Theotokos and Divine Impassibility

The Christian tradition from the early church to High Scholastic has insisted on two fundamental doctrines: (1) Mary as the mother of God (theotokos), and (2) divine impassibility. The affirmation of both, it seems to me, is theologically suspect.

The former doctrine, Mary as the theotokos, was affirmed contra Nestorius and his assertion that Mary was only the mother of one nature, and not of the whole person. Thus, according to Nestorius, Mary is the mother of Christ, the Christotokos. As an extreme representative of Antiochene Christology, Nestorius stressed the full humanity of Christ at the expense of the true union of the natures. In order to preserve the integrity of each nature, he kept the two as distinct as possible. Part of this distinction involved the denial that Mary could possibly be the mother of the divine nature; she could not have given birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. According to Nestorius, "No one can bring forth a son older than herself." Nestorius was condemned and Nestorianism was rejected as a heresy. Mary has ever since been affirmed as the theotokos, an affirmation that depends upon the unity of the natures in the assumptio carnis by the eternal Logos.

The latter doctrine, divine impassibilty, has also been affirmed throughout the history of the church. But this doctrine depends upon precisely the same logic used by Nestorius. In order for the divine Logos to remain impassible while joined to the passible flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, the two natures must be kept entirely distinct, to the point that one can identify the person of Jesus Christ with one nature alone. In the passion, the divine nature must somehow retract, leaving Jesus the man to suffer and die alone (hence the Gethsemane prayer and the cry of dereliction). But this is an incoherent position, in light of the prior affirmation that the two natures are so joined that Mary gives birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. The statement that Mary is the mother of God affirms that the one whom she bears is indeed very God. But if the baby Jesus is indeed the baby God, how then is it possible for the suffering Jesus to not be the suffering God?

What we have in the doctrine of divine impassibility is the return of Nestorianism, and not only the return, but the preservation and blessing of Nestorianism from the same Church that condemned him in 430 CE. So how does the Catholic Church attempt to resolve the issue? Thomas states, with the tradition, that each nature "retains that which is proper to it." The human nature retains the human suffering of Jesus, and thus we can say, by virtue of the fact that the two natures are joined in one person, the Word of God suffered in the flesh. Similarly, human birth is proper to the human nature as well, but since the two natures are joined in one person, we can say that Mary is the mother of God.

The problem is that with Christ's birth, the Church attributes what is proper to the human nature to the divine nature as well: God the Son is born. With the passion of Christ, the Church denies to the divine nature what is proper to the human nature: Jesus the man suffers and dies. As Thomas states, "The Lord of glory is said to be crucified, not as the Lord of glory, but as a man capable of suffering." What determines each position? There are finally two major problems: (1) a foreign metaphysic that predetermines what God can and cannot do; and (2) a poor Christology which leans Nestorian when the two natures must be kept distinct (impassibility) and leans Eutychian when the two natures must be joined together (theotokos). A proper Christology must affirm that the Logos assumes human flesh, and that this union of the two natures constitutes the one person, Jesus Christ. The person is not a third entity apart from the human and divine natures; the unio personalis is the union of deity and humanity in Christ, and therefore what is proper to each nature is proper to the whole person.

In the end, in order to be consistent, the Church should affirm both Mary as the theotokos and the passibility of God in the person of Jesus Christ.


Anonymous said…
i am in entire agreement with you here, but i have two possible contributions:

it seems to me that trinitarian theology may be just what the doctor ordered. God the Son became incarnate, but God the Father did not; just so, God the Son suffered, but God the Father did not.

but you criticize Thomas for saying "The Lord of glory is said to be crucified, not as the Lord of glory, but as a man capable of suffering"; yet this is exactly what the theotokos language was also supposed to convey. the paraphrase would be: "The Lord of glory is said to be born of a woman, not as the Lord of glory, but as a man capable of being born."

my second contibution is that there was much of value in the doctrine of impassibility, which criticism of that doctrine must take account of and preserve. if my suggestion that a trinitarian approach is the correct one, then we can preserve what needs preserving in exactly this way, can we not?
Anonymous said…
you continually forget the little phrase without confusion.
Curious Presbyterian said…
A very good post, thanks.
D.W. Congdon said…

Thanks for your very helpful contributions. The trinitarian point is well taken, and I of course agree wholeheartedly with the need to take the Trinity into account. However, unless we are tritheists, we cannot say that the Son suffered in the flesh without affirming that the whole triune God assumed this human suffering, even human death. While it's true that only the Son became incarnate, the doctrines of (1) perichoresis and (2) opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa make it necessary for us to view the triune being of God as a whole, rather than fall into the temptation of dividing up God into parts in order to preserve certain metaphysical views of divinity (not that I think you are guilty of this).

