Academic journal article Theological Studies

Impassible Suffering? Divine Passion and Fifth-Century Christology

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Impassible Suffering? Divine Passion and Fifth-Century Christology

Article excerpt

Few periods in the history of Christian thought have received more scholarly attention than the christological debates of the fifth century. In fact, so much interpretive energy has been spent on these controversies that many textbooks report confidently that all relevant questions about the debates have been answered.(1) The controversy, the textbooks imply, was about Jesus and his humanity. The players were the Alexandrians (in the person of Cyril) who diminished this humanity and the Antiochenes who defended it. According to this account, Alexandrian Christology missed the point of the Incarnation by denying the Word a full human nature, while Antiochene christological thought grasped the essentials. Antiochene theologians were the coolheaded exegetes who resisted allegorical readings of the text, refused to allow philosophy to dominate their Christology, and insisted on the historical significance of Jesus as a human being. These Antiochenes, as seen by the textbooks, resemble modern historical critics in their appreciation for history and for the human life of Jesus.(2)

Although some scholarly studies of the christological, debates of the fifth century recognize the inaccuracy of this position(3) the view that Antiochenes were prototypical historians committed to the man Jesus continues to be influential. Many scholars still think that Antiochene theologians worried most about defending the full humanity of the Word incarnate. As a result, contemporary scholarship has not attended to what is, in my view, the more central Antiochene efforts to defend the impassibility of God. The depth of the Antiochene resistance to using language suggestive of divine suffering can easily be missed if we are predisposed to find a controversy about history and humanity.

The impassibility of God was a major theological concern not only to the theologians of the fifth century but also throughout the patristic period. While most patristic authors embraced the idea that God transcended suffering and passion, it would be a mistake to assume that they all did so without hesitation or qualification. One recent study demonstrates that a significant number of patristic authors made surprisingly "theopaschite" remarks, including such stalwart theologians as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen.(4) Likewise, studies of the fourth century have noted that the problem of divine suffering figured prominently in the development of Nicene theology; the anti-Nicene position gelled around resistance to the term "homoousion" precisely because it brought the sufferings of the Son too close to the godhead.(5) After the council, with the Son's divine stature assured, the problem of impassibility became, if anything, more difficult. To what extent did the human sufferings of the Son touch the divine nature? If Jesus Christ is God, as Nicaea declared, and if Jesus Christ suffered, as Scripture asserted, does this not imply that God suffered in some way? It should come as no surprise, then, that God's impassibility emerged as a key issue in the christological debates of the next century.(6)

In order to understand the christological debate, we must recognize that concern about God's impassibility goes to the heart of the controversy itself. I will argue that the conflict between Cyril and the Antiochenes is not a conflict between the historically insensitive and the historically sensitive, or between one who would minimize Jesus' humanity and those who would defend it. Rather, the conflict emerges when the scriptural narrative collides with certain philosophical presuppositions about what God can and cannot be like. In my view, Cyril wanted to say that when philosophy and the biblical narrative conflict, preference ought to be given to the biblical narrative. The Antiochenes tended to do the reverse. In practical terms, this means that Cyril's christological expression appeared dangerously "theopaschite" to his Antiochene antagonists. …

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