Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Christology and God's Impassibility

Here's a question I wondered about as I read Donald Davis's book, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. A major starting point in the Christological debates motivating the councils was God's "impassibility," meaning that God does not, and cannot, suffer. (And, more generally, that God does not have emotions or "passions." In the book, it seemed to me that impassibility was also used to refer to the fact that God could not die, but I'm not sure whether my impression is correct or not.) Importantly, both orthodox and heterodox theologians and pastors agreed that impassibility is one of God's attributes.

That being said, an overemphasis on this attribute seems to have lead to many of the opinions rejected as heterodox: Given the centrality of the cross, and the suffering and death of Jesus, if God is understood to be impassible, then it does seem to raise a puzzle about how it is that Jesus who suffers and dies is or can also be God.

While orthodox theologians seem always also to have affirmed God's impassibility, I do wonder a bit whether the commitment to this attribute, or how it is understood, is mainly an import from Greek philosophy, and the division between rationality and passion. I see no reason from the Scriptures that "passion" should be identified wholly with the fallen world, and so I don't necessarily understand why we should think that God is without emotion (even when the Scriptures ascribe emotion) or that God does not suffer. To be sure, I would not identify what an eternal being feels with what a human feels, but I'm a little reluctant to write off scriptural predication as mere personification.

I'm not criticizing, mind you, I guess that I just don't entirely understand what rises or falls on insisting that God is impassible, or what we gain theologically from affirming the proposition that God is impassible. (I'd certainly affirm that God suffers only at his discretion. But that this is part of his glory -- that he condescended to suffer for his creation.)

Secondly, I wonder if I've been affirming an error. Drawing on Gn 15.17, where the theophany passes between the animal parts, by which God thereby takies the self-maledictory oath upon himself, I've been thinking in recent years that God took the curse unto himself on the cross, in a way that even the Father suffered (although I would never say that the Father suffered "on" the cross).

Here's what I mean: The curse of the self-maledictory oath in Gn 15.17 is separation -- literally to be split in two, food for the scavenging birds. Consistent with this, I then wonder whether when we say that Christ takes the curse upon himself, that, on the cross, God the Son is somehow separated from God the Father. There is, as it were, a rupture in the Godhead because God takes the curse into himself because he so loves humanity.

This rupture cannot only injure Jesus, because God the Father is in as close relationship to God the Son as God the Son is in fellowship with God the Father. So whatever causes God the Son to suffer must also cause God the Father (and the Spirit) to suffer as well. As death is separation, then God very truly dies in the crucifixion (although only the Son dies on the cross); God suffers for his creation.

As I understand it, there seem to be (at least) two problems with this. First, if God is impassible, then neither God the Son nor God the Father can suffer. That would seem immediately to short circuit the argument above.

Secondly, although relatedly, another possible problem with my view is that it pushes the consubstantiality of divine and human nature in the one person of Jesus too far, by pushing the suffering of Jesus' human nature into the Godhead. To be honest, though, I've never quite understood when it is proper to predicate attributes of Christ's divine or human nature to his entire person, or to ascribe attributes of one nature to both nature (as in calling Mary the theotokos, or in saying that God bleeds, Acts 20.28, or that God died on the cross, etc.). I'm not disputing them, rather, I don't understand the assignment rule that tells when that sort of predication is permissible and when it's impermissible.

And, finally, even if the two points above aren't really problems, then I wonder if I'm on thin ice by predicating suffering on the part of the Father as a result of the rupture in fellowship with Jesus (and particularly, in predicating a rupture in the Godhead, however understood).

So I don't know. Usually I stay away from Christology because it seems like a minefield, and even the orthodox arguments make my head swim (which is why I'm largely happy just to receive the conclusions of the councils). Perhaps I've unwittingly stumbled into the minefield in spite of my best intentions.

What prompts the move is my interest in understand the cross as a monotheistic event as well as a trinitarian event. But maybe this sort of parsing is best left to the experts. ("Don't attempt Christology at home . . .)


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