DialoguesTheology & Spirituality

Dialogue on The Passibility of God

In an essay dated September 18, 2019, Conciliar Post guest writer Christopher Warne addresses the attribute of divine impassibility. Warne’s writing is critical of impassibility, leaning heavily on the theology of Jurgen Moltmann. The purpose of this article is to respond to Warne and briefly sketch some reasons why Christians should embrace divine impassibility as an essential attribute of God. 

Warne argues almost exclusively from Moltmann and Richard Buakham’s analysis of Moltmann. The argument is not broken down formally, but for the sake of brevity could be rendered as follows: 

  1. If divine impassibility is true, God could not suffer. 
  2. God suffered on the cross of Christ.
  3. Divine impassibility is not true.

[1] is just a simplified stratum of divine impassibility. There are deep metaphysical roots to this divine attribute, it does not stand in isolation from antecedent predications of God and His attributes developed through a combination of robust natural and revealed theology. In this context, passibility can be understood to carry with it the connotation of a patient in a doctor/patient relationship. The doctor (or agent) acts upon the patient to bring about health (a change in state). For one to be a patiens, to endure or suffer, means that one must be capable of change. The adherent of divine impassibility argues that there is nothing in God that is changeable in principle. It is not that God merely cannot suffer in an emotional way, but that God is not acted upon by extrinsic forces whatsoever. 

It appears from Warne’s implicit endorsement of Moltmann that impassibility is first ruled out by way of prolegomena. Impassibility imbibes too much of a Greek flavor for reconciliation to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One cannot help but pause at this well-poisoning rhetorical device. The specter of Greek philosophy spoiling Christian theology is often addressed with simple hand-waving. Instead of acknowledging the possibility that the Greek philosophical schools could have latched onto some potentially helpful facts about God and the world (however incorrect or incomplete some their thought might be in light of biblical revelation), some theologians insist on a false dichotomy.  “Jerusalem vs. Athens” is issued forth by pious fiat. If one agrees that all truth is God’s truth, then the extent that thinkers in the Platonic or Aristotelian traditions arrived at truths by natural reason should be thought of as an aid to the Christian faith instead of an impediment.

The impassibility of God has been defended by many theologians, from the patristics to the scholastics to the Reformed divines. These thinkers have addressed the significant Trinitarian and Christological questions that naturally arise in such a discourse. Perhaps they argued wrongly, but the reader is due more than a quick dismissal of these historical thinkers and the doctrine of divine impassibility under the guise of ideas being infected by pagan philosophy. There is a genetic fallacy lurking here. 

Leaving prolegomena to the side for the moment, the key point of departure would be on [2] in the above argument. For the argument to go through, this premise would need to be true or at least more plausibly true than false. For this premise to be true, the defender of this argument – or any Moltmann-esque position – would have to demonstrate that God in His Divine Essence suffered at Calvary. It is to argue that God per se suffers. By arguing this way, Moltmann (and possibly Warne by endorsement) conflates the two natures of Christ in direct contradiction to revelation and orthodoxy. 

To quote from the Athanasian Creed (emphasis is the authors)

For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man. God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the substance of His mother, born into the world. Perfect God and Perfect Man, of a reasonable Soul and human Flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His Manhood. Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but One Christ.

This creed nicely summarizes key aspects of orthodox Christology, spanning the panoply of biblical revelation and apostolic teaching. The emphasis on the human nature of Christ is especially important for the present case. For nothing precludes us from affirming Christ’s suffering, undergoing change, or being passible in His human nature. But Moltmann’s argument is not that Christ suffered merely in His human nature, but that He suffered in totality (divine and human). Moreover, for Moltmann, each divine Person suffers in their divine nature. From his view, for God per se to not suffer with man would mean God could not be loving or omnibenevolent. A loving God does not stand apathetically unaffected by the sufferings of His beloved. This is the meta-position Moltmann brings to exegesis and what militates against divine impassibility. Yet, it is only by conflating the divine and human natures in Christ that [2] can be affirmed, and this is precisely what the defender of impassibility – and orthodoxy – must deny. Moltmann’s argument falls apart on pain of contradicting biblical revelation about the two natures of Christ. His argument can also be shown to fail because the impassibility of God is demonstrated independent of biblical revelation. 

For Moltmann, traditional Christology is deficient in the face of evil and suffering. He demands that the Divine Essence itself be moved by His creatures, lest God be apathetic, distant, cold, uncaring. However, in so arguing, Moltmann (and Warne perhaps) undermines the very attributes he seeks to uphold. There are several important aspects of divine impassibility that safeguard our salvation and guarantee God’s unchanging love for us. 

