Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Our Collective Faith 7

posted by Scot McKnight

Heresies.jpgThe next heresy in B. Quash and M. Ward, Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe  concerns “theopaschitism.” The chp is by Michael Ward, an Anglican priest and an expert on C.S. Lewis.

What is this heresy? Some believed that, due to the union of the natures in Christ, God suffered as God when Christ was crucified. Those who propounded theopaschitism included Peter the Fuller (patriarch of Antioch) and John Maxentius (Scythian monk). Ward observes that many theologians today hold to this view. He says it has become, paradoxically, a new orthodoxy.

The Church, our collective faith, has held to the “impassibility” of God: “God can’t be changed from without and that he can’t change himself from within” (61). God can’t change from a better to a worse state — that’s impassibility — and if he did that would be suffering.


Ward sees a rise of theopaschitism in the contention that impassibility was a Greek philosophical idea, not a biblical idea. His argument is simple: all ideas are influenced by culture. Thus, those who argue for passibility are influenced by such things as process thinking — so the contention that the idea is from Greek philosophy isn’t proof or denial. It levels the playing field. The early church, Ward argues, engaged the current trends of Stoicism and Gnosticism critically and found the idea wanting.

Second element at work in the modern theopaschitism: the stormily emotional God of the Old Testament (62). That same Bible, Ward argues, depicts an immutable God. E.g., Mal 3:6 which asserts that God does not change. See also James 1:17 and Heb 13:8 and 2 Tim 2:13. His point is that God’s emotional changeability is a human perspective at work.

Third element: the two world wars and pondering how God could not but suffer in the horrible tragedy of human existence. He mentions both Elie Wiesel and Jurgen Moltmann. The cross, Moltmann argued, saves God from being a demon. Is, Ward asks, the Holocaust the first instance of human suffering? Surely not. Has not impassibility always had to explain human suffering. Surely.

Ward contends we do best by avoiding theopaschitism. God is loving because he is impassible. “The impassible God can’t be acted upon from without and can’t change himself.” If God is love, then God’s impassible love is good news. The eternal love of the Trinity — between persons — is the essence of God and apart from that love God would not exist. This love is not static or emotionally dead but so full of pure direction in love that they must exist. It is not a monstrous fixity but an eternal relationship. God’s love is an action and not a reaction.

The miracle of the Incarnation is that the Impassible suffers in the humanity of Christ. Thus: “Out of his own freedom the impassible and loving God chose to suffer in our humanity and to take upon himself our sin” (69).



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David Johnson

posted April 7, 2009 at 1:54 am


An impassible God can never be described as love the way the apostle John described Him. Love REQUIRES the forfeiture of a prerogative of power. Love REQUIRES that the lover become vulnerable to the beloved. We see this in the cross itself: the Great Lover, whose love for us is greater by far than any love that we could have for Him, IN ORDER TO LOVE US comes to this earth and becomes vulnerable to all of our hatred—so vulnerable that he dies at our hands. The lover has to risk the rejection of his beloved. In any relationship, the one who loves the LEAST is in the more powerful position.
This, I think, is the greatest reversal of all: the one who loves the least may be more free of the Other, but that freedom is used to become a slave to destruction. And it ends up being the apparently powerless Lover in the relationship who ALONE can free the unloving beloved from bondage. Therefore, LOVE emerges as the greatest power that exists. Love is incompatible with impassibility.
Call me a heretic.



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RJS

posted April 7, 2009 at 6:51 am


I don’t know enough about this to make any strong informed statement. But…this is where I start to get nervous. The basic argument seems to be:
A. We know X about the nature of God.
B. These parts of scripture agree, so we know we are right.
C. These parts disagree – so they must be “accommodation” or some such, because we know that they cannot be literally true.
D. Therefore you are a heretic if you don’t agree with A.
Part of the problem with several of these “nature of God” questions is that the “official” position is where “B” the parts that agree are isolated scattered and “C” the parts that contradict permeate the entire story. It is “heresy” to read the story with any real literal sense when it refers to God.
Now – I think that it is possible to go off the deep end both ways, and I am not sure what I think on some of these issues, but the nature of the argument disturbs me.



