The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought

The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought

The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought

The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought

Synopsis

The Suffering of the Impassible God provides a major reconsideration of the notion of divine impassibility in patristic thought. The question whether, in what sense, and under what circumstances suffering may be ascribed to God runs as a golden thread through such major controversies asDocetism, Patripassianism, Arianism, and Nestorianism. It is commonly claimed that in these debates patristic theology fell prey to the assumption of Hellenistic philosophy about the impassibility of God and departed from the allegedly biblical view, according to which God is passible. As a result,patristic theology is presented as claiming that only the human nature of Christ suffered, while the divine nature remained unaffected. Paul L. Gavrilyuk argues that this standard view misrepresents the tradition. In contrast, he construes the development of patristic thought as a series of dialectical turning points taken to safeguard the paradox of God's voluntary suffering in the flesh. For the Fathers the attribute of divineimpassibility functioned in a restricted sense as an apophatic qualifier of all divine emotions and as an indicator of God's full and undiminished divinity. The Fathers at the same time admitted qualified divine passibility of the Son of God within the framework of the Incarnation. Gavrilyuk shows that the Docetic, Arian, and Nestorian alternatives represent different attempts at dissolving the paradox of the Incarnation. These three alternatives are alike in that they start with the presupposition of God's unrestricted impassibility: the Docetic view proposes to give upthe reality of Christ's human experiences; the Arian position sacrifices Christ's undiminished divinity; while the Nestorian alternative isolates the experiences and sufferings of Christ's humanity from his Godhead. In contrast to these alternatives, the mind of the Church succeeded in keeping God'stranscendence and undiminished divinity in tension with God's intimate involvement in human suffering. It is precisely because God's divinity and transcendence are never lost in suffering that the Incarnation becomes a genuine act of divine compassion, capable of transforming and healing the humancondition.

Excerpt

The struggle with Docetism, surveyed in broad lines in the previous chapter, represents the first stage in the development of the church's understanding of divine (im)passibility. the central theological intention behind the Docetic reinterpretations of the gospels was to remove a divine saviour from all real involvement with the realm of matter and from participation in fully human life. For the Docetists such a reinterpretation was in part an obvious implication of divine impassibility. For the early Fathers, in contrast, divine impassibility had a quite different function. Safeguarding God's pre-eminence over everything in the created order, impassibility did not rule out God's direct intervention in the world. the early Fathers insisted that while divine impassibility functions as an apophatic qualifier of all divine emotions, it does not preclude the description of God in terms of emotionally coloured characteristics.

It was also the core affirmation of the early rules of faith and the basic intention of Christian worship to celebrate the crucified and risen Lord as divine. the debate with Docetism focused on the reality of Christ's human flesh and human experiences. the precise nature of Christ's divine status was left unclear. the question remained: what exactly was Christ's relationship to the one whom he called his heavenly Father? More specifically, how was God the Father involved in the birth, earthly ministry, suffering, and death of Christ?

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