another.’

It seems that neither Callistus nor Praxeas believed that Father and Son were successive roles. Instead they proposed something along the lines that ‘the Father’ corresponded with the spirit while ‘the Son’ pertained to the flesh. They likely used sumpascein in the Stoic sense (a term for the interaction of the body and soul). An example of this usage from Cleanthes: ‘the soul interacts (sumpascein) with the body when it is sick and being cut, and the body with the soul; thus when the soul feels shame and fear the body turns red and pale respectively.’ 

So, when the human body (the Son) suffered on the cross the spirit (the Father) was not totally unaffected. But neither did the Father suffer exactly as did the flesh. Gavrilyuk points out that if this interpretation of Callistus and Praxeas is correct then they were indeed onto something (in spite of their Trinitarian error). They pointed out that God ‘participated in death without dying and in suffering without being conquered by suffering.’

In summary, Noetus was truly a Patripassian. He taught that the Father and the Son were one and the same and suffered on the cross. Callistus and Praxeas contended that the Father only suffered through the Son (the flesh). Tertullian and Hippolytus emphasized that the Father and the Son were distinct, that the Father was not crucified.

[1] Praxeas and Callistus were both likely in good graces with the church. Callistus was bishop of Rome at the time.