If God is passible, He is changeable. There would then be things outside God (humans, at least), that bring about processes in Him (shifting mental/emotional states). God would then be in process and subject to the whims of created beings. He would be mutable, and radically so. The implications for divine sovereignty would be dire, for some things are necessarily outside of His control and discretion. For God to suffer would mean that He would lack something or have something taken away from Him, joy or happiness perhaps. He would have emotional needs and He would be deprived of some good by virtue of suffering and therefore we could not say He is perfectly good in His essence, but only contingently good (and never actually so post-human creation, because humans would always be causing His suffering with their sinfulness). A passible God would necessarily be on the same ontological plane as creation and would exist in a proverbial back and forth that would be eerily similar to the non-Christian religions and philosophy which advocates of divine passibility try to eschew. The attribute of divine transcendence is lost if God is passible. A passible God is finite. For these reasons and many others, affirming divine passibility is highly problematic.

On the other hand, if God is impassible, then He retains transcendence over the created order. He retains His unique ontological status, and thus He is fully able to stand apart from and rectify evil and injustice. The impassible God is One who can unceasingly love man, for He is not subject to shifting feelings. The impassible God loves with a perfect love. He can only love those who suffer,  which is all mankind to varying degrees because He is free from any need. He is infinite love, He is love itself. He does not love because of something extrinsic to Himself, but because it is His very unchanging, unaffected essence. As David Bentley Hart writes, “no pathos is possible for God because pathos is, by definition, a finite instance of change visited upon a passive subject, actualising some potential, whereas God’s love is pure positivity and pure activity.” (The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, 167). 

To be sure, divine impassibility has a venerable cadre of critics. In addition to the arguments Warne presents from Moltmann, detractors of impassibility often cite a lack of support in the biblical texts and philosophical problems with the metaphysics and implications of the doctrine. For example, the Bible describes God as suffering (Genesis 6:6, Psalm 78:40, Ephesians 4:30) and there may be a exegetical limit to how much of this can be situated in metaphorical or anthropomorphic language.  And it may be argued that the underlying metaphysics (God as Actus Purus, etc.) of impassibility would preclude any change whatsoever, even Cambridge changes, or that impassibility results in some variation of modal collapse. Space constraints will preclude an explication of these criticisms and defense of impassibility against them, but they have been addressed at length elsewhere (see for example Weinandy Does God Suffer). More could also be said on the arguments from natural theology that support impassibility, the language of predication of divine attributes, and so forth. It should suffice for now that the historical-theological arguments of Moltmann, et. al. offered by Warne are not at all injurious to divine impassibility. Instead, the idiosyncratic tendencies, structural weakness, and heterodoxy of these positions show the strengths of upholding impassibility in God.

That there is an inherent limitation in human understanding of the divine and human natures in Christ and intra-Trinitarian relations should not lead us to question what revelation provides. When we abandon divine impassibility, we give up far more than we could ever gain. We turn away from the God who said to Moses “I AM, “ we turn away from the God who upholds the universe by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3), and we, therefore, end up turning away from the Lord Jesus Christ who is true God and True man. Our Lord did suffer along with us in His human nature while remaining perfectly, beautifully, transcendently, and redemptively loving in His impassible divine nature. 

Adam Davis

The critique of Adam Davis is quite correct in many respects about some theologians view divine passibility. However, I would like to put forth two areas of disagreement with Davis about his reading of my article. Firstly, while I do agree with Moltmann on these points, I was not attempting to explain my own view on divine passibility, although, for the sake of argument, I might as well admit I agree with Moltmann in this area (I disagree with him is some others such as Baptism). Secondly, Davis assumes some traditionalist ideas and source materials which can be problematic for his argument. Briefly, they are as follows:

(1) That the dismissal of greek philosophy is merely a rhetorical device
(2) Divine impassibility is Biblical
(3) Passibility necessitates Mutability

I shall at least attempt to address and refute all three below.

To summarize Davis’ argument on the ‘hand-waiving’ of modern theologians who believe in the passibility of God he writes: “Impassibility imbibes too much of a Greek flavor for reconciliation to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One cannot help but pause at this well-poisoning rhetorical device. The specter of Greek philosophy spoiling Christian theology is often addressed with simple hand-waving.”

