God does not, cannot suffer

So sheltered was my life in the church that I didn’t realise until fairly recently just how widespread is the belief that God can suffer – not just among theologians on the outer fringes of orthodoxy, but in otherwise conservative bible-believing circles.

One place where this belief is articulated is in a book called From Glory to Golgotha (D MacLeod, 2002, Christian Focus Publications). Taking its sixth chapter as a starting point (‘The Crucified God‘), I wrote some comments on it a while back, with reference to the doctrine of divine impassibility (summarised categorically in the title of this page), which I did not see being particularly closely adhered to in this chapter in particular.

What I wrote was more in the style of notes to self, rather than anything for public consumption, but as I keep stumbling across what I feel are disappointing misunderstandings of this doctrine, it may be worth making my reactions available for wider consumption.

Although it isn’t a review of the whole book, I think it’s still too lengthy and detailed for a blog post – it deserves a page of its own. In fact, I think it’s so lengthy that I’ve uploaded it as a pdf, to be read at leisure, rather than pasting it all here on the page.

I know that the book itself is very popular with some of its readers, and this makes me hesitant to some extent about questioning some of its contents, but anyone who wants to discuss it will be most welcome to do so. An excerpt follows below, and the whole pdf is here: Divine impassibility and From Glory To Golgotha. But beware: apart from anything else, it’s seven pages long!

Undesirable implications of the false doctrine that God can suffer
• If God could ever suffer at all, then he must suffer eternally (and infinitely and unchangeably), because everything that he is, he is eternally (and infinitely and unchangeably). This is incompatible with the Bible doctrine that he is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his blessedness, and in his being, glory, and perfections.
• It implies that there was some crossover between what the Saviour was capable of as man, and what he was and is as God. This is incompatible with the truth that his two natures were (and are) distinct, without conversion, composition, or confusion.
• It removes a major pillar for faith to lean on. (i) Partly because it casts doubt on the truth of God’s word where he tells us about himself in no uncertain terms. His actual name is I AM THAT I AM, the Almighty, the Lord of hosts, the everlasting King. (ii) Partly because it undermines the arguments which the bible provides for us as incentives to believe: Trust ye in the Lord for ever, for in the Lord Jehovah there is everlasting strength. (iii) It makes a mockery of the praises which his angels and his people sing to him, whether on earth or in heaven: God is my refuge and my strength; Blessing and honour and glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. (iv) Because it actually attacks every attribute of God and every aspect of who God is, because his attributes are presented together, as in wisdom and strength (Job 12 v 13), or power and glory (the Lord’s Prayer), so that all his wisdom is strong and all his strength is wise, etc.

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9 thoughts on “God does not, cannot suffer

  1. Guy Davies on Kevin Vanhoozer on impassibility –
    http://exiledpreacher.blogspot.com/2011/01/remythologizing-theology-by-kevin_06.html

    Excerpt:
    Vanhoozer cites the claim that divine passibility has become the “new orthodoxy”. (p. 392). He gives a number of reasons as to why this situation might have obtained including:
    A democratising concern to emphasise human freedom over divine sovereignty.
    The problem of evil, ‘How’, ask the likes of Moltmann, ‘can we believe in an impassible deity in the light of the Holocaust?’.
    A renewed focus on the centrality of of Jesus’ passion that makes the cross definitive for our understanding of the very being of God.
    A reciprocal account of God’s love for the world in terms that entails divine vulnerability to the rejection of his love and divine distress over the suffering of those whom he loves.

    However, while noting these concerns, Vanhoozer endeavours to make a case for the impassibility of God. God is impassible because he is without passions. That is, he is devoid of irrational forces of feeling. He doesn’t get irritable or loose his temper in a fit of pique. But does that mean that God is without emotions? Not, according to Vanhoozer if emotions are defined as “covenantal concern-based construals”. In other words, God’s emotions are geared towards his covenant people. In his compassion he acts to save them from sin and suffering. He is jealous of his people’s undivided love and loyalty. These theodramatically expressed divine emotions are constant and true. They are not subject to change, (Malachi 3:6). Hence, God’s emotions are impassible – without passion. But the impassible God feels. Loving his people with an everlasting love, he acted to redeem them from sin in Christ.

    So, we come to the cross, where the Son of God suffered for our sins. What does Calvary have to say to the question of divine impassibility? According to Cyril, “The Word suffered impassibly”. In saying so he affirmed the impassibility of the divine Word and also took into account that the Word made flesh suffered for us in his humanity. This is where the communicatio idiomatum or communion of attributes in the incarnate Son comes into play. We do not say that the Son in his divine nature was impassible, while his human nature suffered on the cross. Rather, that the impassible Son suffered for us in his human nature. It was the Son of God in his humanity who loved us and gave himself for us. However, the Son did not suffer on the cross simply to show empathy with a world racked by pain and tragedy. The cross was not so much an act of divine identity with a suffering world, as the Son of God suffering in dying in the place of a guilty world. His cry on the cross was not, “Now I know how you feel!”, but, “It is finished!”.

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  2. Trueman reviews Leithart’s new biography of Athanasius and says,

    “Leithart offers a robust defence of divine impassibility. Here, he focuses on the cross, raising the obvious question of whether Athanasius’ account of God is capable of making sense of the cross. Interacting with Hegel, Robert Jenson and Jurgen Moltman, and drawing (as he does throughout the work) on the fine scholarship of the Orthodox theologian, John Behr, Leithart makes a good case for saying that God in Christ takes on suffering for us and that this is real – but it is real in the person, not the divine nature. Reformed Christology thus finds clear precedent in the work of Athanasius and has little to fear from modern, post-Hegelian critique.”
    http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2011/08/pater-leithart-on-athanasius-a.php

    (Take PL with a pinch of salt on soteriology tho obv.)

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