Divine Passibility: Seven Theses
Travis, of Gaunilo's Island, has posted six theses on divine impassibility, arguing essentially that God is impassible because a passible God would be incapable of rescuing the world because God would then be at the mercy of creaturely forces. Unfortunately, Travis has been too much influenced by David Bentley Hart. In fact, his theses seem to come almost directly from the pages of The Beauty of the Infinite. I appreciate his theological vitality, but I must reject his conclusions. Here are my theses in response.
1. The proper context for considering divine impassibility is not (in reaction to) Greek philosophy but instead the evangelical logic of the church's discourse about God in light of the incarnation of Jesus Christ as the self-revelation of God. I have adopted and modified Travis's first thesis to emphasize the point that speech about God is a possibility only in light of God's gracious self-revelation in which God commandeers human language to bear witness to Godself. We are not capable of deriving the truth about the being of God by any metaphysical path of reasoning but only as a faithful and humble response to the self-communicative God who revealed Godself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
2. The concepts of impassibility (or passibility) and immutability (or mutability) must not be derived apophatically (via negativa) in relation to human creatures but rather apophantically (via affirmativa) only in relation to God's self-revelation. Discussion of God's attributes cannot be arrived at by any of the three primary metaphysical paths of knowledge of God: (1) via negativa — negating human attributes to reach divine attributes, in which God is simply what creatures are not; (2) via eminentiae — infinitely expanding human attributes to reach divine attributes, in which God is simply the infinite projection of what we ourselves are (cf. Feuerbach's damning critique of this logic); or (3) via causalitatis — attributing the cause of all creaturely things to God as the First Mover, in which God becomes the predicate of our knowledge (this is God) rather than the subject of knowledge of Godself (God is this). What all three paths have in common is the placement of human creatures or creation itself at the center of knowledge about God. God is compared to creation and known only in relation to what is created and finite. Such analogous predication depends upon a natural theology in which we philosophically reason from the creation to the Creator. Analogy, however, is only available when God establishes an analogy, such as when God makes sinful humans into creatures who analogously correspond to the being of God. But this is entirely a divine act of grace. What we must understand is that the "infinite qualitative difference" between God and humanity, and the fact that our whole selves (minds included) are enslaved to sin apart from divine grace which commandeers our thought and speech, requires that God reveal Godself to us in order for knowledge of God to be truthfully related to its object. However, because God reveals Godself as the God hidden in Jesus Christ, we are not given a self-evident picture of the triune Creator. We cannot look upon Jesus and see God clearly. God is veiled in human flesh, and thus God is available to us only through the eyes of faith opened by God out of God's abundant mercy and grace (cf. the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Messiah). We can only speak of God by way of faith's affirmation of who God has revealed Godself to be in the person of Jesus.
3. God is a being-in-act who is known via God's economic activity in time and space; God's being-in-act ad intra is revealed in God's being-in-act ad extra. In this thesis we simply emphasize the only appropriate method of theological knowledge. Theology, as thinking-after the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, always works "from below." In other words, we start with what God does in God's self-revelation in human history, since this is the only available starting-point for theology. We do not have natural access to the being of God ad intra. Apart from the fact that God has condescended to be Deus pro nobis in Jesus, we would have no concrete knowledge of God that could be verified against the object of our knowledge. We are incapable, sinful and finite creatures that we are, of reaching God through our own natural reasoning. God, who encounters us as the God of the covenant of grace, must interrupt us with the truth made incarnate in Jesus; God must disrupt us with the Son's revelation of the triune God in the bounds of our history. The fact that God has done this means that all knowledge of God must be checked against this sovereignly free act of God. However, because God is one God in three ways of being, what God does in time and space must correspond with who God is for all eternity. The God whom we encounter in Christ must be the same God who created the worlds. The God who acts ad extra must be the same God ad intra. Consequently, theology cannot allow any division between God's essence or being and God's acts in history. God is what God does; God is a being-in-act. Thus, the question of God's passibility depends upon the relation between the human and divine in Jesus Christ, because if the divine nature of Christ suffers, then God suffers, since we cannot allow the Son to be an expression of God's acts but not of God's own essence or nature.