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phil_style

posted April 7, 2009 at 7:36 am


“God can’t change from a better to a worse state — that’s impassibility — and if he did that would be suffering.”
Who’s to say we should define suffering as a ‘worse state’?
Is not suffering part of love? Consider the scene in LOVE ACTUALLY when the young boy explains the agony of being ‘in-love’ (albeit perhaps a differnet kind of love from the father’s). In any case, there’s something wonderfully beautiful about this kind of suffering. How is this ‘worse’?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yO9yNFCt4M



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Ben S

posted April 7, 2009 at 7:44 am


Thanks for the post, Scot. I was interested in picking this book up until I found out I was a heretic. But now that I?ve thought about it, that might be an even better reason to investigate it.
I agree with much of what David said above, and I also think Ward?s point about ?process thinking? and ?Greek philosophy? canceling each other out is very true. Civility, I think, requires that we approach others? arguments on their own terms rather than attempting to invalidate their beliefs by rooting out the ?real reason? they believe what they do.
I have no credentials here except an unhealthy interest in theology. However, ultimately I think a distinction must be made between the ?immutability? of God?s attributes ? His love, justice, truth, goodness, etc. ? and the ?passability? of his emotions. I?m curious to see how Ward argues that they are incompatible, because in my view they are interdependent. If we argue that God?s perfect Triune love makes emotional passability impossible, then we are left with something akin to Piper?s ?hedonistic? God, who is completely self-absorbed and incapable of any true ?selfless? act. Maybe this is my immaturity, but I fail to see anything exceedingly ?spiritual? about affirming a God who is so totally absorbed with Triune love or perichoresis that He cannot be troubled to be moved by the pain and suffering and sin of humans on earth.
Speaking of which, it is my understanding that Piper (and if not him, many like-minded Calvinists who share his conception of God) teaches that God?s wrath is ?personal? rather than simply ?legal? or ?functional,? and many self-described ?orthodox? Evangelicals believe this also. Conservative evangelicals teach that God?s wrath is a direct, personal reaction in response to the specific sins of every individual and thus contradicts the doctrine of impassability that Ward apparently espouses. So while I don?t know Ward?s position on the matter, it must be pointed out that a great deal of evangelicals, especially those who hold to strict Penal Substitution, have at least some degree of emotional passibility in their doctrine because the idea of God?s ?personal? (i.e., emotional, passable) wrath is essential to their atonement theology.
Finally, I?m not as familiar with the ins and outs of patristic theology, but if we assume that the nature of God in Christ and the nature of Jesus the man were inextricably linked, how can we not affirm that God, as God, in Jesus Christ, did actually suffer? (http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2009/03/our-collective-faith-and-heres-1.html#more ; http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2009/03/our-collective-faith-and-heres-2.html#more ; http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2009/03/our-collective-faith-and-heres-3.html#more) This is more a question than an argument per se.



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Greg Smith-Young

posted April 7, 2009 at 7:47 am


I’ve attached a link to a good article “Only the Suffering God Can help: Divine Passibility in Modern Theology” by Richard Bauckham.
I resonate with the question Phil asks in #3. It seems arguments for impassibility assume a lot about what divine perfection looks like. Are those assumptions true to Scripture?
Greg



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Phil

posted April 7, 2009 at 8:19 am


When I have to teach around this, and I mean around because the terminology and though is beyond my grasp (think Philippians 2), I probably over simplify it to “God’s nature” or “character” doesn’t change. When moses or abram, etc. changes His mind, His person does not change and His plan or will is carried out. Am I off in my understanding here?



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Rick

posted April 7, 2009 at 8:28 am


This issue seems to be dated a little later (closer to 500), and seems to have a strong eastern church influence. Is it considered a heresy in the western church? It does not seem to have been widely condemned (uniformly) in the west.



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Scott Eaton

posted April 7, 2009 at 9:09 am


Scot,
I hope you will respond to some of the arguments above. These have been some very thoughtful responses to your post.
Just wondering aloud here, but would you see “The Shack” as guilty of theopaschitism? Is open theism guilty of theopaschitism?
Again, great post and thoughtful comments.



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LutheranChik

posted April 7, 2009 at 9:18 am


I’m wondering how the concept of kenosis, which is an important theme in Lutheran theology, relates to theopaschitism.
As noted by the first respondent, if I’m going to be a heretic, I’d be happy to be a theopaschitist heretic.



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T

posted April 7, 2009 at 9:20 am


Ditto the above comments. When I first heard about this aspect of “orthodoxy,” I remember asking the friend telling me immediately, “What about the passage where ‘God’s anger burned against Moses,’ or even where God changed his mind because of Moses’ plea?” He had no way to explain these passages within this ‘impassible’ God idea as he understood it without turning the text on its ear. That’s always a sign to me that we’re making conclusions about God that have overstepped. It seems to me that the texts about God’s “unchangeableness” are ambiguous enough to allow for the specific ‘changes’ we know about from other texts. Does God ever ‘change’ what he is doing in a given moment? Does he ‘change’ how he brings his messages from day to day, year to year, century to century, etc.? Of course.
If a given theology tells me that God can’t or won’t do “X”, and scripture tells us he already did “X”, I tend to think that theology is missing something.



