(Why) does the debate about divine (im)passibility matter?

I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading up on the debate over whether God can be said to suffer, and if so in what sense. I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about this, but I think it’s helpful to understand what religious commitments may motivate the debate. In particular, this is not just an intellectual debate about the most accurate and coherent way of talking about God; it’s something that impinges on piety, social and personal ethics, questions of theodicy and other areas central to a living religious faith.

One reason for thinking this is that the debate hasn’t been carried on only in the rarefied realm of academic books and journals; it’s spilled over to sermons, popular-level books, blogs, social media and other venues where the proverbial person in the pew can (and has) formed a strong opinion. Moreover, the debate has—like so many other things—been projected onto a culture-war grid of “conservatives” vs. “progressives,” with conservatives generally favoring impassibility and progressives arguing for some form of passibilism. (Clearly there are exceptions to this generalization.)

Given the (ahem) passion that this debate has generated, it’s worth considering what the various participants think is at stake. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think that both sides are, at their best, seeking to uphold essential divine attributes that lie at the heart of what the Christian message is or should be about. (I’m generally confining myself to the debate within Christianity here, since it’s what I know best. I don’t have a good sense of the extent to which, if any, this is a live debate in other traditions.)

For proponents of divine passibility, I think many of their concerns derive from an emphasis on divine compassion. The God of the Bible—of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of Moses; of the Prophets; and of Jesus and the apostles—is a God deeply concerned with the plight of his creatures, with their well-being, and with their ultimate fulfillment. God responds to his needy creatures through suffering love. In the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, God hears the cries of the oppressed Hebrew slaves and accompanies them in their journey from bondage to freedom. He gives laws and teaching aimed at constructing a polity of justice and peace and suffers when his people turn away from them, with the great prophets giving voice to what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the divine pathos. In the life and passion of Jesus, this compassionate God enters, in a profound and mysterious way, into the depths of human suffering and alienation to redeem his wayward creatures.

Proponents of divine passibility worry that traditional concepts of God cannot do full justice to this divine compassion that is so central to the biblical message. These theologies seem to them to spend a lot of time explaining (away)—through metaphor or allegory—the attribute of divine compassion. The rather austere God of classical theism is not easy to square with the passionate God of the Bible. Is God in himself really unmoved by the suffering of his creatures? Does creation not, strictly speaking, make a difference to God at all?

For defenders of impassiblity, which has a good claim to being the traditional majority view, at least among theologians, I think a good way of summarizing what’s at stake is the divine transcendence. God is the cause of everything else that exists, which he created from nothing. God is not one being among others—even the wisest, most powerful, best being—but being itself, the metaphysical ultimate which explains why there is anything rather than nothing. Accordingly, God is not subject to alteration or affect at the hands of his creation.

Moreover, God is the Lord of history—he exercises sovereign power over the created cosmos and providentially guides the world toward its consummation. And because he transcends the created order, God exercises his sovereignty in mighty and miraculous acts, such as the liberation of the Israelites from bondage and the defeat of death and sin in the resurrection of Jesus. God will further bring the history of the entire cosmos to an end in an act that transcends the possibilities immanent in the laws and processes governing the natural world.

Defenders of impassibility worry that passibilist theologies don’t do justice to God’s transcendence. In some forms, such as process theology, God is described as limited by laws and principles not of his own making. In others, suffering enters into the very heart of the divine life, possibly for eternity. But if this is so, what becomes of God’s ultimate triumph over the forces of sin, decay and death? Impassibilists argue that the passibilist God is rendered as a being among beings, one who is engaged in an agonistic struggle with the forces of evil in which victory is not assured. Does evil’s reach extend even into the heart of Almighty God? And if so, doesn’t it threaten to overwhelm him and his purposes for creation? A God that does not transcend the created order may begin to look like a puny and ineffectual godling.

Obviously this is a highly simplified and schematized account, and I’ve only scratched the surface of the debate. There’s an indefinite number of replies and counter-replies each side could make, as well as possible tweaks and refinements to both positions. However, I do think this gets at a central set of concerns driving this debate. We can see this in how they relate to questions of everyday faith and piety: Does God care about me? When something bad happens in the world, does God get upset? Can God do anything about the world’s suffering and evil? Will good triumph in the end? Does anything we do ultimately make a difference to God? Will evil be with us forever? How we think about the im/passibility question affects what we might say to these questions too.

What I think is worth keeping in mind is that both these camps are trying to do justice to attributes of God that are arguably essential to any version of Christian faith worth hanging onto. Divine compassion does seem to be at the heart of the Bible, and the gospel message in particular. In some theologies it seems to die the death of a thousand qualifications. Likewise, the God of the Bible is not just one god among many, but the incomparable creator and redeemer. The profound distinction between creature and creator is essential to a Christian view of the world. Any concept of God claiming to be Christian should be able to fully incorporate both compassion and transcendence.

This may be overly irenic or Pollyannaish, but I suspect there are suitably nuanced versions of both “impassibilist” and “passibilist” theologies that can accomplish this and which, at the end of the day, may not look all that different from one another. And maybe we need both to complement and balance one another, and to remind us that we see through a glass darkly and can never grasp the fullness of the divine Mystery.

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