Barth on Impassibility

‘But the personal God has a heart. He can feel, and be affected. He is not impassible. He cannot be moved from outside by an extraneous power. But this does not mean that He is not capable of moving Himself. No, God is moved and stirred, yet not like ourselves in powerlessness, but in His own free power, in His innermost being: moved and touched by Himself, i.e., open, ready, inclined (prpensus) to compassion to another’s suffering and therefore to assistance, impelled to take the initiative to relieve this distress. It can only be a question of compassion, free sympathy, with another’s suffering. God finds no suffering in Himself. And no cause outside God can cause Him suffering if He does not will it so. But it is, in fact, a question of sympathy with the suffering of another in the full scope of God’s own personal freedom. This is the essential point if we are really thinking of the God attested by Scripture and speaking only of Him. Everything that God is and does is determined and characterized by the fact that there is rooted in Him, that He Himself is, the original free powerful compassion, that from the outset He is open and ready and inclined to the need and distress and torment of another, that His compassionate words and deeds are not grounded in a subsequent change, in a mere approximation to certain conditions in the creature which is distinct from Himself, but are rooted in His heart, in His very life and being as God.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics’ II.1, p. 370)


Some More on Impassibility

Here’s a fantastic essay in favor of the impassibility of God by Thomas G. Weinandy:

‘I would acknowledge that the above arguments are, even in the brief summary form that I have presented them, intellectually and emotionally powerful, though often the emotional sentiment appears to far outweigh reasoned argument. Nonetheless, I believe that the entire project on behalf of a passible and so suffering God is utterly misconceived, philosophically and theologically. It wreaks total havoc upon the authentic Christian gospel.’

This is a concise and clearly written take on the idea that’s well worth reading.

More on Impassibility

I found this to be some fantastic background history on the ideas of impassibilty/non-impassibility by Alister McGrath:

The Q/A on God’s suffering is question 4, about halfway down.

‘Underscoring this question is another question before moving to answer the question of patripassianism or theopaschitism. This is the priority of Hellenistic philosophy (metaphysics) over the biblical understanding of God. The issue of whether God can suffer opens this question to scrutiny. Adolf von Harnack’s Dogmengeschichte theorized that many central Christian doctrines were influenced by non-biblical worldviews and that one could uncover the ‘fossilized’ doctrines through a method of redaction. One such issue is the imposition of the dualistic Greek notion of an ‘impassible’ understanding of deity which is removed from human passions (equated with materialism). Thus, cuing more from Plato’s perfect and unchanging (as passions were changeable) ‘deity’ of the Forms, Christianity came to understand God as unchangeable and thereby perfect. God, in short, could not change nor be moved from perfection lest in doing so God becomes less perfect and thereby, by definition, no longer divine. To suffer would be to ‘feel’ change, and immutability of substance or will becomes confused with immutability of experience. In Philo through to Aquinas, the thought that God could suffer would mean nothing less than the fact that God could be altered, by compassion or love, by the experience. The prime mover and un-moveable is moved or changed by human predicament or experience of that predicament. God’s compassion, a biblical motif, is naught but figurative and not an attribute or predication of deity itself. Harnack felt that this type of dogma was due to the imposition of alien metaphysics rather than the exposition of the Hebrew and Christian bible. Many believe, at some level, him to be correct.’




On Art

What is the role of art in the Christian life?

Taking a Tolkien/C.S. Lewis angle, I would say that one large part would be that we create as part of our having been fashioned in the image of a creator God. Creating is part of what we do, part of what makes us human – specifically, creating stories and myths. For Tolkien and Lewis, our creation of stories and myths points to our innate longing for God – Lewis points this out in his essay ‘Is Theology Poetry’ when he’s discussing the many other divine stories that exist in other cultures.

If Lewis/Tolkien are right, and I believe they are, then creating stories is a profound part of our being – a part of our being that comes as a result of being fashioned in the image of a Creator.

‘We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.’

― J.R.R. Tolkien

Another thought on Impassibility

‘God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. … It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor. … Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.’
― Nicholas Wolterstorff

I’ll say it again: it seems that the Scriptures bear witness to a suffering God. I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the subject, and I have not yet been convinced by the arguments for impassibility. Perhaps I’m not understanding them, or they’re not presented well, or any number of things. I hold to what I said in a previous post on the subject: I am open to being convinced.

Music and the Holy

If there was ever a piece of music that came close to capturing the absolute other-ness of the Holy, it is this piece. I’ve heard no other music that comes this close to portraying the Holy – and this piece goes far beyond any words but Scripture in its absolutely solemn, Holy sound. There will probably be some posts in the future about the role of art and aestethics in Christianity in the near future.

Religion and Tragedy

‘For a truly religious man nothing is tragic.’

– L. Wittgenstein

This is both right and wrong. For the Christian, there are indeed tragic things – death, suffering, loss, pain, are all tragic things – things that aren’t supposed to be there. Death is the enemy of God.

But, for the Christian, there is more to the story. Death has been beaten – creation is being redeemed, wrongs being redressed. God is making ‘all things new’. The tragedies , while no serving some ultimate purpose in a cosmic moral equation, are being redeemed. The tears are being and will be wiped away.