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LutheranChik

posted April 7, 2009 at 9:28 am


To me God’s “impassibility” sounds more like a construct of Greek philosophy than of an Hebraic understanding of God.



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T

posted April 7, 2009 at 9:40 am


I should add to my last sentence, “unless God is clear that he’s changing how he’s doing things.” :)



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phil_style

posted April 7, 2009 at 9:49 am


#11, LutheranChick
I agree, sounds a bit like the old “substance” v “form” debate rewired.



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Travis

posted April 7, 2009 at 10:11 am


T, LutheranChik, and everybody,
I agree too. I’ve always found this impassibility thing overly Greek. The idea of God suffering was, as Paul says, “foolishness to Gentiles”. So we engaged the Greek philosophy of the time, and may have bought a little too much into their categories.
Good thing that never happened again in history :)



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Scot McKnight

posted April 7, 2009 at 12:48 pm


Just got back from class: “impassible” does not mean “un-emotional.” This has to do with whether God as God suffered or whether the suffering was in the human person and not divine person that suffered (in the flesh).



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dopderbeck

posted April 7, 2009 at 12:57 pm


Let me join the chorus of those wondering if Ward really hits the nail on the head here. Moltmann’s patripassionist theology has been described as one of the most important contributions to theology this century. It is a central aspect of most current Christian efforts to construct theodicy in light of biological evolution and “natural evil.” Moltmann’s advocates argue, as others in this thread have, that the classical notion of impassibility owes more to Plato than to Moses, the Prophets, or Jesus.
OTOH, I can see how Moltmann’s view too easily slides into difficult territory concerning the Trinity. Some have argued that Moltmann’s view is akin to tritheism or modalism (a good summary: http://www.leithart.com/archives/003379.php). In other words, a theodicy that “saves” God in light of natural evil by having God the Father suffer too easily ends up with three separate “gods” or a God that really isn’t three persons.
Here’s what I don’t get, and Scot or others maybe you can help me out: why include this particular heresy in a book that is designed as a broad, ecumenical, basically paleo-orthodox summary of Christian belief? Many disputed things various contemporary traditions consider important, and that serve as dividing lines, simply aren’t mentioned — say, the meaning of Biblical inspiration, the nature and role of the eucharist, or the nature and role of Baptism. Why include theopaschitism in this survey? Is Moltmann really that far outside ecumenical orthodoxy?



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Percival

posted April 7, 2009 at 12:59 pm


This is a somewhat naive question. I don’t usually swim in these waters. Does the idea of God’s impassibility depend on the idea that God is surprised by nothing? If nothing surprises God, if everything is known completely before it happens, does He actually react to events and requests as a person? Or are His reactions to everything “programed” because He will always react the same? I’m wondering if the “personhood” of God is negated by this idea of impassibility.



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Percival

posted April 7, 2009 at 1:05 pm


Scot’s reply in #15 clarifies the issue, but leaves me more confused!
“The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, seeing the evil and the good.”
Does He not suffer along with those who suffer, react with anger at oppression, and rejoice with good? Please say “yes” because I would hate to think I’ve been worshipping a false God.



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Dan Martin

posted April 7, 2009 at 1:12 pm


I know (and grieve that) many have already written Greg Boyd off for this very concept, but I would note that I found his argument in “God of the Possible” to be a highly compelling and carefully scriptural treatment of the ways in which God clearly is portrayed to have interacted with both history and humanity. This interaction–clearly portrayed in accounts of Moses for example–sounds an awful lot like what the author is writing off as “passibility.” Boyd has developed some of this further on his blog as he’s been foreshadowing some of the work he’s doing on the upcoming book(s) “The Myth of the Blueprint.”
Contextually, most if not all the passages I’ve checked out re: God not changing seem to speak to the fact that God, unlike humanity, does not break his word. The Malachi, James, and Timothy passages referenced in the original post certainly work just as well (I would contend, much better) with this interpretation rather than with the notion of abstract immutability. Heb. 13:8 appears to me to be referring to the consistency of our faith in that Jesus doesn’t change. . .again not in any way speaking to the notion of immutability as a trait of the Godhead.
Finally, as Ben S and others have already pointed out, the concept of an immutable, non-suffering God seems to fly in the face of the personal, interactive God I read in both O.T. and N.T. To accept this “trait” as published seems to me a diminishment of the God portrayed in Scripture, and I’m frankly not sure what positive benefit it offers either in terms of doctrine or practice.



