Suffering Servant, Sovereign Lord

Gerald Bray
Monday, July 16th 2007
Mar/Apr 1999

Perhaps no traditional Christian doctrine has taken a greater bashing from modern theologians than the assertion that God is “impassible” by nature—that is, that he cannot experience suffering. Such a doctrine sounds to many people today as if God does not care about human life. And in the wake of the terrible persecutions of our time, particularly the Holocaust, the impassibility of God is frequently blamed for the church’s failure to make an adequate response. Taking their cue from men like Jürgen Moltmann, who lived through the destruction of European Jewry and who had some personal experience of that catastrophe, many theologians have looked for a “God after Auschwitz.” They want a God who is near to us, who understands our suffering, and who participates in it with us. Only by such participation, it is argued, can redemption occur, because only then has God truly committed himself to the reality which he himself created.

In such a context, the traditional doctrine has been rejected on the grounds that it is of pagan Greek origin, and that it has little to do with the compassionate God of the Bible. These theologians charge that for centuries, the Christian church has been in thrall to an alien philosophy, from which it must now liberate itself. Those attacking the doctrine are certainly not all theological liberals; many conservatives too are uneasy with it. Even if they are reluctant to abandon this ancient teaching, few modern conservatives actively defend it. Such widespread agreement is impressive and must command respect, but the tradition cannot be set aside merely by the consensus of a single generation, despite the aftermath of exceptionally brutal times. Before we pass judgment on impassibility, we must look carefully at what it is, and try to decide whether, and to what extent, modern criticisms of it are justified.

The Early History of Impassibility

First of all, there can be no doubt that the concept of impassibility owes its origin to pre-Christian Greek philosophy, and to that extent may be regarded as “alien” to the Scriptures. Early Christian apologists and theologians were confronted with a widespread belief that the perfect being was by definition apathes, without suffering. They also had to confront the corollary assertion that human happiness consisted in achieving (as far as possible) a state of apatheia, or tranquillity. This supposedly enables the true philosopher to contemplate the essence of reality and enjoy it without distraction. Such a state could not be achieved without a high degree of self-denial, refusing to let pain and suffering affect one’s thinking. “Stoicism” was highly valued in antiquity, where there were numerous tales of men who met their deaths without flinching, because their minds were fixed on higher things.

The ancient concept of suffering was primarily one of physical pain, inflicted by an external force which served to weaken its victim, culminating in death. Whether the source of the pain was a blow from an enemy’s weapon, or a disease gnawing at one’s entrails, the essential point remained the same: Pain of this kind was unavoidable in human life. The proper stoic response was to overcome it by refusing to accept its power over the mind, even if there was not much one could do about the body. Besides, the ancients considered the material body of little importance, essentially evil and perishable.

How did Christians respond? No Christian could deny the reality of Christ’s extreme suffering on the cross, its intensity often subsuming his death. The Nicene Creed, for example, says merely that Christ “suffered and was buried,” leaving the reader to infer that death occurred, but not actually saying so. Martyrdom immediately brought this home to ordinary believers: to be a Christian was to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus, even to the point of death. The early Christian apologists portrayed Christians as soldiers preparing for battle. They slighted the philosophers’ concept of transcendent tranquillity. Some Christians like Tertullian (c. A.D. 200) strongly derided the philosophers’ impractical outlook on life.

Therefore the notion of divine impassibility was not immediately compatible with early Christian teaching or experience. It is wrong then to say that it entered the language of Christian theology as a holdover from some pagan philosophical form. When the church did address the issue, however, it affirmed that God cannot suffer in his divine nature. The classical statement of this view is found in Cyril of Alexandria’s second letter to Nestorius, which was written about A.D. 429. His view was confirmed both at the first council of Ephesus (431) and at the council of Chalcedon (451). He writes:

In a similar way we say that he [Christ] suffered and rose again, not that the Word of God suffered blows or piercing with nails or any other wounds in his own nature (for the divine, being without a body, is incapable of suffering); but because the body which became his own suffered these things, he is said to have suffered them for us. For he was without suffering (apathes), while his body suffered. Something similar is true of his dying. For by nature the Word of God is of itself immortal and incorruptible and life and life-giving, but since on the other hand, his own body, by God’s grace, as the apostle says (Heb. 2:9) tasted death for all, the Word is said to have suffered death for us, not as if he himself had experienced death as far as his own nature was concerned (it would be sheer lunacy to say or to think that), but because as I have just said, his flesh tasted death. So too, when his flesh was raised to life, we refer to this again as his resurrection, not as though he had fallen into corruption—God forbid—but because his body had been raised again.

