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.


2 thoughts on “Impassibility

  1. JJ April 22, 2012 / 9:33 pm

    He is less trying to represent specific accounts of divine passibility in the thoughts of other theologians and more attempting to flush out the implications of the position, whether its advocates would agree with them or not.

    For his part, he suggests that divine impassibility is a necessary doctrine in the distinction–real, formal, or virtual–between the immanent trinity and the economic trinity. To reject that doctrine is to reject the “interval of analogy” between these two, which, as Hart argues, renders creation, the incarnation, the existence of evil, etc., necessary for God to be God. My suggestion, then, would be to think about the doctrine in light of this problem as it cannot be separated from it.


  2. whitefrozen April 22, 2012 / 9:37 pm

    This is what I get for disagreeing with Hart – a double blast of very smart theology 😛


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