A common refrain in modern theology is that of God’s solidarity with humanity – this goes hand in hand (and sometimes is the same as) God’s passibility -God suffering not just in Christ but in His very nature. The aloof, static, lifeless, metaphysical God who does not and cannot suffer is simply not the God we see revealed in Scripture and in Jesus, a radically involved and suffering God.
I’m not going to recapitulate the various arguments for and against impassibility here (though it is a subject I’ve written on before – for two more substantial posts, click here and here). What I am going to do is, inspired by David Luy’s ‘Dominus Mortis‘ (review forthcoming) go into why radical solidarity demands divine impassibility, and fails on an account of passibility.
Solidarity, or God being with us in our suffering, trials and death, is a hugely powerful theme in Scripture. What has to be guarded against, however, is the tendency to leave the theme of solidarity unexamined, and thereby allow one concept to become such a dominant theme that it unwittingly drowns out (and even damages) the larger framework of which it is a part.
Simply put: solidarity, God being with us, in our midst in our suffering and death, has to be coupled with God being for us in the midst of our suffering and death. For there to be real redemption, real salvation, God cannot simply be a co-suffer-er – He must overcome the powers of sin and death which afflict us. Solidarity on its own brings no redemption. If God is passibly with us, then there is no overcoming of death, because only that which cannot die can defeat death, and if death is not defeated, then there is no redemption – and a God who cannot redeem is no God at all.
However, this has to be seen, as I said above, within a larger framework – the framework of Christus Victor – the triumph of Christ over death, sin and the powers. The redemption of humanity, which is accomplished by God’s radical solidarity with us in Christ, who in taking on human nature heals, sanctifies, and redeems us via the hypostatic union, is coupled with the victory of Christ, which is accomplished by the impassible deity of Christ. If Christ is passible in his divinity, then death cannot be defeated by only experienced.
What kind of solidarity is provided by impassibility, though? I’ll let Luy answer that:
‘Impassibility refers, for him (Luther), to the “mode” of God’s radical immanence: a maximally radiant nearness of incorruptible divinity in the midst of abject human weakness; the triumph of of deathless might in the very jaws of mortal defeat.’ (‘Dominus Mortis’, p. 209)
‘Only a God, who is incorruptibly divine, can be the Lord over sin, death and the devil. Only such a one may irradiate human weakness with deathless might and break the power of death and Hades…impassibility, in other words, is not an abstract means of protecting some predetermined notion of divine transcendence in spite of God’s presence in Christ…God is present impassibly because only a God thus present can redeem – and only a God who can redeem is truly God.’ (p. 210)
In His impassibility, God truly is in the most radical solidarity – truly immanent and truly present in all His divine life – radically with us, and impassibly redeeming us. In short:
– Christ is man (he suffers with us, as one of us)
– Christ is God (he is deathless and redeems us)
From Christ’s impassible divinity follows his victory, and from his humanity and solidarity follows redemption. From both of these follow atonement.