Theology & Spirituality

The Passibility of God – Part 2

In my previous article, I argued that God’s self-sacrificial Love defines the intra-Trinitarian relations. This Love was uniquely demonstrated at the cross, where the Father abandons the Son and the Son is abandoned by the Father, causing both to lose the other for the sake of their Love. Much of this comes as an apologetic response to theologians advocating “Death of God” Theology, which Jurgen Moltmann corrected to “Death in God.”

‘Death of God’ or ‘Death in God’: The Issue of Divine Passibility

Returning again to the issue of Divine impassibility in The Crucified God, Moltmann makes a unique statement that at the center of Theology stands the cross, which is a “Death in God” (207). This is his apologetic for his Trinitarian theology over and against both the classical Platonic view as well as contemporary Death of God theologians. Moltmann sees himself rooted between two extremes.

In Moltmann’s eyes, the church has never been able to get past the theopaschite formula “One of the Holy Trinity suffered in the flesh,” citing that this was more or less rendered as merely a suppositum of the Divine nature (Crucified God. 230). The traditional argument that the divine nature of Christ did not suffer because the divine esse is impassible is a contradiction to Moltmann. This, among other reasons, is one of the issues with traditional Christology and the doctrine of God.

Moltmann prefers a God who can suffer outside of the binary. As he explains, the early Church treated the suffering and non-suffering of God (patheia and apatheia) as a strict binary, with God strictly not suffering. “Granted, the theology of the early church knew of only one alternative to suffering and that was being incapable of suffering (apatheia), not-suffering” (Crucified God 230)However, with Moltmann’s definition of Love being self-sacrificial for the sake of the other, he is able to refute this binary by noting that this “would contradict the fundamental Christian assertion that God is love” (Crucified God 230) Hence, “If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would be incapable of love. He would at most be capable of loving himself, but not of loving another as himself, as Aristotle puts it” (The Trinity and the Kingdom 23) thereby contradicting John 3:16 as well as many other passages of Scripture.

What does Moltmann mean when he says the phrase “Death in God”? For Moltmann, the passible Son dies in His Divinity, and the Father suffers in His. This should not be understood from a Greek metaphysical point of view where the ontological death of God is shared with the man Jesus. Rather, ontologically the Father is other than humanity, and Jesus as a man and as the second part of the Trinity, is ontologically other than the Father. Hence when the Son dies, He is separated from the Father and this disruption within the Trinity is what unites it. Interestingly, while Moltmann creates a new way to understand Karl Rahner’s axiom of the immanent and economic Trinity being one, he further reinvents the metaphysics of the Trinity away from the traditional conception. He uses Scripture to explain his metaphysical point:

The ‘giving up’ of the Son by the Father (Rom 8:32) also means that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19). Christ is the merciful, compassionate servant of God who dies ‘for many’. His suffering is divine suffering, i.e. suffering in solidarity and redemptive suffering (History and the Triune God 28)

By this, Moltmann links the metaphysics of Christ’s death with the suffering of God, the content of that suffering being solidarity and redemption. The Son’s perichoretic relationship to the Father creates an open communion “for the many” to participate in suffering that is solidarity and redemptive.

As mentioned above, Moltmann takes a non-binary path in the suffering of Christ, that is not dependent on the suffering or non-suffering God. Rather, he believes God actively suffers because of his Love. Richard Bauckham summarizes Moltmann’s argument in The Theology of Jurgen Moltmann, “In other words, it enables his love to evoke the free response of his creation.” (60) He goes on to explain the phrase “Death in God”:

…the cross reveals God to be love which suffers with and for those who suffer. Because God is love he is for himself (the doctrine of God) what he is for us (soteriology) in the event of his suffering love. (60)

For Moltmann, the divine, intra-trinitarian suffering is the soteriological event of the cross. God’s passibility extends not solely from His human nature, but the divine relations themselves. Thus, as Moltmann says in The Future of Creation, “Thus, the cry of dereliction signifies an event of suffering between the Father and the Son, that is, in God himself: ‘there God disputes with God; there God cries out to God; there God dies in God.” Jesus’ cry of dereliction is, for Moltmann, is the “Death in God.”

Conclusion

In review, Jurgen Moltmann’s concept of Love is what allows him to refute the traditional Platonic apatheia. Because God is Love and Love is “the acceptance of the other without regard for one’s own being,” then God is passible. This passibility manifests in the abandonment and forsakenness of the Son and the eternal guilt of the Father. It is through these that the Trinity is both divided and conjoined in suffering, although the suffering itself differs. This is not to be understood as an abstract unity in the idea of suffering, however. Moltmann breaks with traditional metaphysics in this respect. Rather, unity is in the relationship that is shared by the Father and the Son in the cross. Hence the cross is the God-event that is both the cross of the risen Christ and the resurrection of the crucified Christ. It is because of this event that God is passible, and Trinitarian relations are revealed. This then ties into the overall thesis of Crucified God, that God’s relationship to the world is a two-way relationship bound up in the Trinitarian loving relationship. Where this essay ends is where Moltmann begins: “Death in God” is the salvific response of the Christian to the statement of the “Death of God,” and that all Theology is centered upon the God-event of the Cross. In his own words:

It is the comfort of the crucified Christ that he brings the love of God and the fellowship of the eternal Spirit into the abysses of our suffering and our hells of evil, so that we do not go under in pain but change suffering to life, whether here of there (History of the Triune God 30)

Biography

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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