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

By Paul L. Gavrilyuk | Go to book overview

4: Patripassian Controversy Resolved: The Son, not God the Father, Suffered in the Incarnation

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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