Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Attributes of God (IV): Impassibility
This week we come to the conclusion of the first part of our long series on the attributes of God. In this first part we have been discussing the NOTs: simplicity (non-compositeness), infinity (not-finite), immutability (not-changing). These attributes of God are discovered by traveling along the via negativa, the way of negation: negating from God's being aspects we know about our own created being which are unbecoming of our creator. We have asked whether this is the best road to travel, and in the process offered some alternative affirmations (unity, greatness, constancy) which attempt to retain the truth of these negative attributes while (hopefully) avoiding the problems.
The last of the NOTs is impassibility. Technically speaking, impassibility is a secondary aspect of immutability, for passion is a sort of change. But because of its significance in the history of Christian thought and its current controversial status, impassibility deserves special attention.
What does impassibility mean? Impassibility is the negation of passion from God. Now this might seem a bit odd at first. Are we saying that God is dispassionate, uncaring, and boring? Although this may be an impression or implication of divine impassibility, it is certainly not the intended point of the attribute. A little vocab lesson will help here. Passion in its technical sense is to be contrasted with action. To be in a state of passion is to be acted upon by another. God is impassible in the sense that he is not acted upon by another but rather is the actor, or agent, of all his experiences.
Although this clarification of the meaning blocks a shallow dismissal of impassibility, there are still serious problems in attributing impassibility to the Christian God. Why? The God we worship is precisely the God of Israel who responds to the actions of his people and, in the fulfillment of their history, became human in order to suffer and die. The central place of the passion of Jesus Christ in any Christian theology worthy of the name makes impassibility a bit difficult to maintain.
The early church fathers were acutely aware of these difficulties. Their commitment to divine impassibility made them reticent about saying that God experiences death. This commitment of course made them very careful and attentive to Christological formulation, putting our sloppy and unreflective talk of divine suffering to shame. It forced them to be very precise. One could even say that the common Christian commitment to impassibility was the elephant in the room motivating the development of Christological dogma (from Irenaeus' battle with the Gnostics in the 2nd century through Nicaea and Chalcedon to the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th century). But for all its contribution to Christian faith, this precision took to its toll: at the crucial point (the death of Jesus), the tradition consistently put some distance between God and Christ.
Because I believe that Jesus is God and that Jesus suffered and died, I cannot accept impassibility in the strongest sense. However, the attribution of impassibility to God is not without its grain of truth that must be retained. As shown above, divine impassibility bears witness to the fact that God is first and foremost the agent of his experiences. In other words, God is free. God freely engages in all his actions and passions. God initiates his history with his people. God is not drawn into relationship with creation as an outside force; rather, God creates the world in order to draw it into relationship with him. Now the history of this particular relationship includes God's passion: he undergoes suffering in the incarnation. But this passion is initiated by God's action. So we might even regard God's passion as a sort of action -- not out of an anxiety about attributing passion to the divine being, but out of a humble awe for God's free grace. God freely (without compulsion) engages in these actions and passions.
All this talk of freedom suggests that an alternative affirmation that retains the substance of impassibility while leaving behind its drawbacks is divine freedom. God is free. I am still open to the possibility of attributing impassibility to God, provided it is properly defined in accordance with the history of God's passion. But I am inclined to spend more of my energy proclaiming the freedom of God.
Is my initial explanation of divine impassibility clear?
Do you agree with the criticism as I have outlined it?
Is my reformulation of impassibility in terms of divine freedom clear? Good? True?
At what point do you just drop a term if it requires such considerable redefinition?