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Luke

posted April 7, 2009 at 1:35 pm


A good book to read about this is called “The Suffering of God” by Terence Fretheim. Impassibility can’t be found in the OT, that’s for sure. And I echo those above who say it’s a Greek construct. God is love, and this requires that he suffers. It pains him to see his children not living right. You have to ignore essentially the entire OT if you accept this. So, I guess I’m a “heretic,” which if that means that I don’t accept the impassibility of God, then I will proudly accept the label. This is a confusion of “orthodoxy” with reformed and Greek philosophical presuppositions.



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Cam R

posted April 7, 2009 at 1:44 pm


Scott #8,
I would guess Open theists probably end up somewhere close to theopaschitism. From the writers I have read (Sander, Pinnock, Boyd) open theism would have a limited impassibility. God’s nature doesn’t change but his experience, emotion, and plans may change. They would say that God really can and did suffer and endure the cross. But they don’t come at it from trying to work out Jesus’ natures but from questioning Greek ideas in our theology of God in light of the God revealed in scripture.
Scot,
Is the traditional or “orthodox” understanding of the cross that Jesus’ human nature endured death and suffering but the divine nature didn’t endure any of it? If so doesn’t that devalue the cross? What does that do to the gospel?
Where is the biblical basis for the theories on Jesus’ two natures and how they interact? Or it is more presupposition based, we “know” God must be a certain way so we read the bible through those presuppositions.
I am just finishing the Blue Parakeet. I think this is one of those times where we could have been reading the bible through tradition instead of with tradition. I love this concept.



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Pam

posted April 7, 2009 at 2:11 pm


The miracle of the Incarnation is that the Impassible suffers in the humanity of Christ.
Excuse me for being stupid, but you just said it was heresy to believe that Jesus suffers. Now you’re saying that it’s heresy unless we have approved, non-heretical ideas about the manner in which Jesus suffered?
Sorry, this seems like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” stuff.
It seems to me that a lot of heretic-hunting has one aim: to say over and over and over and over and over that God is supernatural. I think most of us got that already.



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Travis

posted April 7, 2009 at 2:24 pm


Scot, “This has to do with whether God as God suffered or whether the suffering was in the human person and not divine person that suffered (in the flesh).”
And what’s the problem with the divine person suffering? Is it Jesus shouting that God has abandoned him? If God the Father feels emotion, including sorrow and anger, how can we contend he doesn’t suffer while Jesus the Son is on the cross, even if it’s just empathetic emotional suffering?
dopderbeck @ 16,
Is there any territory concerning the Trinity that isn’t difficult?



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Scot McKnight

posted April 7, 2009 at 2:34 pm


Impassiblity, once again, is not about whether or not God has emotions. It has to do with whether or not God can suffer in a way that is unworthy of sovereignty. The classical conclusion, as I understand it, is that Jesus suffered in his humanity but not in his deity. Anyway, I think I’ve been fair to Ward’s description.



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T

posted April 7, 2009 at 2:46 pm


Well, we’re told not “to grieve the Holy Spirit” right? Are we being commanded to avoid something that is actually impossible to do? I really doubt it. So, that’s 2 of the three persons of the Trinity that suffer. Is the Father somehow sealed off from the suffering of both Jesus and the Spirit? The idea seems ridiculous. It’s counter-intuitive to the very core of the title of “Father” which Jesus uses so often. This whole notion seems to be the core impetus of gnosticism. Spirit = good, no suffering. Flesh = bad, suffering.
How can God command us to weep with those who weep (to enter their suffering, even though we don’t feel it directly in our own flesh), if he himself does not do this? Can the rejoicing in heaven over a repentant sinner not also include God? How could Jesus be the only person of the Trinity that experiences compassion (the pain of another)? Tommyrot!! :)



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T

posted April 7, 2009 at 2:57 pm


I’m sure there is a sense in which God’s suffering, as God, is unique. But maybe suffering “in a way that is unworthy of sovereignty” would be to merely suffer as much as we do. Perhaps God, precisely as sovereign, suffers more than any human could fathom for his creation. Perhaps the Father suffered more than the Son at the cross. This seems to be as plausible, if not more so, than the concept of impassibility that I’ve seen so far. Though I will also admit that it is likely also simultaneously true that God’s knows greater joy than any flesh; that he cannot despair or lose hope within his suffering, even as it outstripes ours, because he knows better. Is this what the doctrine of impassibility is attempting to articulate? That God knows no complete loss of hope?



