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)

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “Barth on Impassibility

  1. mackman April 30, 2012 / 12:18 am

    Yes, yes, this! This is everything I have said and wanted to say in much better, clearer words! It is a matter of free compassion. But to make suffering, and not love, the key component of compassion is incredibly strange: And indeed, Barth does not do this.

    God affects himself, in a way: He chooses to feel compassion for us. To say that he is moved by our plight is not correct at all: He is “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.”

    No where is there any mention of a sense of divine suffering: Only divine compassion. A powerful inclination (arising from within God himself, not from the outside) to help those who are distressed and suffering, to alleviate the pain of others. This is true and beautiful. But why must God be suffering Himself?

    Why must God, too, feel our pain? As Weinandy points out, if God feels pain in our suffering, then his assistance is, to some extent, self-serving.

    God gets something out of it. God profits when we come to him. We give something meaningful to God that he could not get for himself.

    I believe that Barth, at least for the most part, has the right of it. God chooses to pour out his love on us, and when we are suffering, that takes the form of compassion. But he does so out of his “own free power.” He does so out of his divine fullness, and in doing so, proves his completely self-less love.

    Like

    • whitefrozen April 30, 2012 / 12:21 am

      This is basically why I was wondering why it seemed like I was arguing that God was effected by us, or whatnot – it was my own poor arguments but this is basically what I’m trying to get at.

      Like

      • mackman April 30, 2012 / 1:40 am

        And yet this is different from what you were saying earlier: That God is grieved and, in fact, made unhappy by our predicament. I have never argued for a stoic, unmoved deity (or at least I never meant to). I have merely sought to say that any “feelings” God has towards or about us arise from within himself: Otherwise he would indeed be at our mercy.

        Like

        • whitefrozen April 30, 2012 / 9:36 am

          I misunderstood at least in part what you were arguing for – I did think that you were arguing for a more stoic, unmoved deity. But that’s my own misunderstanding.

          I see Barth’s position as a good corrective of what I was arguing for earlier, however, in a qualified way I do still hold that God in grieved by our misery and suffering (see Bishop Kallistos quote above).

          Like

      • S.G. April 30, 2012 / 11:29 am

        yawn

        Like

  2. JJ April 30, 2012 / 1:38 am

    Barth almost seems to be discussing impassibility in a sense equivocal to that which is usually meant by the term. This is very clear where he argues that “He cannot be moved from outside by an extraneous power” and proceeds to spend the rest of the passage flushing this out. But it is not clear precisely how this position is actually inconsistent with Divine impassibility, as traditionally understood; rather, it almost appears like he is describing an account of impassibility and claiming that it isn’t such.

    Like

    • mackman April 30, 2012 / 1:42 am

      I don’t think this position is inconsistent at all with Divine impassibility. I think he is trying to state what his doctrine God’s passiblity is and isn’t: It isn’t a stoic, uncaring deity, but neither is it a deity who can’t help but be sucked into our suffering. It is a deity who pours out caring and compassion from his own infinitely free, infinitely full love.

      Like

    • whitefrozen April 30, 2012 / 9:40 am

      I don’t think Barth is trying to argue impassibility – he states that God is not impassible. I think he’s almost trying to argue that God makes Himself passible.

      Like

      • whitefrozen April 30, 2012 / 10:27 am

        Or rather, not that God makes Himself passible, but that He ‘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.’

        Like

      • JJ April 30, 2012 / 1:16 pm

        Well sure, he isn’t “trying” to argue for impassibility, but that is what he is effectively doing–even if it’s a bit different than the traditional formulation. This is very clear when he writes, “He cannot be moved from outside by an extraneous power.” Thus, God does not experience pleasure or pain from without in a way that moves and effects Him. Instead, God sees it from without and moves upon it in a way that keeps his transcendence and immutability intact. This is fudging the distinction by playing with the definition–not that I mind that, of course, but because he alters the definitions and is working outside of traditional conceptualizations of the problem–or at least attempting to–he can’t be as easily categorized as arguing for one side or another.

        Like

        • whitefrozen April 30, 2012 / 1:54 pm

          It seems then that Barth is developing the idea of impassibility, rather than arguing for/against it. He does write that God is not impassible, but your observation that he really sort of plays with the definition rather than refutes it is right on.

          Like

  3. mackman April 30, 2012 / 6:30 pm

    “God sees it from without and moves upon it in a way that keeps his transcendence and immutability intact.” This is absolutely key. This is what I think Barth is saying, and this is what I think the other two pro-immutable articles you’ve linked are saying as well.

    (why won’t it let me reply past a certain number of posts?)

    Like

    • whitefrozen April 30, 2012 / 6:43 pm

      I turned the nested thread option to 10 posts, so the replies should be okay now.

      RE the topic: I suppose that I’m okay with agreeing the impassibility defined how Barth defines it – but I’m still thinking through the issue.

      Like

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s