In this passage we can see immediately that Cyril was operating with the contemporary Greek assumptions regarding suffering. Suffering applies to the body, and because God does not have a body, he cannot suffer. But like all his fellow Christians, Cyril did not go on (as would most pagan philosophers) to dismiss the body. On the contrary, he explains that the purpose of the incarnation of the Word was to make divine suffering possible. God was given (or took) a human body, in order to bring about the resurrection from the dead, which is the ultimate goal of the Christian life. Cyril’s vision shows God coming as close to suffering as he possibly can, by acquiring a body to experience it. There can be no greater involvement on God’s part in human suffering than this, Cyril states. He holds up the incarnation as the way in which the problem of God’s natural impassibility was overcome.

The Modern Reworking of “Suffering”

The modern question is rather different from the one faced by Cyril. First of all, theologians today want to affirm that God can suffer (in some sense at least) in his divine nature, and to claim that the whole concept of “suffering” needs to be rethought. Many would agree that if the ancient notion of suffering is accepted, then of course, God must be impassible. Not only does he not have a body, but his sovereignty makes it inconceivable that he could ever be subjected to an external force which is more powerful than he is. The real difficulty with the traditional doctrine is therefore not that it is wrong in its own terms (it is not), but that our understanding of what suffering is has changed in such a way that the older assertion no longer makes sense. This solution has the advantage of exculpating the ancient fathers, while at the same time demonstrating why their teaching has to be recast (if not entirely rejected) today.

The main point of difference seems to be that suffering is regarded today as a psychological, emotional, and even spiritual phenomenon, as much as a physical one. The claim is made that such distinctions are artificial and untenable, and that if it is true that human beings can have a relationship with God which is both just and caring, then God must be capable of entering into our pain. The modern theologians are not talking here about brute physical force, but about compassion and “empathy,” which the ancients supposedly ignored. That is not strictly true of course—ancient Christian writers categorized such notions under “love,” rather than “suffering.” Once that shift of perception is made, it is quite clear that the fathers of the church believed in God’s compassion just as much as any modern theologian.

Perhaps the best way to try to understand the nature of this problem is to take a familiar modern analogy—that of doctor and patient. Someone lying in a hospital bed does not want to be solely treated by a machine, which functions regardless of the pain it might inflict. Rather, the patient wants to be treated by someone who understands what he or she is going through, and who will sensitively adjust his approach. For this, a human being is essential, and any good doctor knows that his or her bedside manner is at least as important as any medicine. But having said that, what patient wants the doctor to climb into the bed next to him or her and start making groaning noises, as if to indicate that the doctor, too, is experiencing the same pain? This is not the kind of “empathy” desired, because the fundamental reason the patient wants the doctor is not to receive sympathy from him or her; the patient can get that just as easily from any medically unskilled visitor. What the patient wants is to be cured. Understanding pain is all very well, but overcoming it is what all sufferers really want. God is impassible, not because he is uncaring (he is in fact far more compassionate than any human being ever could be), but because he is strong to save. Unlike human doctors, who are available only at certain times and who are occasionally “off sick” themselves, God is always ready and able to help. The impassibility of his nature is, therefore, a guarantee that he will always be there.

The modern reaction to impassibility may be understandable in its context, but it is essentially misguided. Accusations that the fathers of the church were influenced by their pagan philosophical background do not stand up to serious examination (quite the reverse, in fact). More important still, the doctrine is not a barrier to understanding God’s compassion, but is in fact the assertion that his compassion is always fully available and functioning. Impassibility may not be something that we need to think about very often (when things are going well, we usually take them for granted), but it is vitally important nevertheless. As Christians we need to appreciate where divine impassibility fits into the overall picture of God’s saving work.

Monday, July 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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