Thanks also for pointing out an alternative way to read Thomas. I think you are probably right about that. If I had more time, I would look through the relevant passages more thoroughly.

What do you think needs preserving? I have heard some argue that divine impassibility is simply a fancy, metaphysical way of saying: God is the sovereign, free Lord who acts graciously in Jesus Christ. If so, then sign me up for impassibility! But I know of no supporter of divine passibility that would ever deny such a crucial affirmation of the faith. Nor does divine passibility necessitate lessening God's sovereign freedom.
D.W. Congdon said…
I didn't mean to forget the phrase. Am I guilty of confusing the natures? I sure do not think so, but I'd be happy to hear how I might be mistaken. To borrow George Hunsinger's terminology, there is an abiding distinction between the natures at the same time that there is a mutual indwelling. The natures are truly united as one person, though they are distinct. I never wish to confuse the natures. I only wish to attack the notion that distinction requires separation, or that the distinction is between what is possible for each nature -- so that the human nature can experience suffering, but the divine nature cannot. These are the kinds of metaphysical judgments that are neither biblical nor theologically sound.
Anonymous said…
what are the things we need to preserve from the doctrine of impassibility?

one is the sovereignty of God. i do not take this for granted, as Reformed theology and Barth seem to; it is not, for me, some kind of premise. it seems as if, for Barth, it is part of the meaning of the word "God", perhaps, and then is it not really a philosophical importation from that most unreliable source, the dictionary?

(in other words, notice how carefully Thomas or Anselm argue for particular properties of God; these cannot somehow be taken for granted. how do we know that God is sovereign and free? the traditional answer depended in part upon the doctrine of impassibility.)

also, while we regard feelings as perhaps a good thing, a sign of our being "higher" than snails or rocks, this is a very modern idea. these were anciently called the "passions", they were sufferings, undergoings, and represented nothing so much as the way that a human being is imposed upon from without. it was a commonplace to regard the passions as purely aspects of our fallen nature, which Adam would entirely have lacked. (of course, there is no small about of stoicism infecting this, but it's part of the background.)

what this means is that God suffers not because God is God; indeed, the Son qua God is impassible because it is only qua human that the Son suffers. that means precisely that the suffering of God is a divine choice, and is a voluntary and even sublime manifestation of God. (see here the overall depiction in the Gospel of John!) and in this, the suffering of the Son is radically different from the normal sufferings of humanity, precisely because chosen. (and in this lies the root of such things as vows of poverty vs. unjust poverty, for example.)

if passibility means that God chooses to "feel an emotion", then it is thus radically different from what "the passions" are normally conceived of as being, and so we might well avoid the word "passibility" at all in that context. i choose it to refer not to the divine choice to be subject, but to the actual subjection itself, which is a property strictly of the human nature of Christ, and only attributed to the one Christ and Son in virtue of the hypostatic union.

as for the argument that perichoresis means what you say, i think it does not.

the Chalcedonian formula, it seems, excludes patripassionism, and quite wisely, while allowing quite rightly your point that the Son of God does suffer, but not as the Son of God, just as Mary was the Mother of God, but not as God.

so i think (contra Mr. Anonymous) that you are not in danger of confusing the natures, but it sounds like if you push to hard on the line you're pushing, you may run into the perils of patripassionism.
Anonymous said…
without confusion and without change implies that the divine and human natures are not fundamentally violated through the incarnation. certainly, human nature is exalted, but this does not violate its intrinisc worth gifted in creation. moreover, the divine nature does not change, add something, or draw nearer through the incarnation since God is already complete and full. to say that the notion of incarnation requires God to become passible is to do away with this distinction that is well established in the early tradition. simply put the incarnation occurs for us, not for God.

to say that God is born is acceptable, to even say that to shake Jesus hand is to touch God is part of the mystery of the doctrine. you can even say that in the person of Jesus, God subjects Godself to the sufferings of human existence. However, this need not lead to the conclusion that you arrive at regarding God's changability or suffering since it is the humanity of Jesus that is suffering. Certainly this does not lead to Nestorianism, but the essential claim that while Jesus is God, God's reality still remains transcendent. God in Jesus remains God. Maybe this is too much metaphysics for your taste, but it is (as best I can render) the belief of the early Fathers and remains a compelling position today (see Tanner for instance)
D.W. Congdon said…
Thomas: I completely agree that Christ's suffering is wholly other than our own suffering in that God chooses to assume human nature (and thus also human suffering and death) in the incarnation. So if this is what we mean by impassible, then we must speak of an impassible passibility. The word "passible" simply means capable of suffering or of experiencing suffering. We could define it more broadly as, capable of being human. There is nothing in classical metaphysics to lead us to this position. Only the actuality of the incarnation can then lead us to think backwards to the possibility of incarnation within the being of God.