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Cam R

posted April 7, 2009 at 3:05 pm


“The classical conclusion, as I understand it, is that Jesus suffered in his humanity but not in his deity.”
The classical conclusion seems off to me. Maybe I am a heretic in this way but isn’t the part of the gospel was that God loves us so much that He would come incarnate in Jesus, to live, to endure suffering and death, to rise again for our sake? Isn’t the classical conclusion saying that it may look like God died for us but really He can’t endure suffering so it must have only been his human nature.
I don’t know if suffering is unworthy of sovereignty. Who can judge?
I agree that there is mystery to the incarnation and working of the Trinity. Maybe we shouldn’t draw orthodoxy lines around stuff that seems to not fit or be pure spectulation.



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Dan Martin

posted April 7, 2009 at 4:01 pm


The classical conclusion, as I understand it, is that Jesus suffered in his humanity but not in his deity.
Whoa, isn’t this a violation of orthodoxy vis-a-vis other heresies we talked about just last week? Scot, you said, contra Nestorius:
The Council defeated Nestorius because it believed — and our collective faith has always believed — that Jesus’ person had two natures that are neither mixed nor divided
And contra Eutyches:
It was at Chalcedon, in 451, that Eutyches’ view was denied. Here are the words: the perfect humanity and perfect deity were united in Christ “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” (46).
It seems to me we have more division among the ancients, and more confusion over what, precisely, is orthodox, than this subject series has acknowledged. If, in fact, Jesus divine and human natures, though distinct, are not united in one hypostasis that did the suffering and dying, are we not in fact slipping back into dualism?



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Ben S

posted April 7, 2009 at 4:33 pm


I think I’m going to have to investigate the actual sources further to make any sort of binding judgment here, since according to Scot we’re misunderstanding the thrust of Ward’s argument. It appears to be a bit more complex and nuanced than what I’m drawing from Scot’s summary.
Of course, this is no fault of his; I affirm that while he may not be Infallible, his posts are always Reliable and Authoritative. ;)



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Luke

posted April 7, 2009 at 4:43 pm


Sounds like the classical conclusion is modalistic, which is another heresy. So that’s ironic: a book defending orthodoxy and combating heresies adopting a heretical view.
I have agreed with all the heresies thus far, but this one goes too far and is itself borderline heresy.



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Mark Z.

posted April 7, 2009 at 4:44 pm


dopderbeck: In other words, a theodicy that “saves” God in light of natural evil by having God the Father suffer too easily ends up with three separate “gods” or a God that really isn’t three persons.
Statements like this–if you believe X, then you are at risk of turning the Trinity into three gods or just one God who isn’t three persons–lead me to think that “the Trinity” isn’t a concept at all. It’s a piece of verbal drywall tape stuck over a gap in our theology. We believe Jesus is God; we believe That Which Jesus Addressed As “Father” is God; we believe the Holy Spirit is God; and we believe they’re not all the same thing. But we believe in one God. So get out the drywall tape. Give the contradiction a name and pretend we understand it.
And a little further down the wall, there’s another strip of tape called the “hypostatic union”.
Which is fine. It’s good to have ways to talk about stuff. But we get into stupid, destructive fights over these strips of tape–over whether someone believes too strongly in the unity or distinctness of the persons of the Trinity. It’s a meaningless dispute over a vacuous concept.
The ancient church was obsessed with disputes over the Trinity and defining any deviation from the party line as a heresy, but we don’t have to follow them off that cliff.
I also wonder if we should peel the tape off some of these gaps and look out through them. There’s something weird going on with the wind and water in John 3, and when God rocks the house in Acts 2, and even in Genesis when God makes man and woman “in our image”, and I wonder what we miss by closing ourselves off to the weird.
“There is a crack,
A crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
– Leonard Cohen



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Perry Robinson

posted April 7, 2009 at 4:51 pm


The worry over denying impassability is that it implies that God is altered by creatures, that created agents can bring about a change in God in such a way that God is not self moved. Viewe in this way the traditional insistence on impassbility isn’t so far fetched.
Essential reading here is Creel’s Divine Impassability, for understading the scholastic tradition, which suprisingly most writers on this subject do not. Second is Paul Gavrilyuk’s The Suffering of the Impassible God. What Gavrilyuk shows is that the touchstone for te appripriate gloss is Cyril of Alexandria. What Cyril has in mind is a distinction between passive alteration and an active participation or grasping/possession. Our suffering is something we undergo in the first sense, but Christ’s qua divine hypostasis is a reaching out, a laying hold, an active participation in suffeirng and so his suffering and death is a unique death so that by dying he destroys death as the ancient paschal liturgies proclaim.
Hence the classical position is that the divine person in his an dunited to his humanity suffers, even though the divine nature/essence remains unaltered. Nature’s per se don’t do anything, let alone suffer, persons do.



