Saturday, December 05, 2020

Still Asking the Question--Is God Impassible? (John 1:14)

 Regarding the Incarnation doctrine, systematic theologian Owen Thomas writes:

"Now Middle Platonist philosophy involved a doctrine of God as impassible, completely transcendent and immutable. Thus on these terms it is extremely difficult to understand how God and humanity could be united in one person. But the fundamental thing we know from Christ is that God can be perfectly united with humanity. This is where we begin in speaking about God and humanity" (Thomas, Introduction to Theology, 150).

The doctrine of divine Impassibility (APAQEIA) was not only professed and believed by Neoplatonist philosophers: the early Church Fathers also uniformly affirmed God's impassible will and immutable nature. In the eyes of these Fathers, with the exception of the later Origen, God cannot suffer and he is completely immune to change. If what the Fathers posited were true, though, how could God and humanity ever be perfectly united in one hypostasis? How could a completely impassible God (actus purus) "become" flesh? It seems that He could not.

One Catholic gentleman tried addressing my question from the Latin perspective--but I felt that he did not reply to the primary issue raised by John 1:14. How could a God with no potential become anything whatsoever? In this regard, I find Owen Thomas' answer above somewhat interesting. His solution to the conundrum appears to be: "We cannot explain what happened in the Incarnation adequately, so we can only believe it." Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer urged Trinitarians of his time: one should not try to prove that the Incarnation is true; to the contrary, one should only believe in the Incarnation. Similarly, a professor from the Lutheran seminary in Minnesota told me that the Incarnation "does not make sense." This position implies that the doctrine cannot be plumbed by logic, but must simply be believed and appropriated by faith, which is what Kierkegaard evidently professes.


Roman said...

Was Origen the first of the Fathers to not buy into impassability? I know immutability was basically non-negotiable for most, but I wonder how much consensus was around impassability, I'm not saying I think there wasn't one, I'm just wondering.

Personally, I think impassability isn't just a problem for the trinitarian doctrine of incarnation, but it might even be for a coherant view of creation and God as Love, I know this is not a mainstream view I'm presenting (which doesn't bother me, as a JW, almost all my views are non mainstream).

But I think if creation is really creation, it should be creation of other agents with which God has a loving relationship with, if God creates (in a classical model, or a more calvinist model) a full narrative from the beginning to fall, to salvation, reconciliation, and finally eschaton, with him knowing, and thus creating and willing, every instant within that, and being completely impassible because nothing can effect his relationship with that full narrative, then I think an argument could be made that this is not yet fully creation, but something more like emanation, an extension of God's own being with no autonomous agency. I have been persuaded by philosophers like Badiou and Zizek that for love to really be love, it requires a vulnurability, and a decentering, I think that has to apply to God, I think when God creates agents, he does so loving them, and desiring that love to be reciprocated, but vulnurable to the possibility that they may not.

It's not fully worked out here, but I may be on to something :), or not.

Edgar Foster said...

Notice that the later Origen seems to change his mind about impassibility, but he appears to have accepted the idea in his early works. Jaroslav Pelikan argues that impassibility was a pretty standard belief among the early fathers although Tatian the Assyrian probably did not adhere to apatheia. See the first volume of Pelikan's "The Christian Tradition." I believe Joseph Hallman writes extensively about this issue too.

Brian Hebblethwaite would agree with you that impassibility or strong immutability clash with creation. I've blogged about his view before. Richard Swinburne also might find problems with immutability, and most importantly, the biblical God seems to be anything but impassible.

I'm more on the side of God desiring love to be reciprocated, but it's not clear to me, how it all works. Furthermore, there are layers of metaphysical concepts that constitute the foundation of divine impassibility and notions of strong immutability. In other words, Platonic and Aristotelian postulations about God prop up the patristic belief in divine apatheia.

Roman said...

Given your knowledge of Tertullian do you think he held to impassability? I know Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and probably Ireneaus did, but given Tertullian's less platonic God (I don't really know how to say it, but I think you know what I mean), I wonder how he viewed the issue.

I absolutely agree with the biblical data on impassability, and although I am very much open to metaphorical readings, and in fact, inclined to think that one should presume analogical language, many passages that challenge impassibility cannot make sense without the passability, meaning if one takes away God's reciprocal relationship the logic of the passage is gone.

I think one can propose Immutability with the exception of Cambridge changes (which I think would have to be the case for God's relationship to creation), but still hold immutability in the sense that God immediately knows every possibility and his response to every possibility, only what response is activated depends on what agents do in creation. Also with the exception of Creation, I cannot see how creation ex-nihilo as opposed to emenation can happen without some kind of mutability, i.e. some potentiality that is actualized (we can even have time come into being, but there still needs to be a willing actualizing a possibility in my book, I know I'm kind of assuming a voluntarist notion of freedom here, which Classical theists will oppose, but I think one must to that to affirm creation and not emenation).

