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.’




2 thoughts on “More on Impassibility

  1. JJ April 28, 2012 / 3:48 pm

    Do keep in mind that a number of presuppositions underlie this view, such as an assumption that scripture and philosophy are naturally opposed, the doctrine of Divine impassibility is uniquely a Greek imposition, Christians adopted Greek thought without modifying it in light of God’s revelation in Christ, and a hyper-literalist reading of the scriptural passages in question is the right one. David Bentley Hart, if you continue reading him on the matter, would contest all of these assumptions.

    Furthermore, a number of problems arise for a theological conservative if one adopts the view that there is an inherent opposition between Jewish and Greek thinking. By the first century, Hellenism had already influenced Jews considerably, and many such concepts appear in the books of the New Testament, the Gospel of John, most notably, but also in Revelations, John’s letters, Hebrews, and Paul’s writings. Anyone, such as Harnack, referenced by McGrath in this bit above, who wants to pose an absolute opposition between these two traditions must reckon with this. Harnack did so by rejecting the Gospel of John, which made use of Greek metaphysical concepts, while redefining them in the process. The Church Fathers who followed the Apostles viewed their work as continuing to do the same.


  2. whitefrozen April 28, 2012 / 7:38 pm

    I’m not necessarily agreeing with McGraths thesis in that paragraph – I only posted it because it was the opening paragraph.

    RE differences in Hebrew/Greek thinking there are legitimate differences – but it’s not some kind of absolute chasm or opposition of that nature. I’m certainly not one of those ‘that damn Greek philosophy!’ folks. But this is an issue that I’m working through in a very theraputic (being the good Wittgensteinian that I am) way – I’m keading my way through the problems and knots, trying to follow the arguments where they lead.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s