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Impassibility in the Church Fathers: Why the Great Tradition affirmed impassibility

The new issue of Credo Magazine focuses on The Impassibility of God. The following is an excerpt from Gerald Bray’s feature article, Impassibility in the Church Fathers: Why the Great Tradition affirmed impassibility. Gerald Bray (D. Litt., University of Paris-Sorbonne) is Research Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. Bray is a minister in the Church of England and the author of many books including The Doctrine of God (in the Contours of Christian Theology series of which he is the general editor).

The Old Testament says nothing about divine impassibility, although God is revealed as being completely different from his creation. When the problem of suffering is addressed, as it is in the book of Job for example, the emphasis is on human experience, not on God. When Job confronts his Creator, the reply is not: “I know how you feel” but: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). God’s response to Job reinforces his incomprehensibility and gives no indication that he shares the same trials as his creatures.

In the New Testament, there are a few references to God being immortal and invisible (1 Tim. 1:17), but nothing is said directly about whether he is impassible. On the other hand, the ancients often linked suffering to mortality, as in the Nicene Creed, where Jesus “suffered and was buried,” the implication being that his suffering led to death. If that assumption is correct, perhaps the affirmation that God is immortal includes impassibility, even if that is not explicitly stated.

The silence or ambiguity of the Scriptures on this subject is not paralleled in ancient Greek literature, where the adjective apathēs (“impassible”) occurs in pre-Christian writings along with the abstract noun apatheia (“impassibility”). In pagan thinking it had two primary meanings. The first was “freedom from physical pain” of the kind inflicted by wounds in battle or by disease. The second was “freedom from emotion” which included indifference to the feelings of others.

These words were usually used to refer to human beings, who were either spared suffering or who were insensitive to it. The Stoic philosophers turned this into a virtue and advocated practicing self-control in the presence of misfortune. The basic belief was that suffering was inflicted from outside the individual who experienced it and was a sign of weakness and susceptibility to control by an alien force. Even today, the Stoics are remembered for this teaching and the word “stoical” describes someone who remains calm (and apparently indifferent) when suffering strikes.

What is not clear fromancient sources is whether impassibility was an attribute of the pagan gods. To the extent that the gods were pictured as living in Olympian bliss, far removed from the cares of this world, they were free from suffering, but it is hard to say whether this freedom was circumstantial or inherent in their divine natures. Mt Olympus might be a place of refuge and human beings could aspire to enter the equally privileged Elysian Fields after their death, but this was an escape from earthly reality rather than a sign of protection against it. The ancient myths often spoke of divine conflicts that involved forms of suffering, and many pagan gods were human beings who were deified after their (sometimes gory) deaths. True impassibility would have meant that the gods could walk among men without being exposed to human suffering, but there is little or no sign of that.

Christianity stood out against all forms of paganism by proclaiming that God had come to earth, shared in human suffering and died on a cross for our salvation. Divine suffering, far from being an obscure subject, was central to the message of the gospel. Both Jews and pagans attacked Christians for that because they were proclaiming something that seemed to them to be unworthy of God. Christians answered this charge by saying that God was impassible in his being (or nature) but that the second Person of the Trinity had become a man specifically so that he could suffer and die for us. That was possible in an assumed human nature but not in his primordial divinity. It is in that context, and not as some extension of Stoicism, that the Christian doctrine of divine impassibility must be understood.

Read Gerald Bray’s entire article in the new issue of Credo Magazine: The Impassibility of God.

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