Book Review: ‘The Apathetic God: Exploring the Contemporary Relevance of Divine Impassibility’, by Daniel Castelo

The Apathetic God: Exploring the Contemporary Relevance of Divine Impassibility‘, by Daniel Castelo, Wipf and Stock, 172 pp. $17.60

Impassibility is something of a perennial topic for me. I can generally read just about anything on it and come away feeling that the time spent reading was time well-spent, and Daniel Castelo’s short but sweet little volume is definitely time well-spent.

One of the strengths of this book is that it’s not merely a historical study or a survey of the doctrine of impassibility – though both of these things do comprise part of the book – but it is also a sustained interaction with contemporary theology of a passibilist persuasion. Castelo spends the bulk of the interaction with Moltmann (who seems to function as something like an archetype for modern theology), and this interaction, as I’ll note below, is both appreciative and critical.

The first two chapters after the introductory chapter, chapters two and three, are more or less historical surveys. The second chapter focuses on (im)passibility within the witness of the Old Testament and draws a good deal of attention to topics that don’t always get the attention they deserve in a discussion of impassibility – covenant and holiness are both key terms here. Castelo also interacts at length with Abraham Joshua Heschel, a key figure in passibilist retrieval, as well as other figures (Brueggemann) and ideas (hermenutics). The third chapter surveys impassibility from the early church until the early modern era, and there is a lot here that will prove useful to those looking for the attitude of the early church’s thinking on the doctrine of God. Castelo does not present a one-sided picture here, acknowledging that the doctrine of impassibility functioned in different ways for different thinkers.

Chapter four is a sustained engagement with Moltmann on a number of different issues. The death of God, protest atheism, Hegelianism, the role of the cross within the life of God and many other topics are expounded in a faithful and charitable manner – this chapter could serve as a good primer on Moltmann’s theology. Castelo is ultimately critical of Moltmann, partially because of what he terms a ‘dubious ontology’ as well as the too-intimate connection between the cross and the life of God, though appreciative of his contributions and way-making in the doctrine of God.

Chapter five is perhaps my favourite chapter, and is focused on the place of christolgoy in the doctrine of impassibility. Chalcedon, Cyril, Nestorius and others all make appearances here, and the importance of the impassibility within the context of the gospel, including the resurrection, is teased out fantastically. But for my money the most enjoyable aspect of this chapter is the close attention to detail payed to the debate between Cyril and Nestorius. Castelo’s conclusion, that impassibility functions better than passibility to secure the scandal of the cross, is one that deserves further exploration.

The sixth and final chapter is where Castelo develops a positive account of impassibility as it relates to the life of the believer – in other words, the practical cash value of the doctrine. I wish this section had been longer, because there’s a lot of interesting ideas developed here – for instance, the idea of participating in suffering impassibly by the power of the Spirit, as well as the idea of the Christian community as a ‘post-theodical’ community. These ideas are more or less just glossed over and not developed at the length they need to be developed.

There is a lot of ground covered in this modest-sized volume, and given the density of the content the ground is covered admirably well – honestly, it’s covered better than I would have expected. The only real weakness I can point out is that the final chapter should have been longer, because there are some truly tantalizing ideas put forth. Impassibility is not the most practical-seeming doctrine, and Castelo makes it clear that this is far from the case – I just wish it had been developed at greater length. The preceeding chapters are solid, but it’s this final chapter where Castelo really puts forward something positive. Students of the doctrine of God in all likelihood won’t find all that much strictly new in the first five chapters – though the sustained engagement with Moltmann is certainly something any student of impassibility and modern theology should pay attention to.

Having said all this, Castelo has given a valuable resource for students of the doctrine of God from a textual, theological, historical and philosophical standpoint, and articulates, if briefly, a tantalizing vision of the practical payoff of the doctrine of impassibility, and it is this vision that demands and merits close attention and further engagement.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

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