We’re talking about existential arguments for/against divine (im)passibility (impassibility as we’ve defended it here, which is simply the claim that God’s essential triune beatitude and happiness are undiminished by the world). How does belief in divine (im)passibility shape one’s experience?
To begin to get at exploring the possible answers, I first want to suggest two perspectives from which to assess the answers. The first has to do with making sense of how we understand divine motivation (and by implication our own). The second has to do with how our belief on this question actually informs and facilitates human transformation. I’ll focus on passibility and work from there.
(1) Divine motivation. Passibility here explains how God is motivated to act on our behalf at all. If God doesn’t suffer on account of our sin, pain, and suffering, God would be so indifferent to our state it would either never dawn on him to act on our behalf or, if he were to act, we could not interpret his actions on our behalf as evidence of love.
(2) Integrating belief in divine passibility. Our spiritual healing and personal transformation are brought about through integrating the truth of divine passibility into our subjective experience. By integration I mean intentionally world-constructing within the framework of some truth or other. In this case such integration involves identifying our well-being with God’s diminished beatitude (his suffering essentially). As we contemplate God’s essential suffering on our behalf, we realize that our pain is expanded beyond the limits of our own experience and into God, and this realization brings us encouragement, strength, hope, relief, etc.
I’ve addressed divine motivation previously. (Check out Divine experience of beatitude the summum bonum—part 2 and God as meaning-maker.) In both posts I argue that God’s motivation to pursue our highest good can be understood as a self-motivating fullness that needn’t be prodded into action either by suffering diminishment or by the prospect of an increased aesthetic value. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its own fullness. And we have experiences of our own which demonstrate this to be possible. On the other hand, there are serious problems in supposing that God’s motivation to act on behalf must require his first being emotionally hurt or existentially diminished.
We come, then, to assessing (im)passibility in terms of (2), and I’d like to explore a couple of New Testament passages (Heb 2 and 4) as test cases. Let’s start with Hebrews 4:
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
It is clear here that believers are encouraged and empowered in well-being not through imagining Christ as “high priest” to be “unable to empathize with our weaknesses” but, quite the opposite, through reflecting upon his experiencing their weaknesses and temptations. It might seem that a passibilist could read this passage straightforwardly as saying “we do not have a God who is impassible” and consider the debate closed. But upon closer examination things aren’t so cut and dry.
The first thing to note about Hebrews 4 is that the descriptions in question are spoken of Christ as the Incarnate One. If we take these descriptions of Christ and attribute them without qualification to the divine nature (because Christ is divine), we are bound to say this nature is (essentially speaking) vulnerable to being tempted by evil, something James explicitly denies (Jam 1) when he says there is no shadow of turning in God as the source of all good “who neither tempts nor can be tempted to do evil.” True, in Hebrews 4 the God-Man empathizes with our weaknesses and vulnerability to temptation, but he empathizes with us precisely by actually sharing them as weaknesses and temptations because he, like us, shares an embodied human experience subject to those weaknesses. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
Hebrews 2 is close at hand and assumes the same perspective. Here we see (NIV) that Christ “suffered death” (v. 9), “tasted death” (v. 9), was “made perfect through what he suffered” (v. 10), “shared our humanity” (v. 14) to “free us from our fear of death” (v. 15). He was “made like us, fully human in every way” (v. 17) in order that he might “become a merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17), “make atonement for our sins,” (v. 17), and “help us who are being tempted because he suffered when he was tempted” (v. 18).
Again, note that the claims are made of Christ’s embodied accomplishments which qualify him to be high priest. Note secondly that these experiences—sharing humanity, facing mortality, suffering under the pressure of temptation, dying—are available only in human, embodied natural terms. Even if I had other grounds for believing in the passibility of the divine nature (say, on the basis of Old Testament texts describing God) nothing described here is predicable to God outside his incarnate state, and much of it is impossible to predicate of God in his divine nature. Note thirdly in v. 17 that “he was made like us…so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest.” The assumption here is that these sufferings are new to God. That is, while only God can determine the purpose and meaning of human being, only a man can disclose and achieve that purpose and meaning. God has to be made like us so that he might become high priest. The author’s view in Hebrews 2 here is that Incarnation is what makes it possible for God to have an experience that qualifies him as man to disclose, achieve, represent and make available a way of being human that embraces all human beings. Only God can be the perfect man.
Hebrews 2 and 4 are crucial passages if we’re interested in exploring existential arguments, because these passages ground the practical-existential benefits of salvation in the belief that Christ’s sufferings and temptations are a source of healing and empowerment to us. So how’s that empowerment work?
- How is one encouraged by the God-Man’s having faced mortality and having tasted death if one also believes God is immortal and cannot be threatened with death (as Paul confesses explicitly in 1Tim 1.17)?
- How is one encouraged by the God-Man’s having suffered temptation if one also believes God cannot be tempted by evil (as James confesses)?
