Questions I’d like answered 5 – a suffering God?

Posted: January 28, 2013 by J in Theology

Why has the Christian church for so long adhered to the doctrine of an impassible God?

I just don’t get it. Why do we Christians, of all people, want to assert that God cannot suffer?

I can say its just the Greeks taking over the gospel. But is there more to it than that? Are there any problems with asserting that God has suffered? Are those who hold to this trying to protect something valuable, that I can’t appreciate?

What am I missing here?

  1. jeltzz says:

    All my favourite questions. I’m in an airport and that’s not particularly conducive to a proper answer. My very short answer is that impassibility is usually poorly understood, and that it holds out something important and great about God. More to come…

    • Jonathan says:

      Looking forward to it! I’d really like to get straight on this one, so any responses gratefully received. It’d be nice to have some on each side of the argument, too.

  2. You’re missing a lot Jono. Impassibility is not the same thing as inability to suffer in the absolute sense, but relates more to the fact that the divine essence cannot be damaged or destroyed by acts of violence imposed on it. While the Son suffered and “died” on the Cross, the divine person was not destroyed. In terms of essence, you still have the same Son reigning now with the Father and Spirit in resurrected form that was present at the Beginning. The Son is Risen, not Recreated.

    Oh yeah, beware of lumping all Greeks together. They’re not all as enslaved to Plato as you might imagine.


    • Jonathan says:

      thanks for that Luke, your version of impassibility sounds more reasonable. Sounds less like impassibility though!

      Perhaps a different term might be better, if we want express a concept which is *not* ‘inability to suffer’.

      I’ve read authors arguing for God’s inability to suffer. Pretty sure I was taught it at college too. I seem to remember something in Calvin… have to check though. I guess that’s the idea I’m trying to get at in my question.

  3. This is one of the problems of the influence of the apophatic tradition (which I admit led certain Greeks into error) on the attributes. Modern work on the Doctrine of God has highlighted the limitations and has generally been more positive – am working through Oliphint’s new book and I would highly recommend.

    I think that Calvin and others of the period may have tried to avoid “suffering” language for sacramental reasons (i.e. to prevent the Son being resacrificed at the hands of priests), but I’d have to do more digging on that one. Thomas Watson was keen to stress that while while Christ suffered in his human nature (body and ‘soul’) this didn’t mean that his divine nature was uninvolved in the sacrifice, it just wasn’t damaged or weakened.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks Luke, that’s some helpful context for this discussion. Apophatic or via negativa theology seems a strange bedfellow for the Christian gospel, if oyu ask me. I’m pretty sure the apostles had something positive to say!

      I’m no expert on this, but my impression is that those ‘certain Greeks’ set the Nicean tradition on impassibility and that this has been the view of Nicean orthodoxy ever since, both in East and West. My hunch is Watson’s view is not mainstream on this issue. (Neither is mine!) The reformers and puritans seem to often say that Jesus needed a human nature so he could suffer.

      I like the idea that modern theology has challenged this, but I can’t see that this challenge has filtered down into the churches much yet. I still hear impassibility pretty much everywhere.

      But then, perhaps I’m wrong on impassibility and the mainstream view is right….

  4. jeltzz says:

    I’m still on the road, so to speak, but I don’t want to lose track of this.

    So I can email you a kind of sermon (it’s the write-up of a sermon after the fact, which is not really like my preaching style at all), that I did on impassibility if you pass an address on to me.

    In short, sovereignty is what’s at stake. And a different notion of emotion and experience. Impassibility defends against the idea that God is subject to his creation, upholds the sovereignty of God, and gives an account of God’s emotions as affections rather than passions. The idea that impassibility is about being emotionless is a caricature of the position.

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