That said, I think you make a fatal theological division between the divine subject and the human object, as if the divine subject who chooses to become incarnate is somehow separate from the human nature that is chosen. The problem with this is that it fails to take the anhypostasia/enhypostasia doctrine fully into account; or, more simply, the assumptio carnis. The divine subject assumes and takes into itself the reality of human flesh. So while the human nature is what is passible, because that nature is joined to the divine nature, we must also say that God is passible, in that God is capable of experiencing human emotion, suffering, and death. And we can say that God is capable of this because God has done it.

Perichoresis means that each person of the Trinity mutually indwells in the other two persons, so that what the Son does, the Father and the Spirit do as well. Perichoresis is a protection against tritheism; it affirms that what is proper to one person is proper to the entire triune Subject. As Barth states, God is one divine Subject in three modes of being.

The Chalcedonian formula definitely protects against patripassionism, but it protects against God experiencing human suffering at all. If you read the whole definition, one of the central concerns behind its writing was that God cannot experience suffering. As good as the formula may be, taken as a whole, it leans toward Nestorianism.

My problem with the statement that the Son of God suffers, but not as the Son of God, is that it seems to deny the fact that the Son of God incarnate is still the Son of God. The assumption of flesh does not negate the fact that Jesus Christ is still the second person of the Trinity. As Barth would say, the second person of the Trinity has a name, and that name is Jesus Christ.

So while I do not wish to affirm patripassionism, I do which to affirm theopaschism. This seems to be a necessary affirmation if we are to avoid an inappropriate Nestorian division between the natures. But I also do not wish to confuse the natures. However, the two natures form the one person, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and what happens to one nature happens to the whole person.
Anonymous said…
i think you are pushing things where they will not go. perichoresis does not simply mean that "what each person does, all do", or indeed, the distinction of persons quickly evaporates. it means that each is involved in each action; that each action is an action of each person but not as if there were no distinction of persons.

in the incarnation, all three persons are involved: but only the Son is involved in the way we call "being incarnate". insofar as passibility is strictly a result of the incarnation, and nothing else, it is the Son who suffers. (if God had not become incarnate, he would not have been passible, and he is passible exactly and only because he became incarnate.)

but i'm much happier in the land of "what we can say" rather than in the land of metaphysical speculation. we can say that God suffers (and we say this exactly and only in virtue of the incarnation); we can say that the Son of God suffers (and we say this exactly and only in virtue of the incarnation); we cannot say that the Father suffers. we can say that Mary is the Mother of God (and we say this exactly and only in virtue of the incarnation); we can say that she is the Mother of the Son of God; we cannot say that she is the Mother of the Father.

if what you want to do is to level your guns at Chalcedon, then that's where i get off the bus.

Chalcedon establishes, that's establishes, not just suggests or hints at or gives a provisional stab at, the bounds for all future Christology. Christology which (after Chalcedon) steps over those bounds.

My problem with the statement that the Son of God suffers, but not as the Son of God, is that it seems to deny the fact that the Son of God incarnate is still the Son of God.

Each nature establishes or stands for a variety of properties. when i say that the Son of God suffers, but not as the Son of God, I mean that it is not in virtue of any property of godhood that he suffered, but only as a property of manhood.

in this i am, i think, trying to echo these words of the Chalcedonian formula. i can't tell whether you think the formula is wrong here or not:

of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation,

it is this "as regards" which i intend, and no other.
WTM said…
I do not understand why we must make such a sharp distinction between God’s impassibility (which says quite a bit more, and very important things, other than that God does not suffer in his being on the cross) and the suffering of Jesus on the cross. If we understand impassibility in an abstract sense, this sharp distinction is necessary. But, if we understand impassibility concretely, that is, with our understanding governed by God’s self-revelation in Jesus, we do not need this sharp distinction.

