A Constant and Commanding Compassion

Impassibility as God’s inability to suffer is a well-known pillar of ‘classical theism’ (do I ever hate using that little phrase). I’ve written on it before and have, as far as I can tell, made a complete 180 in my thinking on it. I want to flesh impassibility out a little more here, however, so I’m not going to argue for it but assume it. Click the link above for that kind of argumentation. My main goal here is to present impassibility as a mode of God’s covenant presence characterized by constant, commanding compassion.

Katherine Sonderegger, in her Systematic Theology, spends a few pages on the issue of impassibility, noting that ‘the impassible God of tradition is the passionate God of Scripture’ (p. 494). She affirms that God is love and orients her discussion around that maxim, but interestingly enough, she takes issue with the idea that love is fundamentally object-oriented. This flies in the face of a good deal of contemporary theological thinking, but Sonderegger’s attack comes by way of an exposition of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:

“Love is patient; love is kind love; is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4-8). We could scarcely find arrival to this hymn of love; little wonder it remains among the few texts of Holy Scripture still found on the lips of a secular age. It haunts all our petty loves, convicts even a leathery conscience; it beckons us to a far off shore, where something of aching and perfect Beauty stands open to us. This is Love. Now it seems to me that this passage lies so close to hand, remains so familiar from every wedding and so many burials, that we overlook one of its most striking features. The love praised here, the more excellent way does not envision an object at all -how odd that we read it at weddings! – nor does it speak of mutuality, indeed of passibility in any fashion. St Paul’s love is supremely invulnerable, impervious to another, we might dare to say. Perfect love is invincibly objectless, immutual, perdurant. It never ends – it alone is eternal against all the gifts of the Spirit, prophecy in tongues and knowledge. It is adamantine. Paul picks out with two quick strokes the positive traits of love, patience, and kindness. Surely a quiet evocation of hesed, God’s loving-kindness! (pp. 495-496)

The last line is significant: God’s hesed. In one fell swoop, Sonderegger has set God’s love in a covenantal framework. Her unpacking of love continues:

Love has been pried loose from all the self-seeking, from the burdens, sometimes frightful, so often small and miserable, that infect our own loving, from the anger and resentment that courses through our most ardent loves, from the submission to what we call facts in this proudly “realistic” life of ours – ingratitude, unsuitability, meanness. Love, Paul tells us, simply withstands endures, triumphs. It abides as the greatest, the uncontested, the supreme. Love is self-same, thoroughly itself, constant, unswerving, true. Who cannot see, in all these things, that this love, this perfect Love of the apostle Paul, is simply another Name for God? God alone is this Love, this more excellent way – we could hardly expect anything else. God’s passionate Love, Paul tells, us is invulnerable in just this particular way to us and our loveless ways; supremely independent of us and our indifference; utterly triumphing over our blindness, instability, and infidelity; zealous for the right; eternal. (p. 496)

Sonderegger follows this with an exegesis of 1 Samuel, which I won’t reproduce here. The takeaway from this, however, should be clear: God’s love, and thus God, is supremely invulnerable and objectless. God’s love requires no object and has no need even when turned towards an object. God’s covenant love is simply constant. As David Bentley Hart notes in his discussion of divine impassibility:

We are not necessary to him: he is not nourished by our sacrifices or ennobled by our virtues, any more than he is diminished by our sins and sufferings. This is a truth that may not aggrandize us, but it does, more wonderfully, glorify us: for it means that, though he had no need of us, still he loved us when we were not. (‘The Doors of the Sea’, p. 77)

There remains more to be said about the covenantal setting of God’s impassible love. Kevin VanHoozer in Remythologizing Theology, draws out the covenantal aspect in terms of the ‘theo-drama’, first by articulating God’s impassibility in terms of compassion (VanHoozer draws on Barth’s construal of God’s compassion as being self-moved for this) and then setting God’s compassion, or his hesesd, within the context of God’s covenant with Israel:

God’s compassion is tied to his hesed, his covenant love and faithfulness that is as unchanging as its concrete form, Jesus Christ (Heb. 13:8). Indeed, we could say that God’s covenant love is impassible, for there is nothing that anyone or anything can do to change or affect it. This, at least, seems to be the intent of the commentary that Hebrews 6:13–18 offers on God’s covenant with Abraham. In order to emphasize the certainty of his promise, God swears by himself, “so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we . . . might have strong encouragement [ paraklesis = “consolation”]” (Heb. 6:18).God’s compassion, like his promise, is as unfailing – infallible and impassible – as God himself . (p. 447-448)

VanHoozer notes that on this account, God’s compassion is active and perpetual – that is, it is constant and effective. God’s active compassion may not remove our own suffering, but it effectively provides comfort to the suffering. Thus, God’s impassibility isn’t simply a negative – the inability to suffer. It is a dynamic, constant, active and triumphant covenant compassion. This impassibility is also a form of God’s presence, as David Luy notes in Dominus Mortis:

Impassibility refers…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. (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)

God’s presence isn’t, then, a mere being-with: it is a constant and commanding compassion. It is a constant compassion because it is perpetual and never-failing – as Thomas Oden notes in The Living God, the failures in the covenant are not God but Israel:

The covenant God is one who remains loyal to the covenant partner Israel, as Hosea unfailingly loved Gomer. For some unfathomable reason, God loves Israel, and through Israel wishes to make known the divine love towards all humanity. God chose Israel as covenant partner, a people “set apart” (Ps. 4:3, Isa. 14:1). That covenant does not change; God does not forget. Israel forgets. Israel ignores and fails to understand the covenant, but God chooses to sustain the covenant despite all negations from the covenant partner. The covenant remains, though Israel has dismissed and ignored it. That is what is meant by chesed – the steadfast, unfailing, holy love of God. (p. 114)

This is the constancy: what of the commanding? I’ll let VanHoozer have the semi-final word:

Divine compassion is kyriotic. It is not a commiserating but a commanding, effectual compassion that does not share but transforms the sufferer’s situation. It is a commanding compassion, first, because it is self-moved. In Barth’s words: “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 touched by Himself, i.e., open, read, inclined ( propensus) to compassion with another’s suffering and therefore to assistance.”  Barth relates this divine self-movement to what we earlier called, in contrast to passion, an “affection ”: “Everything that God is and does is determined and characterized by the fact that . . . He Himself is, this original free powerful compassion.” Only a free and commanding compassion can say “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom. 9:15; cf. Ex.33:19).  (‘Remythologizing Theology’, p. 446)

This post has been, more or less, a cobbling together of various ways of thinking about God’s impassibility. Hopefully, what I’ve shown or at least gestured towards is that impassibility isn’t simply an inability of God to suffer, but the dynamic, living presence of God. God’s love is, then, a constant and commanding compassion..

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