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Dan Martin

posted April 7, 2009 at 5:05 pm


Mark Z (#30) I’m with you. The “weird” in the nature of God is actually wild and wonderful and too-easily obscured by good theology. Bring it on!
T #10, “If a given theology tells me that God can’t or won’t do “X”, and scripture tells us he already did “X”, I tend to think that theology is missing something.” Ditto to you too!
RJS #2, you summarize better and more concisely than I ever did, why this whole discussion has me concerned that we’re accepting patristic authority without holding it up to the critical light of scripture.
One, I think we’re seeing with this “heresy” the fact that the 3rd/4th-century church “consensus” may not be quite as airtight as arguments to date have suggested. Two, I come back to the problem I raised several posts back in this series; allowing the fathers uncritical authority in determining “our collective faith” is itself a dangerous proposition.



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RJS

posted April 7, 2009 at 5:35 pm


Dan,
I am finding this discussion fascinating – and I’ve ordered the book because I want to get deeper than Scot’s summaries (although as with Ben S #29 – this is not to deny the posts as authoritative and reliable:)).
The title of the book hits me wrong: Heresies and How to Avoid Them. I am interested in reading through the various positions and how and why they’ve been accepted or rejected. But the title conjures up images of “4 easy steps to orthodoxy”…”The faith made easy”…



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dopderbeck

posted April 7, 2009 at 5:47 pm


Perry (#31) — thanks for that summary — I think this is why Mark (#30) and Carm (#27) are missing the real argument. “Passible” means “changing.” Does God change, or is His being unchanging? That is the core of the question. Not only the scholastic or Patristic sources, but also I think scripture and reason, say that God in His being does not change.
Imagine for a moment if God in His being did change. How insecure would our lives be then? God might cease to be loving, and immediately consign everyone to hell; he might cease to have the capacity to sustain the universe, causing everything to snuff out of existence; he might cease to be just, raising Hitler from the dead and appointing him ruler over the world; and on and on. Our God would be nothing more than Ba’al or Enki or Zeus — capricious, to be only feared and not loved and trusted.
I’m still not sure where that leaves Moltmann. Does Moltmann identify God’s “suffering” too closely with the “suffering” of creation, so that God changes along with creation, ala panentheism and process theology? The notion of God suffering along with the evolving creation, being incarnationally present from the start, with the cross as the central movement towards an omega point in which all suffering is resolved, sounds very appealing, but does it really leave us with a God worthy of love, trust and worship? Or is Ward too quick to simply restate the Patristic / Platonic / Scholastic / Aristotelian sense of impassibility without nuancing Moltmann through carefully enough?
Honestly, my inclination is to take great care in trying to restate what has broadly come to be thought about God’s basic nature and about the Trinity and the incarnation.



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Ben S

posted April 7, 2009 at 6:50 pm


I don’t understand the correlation that is being drawn between “suffering” and “change.” Even setting aside for the moment the argument over whether created agents can cause God to change, how does the act of experiencing suffering “change” God in the ways that dodperbeck @ 35 mentions — how can it cause him to cease to be loving, just, etc.? I don’t see any way that they can be related.
As Ward apparently argues, appealing to Greek culture to explain the ultimate source of these doctrines won’t do us any good. But it seems to me that this entire discussion is predicated on the idea that “God cannot change from a better to a worse state,” which seems to be a philosophical, rather than biblical, assertion. In my limited understanding of this issue, it seems that for the definition of “better” or “worse,” we are using philosophical rather than biblical categories, which are by definition cultural. And I’m no scholar, but this idea of perfection being tied to immutability strikes me as being a very Greek idea.
That doesn’t mean these ideas are wrong for that reason, but it does mean that they should be open to debate, and certainly not equated with unchanging orthodoxy. I don’t think any of us will be on quite the same page until we figure out what we are talking about in these ideas of “better” and “worse” states and why it would violate God’s essential nature to move from one to the other.
If suffering is a worse state, which seems rather sensible, the question remains why God cannot suffer. What does this “change” about his essential natures of love, justice, truth, goodness, etc.? How is suffering connected to a change in identity?
I’m really at a loss here to understand what the issue is. I think I’ll go find one of those “book” things my parents sometimes talk about and see if it can give me any answers.