It seems to me that many of those who would defend impassibility have defined the being of God in such a way as to say something like: “God could not become incarnate.” Now, if these thinkers are Christian, this is an overstatement. But, I think the logic holds. If God truly became incarnate, that is, if the being and life of God became a part of space and time, then we have to say that God’s being and life is capable of this. And, if the being and life of God underwent suffering and even death (and death in God-abandonment!) in this incarnation, then we must say that the being and life of God is capable of this.

To say that God died in Jesus Christ is true. Of course, the death that occurred is human death, and the reality of human death cannot overcome God. But, that does not mean that God did not experience, in his own being and life, human death.

Now, perhaps I have made an egregious error here. Perhaps not.
Anonymous said…
i must say that i find myself agreeing with what wtm writes here, but one part of it makes me extremely uncomfortable, and that is the talk about God "experiencing".

perhaps that talk can be made to work, but i don't see how. traditional theology has never been willing to speak of God as "having experiences", and has earnestly rejected any view in which God "comes to know" something. (connected here, again, is the notion of divine unchangeability, which i meant to bring up earlier and did not.)

natures, under the more or less "normal" view, are collections of properties, and perhaps something ontologically more, but not less, than that. it is part of human nature to suffer, to be passible, to have experiences; it is part of the divine nature not to suffer, not to be passible, and not to have experiences.

in view of the Incarnation, we cannot say that the divine now has this or that property of human nature, or that human nature (even that of Jesus) has this or that property of divinity. what we can say is that the one person (who is God, and a human being) has all of the properties of each nature, but always qua that nature. this, it seems to me, is exactly the Chalcedonian formula.

otherwise, it seems you have to fall into one or other of the following heresies:

either you start asserting that God the Father suffers, since God the Son does (patripassionism, leading to sabellianism)

or you end up saying that Jesus Christ has one composite nature with all the properties of each (monophysitism).

it was precisely to exclude monophysitism that the Chalcedonian formula insists on the qua part here.

i must also reject the view that passible means "able to suffer". the key point was never the pain, it was the subjection and the unavoidability of it. a human being cannot avoid pain; even if it is chosen, once it is there, it is there and cannot be willed away. nor is this about only pain, it is about all of the "passions".

when we say a human being is passible, we mean that, willy nilly, external events impose upon him. when we say that the Son of God is passible, we mean that he took on a human nature with that very property; we do not mean that somehow God lost omnipotence.
D.W. Congdon said…

Just to be clear, semantically speaking, "passible" means "able to suffer" or more broadly "able to experience the passions/emotions." The tradition attaches more to the word based on other philosophical assertions regarding what it means to experience emotion, but the word itself is quite clear. Also, to be clear, Jesus was acted upon externally. He did not nail himself to the cross; Roman soldiers took care of that. He did not make himself cry or cause the death of Lazarus in order then to cry. He wept because the external event aroused great emotion within him. So, strictly speaking, God was acted upon externally in the person of Jesus Christ. We have to say this, or else we end up replacing the Bible with some metaphysical system.

Now here is the important thing: to say that God was acted upon externally in Jesus Christ does not deny that God is sovereign, free, and omnipotent; and conversely, to say that God is sovereign, free, and omnipotent does not deny that God was acted upon passively and externally in Christ. The fact that traditionally metaphysics forces us to pick one or the other demonstrates precisely why it is wrong. In the incarnation, what we affirm is that God is this particular human being, and conversely, that this particular human being is God. As this human being, God is most truly and perfectly God. God is never more truly God than as this particular, historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. And this way of speaking carries into the discussion on divine passibility: God is most truly God as this passible, finite human creature. And as this passible, finite creature, God is most truly the sovereign, free, and omnipotent God.

So while I agree that we need to avoid Christological heresies at all cost, one of those heresies is Nestorianism, and it is just as much a danger as any of the others.
Anonymous said…
Thomas, sincere thanks. I think you get the better of it. Yours is one of the best succinct explanations I have heard of the matter. Good show.

Congdon seems to err where he starts, in the significance of the Theotokos debate. His position leads right to the 'Mother of the Father' and the 'incarnation of the Father'.
D.W. Congdon said…
Anonymous: You've made a wild assertion that has absolutely no substance to it. I have never said that Father is born to Mary or that the Father is incarnate. But what I have said is that, unless you wish to affirm tritheism, you must say that God became incarnate and God was born to Mary. And this affirmation requires that we attribute what happens to Jesus as a human being to God.

There are only two ways to prevent attributing the reality of the human Jesus to God: (1) tritheism, and (2) Nestorianism. Thomas is guilty of the latter, from what I can tell. But he is not alone. The entire Catholic and Orthodox tradition has been guilty of this ever since Chalcedon (and before). The rejection of Nestorius was rather half-hearted from the beginning and full of internal contradictions.

