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The Suffering of the Impassible GodThe Dialectics of Patristic Thought$

Paul L. Gavrilyuk

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780199269822

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2004

DOI: 10.1093/0199269823.001.0001

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(p.176) APPENDIX Additional Evidence for the Prevalence of the Theory of Theology's Fall into Hellenistic Philosophy

(p.176) APPENDIX Additional Evidence for the Prevalence of the Theory of Theology's Fall into Hellenistic Philosophy

The Suffering of the Impassible God
Oxford University Press

(p.176) APPENDIX

Additional Evidence for the Prevalence of the Theory of Theology's Fall into Hellenistic Philosophy

Appendix Appendix

I pointed out in the introduction that the issue of the divine impassibility in patristic theology was most often treated within the framework of what I had called ‘the Theory of Theology's Fall into Hellenistic Philosophy’. To remind the reader, I have identified five main points of this theory:

  1. 1. divine impassibility is an attribute of God in Greek and Hellenistic philosophy;

  2. 2. divine impassibility was adopted by the early Fathers uncritically from the philosophers;

  3. 3. divine impassibility does not leave room for any sound account of divine emotions and divine involvement in history, as attested in the Bible;

  4. 4. divine impassibility is incompatible with the revelation of the suffering God in Jesus Christ;

  5. 5. the latter fact was recognized by a minority group of theologians who affirmed that God is passible, going against the majority opinion.

Since the Theory itself has been discussed in the Introduction and Chapter 1, it will be sufficient to cite here only the most articulate proponents of this influential trend in modern scholarship.

The contrast between the mutable and passible God of ‘biblical religion’ and the immutable and impassible God of Greek philosophy has been drawn sharply in many studies. A groundbreaking work in this arena is A. J. Hetchel's The Prophets. Less known is T. Boman's Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. In addition to the opinions of W. Temple, T. E. Pollard, and J. M. Hallman quoted in the Introduction, consider, for example, the following general statement made by R. S. Franks back in 1917: ‘The Biblical idea of God is religious, not philosophical, and as such is, especially in the Old Testament, frankly anthropomorphic. Hence God is represented as both mutable and passible.’ For the Greek philosophers, on the contrary, ‘one of the chief features of this idea [of (p.177) God] was the conception of the divine immutability and impassibility’, ‘Passibility and Impassibility’, ix. 658.

The following words of Francis House echo the same position in a credal form: ‘[W]e confess and proclaim that the nature of God is totally self‐giving sacrificial love. Here we have the biblical criterion by which the truth of all philosophical‐theological speculation about God must be tested. By this criterion much that has been taught and assumed under the heading of “Divine Impassibility” must be recognized as only a presupposition taken over from non‐Christian philosophy. It should be eliminated from our thinking as being incompatible with God's self‐revelation in Christ,’ ‘The Barrier of Impassibility’, 414.

Cf.: ‘The notion that the Godhead must be described as impassible, with the corollary that Christ suffered only in his human nature and not in his Godhead, seemed to the Greek fathers to be implicit in the very definition of God. On this point they were deriving their definition of changeless perfection and utter serenity of deity from Greek philosophical theology rather than from the revelation of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…This Greek way of defining the perfection of God was utterly inadequate to become the philosophical base for Christian theism, but that is what became established as “orthodox” early in patristic development. It was like trying to mix oil with water,’ W. J. Wolf, No Cross, No Crown, 196.

Cf.: ‘And yet after all we may perhaps be justified in trying to find some fuller meaning than this in the idea that in Christ God has actually suffered. We need not be debarred from doing so by the extreme aversion of the patristic and scholastic theologians to think of divinity as “passible”; for it must be confessed that this aversion of theirs, which the Church took over from Greek thought rather than from Christ or St. Paul, is hard to reconcile with the essential Christian conception of God as a loving Father. The Christian God is not the pure Intelligence—cold, passionless, and loveless, “Himself unmoved, all motion's source”—that He was to Aristotle,’ H. Rashdall, Idea of Atonement, 452.

Cf.: ‘To the Greek mind, the fundamental attribute of God was immutability and the complete absence of any form of human passion. From this derived the Christian doctrine of the impassibility of God: the doctrine that, God being perfect, nothing can affect the divine nature,’ O. T. Owen, ‘Does God Suffer’, 177.

