Barth’s formulation of the classical doctrine of impassibility is largely correct in his insistence that while God does indeed have a heart and is moved to compassion, it is a free movement from within Himself, and not a movement that occurs as a result of an outside force. Barth moves the idea of impassibility/passibility away from suffering and towards compassion, love and freedom and in doing so retains a personal, loving God who acts from within His own freedom and His own fullness of love to aid those who are suffering.
Why can’t God suffer, though? Three reasons that I find particularly convincing:
(1) For God to suffer would mean that God is a part of the created order. For God to suffer would mean that an aspect of the created order (not to say that evil, which causes suffering, is a created thing – it simply ‘exists’ in the created order of nature) could affect the uncreated order. Thus God’s wholly other-ness and transcendence is violated, making Him part of the same created order within which evil works. God then becomes little more than a being-among-other-beings.
(2) If God can suffer, then suffering, caused by evil, would cause God to experience the deprivation that causes suffering. For God to experience suffering means that He is deprived of some kind of good or goodness – and thus is no longer wholly good or goodness itself.
(3) This is a point made by David Bentley Hart in ‘The Doors of the Sea’:
‘…if God’s love were in any sense shaped by sin, suffering and death, then sin, suffering and death would always be in some sense features of who he is. This not only means evil is a distinct reality over against God, and God’s love something inherently deficient and reactive; it also means that evil would somehow be a part of God, and that goodness would require evil to be good. Such a God could not be love, even if in some sense he should prove to be “loving”. Nor would he be the good as such. He, like us, would be a synthesis of death and life.’ (p. 78)
Against the common rejoinder that the doctrine of impassibility is an import of Greek metaphysics which makes God into a static, lifeless and emotionless rock, I answer that:
(1) Far from the doctrine of God making God static, it affirms the dynamic nature of the fullness of Trinitarian love which God has by positing, as apophatic boundaries, that God does not have or undergo the fickle passions that humans (and the Greek gods) are subject to. Thomas Weinandy makes this point well:
‘Contemporary theologians wrongly hold that the attribute of impassibility is ascribing something positive of God, that is, that He is static, lifeless and inert, and so completely devoid of passion. This the Fathers never countenanced. The Fathers were merely denying of God those passions that would imperil or impair those biblical attributes that were constitutive of His divine being. They wished to preserve the wholly otherness of God, as found in Scripture, and equally, also in accordance with Scripture, to profess and enrich, in keeping with His complete otherness, an understanding of His passionate love and perfect goodness.’
(2) The early church reacted against the Aristotelian idea of God as only a Prime Mover by positing, on the basis of biblical revelation, His uncreated-ness and wholly other-ness. Again, as Thomas Weinandy argues in the same essay:
‘In keeping with biblical revelation, as opposed to pagan mythologies, they were concerned with upholding the complete otherness of the one God in relationship to the created order. They accentuated and clarified, against Platonism and Aristotelianism, that God did not merely order or set in motion preexistent matter but that, by His almighty power, He created all out of nothing”creatio ex nihilo . God was then no longer merely at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of being, but His transcendence, as Creator, radically placed Him within a distinct ontological order of His own. As such He was the perfectly good and loving personal God who eternally existed in and of Himself.’
Impassibility, far from being a static, lifeless conception of God, is an affirmation of His free love, compassion and fullness of being.