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. Continue reading


Luther, Nestorius, and Medieval Christology

An interesting conclusion can be drawn from David Luy’s ‘Dominus Mortis’. Stated bluntly, the conclusion is this: passibilism, the idea that God suffers, follows the same logic as Nestorianism. That’s an extraordinary claim, but as with all claims, it requires but sufficient evidence.

A bit more precisely, let’s define the passibilist thesis broadly as the idea that the being of God is conditioned by events in salvation history. Here, passibilism is a distinctly historicist thesis, and vice versa. Luy summarizes:

‘God becomes truly vulnerable in Christ by entering into the depths of human corruption. Christ resolves the defects of sinful existence by subsuming them within the historical process of God’s own dialectically mediated self-existence. Those in union with Christ through faith are caught up into the sequential process of divine becoming. In Christ, God identifies God’s own being with sinful humanity. In doing so, God offers them a share in God’s eschatalogical future.’ (Dominus Mortis’, pp. 171)

The semantic logic behind this thesis roughly cashes out to this: If God suffers, divinity suffers. Jesus is God, therefore, divinity suffers. Nestorius, wanting to preserve the integrity of deity (as opposed to simply importing a pagan Greek concept of God, according to Luther), argues that God cannot suffer:

‘Luther does not chastise Nestorius because he assumes that divinity is incapable of suffering. He criticizes the fifth-century bishop for rejecting orthodox christological speech on the basis of faulty logic. Nestorius wrongly assumes that an ascription of human predicates to God must entail a coextensive application of the same predicates to Christ’s divinty. The entailment does not follow. Nestorius’s failure to understand this leads him to speak as if Christ were two distinct persons.’ (pp. 175)

For Luther, this orthodox christological speech was the communication of attributes – that is, the predication of both divine and human attributes to the one person Christ in virtue of his divine and human natures. An example of this would be, say, that God suffers, and a man created the heavens (both of which were said, actually, by Luther and late scholastic theologians). Both of these are true in virtue of the fact that, according to his human nature, Jesus suffered, and according to his divine nature, Jesus created the heavens (rough and oversimplified, of course). Thus, the opposite of the passibilist thesis: God suffers does not entail that divinity suffers. God suffers, not because Jesus and therefore divinity suffers, but because Jesus, the God-Man, is one subject with two natures, of whom we can predicate things both human and divine. Luther here invokes two-natures language as well as the medieval idea of ‘concrete’ predications:

‘We are told here that Christ, true God and born as true man, descended according to His humanity, that God’s son died, descended into hell, and ascended again into heaven; that at the same time God remained in heaven, for the Godhead does not move about hither and thither but is omnipresent; and that according to His human nature, Christ ascended up above all. One may properly say that since there are two natures on one Being and Person, God’s Son came down and entered into the Virgin’s womb and God’s son descended into hell. Although this really applied only to the human nature, by virtue of the personal union in Christ it is also ascribed to the other nature. “That which applies to the one nature, applies to the entire person in the concrete”.’ (‘Luther Works’, 22:328, quoted in ‘Dominus Mortis’, pp. 136)

Luther’s christological semantic here invokes a distinction between ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ predicates. It is worth paying close attention to, especially on account of its precedence in medieval scholastic theology:

‘The primary intent of the distinction’s application during this period is to distinguish between predicates that refer to the single person of Christ (concrete) and those that denote each nature as such (abstract). Thomas Aquinas, for instance, distinguishes concrete terms as predications that refer to natures as they are possessed by the subject, whereas abstract terms refer to natures per se. This distinction regulates the grain of christological description for Aquinas and other medieval thinkers. Concrete terms may apply to any subject that possesses the “nature” to which a particular abstract terms belongs. Human properties may therefore be ascribed to the son of God (in the concrete) by virtue of the fact that the humanity of Christ is “possessed”, so to speak, by a divine subject. The predications may not run in reverse. Concrete terms do not necessarily apply to each of Christ’s natures. Hence, the Son of God suffers (abstract to concrete) but divinity does not suffer (concrete to abstract).’ (pp. 151-152)

It should be noted that Luy argues that it is precisely these two ideas, the communication of attributes and concrete/abstract predications, that show Luther did not endorse a bidirectional communication of attributes:

‘Luther’s prolific use of the distinction between abstract and concrete predication…makes it abundantly clear that, despite whatever ambiguities may exist in his descriptive vocabulary, his intent is consistently to affirm the single subjectivity of Christ as the rightful recipient of predicates belonging to the divinity and humanity. In expressing this intent, Luther specifically rejects any notion that the divine nature is directly conditioned by human properties of Christ. He prohibits this implication by enlisting medieval qualificatory discourse. God suffers, for Luther, only in the sense that the one person who is both God and man suffers on account of of his genuine humanity.’ (p. 159)

With the concrete/abstract distinction as well as the communication of attributes in mind, it becomes easier to see just how the passibilist thesis runs on the same logic as Nestorius. Nestorius’s failure to adopt the communication of attributes forces him, on pain of accepting a suffering deity, to refuse predicating human attributes of God:

‘Nestorius imagines that the application of creaturely predicates to God logically demands that Christ’s divinity is ontologically conditioned…He [Luther] agrees that Christ’s divinity is not derived from Mary’s womb. And yet, because Christ is a single person, the predicates of both natures must apply to God. It is thus not Nestorius’s doctrine of God that misleads him, but his lack of logical sophistication.’ (pp. 177)

What Luy takes to be the key consequence is this: by affirming that God suffers, one does not logically have to accept the suffering of divinity. However, if one rejects the idea that God suffers, one must logically reject the incarnation. Because Jesus is truly God and truly man, God suffers. But because Jesus is truly God, divinity does not suffer.  Luther argues that Nestorius’s error lies in his semantic – of his refusing to predicate human attributes of God because of his belief that a suffering God = a suffering divinity. The passibilist thesis, which holds that Christ’s suffering = divine suffering, can thus be seen to run on Nestorian logic.