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Cam R

posted April 7, 2009 at 7:13 pm


Dopderbeck,
I am a bit confused. I am missing the real argument?
The heresy we were discussing was stemming from a different view of impassibility than the classical view. I think the classical view holds to a pretty hard form of impassibility–God doesn’t change in nature, experience, or plans but God’s emotions could change.
Theopaschitism seems come from a softer impassibility. It implies God’s experience (suffering) can change. Does that mean that God’s nature changes? I don’t know. How does that change who he is?
So I agree that God’s basic character of being faithful, trustworthy, being unchanging in his nature and character is important. But I don’t know if the hard impassibility that this orthodoxy is based on the same as what scripture reveals about God.



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Doug Allen

posted April 7, 2009 at 8:01 pm


Hello fellow heretics. For once I feel in good company! Anyway this is fun and maybe I’ll have time to dig up some background information (required before any discernment here), but my first impression is hey, it’s more sophisticated then the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine, but just as fun, especially with the book’s author being accused of heresy! It seems theologians often are more imaginative than they are modest. But a modest approach to what we know about God wouldn’t result in the drama of all these heresies. I think the positivists would have fun with this one: example Mark Z #31 “It’s a meaningless dispute over a vacuous concept.” Anyone for a post-modernist interpretation? That’s the framework I’m inclined to use to interpret most of the orthodox-heterodox historical debate. However, I do plan to buy the book and maybe see what I’m missing.
Doug



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Dan Martin

posted April 7, 2009 at 9:01 pm


Actually Ben S #36, your valid question contains one very Western assumption, that suffering is necessarily moving to a “worse” state than non-suffering. While I would definitely feel that way, I know from some of my Asian friends that some of them see suffering as a normal thing to be received with equanimity (a la Buddhism and, I believe, Stoicism). Plenty of people throughout history have also seen suffering as a means to strength or improvement–hence “the trial of your faith works patience.”
Now obviously none of us would say (I hope) that God needs to develop character or patience like we do. That WOULD be heretical. But your basic question, if I heard you rightly, was “Does God experiencing suffering with us or on our behalf, necessarily mean that he’s in any way experiencing a change of character or being?” I think the answer there must clearly be “no.” It may, in fact, be the very fact of God’s consistent, compassionate nature that leads to his suffering as a result of our disobedience.
But we still have to face the fact that the Greek notion of immutability–high & removed, outside of time and experience–is very different from the Biblical statements that God does not renege on his promises. Either (or both) may or may not be true, but they are not the same statement. Confusing the two enlightens nobody.



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Travis

posted April 8, 2009 at 9:09 am


“The worry over denying impassability is that it implies that God is altered by creatures, that created agents can bring about a change in God in such a way that God is not self moved. Viewe in this way the traditional insistence on impassbility isn’t so far fetched.”
Interesting, but I again question why it’s a problem for created agents to bring about a change (accepting for the moment that suffering=change, which I still don’t fully understand) in the Creator, when we see this happen pretty explicitly in Scripture…and anyway, God is still the ultimate mover since he created the creatures in the first place! If this problem is with sovereignty, I think the solution is the same as with free will…God gives it up, voluntarily.
This is really about how God relates to creation. And Jesus taught us not to think of his as the distant watchmaker, but as Father. and what Father wouldn’t suffer while his Son was being killed?



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BenB

posted April 8, 2009 at 12:14 pm


I guess I’ll join the crowd and get ready to be burned at the stake. I guess I just wonder if I’m becoming more of an open theist at least, and process theist at most, each day.
Anyhow, I feel Scot probably did summarize Ward’s argument well. The problem is, I don’t think Ward’s argument says much of any use to a people who serve a God of LOVE who (as others have mentioned) is moved by our tears, rejoices with justice, burns with anger and sorrow at injustice and the sin of his creation.
I feel the whole argument of “natures don’t suffer, persons do” makes ABSOLUTELY NO sense in the conversation. Sure, I agree with the statement, but is the God revealed in the Scriptures and in Jesus of Nazareth not a person? At the very most real level of what it means to be a person?
The next question to be asked IMHO is this, is suffering changing? Is suffering a worse state? Others have asked this but i want to touch on it a little further. My younger brother died when he was 17 in a car accident, I suffered more that night (the next week, the next month) than ever before in my life. I cried until i had no energy left to do anything but lay down and sleep. When i slept I had nightmares. To me, I WAS AT A BETTER STATE of what it means to BE ALIVE AND LOVE ANOTHER PERSON than maybe I ever have been. Does suffering not call out of us the very deepest level of what it means to imitate the Imago Dei? To love others is to act in their behalf (Scot your definition in Jesus Creed is one of the best I’ve ever read), and doesn’t suffering call out of us the greatest level of what that love can do and feel for them?
I can accept that God does not change in the sense that He is always God, and that He is always good, loving, just, true, righteous, holy, etc. But he must also be MORE than emotional. I’m not interested in an emotional God. I’m interested in a personal God (and so is the Bible). To be personal is to suffer. To suffer is part of what it means to truly love. To truly love is to truly exist at our greatest state.
I guess I’m ok with being a heretic.