4. Jesus the Christ suffered as a human, and therefore God truly suffered. The question of passibility clearly rests on the incarnation and the being of Christ. Two subtheses are required:
4.1. In Jesus, God assumes human nature fully, and in that assumption, God takes human suffering into Godself while remaining the sovereign Lord over all creation. The incarnation takes us back to the doctrine of divine kenosis, what has traditionally been called God's "self-emptying" in taking on human flesh. Following Bruce McCormack, I assert that kenosis is improperly understood when viewed as God relinquishing divinity in becoming human. Such a mentality, proposed most prominently by the Christologies of Lutheran orthodoxy, views human nature as competitive with God's own nature. Two classically Lutheran versions of kenotic Christology have been proposed. The first (Formula of Concord) depends upon the Lutheran communicatio idiomatum, meaning that the human nature participates fully in the divine attributes, and thus Jesus (in time and space) wills to not use some of the divine attributes. The second later version (Gottfried Thomasius) argued that the pre-incarnate Logos divested itself of divine attributes prior to the incarnation, only to take them up again in the exaltation. The first model fails because a human nature that participates fully in the divine nature is not the human nature of us sinful creatures, and thus our natures our not truly assumed by God in Jesus. The second model fails (as shown by D. M. Baillie) because if the Son had to lose divine attributes while in the 'state of humiliation,' then it was not really an incarnation but merely a theophany. We must instead follow Barth in asserting a kenosis that is "by addition and not by subtraction" (McCormack). By not grasping after the form of God (Phil. 2), the second person of the Trinity takes on the form of a servant. God assumes what we are, finite creatures, in the incarnation. God does not give up anything proper to Godself, because the divinity is able to assume what is other to it without losing its true nature. God is not in competition with humanity, because the two are qualitatively different in essence. Instead, God assumes our humanity and remains God, hence our creedal affirmation that Jesus is fully God and fully human.
4.2. In that the human nature of Christ suffered, the divine nature suffered as well. Clearly, this is the central thesis, the one on which the question of divine passibility rests. Both of the classic kenotic Christologies above, particularly that of the Formula of Concord, fail on another count: They may allow a communication of divine attributes to the human nature, but they never allow a communication of the human attributes to the divine nature (the genus tapeinoticum, or "genus of humility"). How, one may ask, could there be a communication of the human attributes to the divine nature without a communicatio idiomatum? The answer follows quite simply from the Chalcedonian definition. I will quote McCormack on this point and then offer some thoughts of my own.
If, with Chalcedon, we say that the unity of the two natures in Christ consists in the singularity of the Subject (or ‘person’) in which both natures subsist and if, secondly, again with Chalcedon, we identify this Subject with the eternal Logos, then the only Subject available for living this human life, suffering and dying, etc. is the Logos. One cannot treat the human nature as a Subject in its own right – which is what inevitably happens as soon as we begin to assign activities or experiences to the human nature alone. That even Alexandrian Christianity tended to do precisely this – that it tended, in spite of its best insights, to constantly tilt in the direction of Nestorianism – was the result of its commitment to the Greek understanding of divine impassibility. It was unthinkable to the Eastern Fathers, especially, that God should suffer, unthinkable that God should experience death. And because this was so, suffering and death had to be assigned to the human nature alone. What was true in this position was that suffering and death are indeed human experiences. What the Fathers refused to consider, however, was the possibility that God could act humanly and that God could experience suffering and death humanly. But such conclusions will be unavoidable once it is recognized that the attempt to treat the human nature as a Subject in its own right is a violation of the logic of the Chalcedonian formula and that the only conceivable reason for such a violation was the commitment to an abstract conception of divine impassibility. (IJST 8:3, p. 248)In other words, by separating the divine and human natures such that suffering is only predicated of the human nature results in the heresy of Nestorianism. The Chalcedonian definition requires that we either (1) posit the unity-in-distinction of Christ's two natures without confusion and without division, or (2) posit a tripartite Christ. What I mean by the latter is that the positing of the human and divine natures as the subjects of their own acts not only violates the anhypostasis-enhypostasis formula, but it also requires that we establish a third abstract entity, "Christ," as the third subject who contains the two natures without being directly identified with either one. If we identity "Christ" with the human Jesus, then we have adoptionism or at least some kind of tritheism. If we identity "Christ" with the divine nature, then we either have to affirm the genus tapeinoticum (and the assumption of humanity by God in the incarnation) or we end up with a Nestorian Christ in which two subjects are placed in competition—a human subject and a divine subject—within a larger third subject, which is simply an abstract concept that functions like a blank canvas colored with two pigments that never touch. We would thus be left with a divine nature, the "Logos," (that which performs miracles), a human nature (that which suffers and dies), and the encompassing entity, "Christ," which holds the natures together.
According to the creedal traditions, we must reject any Nestorian model of Christ's two natures. In that the human nature experienced suffering and death, the divine nature also experienced suffering and death; the Logos is the acting subject of both the passive experiences of suffering and the active engagement in the world. We can thus go beyond the creeds while still following their logic and affirm theopaschitism. As already mentioned above, the divine and human natures are not in competition with each other. Such a view is derived from the mistaken assumption that divinity is simply not-humanity (via negativa). We should rather allow God's being-in-act to determine the meaning of divinity, and in the incarnation we see that divinity is not opposed to humanity but is rather capable of assuming, redeeming, and perfecting humanity. Divinity can only be defined concretely in relation to the person of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God; divinity must never be defined in abstraction from the gospel of God's incarnation. Because of the actuality of God's entering time and space as a human person, we are free to conclude that the possibility of incarnation was already present in God before the creation of the world.
In conclusion, we must affirm that God freely assumed human nature into Godself, and furthermore that this assumption brought the experience of suffering and death into the life of God without changing God or the human nature that was assumed in any essential way. To clarify this point, the experience of suffering and death was not something which subjected God to forces beyond God's own sovereignty; rather, we must affirm that God's being from all eternity is capable of experiencing human suffering and death while remaining the sovereign God over creation. Consequently, we must understand theopaschitism alongside the doctrines of God's sovereignty, freedom, and love—God is the "one who loves in freedom" (Barth). God is pro se as God pro nobis.