Cf.: ‘The experience of the pathos of God in the Old Testament is the presupposition for the understanding of the history of his “passion” in the New Testament…Such an historical understanding of God cannot easily be reconciled with the affirmation that God is “unchangeable”, that God is “immutable”. The acceptance of the apathetic God into classical Christology led to insoluble theological difficulties. Qualities such as pity, compassion and love appear incompatible with absolute “immutability”. Impassibility and immutability belong to the order of being which has nothing to do with the order of becoming, with our world. According to Aristotle, God the First Mover (p.178) causes change without itself being changed, without having potentiality. The First Mover rules the world from the outside and has no interaction with the world of humanity. As actus purus God is pure causality and cannot be the object of suffering.’ Lucien J. Richard, A Kenotic Christology, 249–50.

Cf.: ‘Since Plato and Aristotle the metaphysical and ethical perfection of God has been described as apatheia…The apathetic theology of antiquity was accepted as a preparation for the trinitarian theology of the love of God and of men,’ Moltmann, The Crucified God, 267, 70. It should be noted that Moltmann's position is not easily classifiable, since he rightly recognizes that apatheia for the Greek authors denoted God's freedom and self‐sufficiency, rather than apathy and indifference.

In his study of divine anger E. F. Micka drew a sharp distinction between the Greek philosophers who held that anger was inappropriate for the divine nature and the Bible, which ascribed this emotion to God. In his view, ‘The Apologists of the second century, though they had a knowledge of the then current philosophical ideas, seem not to have been much affected by this opposition between the Scriptures and pagan philosophy. They calmly accepted the notion of divine impassibility.’ The discussion of passages from Aristides, Athenagoras, and Justin follows. See Micka, The Problem of Divine Anger, 17.

Philo is often credited with contaminating Christian theology with Greek ideas. Consider, for example, the following uncompromising dictum of H. Kraft: ‘His [Philo's] speculations no longer bear any relation to the Hebrew way of thinking, as this is found in the Old Testament…For it was Philo who taught the Church to read back into the Old Testament its own Christian philosophy, which in reality was a late form of the philosophy of Plato,’ Early Christian Thinkers, 14.

Cf.: ‘The problem is, where did Anselm, Aquinas, and all the rest get the criterion by which they decide that the Scriptures are speaking literally when they deny change in God and merely figuratively or metaphorically when they attribute change, complexity and real compassion to God? The criterion certainly did not come from Scripture itself, for Biblical writers wrote just as confidently and as unselfconsciously about the changing experiences and decisions of God as he interacted with the world of his creating as they did of his unchanging goodness and righteousness. The truth of the matter is that the criterion was derived from Greek ideas of perfection which were superimposed upon the interpretation of Biblical religion first by Philo, the Jewish theologian of Alexandria in the first century A. D. who created the conceptually unstable supernaturalistic theology by fusing (or confusing) Greek with Hebraic notions of divine perfection, then by many early Church Fathers such as Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, etc. who uncritically accepted Philo's position. By the time of Augustine Philo's belief in the utter unchangeability of God had been crystallized into infallible, unquestioned dogma,’ R. B. Edwards, ‘The Pagan Dogma of the Absolute Unchangeableness of God’, 308.

(p.179) A. G. Nnamani (The Paradox of a Suffering God) interprets Christianity's Hellenization as a process of inculturation, ‘the apparently unfinished cultural integration between Semitic and Hellenistic traditions’ (p. 56). In line with the Fall Theory, Nnamani maintains that there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the Greek apathetic God and the Hebrew God who is passible: ‘We have examined the axiom of divine impassibility in the light of the Hellenistic and Semitic conceptions of God and noted that it stems from the concept of apatheia in the ancient Greek philosophy…On the contrary, apatheia in the sense explained above is totally absent in the biblical and Semitic conception of God’ (p. 57). He subsequently argues that the Fathers had to harmonize those two positions primarily for cultural reasons. Thus, Nnamani dissolves the paradox that he had set himself to defend. One is left wondering as to why such a paradoxical dynamic is so vital for the Christian tradition at large, if the affirmation of divine impassibility depends, as it does for Nnamani, only upon the Greek cultural context. In his assessment of patristic theology Nnamani does not depart substantially from the Fall Theory.

In addition, C. P. E. Burns, C. C. Cain, J. Galot, C. G. Hoaas, E. Jacob, K. Kitamori, H. M. Hughes, J. Y. Lee, G. MacGregor, H. Pinnock, H. Rashdall, D. Soelle, and D. L. Wheeler for different reasons share the main assumptions of the Fall Theory. See their works in the bibliography. It should be noted that most proponents of the passibilist position, for example, W. Temple, M. Jarrett‐Kerr, J. Moltmann, and R. Bauckham, admit to different degrees that there are some elements of truth in patristic understanding of the divine impassibility. Despite these important voices of caution, the Theory of Theology's Fall into Hellenistic Philosophy remains a widely assumed interpretative framework for the issue of the divine impassibility. In this book I have attempted to debunk the Fall Theory once and for ever.