Why I no longer believe in a passible God: My journey out of social trinitarianism to Nicene orthodoxy
The new issue of Credo Magazine focuses on The Impassibility of God. The following is an excerpt from Craig Carter’s feature article, Why I no longer believe in a passible God: My journey out of social trinitarianism to Nicene orthodoxy. Craig Carter (PhD, University of St. Michael’s College) is Professor of Theology at Tyndale University College and Seminary, where he has served since 2000. Prior to his full-time role as professor, he served Tyndale as Vice President and Academic Dean. He has published a number of articles and reviews in various publications and is the author of four books, including the recently published The Faith Once Delivered: An Introduction to the Basics of the Christian Faith and Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis.
From about 1990 to about 2005, I was immersed in the study of Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder. I published a book on Yoder and a follow-up book on social ethics. I was reading people like Colin Gunton, John Zizioulas, Mirosalav Volf and Stanley Grenz, who were promoting the idea of relationality as the essence of God. This relationality is seen as fundamental to the nature of God as Triune in that the three persons are regarded as individual persons with their own wills who cooperate together like a family. So, the relationality within God is expressed in God’s external acts in the creation. Having been convinced of Yoder’s pacifism, I wanted to ground social ethics in the very being of God. So, I envisioned writing a book on the doctrine of God in which I would lay a foundation for a relational understanding of God as the basis for social ethics. Having obtained a contract from InterVarsity, I went off to do research.
Zizioulas and company had argued that the new social Trinitarianism was grounded in the work of the Cappadocian fathers and was preserved better in the eastern tradition than in the western tradition shaped by Augustine. Gunton attacked Augustine as not having done justice to the doctrine of the Trinity. This historical narrative of the Eastern social trinity versus the Western near-Unitarianism was crucial to my whole project because the relationality within God—mirrored in the way God related to the creation—supposedly was the explanation for what Scripture means when it says “God is love.” My idea was to articulate a social ethics of love based on a doctrine of God as love.
What went wrong?
At this point, I began to read the fourth-century fathers and the leading patristic scholars for myself, and that was a jarring and eye-opening experience. Reading the primary sources is dangerous if all you want is to get your preconceptions confirmed so you can get on with your argument. (To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, a young revisionist cannot be too careful about his reading.)
The most important book I read was by Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford, 2004). In this book, Ayres argues that twentieth-century theology not only has departed massively from Nicaea, but that contemporary theology does not even understand the fourth-century issues well enough to understand to what extent it has departed from the tradition. This was the start of a long process of wrestling with the question: “What went wrong?” How could things have gone so far off track so fast in the twentieth century?” Clearly, the Nicene tradition had been preserved intact for a millennium and a half, but now things have unraveled completely. What explains such a development?
Let’s take a look at the Westminster Confession of Faith:
There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; . . . most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him, and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty (Chap. II, Art. 1).
This seventeenth century confession is typical of the Reformation confessions in what it says about the nature of God and not materially different from what the Roman Church teaches about the attributes of God. It is the standard teaching of the entire, classical tradition.
Now, let us notice a few things about this statement. First, it speaks of God as immutable and as “without body, parts or passions.” So, it affirms Divine impassibility. But then, just a few lines later, in the same long sentence, it affirms that this impassible God is loving, forgiving, hating all sin and so on. The impassible God is said to love, have mercy and to hate.
Second, if you read this confession, you find that every single attribute of God mentioned in this paragraph has a Scriptural proof text. For example, immutability is supported by appeal to Malachi 3:6: “For I am the LORD, I change not.” Hatred of sin is supported by Psalm 5:5: “The foolish do not stand in thy sight, thou hatest all workers of iniquity.”
Third, notice that the framers of this confession do not seem to feel any sense of contradiction between God being immutable and God forgiving or between the impassibility of God and God’s hatred of sin. In this they are typical of the entire theological tradition from the early church fathers to the reformers.
But, fourth, note also that the same tension between the same God being immutable and impassible, on the one hand, and also loving and hating, on the other, is found not only in the doctrine of God passed down in the tradition, but also in Scripture itself.
What is fascinating to note about our contemporary context is that the idea of God loving and hating, and saving and judging, is seen by most people today as not just contradictory – but as obviously contradictory. It seems like an unbearable tension that must be relieved by denying either God’s love or God’s impassibility. What was never seen as a contradiction is now seen as an obvious contradiction. We need to ask: “What is going on here? Why the drastic shift?”