What follows this speaks to the usefulness of Greek philosophy as well as its terms in the study of Theology, commonly viewed as traditional. However, neither Moltmann nor I believe in divine passibility simply because it is faux pas not to do so during the modern discussion. The reason Moltmann believes in passibility, and the reason that convinced me of his argument, is his definition of Love: “If love is the acceptance of the other without regard to one’s own well-being, then it contains within itself the possibility of sharing in suffering and freedom to suffer as a result of the otherness of the other (Crucified God. 230)”

If God is impassible, then He is incapable of emotion. If this is true, then He could not love because he could not suffer. This is not a dismissal of greek philosophy carte blanche but a dismissal of a specific topic for a specific reason. God must be passible because he is love (John 4.8). One may then question why God’s love is defined so, to which I would respond with John 3.16, noting this is God’s love is an action (actus purus) within the world. The way this Love is understood can only be through John 14.20-21 et al., that we understand the love of the Father as it is revealed by the Son. Therefore, since the Son’s Love is founded upon the theologia crucis, as defined by Moltmann as that is the cry of dereliction in Matthew and Mark, so must the Father’s love be understood also. To ignore or explain away this biblical evidence through greek philosophy or ‘Church Tradition’ is to surrender the Triune God for the impassible God of Greek Philosophy. Rather, one might say that those who cling to the traditional view attempt to eschew the modern quandary of God’s passibility by a resolute dismissal of its possibility.

Secondly, as shown above, there is a good biblical reason to believe that God is passible. Davis himself references Gen. 6.6, Ps. 78.40, Eph. 4.30 as areas where Scripture explicitly states that God is passible. Traditionally, these have been understood as anthropomorphizations of the impassible God, however, need this be true? Even if one were to read Davis’ quoting of the Athanasian Creed, one is still left with no definitive comment upon the impassibility of God, because while Jesus Christ is defined as God and man, God is not defined as impassible and man as passible. All Athanasius has done is assert that God is eternal, which neither Moltmann nor I would ever deny. Indeed, what Athanasius has established in that God is paradoxical in His nature being both three persons and one being.

This raises my final critique, that passibility necessitates mutability. From the one quote that defends impassibility in Davis’ critique, that of David Bentley Hart who defines pathos as “a finite instance of change visited upon a passive subject, actualising some potential, whereas God’s love is pure positivity and pure activity,” and therefore cannot be God because it violates actus purus. Aquinas defines actus purus in the I.2 of his summa as like a fire burning wood. The fire is pure action, consuming the wood because of its potentiality. However, what would a pathos of God look like from the One who is actus purus? BDAG defines pathos as either (1) that which is endured or experienced, suffering, or (2) experience strong desire, passion (784). Thus, to say God exhibits pathos on the cross is irrefutable. It also needs to be held that God experiences suffering because of his love, as exemplified by the crucified Christ. This would seem to be the case because the only way humanity knows the Father is through the Son, and thus it would seem illogical that if the Father’s love is shown by means of the Cross, then we should believe God Himself does not suffer. Rather, because we see the Son suffer in Scripture, we know the Father also suffers.

Yet, this is not to say that God changes by way of His suffering, or that God is mutable. God’s suffering in love is paradoxical, just as the slain and risen Lamb of Revelation 5 who exists eternally and a-temporally. How could it be that the divine God, standing in the heavenly throne room, is not suffering when He has been slain? It is precisely by this He is declared worthy to open the scrolls. Furthermore, this is done before time, because the opening of the scrolls are time themselves. All of which points to the fact that Christ, as the God-man, exists unchangeably as the suffering and victorious Lamb, and by whom humanity comes to understand the Father.

By way of summary, I believe Davis has brought up a good critique of some theologians’ views of the passible God, however, I do not think they encompass Moltmann nor my own beliefs on the topic. Divine passibility is much more than a rhetorical stance to circumvent greek philosophy, but a fervent critique of its presence in theology. Furthermore, I hope I have adequately shown that this understanding is both biblical as well as in line with a reading of the Fathers in favor of passibility.

-Christopher Warne

Christopher Warne has kindly responded to my critique of his essay at Conciliar Post on divine impassibility. I thank him for that and have appreciated this exchange. In what follows I will offer a response to his follow-up. If he responds further, I will post a link and leave the last word with him out of respect for his writing the thought-provoking originating essay and our points of departure being well-sketched by now.

Warne takes up three points from my response. The first concerns my comments on Greek philosophy, which leads him to set forth a crucial aspect of Moltmann’s argument against divine impassibility. Warne follows Moltmann in denying impassibility because only a passable God can love, as he writes “To ignore or explain away this biblical evidence [for passibility via love] through greek philosophy or ‘Church Tradition’ is to surrender the Triune God for the impassible God of Greek Philosophy.” I respectfully disagree with this for several reasons. 