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.

Against the Suffering God

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.

Brief and Rough Notes on Impassibility

Consolidated from Twitter:

Most arguments against impassibility/immutability seem to be of the following form: ‘if God didn’t experience what we experience how we experience it, he wouldn’t be God at all.’ It probably isn’t meant to sound so self-refuting, though. But the core of it seems to be making how we experience what we experience the criterion for how/what God experiences – our experiences of love, pain, regret have to map on to the experience of God. To which I answer:

(1) there’s a absolute qualitative distinction between us and God – God is uncreated, we are created (2) As a result of this, God talk has to be apophatic (3) all our knowledge of experience is of created things, and God is uncreated, so we can’t really import how we experience onto how He experiences (4) going along with that, all of our knowledge of humanity and experince is also from the perspective of our fallen state, and so even moreso cant be imported to God. The overall point being, one cant simply go from our own experience and conclude that God has to share those kinds of experiences in order to live up to his name as God, because it’s importing fallen and created categories to the unfallen and uncreated God.

The Wounds of God

Can we wrong God?

Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his books ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’ and ‘Justice in Love’ that we can in fact wrong and even wound God by failing to treat people justly. Wolterstorff ties these notions together by pointing out that God loves each person with love as attachment – to wrong that which you are attached to is to wrong you. To treat people unjustly is to treat unjustly that to which God is attached. Wolterstorff draws upon the thought of John Calvin to fortify his thesis – in his commentary on Genesis, Calvin argues that because of the image of God engraved on each person, ‘God deems Himself violated in their person’. Roughly, to harm a person is to harm God. ‘…no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God Himself.’ Wolterstorff develops this though in more detail but that’s the basic idea.

This relates to the doctrine of impassibility that I’ve been thinking on lately – Wolterstorff does not hold to the doctrine. Calvin, however, makes a small but crucial point: ‘God deems Himself violated in their person.’ So in a sense, it seems that Calvin and Wolterstorff are at odds. Calvin says that God ‘deems Himself’ violated or injured, while Wolterstorff argues that:

‘On account of God’s attachment to human beings, one wrongs God by injuring a human being.’ (‘Justice in Love’, p. 154)

Wolterstorff does not make Calvin’s distinction that it is God who ‘deems Himself’ injured – at least so far as I can tell. Wolterstorff would hold that God is indeed wounded by our treating fellow humans unjustly, while Calvin holds that God ‘deems Himself’ injured. There is a substantial difference here.

Barth on the Suffering of God

‘‎What is our suffering when we recollect that God has Himself felt it so keenly as to give His only begotten son in order to remove it? Our suffering for sin has not touched us, and cannot touch us, as it touches Him. So we can never take it to our hearts in this way. When we realise the full depth of our sorrow as it is seen borne and suffered by God Himself, any complaint of ours as to the form in which it confronts and affects us is silenced. Our lamenting is comes too late is always relatively too weak. Indeed, it is always ineffective and in the end untrue. For what is the use of our lamenting when the heart of misery is to make good? Who can complain when God has to complain, when the right to complain is His right alone? It is His heart, not ours, which is suffering when we think we are the sufferers and that have a right or obligation to reverse the relationship and behave as though we have to suffer, as it were, in the void, divinely, eternally, or on our own account? In the recognition and confession of the mercy of God, what we are accustomed to take so seriously as the tragedy of human existence is dissolved. There is something far more serious and tragic, viz., the fact that our distress – the anguish of our sin and guilt – is freely accepted by God, and that in Him, and only in Him, it becomes real agony.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics, II.1, p. 374)

Barth on Impassibility

‘But the personal God has a heart. He can feel, and be affected. He is not impassible. 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 stirred, yet not like ourselves in powerlessness, but in His own free power, in His innermost being: moved and touched by Himself, i.e., open, ready, inclined (prpensus) to compassion to another’s suffering and therefore to assistance, impelled to take the initiative to relieve this distress. It can only be a question of compassion, free sympathy, with another’s suffering. God finds no suffering in Himself. And no cause outside God can cause Him suffering if He does not will it so. But it is, in fact, a question of sympathy with the suffering of another in the full scope of God’s own personal freedom. This is the essential point if we are really thinking of the God attested by Scripture and speaking only of Him. Everything that God is and does is determined and characterized by the fact that there is rooted in Him, that He Himself is, the original free powerful compassion, that from the outset He is open and ready and inclined to the need and distress and torment of another, that His compassionate words and deeds are not grounded in a subsequent change, in a mere approximation to certain conditions in the creature which is distinct from Himself, but are rooted in His heart, in His very life and being as God.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics’ II.1, p. 370)

Some More on Impassibility

Here’s a fantastic essay in favor of the impassibility of God by Thomas G. Weinandy:


‘I would acknowledge that the above arguments are, even in the brief summary form that I have presented them, intellectually and emotionally powerful, though often the emotional sentiment appears to far outweigh reasoned argument. Nonetheless, I believe that the entire project on behalf of a passible and so suffering God is utterly misconceived, philosophically and theologically. It wreaks total havoc upon the authentic Christian gospel.’

This is a concise and clearly written take on the idea that’s well worth reading.