Both experiences (being mortal and being immortal, as well as suffering temptation and being invulnerable to temptation) are had by God; so no impassibilist suggests that the experiences essential to human being are not at all predicable to God. On the contrary, this human nature is God’s human nature. So its experiences are God’s. But we cannot fail to say also that God the Son has that experience essential to divine being (including ‘immortality’ and ‘invulnerability to suffering temptation’, affirmed by Paul and James respectively). Something along the lines of Chalcedon is necessary to hold these experiences together ‘personally’ while recognizing their incompatibility ‘naturally’.
But if I imagine the Son sharing my weaknesses and temptations while also not suffering those weaknesses and temptations, have I not so compromised the integrity of Christ as a single subject as to empty his human experience of any encouragement, confidence, and grace it might provide? I’ve suggested (here and here) why no such compromise follows, but I’ll try to return to this in Part 4’s wrap-up.
As we can see, Hebrews 2 and 4 cannot be understood as attributing suffering, morality, and vulnerability to temptation to the divine nature per se. I’ve also described (here, here, and here) the inner process of deriving the confidence and grace Christ’s experience provides within this Chalcedonian framework. Remember also that all the biblical passages in which we observe apatheia at work, interestingly, are passages that focus on the practical-existential benefits of the gospel’s power to heal and transform human being.
For now let me suggest three things that I try to keep in mind as I move into Part 3. First, whatever existential benefits (confidence in prayer, freedom from fear of death, provision of grace) Hebrews 2 and 4 offer, they:
(a) do not explicitly attribute suffering to the divine nature,
(b) assume God is only able to have these experiences via the Incarnate state, and
(c) cannot compete with the existential benefit which is ours through contemplation of other unalterable truths about God, i.e., his invulnerability to suffering temptation (Jam 1) and his immortality (1Tim 1.17; 6.16).
Make no mistake about James. He means to encourage and inform faith in the most practical-existential of ways by reminding us of how God’s relationship to the evil which tempts us is unlike our relationship to evil.
Hope, strength, and grace can be and are mediated to us through contemplation of the ways God shares our human experience (Heb 2 and 4), yes. But they can be and are also mediated to us through a contemplation of the ways God is not like us (Jam 1; 1Tim 1) and of the ways God is what we presently are not but shall be (Rom 8.18). I’m sure it was a great comfort to Peter that Jesus was not vulnerable to drowning the night the disciples were caught in a storm.
So to one group of suffering and tempted believers the author of Hebrews says, “Take heart! Christ suffered our weaknesses and temptations. The God-Man knows what you’re going through,” while to another family of suffering and tempted believers James says, “Take heart! And remember that God doesn’t tempt anyone, nor can he be tempted by evil as we are.” Both realities (the essential impeccability and immortality of divine being and Jesus’ embodied sufferings and temptations as God’s own) describe the experiences of a single subject (the Son), and both realities comfort upon contemplation in their respective modes of being.
Secondly, it does not follow (in the case of Christ, both fully human and fully divine) that if the ‘person’ suffers both ‘natures’ suffer since both ‘natures’ are united in the one ‘person’. While it’s true that no ‘person’ suffers apart from ‘nature’, and no ‘nature’ suffers apart from its ‘person’, it doesn’t follow that a person with two natures cannot have experiences unique to a single of his natures. Nor does it follow that experiences unique to a single of his natures are not genuinely and fully had by him. As we think through Hebrews 2 and 4, it seems to me we have to keep this in mind. The communicatio idiomatum (communication of divine and human properties in Christ) are the communication or attribution of the experiences definitive of both natures to one and the same ‘person’, not the attribution of each nature’s essential properties to the other ‘nature’.
Perhaps an analogy will help. Let us say I am set on a coast to coast journey from New York City to Los Angeles. And let us say the conditions under which I am to make this journey limit me in time and resources. Suppose I have 5 days to get to LA, am given an ATM card and limited to $100 for expenses, and I have no means of transportation. I have to hitch-hike, get a bus here and there, and do whatever else I can to get myself to LA. Let’s assume that everybody who tries to make the trip under these conditions fails. But eventually one guy succeeds. We later find out, however, that he’s a millionaire and his card actually had unlimited funds on it. You object, “Wait a second. No fair! I was truly limited to $100 while he had a million dollars.” Now, the analogy doesn’t cover every imaginable point of comparison. But it does get at exposing the irrelevance of the complaint that unless the millionaire is reduced without remainder to the constraints of my conditions, I can’t be encouraged or motivated by his example, and similarly the complaint that unless God is reduced without remainder to precisely the conditions under which I suffer as a human being, I can’t be helped by the Incarnation. The millionaire actually completed the trip on less than $100. That’s the relevant point. He succeeded at doing what we fail to do with what we are given to accomplish it.
Lastly, I want to suggest that any attempt to make practical-existential arguments in the debate over (im)passibilism begin by stating the telos/end of human being in existential terms and then seek to demonstrate in experiential terms how one’s view succeeds at informing human transformation along those lines. That’s the relevant point in these arguments. I’ll try to explore this in Part 3.