Theology & Spirituality

The Passibility of God – Part 1

Tradition has told us that God is impassable, but is this really true? Historical Theologians remind us that impassibility has more to do with Greek philosophy than Scriptures himself. Is it necessary modern Christians believe God to be impassable, or is there room for a passable God? How does a passable God cause us to newly understand intra-Trinitarian relations?

In The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann rejects the traditional Platonic belief that God is apatheia, or impassable. This leads him to a unique conclusion about God’s intra-trinitarian suffering between the Father and the Son, namely that they are joined together in their different sufferings. Because of Christ’s ‘Death in God,’ Jurgen Moltmann rejects the traditional doctrine of Divine impassibility so that the suffering of Christ’s forsakenness on the cross is an intra-Trinitarian suffering. Christ’s incarnational death on the cross was the confluence of the forsakenness of the Son with the guilt of the Father, uniting and dividing the Trinity by way of suffering, a consequence of Love.

The Question Leading to Theology

In The Theology of Jurgen Moltmann, Richard Baukham succinctly explains the thesis of The Crucified God:

It [the dynamic rationality of the Trinity] understands the trinitarian God as three divine subjects in a mutually loving relationship, and God’s relationship to the world as a reciprocal relationship in which God in his love for the world not only affects the world but is also affected by it (15).

Bauckham notes that Moltmann understands not a one-way relationship flowing from God to the World, but rather a two-way give and take founded on Love. Furthermore, this Love of God for the world is wrapped into the Trinity itself because of Christ’s incarnation. The effect on Trinitarian relations is contrary to the common traditional understanding of the Panentheistic God creating and upholding His creation.

Moltmann responds to Christ’s painful cry of dereliction on the cross (Matt 27:46) by saying, “All Christian theology and all Christian life is basically an answer to the question which Jesus asked when he died” (The Crucified God 4). 

Christ’s plea from upon the cross is on the one hand, the utter suffering of humanity, while on the other, an affirmation of the loving relationship God has with humanity. The forsakenness Christ experiences is the ultimate forsakenness of life, which is death. Death is where Moltmann centers theology.

The death of Jesus on the cross is the centreof all Christian theology… the centre is not occupied by ‘cross and resurrection’, but by the resurrection of the crucified Christ, which qualifies his death as something that has happened for us, and the cross of the risen Christ, which reveals and makes accessible to those who are dying his resurrection from the dead (The Crucified God 204).

The center of theology is the death of Christ. The death of Christ is one event, looked at from two angles. The first is the historical death of Christ, the cross of the risen Christ, understood from the vantage point of Christ’s trial in history. This is the ‘how’ of soteriology, how God saved humanity through his passion. The second angle is the eschatological, the resurrection of the crucified Christ, seeks to explain what salvation is, namely resurrection from the dead. Yet this is all a single “God-event,” which is Moltmann’s response to the one-sided traditional Lutheran doctrine of theologia crucis. Moltmann argues that traditional Lutheran Theology only treats the historical understanding of the God-event as the expense of the eschatological. This makes the cross solely the instrument of salvation, precluding it from becoming the avenue of liberation. Liberation, a central theme in Moltmann’s writing, is the freedom to co-experience suffering entered on behalf of love.

All of this leads Moltmann to formulate a new statement about the intra-Trinitarian relations in respect to the kenosis which leads to “abandonment and surrender”:

But if the kenosis of the Son to the point of death upon the cross is the ‘revelation of the entire Trinity’, this event too can only be presented as a God-event in trinitarian terms. What happens on the cross manifests the relationship of Jesus, the Son, to the Father, and vice versa… The cross stands at the heart of the trinitarian being of God; it divides and conjoins the persons in their relationships to each other and portrays them in a specific way. (The Crucified God 206-207)

The revelation of the Trinity in the cross is the Son’s abandonment by the Father, and the Father’s surrendering of the Son. Concurrently, the Son is abandoned and the Father surrendering. This divides them but also unites them in suffering. It is by this relationship that the Trinitarian being of Love is expressed. They are joined and yet distinct from one another, to which Moltmann himself states:

In the forsakenness of the Son the Father also forsakes himself. In the surrender of the Son the Father also surrenders himself, though not in the same way. For Jesus suffers dying in forsakenness, but not death itself; for men can no longer ‘suffer’ death, because suffering presupposes life. But the Father who abandons him and delivers him up suffers the death of the Son in the infinitegrield of love. We cannot therefore say here in ptripassian terms that the Father also suffered and died. The suffering and dying of the Son, forsaken by the Father, is a different kind of suffering from the Father in the death of the Son (The Crucified God 243)

Divine Love

All suffering within the Trinity flows from Love. Moltmann takes a new approach to the divine Love, deviating from a panentheistic model that traditionally espoused, defining love as “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” (The Crucified God 230). Love is something distinctly outside of oneself, leaving the lover open to the beloved’s response. However, it is not, in the case of God, a love dependent on the other in so far as it is entered into unwillingly. This would be to violate the freedom of God. Rather, it is the binding relationship that once entered will affect the lover on account of the beloved. This love is selfless, which is what Moltmann means when he says. “without regard to one’s own well-being.” From this can the Trinitarian nature of God can be emphasized as opposed to a monsitic conception. Thus, Multmann concludes in The Trinity and the Kingdom that  “Love seeks a counterpart who freely responds and independently gives love for love. Love humiliates itself for the freedom of its counterpart” (30)

For Moltmann, when one looks at the Cross, one sees the openness of love because “This symbol [of the Cross] is an invitation to understand the Christ hanging on the cross as the ‘outstretched’ God of the Trinity” (The Crucified God 207). God is outstretched for humanity through his incarnation. This leads Moltmann to later further explain this outstretching from an intra-Trinitarian view, “The believer understands the crucifixion as an event of the love of the Son and the grief of the Father, that is, as an event between God and God, as an event within the Trinity, he perceives the liberating word of love which creates new life” (The Crucified God 249). 

When the believer comes to the cross, she sees the division of God being united by love and grief. The crucifixion is an event encompassed and experienced by God in Himself. The result of this event then is new life which is created by the “liberating word of love” (The Crucified God 249). Christ fully experiences the human sting of death, from His kenosis which draws God into the suffering of humanity. Therefore, “the Trinity is not a self-contained group in heaven, but an eschatological process open for men on earth which stems from the cross of Christ” (The Crucified God 249). God loves the world because by the very definition of Love, He must extend beyond Himself to love the other. This other opened in the incarnation of Christ, which is not to close off the Trinity between the Father and the Son, but to allow it to be opened because of the Love They share. The God-event of the crucifixion is the display of God’s open loving between the Father and the Son.

This Love of one another will bring up interesting issues that relate to the Death of God theology, which was popular in the late 1960s and 70s, which Moltmann engaged with his Trinitarian theology. The second part of this series will discuss the ramifications of the ‘Death in God’ for Moltmann’s Trinitarian Theology. Together with his definition of Love, Intra-trinitarian relations will never be the same.

Follow-Up / Dialogue Post by Adam Davis:


Christopher Warne currently lives in Kenosha, WI but is originally from Northern Massachusetts. He went to Gordon College for his undergraduate, majoring in Biblical Studies (concentration in Biblical Languages) and Global Christianity. He went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for his M.Div. and MA in Church History, and is writing his thesis on John Wycliffe. He currently works as the Children and Youth Director at Grace UMC in Lake Bluff, IL as he finishes his STM at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He lives with his fiancee Caroline, and their dog William (Willy) of Ockham.

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