So in an odd sense, there is genuine tragedy for the Christian – but there is genuine hope, not optimism, but real hope.

Musings on Medieval Philosophy

The middle ages were such  rich time of learning – the Scholastics in particular fascinate me. People like Anselm, Aquinas, Ockahm, Duns Scotus, Abelard and many, many others really were part of one of the richest intellectual traditions in history, a tradition that continues on to this day. What I find to be very interesting is how much we’ve inherited, culturally speaking, from the middle ages – politically, philosophically, theologically, ethically, etc. What a wonderful world to spend time learning about – here’s a couple resources that have been invaluable to me:


As of right now, I’m not a big fan of the idea of divine impassibility, or the inability of God to suffer.

‎’I know that one of the attributes traditionally ascribed to God is impassibility–the inability to suffer. I think the traditional theologians were mistaken on this point. I find the scriptures saying that God is disturbed by what transpires in this world and is working to redeem us from evil and suffering. I do not see how a redeeming God can be impassible.’

– Nicholas Wolterstorff

The idea of impassibility seems to dip into a more philosophical theology – and I do see the picture of God presented in Scripture as being very effected by what happens on earth. On a face-value level reading of Scripture, I personally do not see an impassible God. I just don’t.

However, David Bentley Hart makes a strong case for impassibility:

‘The greatest problems with [a mutable, changing God as an approach] to trinitarian theology are as much moral as metaphysical, for once the interval of analogy between the immanent and the economic Trinities (between God in himself and God with the world) has been collapsed into simple identity, certain very unsettling conclusions will become inevitable.  Moltmann and Jüngel both, for all their differences, attempt to avoid depicting God, in his history of becoming, as merely the passive creature of his creatures: freely, they insist, he chooses his course.  But this idea of God as a finite subject writ large, who elects himself as a project of self-discovery, only compounds the problem; in place of the metaphysically necessary “God” of the [Hegelian] system, this sort of language only gives us an anthropomorphic myth, a God whose will enjoys a certain indeterminate priority over his essence, in whom possibility exceeds actuality, who is therefore composite, ontic, voluntaristic…and obviously non-existent.  More to the point, as many of the fathers would have argued, a God who can by nature experience finite affects and so be determined by the is a God whose identity is established through commerce with evil; if the nature of God’s love can be in any sense positively shaped by sin, suffering, and death, then sin, suffering, and death will always be in some sense features of who He is.  Among other things this means that evil must enjoy a certain independent authenticity, a reality with which God must come to grips, and God’s love must–if it requires the negative pathos of history to bring it into fruition–be inherently deficient, and in itself a fundamentally reactive reality.  Goodness then requires evil to be good; love must be goaded into being by pain.  In brief, a God who can, in his nature as God, suffer, cannot be the God who is love, even if at the end of the day he should prove to be loving, or the God who is simply good, or who is the wellspring of being and life.  He like us is in an accommodation between death and life.’

D avid Bentley Hart, “No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility.” Pro Ecclesia vol.11 no.2 (2002): 191.

As much as I enjoy reading Hart, I don’t think he’s right here – I think he’s misrepresenting what a theologian like Wolterstorff is trying to say. To be somewhat blunt, I think Hart here is blowing a bit of theological smoke. The bolded part in particular makes little sense to me – I think Hart is either unaware of what folks like myself actually think about the idea of ‘passibility’ or is misrepresenting it.

However, I may be wrong – and I’m willing to be convinced.

Some Thoughts ‘On the Incarnation’

Commentator mackman made some sound points in the last two posts on theological certainty regarding the Incarnation  – here’s a few of the heavyweight thinkers in Christianity weighing in:

‘In its prologue it speaks of the Word made flesh, and that light sets the whole gospel as the revelation and reconciliation of God in Christ, but it then moves on from the prologue to speak all through of the Son in his obedience to the Father and in his fulfilment of the role of the servant. That belongs to the very nature of the case, for the incarnation of the Word means an incarnation in which the Word is not simply addressed to man from without but so enters into human existence that it becomes a word that is heard and appropriated by man, and a word that is answered for man by this man in the whole course of his obedient life. Thus within the incarnation, the Son is the fuller category, for the Son hears the word of the Father, and the son answers the Father by word and life, and the revelation mediated through the Son is the reveltion of the word (logos) which he has received from the Father and now speaks in the language (lalia)of man. Of all the books of the New Testament none more than the fourth Gospel presents Christ as the servant-Son obedient in everything to the Father, doing only those things that please him, and from beginning to end fulfilling his will. It is thus that he the Son declares, ‘exegetes’ the Father, and reveals him to and within human life on earth and in history. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Incarnation,” 67-68) (quote taken from here

‘…[T]here must be no weakening or obscuring of the saving truth that the nature which God assumed in Christ is identical with our nature as we see it in the light of the Fall. If it were otherwise, how could Christ really be like us? … God’s Son not only assumed our nature but He entered the concrete form of our nature, under which we stand before God as men damned and lost….’ (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (I/2, pp. 153ff).

‘I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of
the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ p. 145)

‘Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.
     For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.’ (Athanasius, ‘On the Incarnation’)

These perspectives should provide some interesting frameworks for christological thought – I find myself in agreement with each of the above perspectives.