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Mark Baker-Wright

posted April 8, 2009 at 12:16 pm


Not really a comment about the “heresy” here, but more general.
I’m really frustrated by the inability to show both all of the comments AND all of the post on one page. I constantly have to switch back and forth!



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BenB

posted April 8, 2009 at 12:19 pm


haha! completely agreed Mark.
Scot,
is there any way we can write to Beliefnet to see if they can change that!?



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Rick

posted April 8, 2009 at 12:30 pm


“I guess I’m ok with being a heretic.”
I still am having a hard time seeing this doctrine in the sense of historic orthodoxy (or paleo-orthodoxy), at least in the sense of the “Vincentian Canon” (“everywhere, always, all”).
This seems to be more of a debated doctrine, and at best one adhered to in only a segment of the church.



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David Johnson

posted April 8, 2009 at 2:53 pm


“The worry over denying impassibility is that it implies that God is altered by creatures, that created agents can bring about a change in God in such a way that God is not self moved. Viewed in this way the traditional insistence on impassibility isn’t so far fetched.”
“And Jesus, seeing the crowds, had compassion on them, for they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Love may be partially “self-moved,” but it requires responding to the beloved. If that means that God is not entirely self-moved, then so be it. What have we lost but a god who cannot be troubled with our griefs?
“Cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you.”



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Peggy

posted April 9, 2009 at 12:27 pm


Very interesting discussion, everyone!
Dan, I’m finding your comments are triggering my best thoughts. Thanks for commenting so frequently! ;^)
For those of you who have been around Jesus Creed for a while will know, the primary context I use for everything biblical is one of covenant, and consequently, hesed. The nature of God is covenant maker and keeper. God is therefore completely faithful to the terms and conditions of the covenant ratified in the blood of Jesus on the cross. In this there is no thought of change. It is, as it were, a done deal.
However, covenant keeping is relational — that’s also part of the perichoretic nature of God that the Spirit is drawing us into. And there is no way to be involved relationally without suffering.
I do, however, agree that the kind of suffering that God does is not the kind that “changes” their nature, as in making more mature or more open or more anything. When we suffer, we do change — we become more like Christ!
This Christ-like suffering is not something that God considered “beneath” their sovereignty. Perhaps it is part of its very fiber?
The suffering of Christ as human was, in part, to provide for us an advocate who has suffered in all ways as we do. The point of the divine being associated with this suffering is not to “damage” God, but to help us remember that we matter to God — and that God is at all times actively working in and through all of our suffering to bring about that which is best for us. This is the very nature of hesed: acting so that the best interest of the covenant partner is served.
The point is that Christ, the human, knew that the suffering he was going through would be made glorious by the Father. And we need to remember that Christ was right.
The Abbess asks: Purple Martyrdom, anyone?



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Derek

posted October 8, 2009 at 11:45 pm


So if God suffers we have to say he can be affected or changed? Does he learn from suffering? If he learns does he now know something new? If God is outside of time he obviously knows what is to happen so he can’t be surprised. Maybe the bible being written by humans write only what they can to best describe something that happens. (ex. God getting angry at Moses) I guess no one really know what God is like, (so many views) but i sure hope it’s nothing like Luther’s God or Calvin’s.
I guess we all want to know the truth, but can we really? Some say the bible says there is a trinity, some say just one Father and one Lord Jesus Christ, some say eternal hell some say no hell, some say suffering God so say no suffering…and on and on! Who’s really right? Who’s translating the hebrew or greek the right way? Maybe God doesn’t care if we know the truth, but like the Good Samaritan we are willing to help the people we meet on the road of life.



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Willie B.

posted December 22, 2009 at 3:42 pm


This comment comes way after this discussion has ended but thought I’d make it anyway. Contrary to what this book says, and to what I’ve heard several people try to say, the doctrine of impassibility (apatheia) DOES mean that God cannot be affected by anything. This includes the suffering of humanity. God does not “feel” anything when viewing the injustices of this world.
God is not “emotional.” It never helps a dialogue when people attempt to redefine categories. The ancients were very clear that God’s apatheia EXCLUDED pathos-any notion of suffering AND ‘passion’ in the sense of emotion-whether pleasurable or painful.
Impassibility DOES mean that God is un-emotional. Ward is simply WRONG if he is trying to redefine what the term means.



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