The Solidarity of Impassibility

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.


T.F. Torrance on the Unity of the Divine and Human in Christ

”The hyper-Calvinist, however, argues in this that, that in Christ’s life and especially his death on the cross, the deity of Christ was in repose. He suffered only in his humanity. On the cross, Christ merited forgiveness for all mankind. It was sufficient to cover the sins of all, for it was of infinite worth, but it held efficaciously only for those whom the Father had given him. We shall examine later the difference between ‘sufficient’ and ‘efficacious’, but here we must look at the relation posed here between Christ in his human nature on the cross and God in heaven. If Christ acted only in his human nature on the cross and God remained utterly apart and utterly transcendent, except that he agreed in will with Christ whom he sent to die, then all that Christ does is not necessarily what God does or accepts. In that case the sacrifice of Christ may be accepted as satisfaction only for the number of the elect that God has previously chosen or determined. But if God himself came among us in Christ his beloved Son and assumed upon himself our whole burden of guilt and judgement, then such an arbitrary view would be impossible. And we must hold the view that it is indeed God *himself* who bears our sins, God become man and taking man’s place, standing with humanity under the divine judgement, God the judge becoming himself the man judged and bearing his own judgement upon the sin of humanity, so that we cannot divorce the action of Christ on the cross from the action of God. The concept of a limited atonement divides Christ’s divinity from his humanity and thus rests upon a basic Nestorian error.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ’, p. 184-185)

Atonement Notes

The first thing to note in any study of the atonement in the early church is that there was no one monolithic view of the atonement. There are large themes that emerge, and some of these themes clearly dominant more than others and some even serve as controlling structures under and through which other aspects of the atonement are brought forward. The controlling element of some of the larger themes is important, because no aspect of the atonement can really be a stand-alone kind of thing, or played off of other themes – the controlling structures are what allow everything to come together in a coherent way. Briefly, then, some of the dominant notes of the atonement are:

Christus Victor – for my part, this is the most important element, for a couple of reasons. First, it provides the overall controlling structure and framework for the atonement as a whole. The victory of Christ over death and the powers in his death and resurrection is a very clearly found in both the Biblical and patristic witness – through his victory he sets free those who are held captive by death. Athanasius was the most important expounder of this view in the early church.

Healing – this theme highlights the ‘what happened to humanity’ part of the atonement. By Christ’s person, life, and work, the corruption and death in humanity is healed (this is tied closely to the hypostatic union, which I won’t go into here). There is a real, objective, ontological change wrought by God in the deepest part of humanity, where the sickness and corruption are healed by Christ’s overthrowing of death and corruption. Athanasius and Gregory Nazanien developed this theme greatly.

Recapitulation – developed in the early church primarily by Irenaeus, the motif of recapitulation has to do with the ‘re-creation’ of humanity, in which the history of humanity in Adam is ‘summed up’ and gone over again, succeeding where Adam failed (it may not be too far off the mark to think of Anselm as elaborating on this theme), and in virtue of that undoing the primal Fall. Irenaeus is most associated with this viewpoint.

Substitution – Christ died in our place being the key thing here. This is also seen in the early church very clearly very early on, though the theme was far from modern formulations of penal substitution. Christ died in our place, as a ransom and a sacrifice – this is a motif that is quite clear in the Biblical and patristic witness and may have the clearest Old Testament parallels – one can hardly open the Old Testament without finding stories of sacrifices.

The extent to which these themes are interwoven should be somewhat easy to see – Christ recapitulates Adam and humanity and succeeds where Adam had failed in his life, and by doing so effects a real healing of human nature. In his death and resurrection he defeats death, and having healed human nature of its sickness of death, opens salvation to all.

What I’m thinking of doing next is working a bit more on how these themes overlap and provide controlling structures for how we think of the atonement.

Brief Notes on the Atonement in the Fathers

The controlling themes that surface in the atonement are basically substitution, Christus Victor, and healing – and these themes are often intertwined with each other. Healing and substitution go together (and you could probably fit these in under recapitulation) and both of those themes are kind of subsumed under Christus victor, which I personally take to be the dominant controlling theme, through and under which the other themes are developed. Under the theme of CV, the themes of substitution and healing cohere into one unified whole.

T.F. Torrance on Reconciliation

‘…Christ was one the one hand so with God that what he did, God did, for he was none other than God himself acting thus in our humanity. And therefore there is no other God for us than this God, and no action toward us than this action in which he stood in our place and acted on our behalf. On the other hand, he was so one with us that when he died we died, for he did not die for himself but for us, and he did not die alone, but we died in him as those whom he had bound to himself inseparably by his incarnation. Therefore when he rose again we rose in him and with him, and when he presented himself before the face of the Father, he presented us also before God, so that we are already accepted of God in him once and for all.

‘Because of what Christ has done, God has nothing more to say to us in respect of our sin and guilt, for they are put away. It is Christ that died: God cannot and will not go back upon the death of his dear son, for there is perfect oneness between the Son and Father and he accepts his sacrifice on our behalf as full satisfaction for our sin and guilt, a satisfaction which he accepts because it was offered by himself and borne by himself. satisfaction means that God has fulfilled the will of his love in taking our judgment on himself and bearing it in our stead. All that is summed up in the expression that ‘through the blood of Christ we have peace with God’. (Rom. 5:19; Col.1:20)

(T.F. Torrance, ‘Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ,’ p. 152, 155)

A Few Musings on the Atonement

Thinking on predestination inevitably leads to thinking about the atonement: what was it, who was it for, who is it effective for, etc, etc. It should come as no surprise that I affirm to a universal atonement in the style of Torrance and Barth, who in turn were in line with a fair amount of patristic thought in their thinking.

The basic idea is this: Jesus died for everyone. Pretty simple. Everyone can be saved, though as the Scriptures make clear not everyone will be. This is one of the bigger questions in the world of theology, and there’s no shortage of answers and speculation. Biblically, we are left with a bit of a paradox – we aren’t given a very clear schema of the mechanics of the atonement. Why are some people not saved, if Jesus died for everyone? I tend to take this line: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the opening bell of new creation (N.T. Wright). The new reality is ushered in. God’s universal love and grace is working through the Holy Spirit in everyone to draw them to Him – but those who resist are damned not by God but by themselves. The atonement, however, isn’t limited to only the salvation of people, but it’s an objective act that involves all of creation, from the depths of man to the farthest corner of the cosmos. This outpouring of love and grace for all is an objective fact accomplished in Christ – whether or not one chooses to resist the grace of God has nothing to do with the fact that Jesus died for them in an objective way. It is finished.

So do people simply ‘free-will’ their way into hell? Well, yes and no – there’s a lot more to free will than simple volition. The Holy Spirit is constantly working to draw all men to God – we can resist or cooperate with the Spirit. So, with an asterisk or two, I am a synergist. The asterisk is this: it is only through grace worked through the Holy Spirit that we can choose to cooperate. Any ‘choice’ on our part towards God is ultimately wrought in God – here Wesley’s prevenient grace comes to mind. The more we cooperate with the Holy Spirit the more grace we are given – and then again and again as we continue to work with the Spirit. This is, obviously, not Pelgianism – without the workings of the Spirit there is no choice at all on our part towards God.