Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of the Cross

As Good Friday grows ever closer, and the great act of atonement achieved for us by Our Lord continues to fill our minds during this season of Lent, I would like to consider what it is we mean when we say that God somehow suffered and died for us, in Christ, on Calvary. This will take me into not only the mystery of the Cross, but the mystery of the Incarnation as well – the two interlocking centre points of Christian faith.

The mystery that we encounter in the Cross is essentially related to the mystery of the Incarnation, because it is Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who suffered and died for us there – to understand the former thus requires a sound doctrine of the latter, which was thankfully provided for us at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. However, in more recent times, Chalcedonian doctrine has come in for criticism, as well as the doctrine of divine impassibility – the view that God cannot be subject to change and therefore is not subject to emotion as we are – in the light of the great suffering of the last century, made possible by (amongst other things) mechanised warfare.

The basic contention of those who would seek to change the doctrine of divine impassibility (and so also the Chalcedonian definition, which sought to preserve both divine and human natures in their essence – which for the divine nature, includes impassibility – whilst maintaining the fundamental, indissoluble union between them) is that in these times we need a God who suffers just like us, and that an impassible God is too distant, too cold and unfeeling to really connect with our trials and our woes. This position, I would contend, fails to understand what divine impassibility means, and just how important it is to maintain this doctrine if we really do want a God who is love, and who genuinely feels our pains.

In a compilation of essays examining some of the key doctrinal debates throughout Christian history, Michael Ward (author of Planet Narnia), tackles the issue of Theopaschitism – the idea that it is possible for God to suffer as we do, and therefore to be subject to change. In his essay he points out first of all, that we are certainly not the first age to experience great suffering, and yet previous ages did not feel the need to jettison the doctrine of divine impassibility. He then also adds that impassibility is intrinsically related to Trinitarian doctrine, which is precisely what enables us to say that God is love in His essence:

The Father, the Son and the Spirit are, so to speak, mutually dependent; they are reciprocally and eternally, albeit asymmetrically, related. And since the Father, Son and Spirit subsist in their mutual relations, it follows that these relations, being fully and perfectly enacted, can’t change or develop – not because they’re static or inert or because they are somehow emotionally dead, but precisely for the opposite reason – they’re so full of life. Because they are enacting their relational roles, the divine persons don’t have any relational potential which would need to be actualised in order to make them more relational, more who they are. They are utterly and completely dynamic and active as Father, Son and Spirit. That is why we can say that God is love, and need not say that God is merely becoming love. God ‘cannot deny himself’ and therefore he cannot become either less, of for that matter, more, loving than he already is. He is impassible, he cannot change or be changed.

Heresies and How to Avoid Them (2007), pp.65-66, SPCK.

            So we see here that to ask for God to become subject to change, to become passible, is actually to ask Him to shift down a gear or two – to change the intensity of His love. To do this, we would not just be asking Him to become subject to time – which is what reacting to our changing circumstances would mean – but to deny His whole character. He is not just loving, He is love; His whole being is that of reciprocal self-giving and exchange, at the highest intensity imaginable, beyond anything we could ever hope to experience. As Ward continues:

His love is an action, not a reaction, and of course it includes what we would call passion (that is, “strong feeling, emotion”), but it is not determined by “emotion”; it is determined by his entire, steadfast, loving nature, of which emotion is a part. A useful way of picturing this may be to think of God’s love as white light. White light by definition is colourless; but slow it down and refract it through a prism and you’ll see vivid colours…

…What from the creaturely perspective seems colourless, is actually colour to the maximum. Similarly, God’s impassible love is love to the maximum. Well might we call it inhuman! It is not human, but divine: of uncreated, searing intensity, holy and unbearable. God dwells in unapproachable, unchangeable light, and in him there is no darkness at all.

ibid, pp.66-67.

            So, if we ask for God to be subject to changes in emotion like us, we are actually asking for something less than what God actually offers us – a love that might be more identifiable with our own, but that actually feels our pain at a lesser intensity, and a God whose ‘emotions’ are contingent, and therefore not the steadfast, dependable love offered to us by the God of the Bible. If there were even the slightest suggestion that there were any darkness, or any changeability in the heart of God, He could no longer be the sure foundation and refuge that we know Him to be. Thankfully, the doctrine of divine impassibility safeguards this steadfastness – the unchangeable, burning love of God for all He has created, which feels our pain at a greater level than we can possibly imagine.

But what about the Passion, and the Cross – are we not told that in Christ we have someone with whom we can identify, who did indeed suffer as we do (e.g.; Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15-16)? This is where the definition of Chalcedon is so important. Christ’s two natures, human and divine, are united ‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’, and any picture of Our Lord that does not satisfy all these criteria simply does not do justice to the biblical data in its entirety. Having recognised this, when we ask who it is that suffers for us in the Passion and on the Cross, we can say – it is the Son of God. When asked how it is that he suffers for us there, we can say – in His humanity.

Because the Second Person of the Trinity is so closely united – ‘without division, without separation’ – to the man Jesus of Nazareth, we can say that (in some mysterious way), the Son of God does experience and undergo suffering, just as He experienced all other aspects of the human condition, and that He did this via that profound and indissoluble union with His human nature. And yet, because those two natures are united ‘without confusion, without change’, the impassibility of the divine nature is preserved. This is indeed a mystery, but it is the heart of the Incarnation, and as I said, nothing else does justice to the full scope of the data we have about Jesus in the Gospels.

The alternatives would be to say that the divine nature suffered in and of itself, and is therefore not impassible – which leads to the problems outlined above; or that the human nature suffered without a real connection to the divine, which leaves us with a Jesus just like us, but who can offer us no hope of salvation precisely because he is just like us – He would be just a man who suffered and died, albeit one who did so in an exemplary manner. The Incarnation (and therefore the Atonement) is fundamentally a mystery, and any attempt to reduce it to something more easily comprehensible would be to rob it of its significance and, in making it easier to understand, render it less meaningful and effective.

The key for us here is that God, who is eternal, unchangeable love, chose to come down from the heavenly places, become incarnate as one of us, and suffer in the same way we do – despite experiencing all the emotions and passions we do at an incomparably greater level, He chose to unite Himself to a limited, contingent, human experience of suffering, so that our experiences would be taken up into His. The Incarnation is not a conversion of God into man, but a taking up of humanity into the Godhead – a raising up of all our hopes, fears, joys and sufferings, into the eternal Being of God, so that they are then united with Him at a level more profound than we can ever know.

            Heresy, which is what Theopaschitism is, has the benefit of simplicity, and of tidiness. But orthodoxy dares to hold in tandem great, seemingly paradoxical truths about God and mankind, preserving them in doctrines that, whilst on the surface seem to be simply an exercise of theological pedantry, actually preserve for us the mysterious spaces in which the work of our salvation takes place and the light of God’s truth can shine through. To embrace heresy is to embrace utility and ordinariness, and to dissolve mystery. To embrace orthodoxy is to embrace life in all its paradoxical beauty, and to receive with confidence the hope that comes in knowing a God whose burning love will never cease.

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