First, it turns on a highly idiosyncratic and inadequate conception of divine love. Warne quotes Moltmann as follows “If love is the acceptance of the other without regard to one’s own well-being, then it contains within itself the possibility of sharing in suffering and freedom to suffer as a result of the otherness of the other (Crucified God. 230)”. One problem with this definition is that we are told that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Love is predicated of the Triune Divine Essence itself, and not as a contingent attribute. Divine love on Moltmann’s view, as explicated by Warne, collapses into the creaturely. On such a view, sans creation, God would have at best incomplete love in Himself. But we should not think there is anything in the Divine Essence that would have the potential for suffering. As I argued earlier, suffering is a form of evil, a lack of some good or a desire for something one does not have, and thus cannot be predicated of a perfect God. God sans creation is perfect love; He does not need creatures to be love itself and to love Himself. Yet the only direction Moltmann’s definition can take us is toward a deficiency in God. It flattens the actuality of divine love and further threatens the ontological hierarchy (as it were) of Creature/creature. The “acceptance of the other” aspect in the definition of love given is also curious. I submit such phraseology would be an incorrect understanding of human love, let alone divine love. 

Further, there are thus far no good arguments or reasons to think it is true or necessary that for God to love us He must suffer. It does not follow that suffering and love necessarily go together in God. The positive case cannot be because suffering and love run together in man. Even if mutual suffering were a necessary condition for human love, which is contestable in itself, we would need further reasons to think it was the same in God, either in Himself or toward man. The proof texts on offer for this put us in the same place as the other proof texts for divine passibility; we are forced to interpret, judge, and rightly order them in light of the full revelation of God. And I argue that the texts offered in support of a passibility in God are best understood as not making literal metaphysical predications of the Divine Essence. For one thing, as I argued in my first response, an impassible God is the only God who can unconditionally love us and redeem us. So the only way to make systematic sense out of the entirety of redemptive revelation is to affirm impassibility in God. 

It also remains to be shown how suffering which spills over from the human to divine nature in Christ is biblical and within the bounds of orthodox Christology. That was one of the points I was driving at by citing part of the Athanasian Creed. Chalcedon might be of further help in clarifying this point: “Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son…”

I fail to see how Moltmann’s view does not commingle and therefore confuse the divine and human natures of Christ. The passibility via love position demands that the human and divine natures suffer on the cross and that the Father and Holy Spirit suffer as well. It is puzzling that Moltmann finds the passibility of Christ in His human nature insufficient to reconcile love and human suffering. 

The next point taken up by Warne is that impassibility is unbiblical. He references a point I made on biblical passages often used as proof texts for divine passibility. Yet, there are also passages that speak of God having eyes (Habakkuk 1:13), arms (Deuteronomy 26:8), legs (Genesis 3:8), and lungs (Genesis 2:7, Job 27:3). Surely these passages are not communicating a literal truth about the Divine Nature itself. For if one opted for such a wooden understanding of these texts, we might be left with a very powerful creature, but not a Creator. We must adjudicate the texts speaking about God in metaphorical or anthropomorphic language with a view toward internal coherence and consistency. 

What I aimed for in my initial response was an acknowledgment that these passages have been understood to communicate things like mutability and passibility in God. The arguments for such an interpretation are not good. One of the main reasons is that they force contradictions upon the Bible about the nature of God because we would be forced to affirm and deny things about God in the same sense and at the same time (i.e. is He spatially extended, with large feet, or is He spirit and omnipresent?). If the Bible is the Word of God, it cannot contradict itself about the nature of its divine author. In sum, one can read the Bible and arrive at many divergent conceptions of God. Which one wins out? This is precisely where theology’s handmaiden comes to our aid. Psalm 18:2 tells us that God is our rock and fortress. Other passages say the same. Metaphorical language, to be sure. But it communicates a core truth to us about God; He is not shaken nor moved. This is why we can go to Him for refuge. Yet, if our fortress is being damaged, how can we confidently flee there? We could not. God is our help (Psalm 54:4, Hebrews 13:6) but He really cannot be if He needs help from suffering. 

Warne then argues that divine passibility does not entail mutability. I understand this to mean that God has passions and suffers but does not undergo change. Warne’s argument here ultimately appeals to paradox, God is unchanging yet somehow also suffers. The difference between paradox and contradiction has been well noted in these types of discussions. However, I cannot see anything but a contradiction here. If God in His essence is passible, immutability must be given up. There is no other coherent way to understand suffering without some kind of change in God. 

Much more could be said in response. I am grateful to the Lord for the opportunity to discuss a wonderful and challenging subject. I would like to thank Christoper Warne again for his writing and time spent in his response. And I hope we can shake hands and discuss this and other matters in person one day.

Adam Davis

Guest Author

Guest Author

Conciliar Post welcomes Christians from around the world to post articles as Guest Authors.

Previous post

A Theophany of Plants?

Next post

The Passibility of God - Part 2