If you wish to show otherwise, I welcome a more substantial comment.
Anonymous said…
There are only two ways to prevent attributing the reality of the human Jesus to God: (1) tritheism, and (2) Nestorianism.

Thus the monophysites have always insisted, and thus Chalcedon has always stood as a witness against them. It really does sound as if you are levelling your guns at Chalcedon, while being shy of saying so.

So if you are not, if you do think that Chalcedon is correct, then can you please offer your understanding of those clauses of the council's decree which are being discussed here?
D.W. Congdon said…
Chalcedon is not infallible. It is not Scripture. It is a human document as much as anything else. Christology does not stand or fall with Chalcedon. We may find a better explanation for the two natures of Christ. As it is, I do not think we have a better explanation. That does not mean, however, that we cannot criticize or adapt or interpret afresh the Chalcedonian formula. Unless the Eastern Orthodox, I do not believe that the seven ecumenical councils are written in stone and that how the church thought in the fifth century is the Word of God for all centuries.

So my position, following McCormack and Hunsinger and other Barthians, would be that we can offer a Chalcedonian critique of Chalcedon. The Chalcedonian formula is couched in a metaphysical framework that is nonessential to Christology. There are elements within Scripture and within the tradition itself to offer a substantial critique of these elements. Am I breaking with the tradition? Some would say yes, but I disagree. The tradition itself is not monolithic, nor is the tradition on equal grounds with Scripture. If we are forced to choose between Scripture and tradition -- as Luther was -- we must side with Scripture.

If you have a specific point about Chalcedon that you wish to discuss, I'd be happy to discuss it.
Anonymous said…
I did not say that Chalcedon was infallible, simply that I think it is correct. Moreover, I'll bet dollars to donuts that your own denomination regards it as authoritative. Certainly the Presbyterian Church does, and it's a good guess that, being at PTS, you're PCUSA. So I find it quite beside the point whether every Christian is bound to accept Chalcedon (obviously not, since there were Christians before Chalcedon) and expect both myself and those with whom I speak to be honest with regard to their own tradition: whether every Christian is bound to Chalcedon or not, I am. Chalcedon is part of the "doctrine, discipline, and worship" of the Episcopal Church, which all ordained ministers in that Church pledge to conform to (one may disagree privately, but that is a different matter: this blog is public); moreover, I pledged at my own life profession "to follow Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and by the Holy Spirit, through the doctrines, disciplines, traditions, and creeds of the church." It will take a lot to convince me that I should violate that vow, which is why I said that if this is what you're taking aim at, there I get off the bus.

But if you think that Chalcedon is ok, then fine. I said that the Son of God is impassible, inasmuch as the Son of God became incarnate and took on human nature; that he is impassible in virtue of that human nature and only as such.

You thought this was an objectionable qualification; I replied that it is, as far as I can tell, exactly the same qualification that the decree uses in sanctioning the term Theotokos.

Now your original point, which I agreed with and still do, was that if we accept Theotokos we should accept divine passibility for the same reasons, and that it would be inconsistent not to. Excellent!

Now, you seem bothered that I accept Theotokos in the way that the Council did, and that I accept passibility in the same way.
D.W. Congdon said…
I actually belong to no denomination. I have no ties to the PCUSA or any other group. I was born into the evangelical free church movement. I have always had strong leanings toward the Anglican Communion, but I have never made the move.

I hold Chalcedon to be authoritative, but authoritative as a human document like any other. It is not divinely inspired, but I will abide by its definition unless it proves to be a hindrance in articulating the gospel. And ever since the Kantian revolution in philosophy, it has remained on the verge of needing revision.

Our disagreement, as I see it, comes down to a question of the Trinity: is each Person of the Trinity involved in the acts of the other two Persons? Is there a mutual indwelling among the Persons such that whatever one Person does, the other two Persons are intrinsically involved?

While in speaking of the Theotokos I attribute human birth to the incarnate second person of the Trinity, the taking on of humanity itself by the incarnate Logos means that the experience of humanity -- the experience of being born, of suffering, of dying -- are all taken up into the life of God. The incarnation is an assumption of humanity into the triune life of God. Anything more or less than this is no longer orthodox. The Chalcedonian definition was right, but it was couched in a metaphysical framework that was more wrong than right and impeded the church's ability to fully appropriate the truth of the incarnation.