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Impassibility in the Church Fathers

Why the Great Tradition affirmed impassibility

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 from ancient 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.

The first Christian theologians

Divine impassibility, which was scarcely mentioned in pre-Christian times, quickly became (and remained) a central tenet of Christian theology. Christians borrowed the term apathēs from pagan contemporaries and used it of the God of the Bible, but the abstract noun apatheia did not occur in Christian writings until the fourth century. The concept first appears in Ignatius of Antioch, writing to his disciple Polycarp sometime around AD 118, and is framed with the incarnation of the Son of God in mind:

Wait expectantly for him [Christ] who is above time: the Eternal, the Invisible, who for our sake became visible; the Intangible, the Unsuffering, who for our sake suffered, who for our sake endured in every way (To Polycarp, 3.2.).

Ignatius’ approach was followed by Christian apologists of the second century, all of whom saw divine impassibility as the logical consequence of God’s nature. A God who is eternal, unchanging and invisible can hardly be subject to external forces that are none of these things, especially given that he created them all. One pagan god might be able to inflict harm on another, but in the biblical vision of the divine that is impossible, because there is only one God. As the Creator and Lord of all that he has made, nothing subject to him can do him any harm.

This logic was adopted by Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215), whose thinking was in some respects closer to Stoicism than that of most of his contemporaries. Clement never doubted that God is free from passions, which like the Stoics, he regarded as forms of weakness and sin (Stromateis;;;; But at the same time, he also understood that God is love and that he sent his Son to suffer and die so that we might be rescued from the weaknesses and sins that cause our suffering. To put it simply, Clement thought that lust is a sin, but that love is not. God’s love is the manifestation of a desire governed by his reason, and therefore it is free of the corruption inherent in passion. When the heretic Praxeas, who apparently believed that the Father suffered along with the Son on the cross, provoked him, Tertullian did not hesitate to affirm divine impassibility. Click To Tweet

Terullian of Carthage (ca. 200) was also close to Stoicism in some ways, but he was more reticent than Clement when talking about divine impassibility. At one point, he avoided the question by saying that God feels everything in his own way, which cannot be compared to human experience or understood by our limited minds. In other words, if God “suffers” we cannot understand how he does so, nor can we relate it to our own suffering (Against Marcion, 2.16.7). But when the heretic Praxeas, who apparently believed that the Father suffered along with the Son on the cross, provoked him, Tertullian did not hesitate to affirm divine impassibility (Against Praxeas 29.6; 30.2). His motive was to protect the uniqueness of the Son’s atoning sacrifice, which the Father validated but did not participate in because of his natural impassibility.

A specific example: God’s wrath

Tertullian’s approach points us to the next and most significant development in ancient Christian theology – the trend towards systematization. It would take several centuries for that to come to maturity, but the beginnings can be seen in Novatian, a Roman presbyter who wrote a treatise on the Trinity around the year AD 250. Building on the insights of those who had gone before him, Novatian wrote:

If we read of God’s wrath and consider certain descriptions of his indignation and learn that hatred is asserted of him, we must not understand them to be asserted of God as they are of human beings…His anger arose out of wisdom, not out of vice. He is angry for our benefit. He is merciful even when he threatens, because it is by these threats that people are called back to the right path (Trinity, 5).

Wrath is a typical passion that leads to loss of self-control in human beings, and its presence in God presented a challenge to Christian theologians. Novatian’s contemporary Origen wrote of it:

God is completely impassible and free from all affections of this kind. It is true that Holy Scripture speaks of his wrath in both the Old Testament and in the Gospels, but we do not take such expressions literally (On First Principles, 2.4.4).

Here we are moving from a general affirmation of God as impassible to a specific example thrown up by the biblical text, which obliges theologians to define what divine impassibility actually means. It should be noted that no one involved in this discussion ever suggested that God is indifferent to human suffering or uninvolved in his creation. On the contrary, the impassibility of God was always presented as something necessary to his saving work. This is stated quite clearly by Lactantius, writing in the early fourth century:

God cannot have any unjust anger, because he cannot be harmed by anyone. However, there is also a righteous anger, which is necessary if wickedness is ever to be corrected. God must have this kind of anger, because he sets an example for us and restrains everyone’s wicked behavior (On the Wrath of God, 17).

The patristic doctrine of impassibility

From these writers we can see what the broad outlines of the patristic doctrine of divine impassibility were. The impassibility of God was always presented as something necessary to his saving work. Click To Tweet First of all, God cannot be subjected to suffering imposed by an external force, which by definition must be inferior to him. Nor does his reaction to human suffering involve a loss of self-control. God never falls into a pattern of thought or behaviour that is unworthy of him but demonstrates “passions” like love and wrath in ways that are carefully planned and rationally executed for our benefit. As far as experiencing human suffering is concerned, God did this in the only way he could – by sending the Son to become a man and take on a nature that was capable of suffering and dying, once again for our benefit. In this way, the Church Fathers balanced the need to recognize the supremacy of God the Creator over his creation, and at the same time accommodate the gospel affirmation that he loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to die for us. By asserting that the impassible God suffered for us in the Son’s assumed human nature, they reconciled the paradox that lies at the heart of the biblical revelation and established a pattern of thinking that has established itself in mainstream Christian thinking ever since.

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