The rejection of theopaschitism is thus the result of one of the following four heresies: (1) a tritheistic doctrine of God, in which Christ may suffer as a subject who has no ontological connection to the Father and the Spirit; (2) a Nestorian doctrine of Christ, in which the human and divine natures are placed in competitive relation to each other, generally resulting in an abstract tripartite Christ; (3) a modalistic doctrine of God, in which the person of Jesus was merely a mask worn by God and not ontologically related to God's actual being ad intra; or (4) some version of Docetic Gnosticism, in which Christ only appeared in human form. In other words, if we wish to affirm truly orthodox doctrines of God (one subject in three ways of being) and of Christ (as one person with two natures), we must affirm that not only does the divine nature of Christ suffer but that God suffers as well.
5. Divine passibility alone is an inadequate response to the problem of evil. Here I mostly agree with the argument that God's passibility does nothing to explain how death and evil are overcome in Jesus Christ, and any person who feels like they need a God who 'feels their pain' is simply psychologizing God, turning the Creator into an infinitely great shrink. But D. B. Hart and those who agree with him fail when they decide that only an impassible God is capable of overcoming the brokenness of this world. The idea that a passible God is incapable of defeating evil is like saying a merciful God is incapable of exercising justice. The problem is that such a theology depends on viewing all of these attributes in relation to their human counterparts. A weak, suffering human is clearly incapable of defeating the force that causes such suffering, and a merciful judge is one who relents from passing the judgments that a more impartial person would clearly give. But we cannot reach knowledge of God based on this kind of analogical predication. God is known by God's acts of self-revelation. God is one who exercises justice in being merciful, and exercises mercy in passing judgment. Similarly, God suffers on the road to victory over the powers of death, i.e., God is victorious in suffering. In other words, in Jesus the Christ, the incarnate second person of the Trinity, God entered into the abyss of suffering as the triune God who is not at the mercy of nothingness but defeats it in the event of the cross and resurrection. The gospel proclaims a God who does not suffer simply to empathize with us, but who suffers and dies in order to bring new life out of death.
6. Redemption occurs in Jesus Christ, as the sole mediator between God and humanity in whom reconciliation is accomplished in the event of the cross. The mystery of the world is that the triune God unites life and death in Jesus for the sake of new life for all humanity. Redemption is not limited to either God's condenscension or humanity's elevation; both are part of a single divine event in the triune economy of salvation ad extra. The event of reconciliation in Jesus Christ encompasses his life, death, descent into hell, and resurrection, all of which were accomplished 'for us and for our salvation.' The shalom of God's trinitarian life is a peace that encounters and overcomes death, not just in one nature or in one person but in the triune God. The peace of God is not protected from the sufferings of Christ in the flesh; rather these sufferings are assumed and defeated in the repleteness of God's overflowing being. Humanity thus receives new being in that it participates in God's being as it overflows to those creatures who encounter and respond to the life-giving 'word of the cross.' Such redemption is not a theosis but a becoming 'truly human.' We are not brought into God's essence—depending as this does upon a metaphysical-substantival rather than historical-actualized ontology—but set free to become the creatures who relate analogously to God in Jesus Christ. We participate in the concrete history of Jesus Christ, not in some metaphysical divine substance. God's mortification in Christ is the proleptic transfiguration of the world, and in that we participate in Christ, it is our transfiguration as well—a transfiguration that awaits the consummation of all things in the eschatological realization of God's cosmic purposes.
7. The church is the creaturely witness to God's being in the world, the communio sanctorum constituted by the power of the Holy Spirit which testifies to God's being-in-becoming through its own pathic embodiment of the life of the kingdom. The church does not constitute the body of Christ in any way, nor is there a divine incarnatio continua in the world. The incarnation of God is an event in Jesus Christ, a singular instance in human history that serves as the turning-point of all time and space—"the still point of the turning world" (Eliot). Christ is still the Incarnate One who intercedes for humanity at the right hand of the Father. The church is not the continuation of Christ's incarnation on earth, because the incarnation is an event that cannot be liquified or dissolved. Christ is not resolvable into the church, nor is the church anything more than a creaturely community constituted by the Word to be God's faithful witnesses. The church participates in the life of God only insofar as it participates in the concrete history of Jesus Christ as the creaturely community sanctified by the Spirit for the purpose of corresponding to God. God does not suffer through the community, because the church and God are not ontologically united but at best ontologically analogous; and even then the communio sanctorum is never established as God's analogue but remains dependent upon God's grace through the agency of the Spirit who alone constitutes a gathering as the people of God. God remains a being-in-becoming who is also sovereignly free as the Lord over creation. As this Lord who enters the abyss of nothingness—who freely and eternally is a God going-out-of-Godself for the purpose of bringing life out of death—the triune Creator graciously moves the creation toward its proper telos: eternal shalom.