About the metaphysical concepts ... I don't have this worked out, not even close, but I wonder if one could bring in Hegelian dialectical metaphysics to help, i.e. being is dialectically defined by it's antithesis, and develops dialectically, I believe Pannenberg used a Hegelian framework, and that led him to say that God truely becomes God at the eschaton. I have also thought that perhaps God's revelation of the meaning of his name in Exodus 3:14 (not the LXX version, the Hebrew version), I will become that which I will become, and even his own name "he causes to become," could be understood through a Hegelian framework; God defines himself in interaction with his creation, and through his people, God "becomes" who he is for his people, to become all in all, which is what he was from the beginning, and if we think of God in himself, then we can just go back to apophatism, perhaps a little Pseudo-Dionysius (God is beyond, and prior to anything we can know), but then again, we can't talk about anything purely in itself.

Edgar Foster said...

For Tertullian's views on the impassibility doctrine, see


The views of Tertullian and Novatian respecting God's emotions are similar.

I agree with you about creation being the actualization of potential in some way, but Aquinas and Anselm insist that God creates ex nihilo without God personally actualizing any potential. His decrees are timeless (they contend), but his effects are temporal. Therefore, God's does not actualize any potential when he creates.

Years ago, I was deeply into Hegel. I still find some of his concepts useful, but there are disadvantages too. You're right that Pannenberg bought into Hegelian dialectics. See his Systematic Theology or his work on God being revealed in history to se evidence of these leanings.

Roman said...

Interesting, yeah, it seems to me that Novatian and Tertullian didn't hold to strict impassability, but just that God's emotions do not deviate from his perfection, or him from his perfection. I can see that one can make the move from there to complete impassability if one says God creates creation from beginning to end, knowing everything that happens eternally, but if the world is a world of possibilities that non-God agents actualize, I think one ought to deny impassability.

Interestingly I know some Barthian theologians recently have denied impassability for Christological reasons.

That's one of the points where I depart from the Anselm and Aquinas, there are others too.

I agree that there are disadvantages to Hegel, for one historical optimism is both false, and contrary to the biblical narrative, what I like Hegel for is more his ontological methodolocy, you don't start with identity/substance, but you start with relation.

Edgar Foster said...

Yes, Tertullian and Novatian both accept that God has emotions, but they argue that his emotions are not like ours--at least, not exactly like ours. Yet, if I remember correctly, both writers do use terms that indicate God is immutable and potentially impassible. But theyir theology was prior to Nicaea and it was developing.

I agree with you on the impassibility question, but if somone is a Thomist or classical theist, he or she will have to thoroughly rework his/her theology and the presuppositions that underlie it.

Regarding Hegel, his dialactical framework is also problematic in several ways, but I've also tried to wrap my head around relational ontology. I've read books about it, and heard various arguments for relational ontology, but quite frankly, I need to study it more and I tend to be wary of most metaphysical postulations, even substance ontology.

Roman said...

For Hegel, the insight I really appreciate is the idea that determination is also negation, and that no substance can be determined outside of that which it negates and that which it relates to in the world. Pure being is indeterminate, so is nothingness, but becoming is determinate in relation to what it is not/it is.

When it comes to theology, I think this has implications for theology proper and the relationship between God and creation. I find it interesting that God reveals himself in his name, and his explanation to Moses, in terms of his relationship to creation and his people, and specifically his becoming ... whereas the LXX translated Exodus 3:14 away from a dynamic relational implication to a more static hellenistic ontological implication, but I'm just spitballing here :).

Edgar Foster said...

Your comments about Hegel take me back to when I used to read his works with regularity. He's a difficult thinker to read, but he can be interesting and his writings had so much influence on German idealism that followed him, and he influenced Marx and German theology. I also like his discussions about God's existence and the ontological argument.

Most comments I've read about Exodus 3:14 LXX do attribute the rendering to the Hellenistic context in which it was produced although I have not checked out the latest research on the issue. I've been studying Exodus and Leviticus a little deeper as we do the weekly Bible reading, but I just haven't checked to see why 3:14 LXX is so different.

Also regarding Hegel, I don't know if you've read Isaak Dorner's "Divine Immutability: A Critical Reconsideration," but I liked that work too.

Roman said...

Yeah he is, the Hegel I have read has been after reading secondary material on him. I feel like his influence on Marx was negative to be honest ... Marx was a great political economist, and I think his analysis of Capitalism holds up to his day, Marx's almost eschatological optimism and historical determinism (along with his reflesive atheism, and his embrace of enlightenment liberalism) are areas where I think he was wrong. Of course Hegel is kind of like Marx in that he can be very useful, but can also go very wrong, in theology I think the process theology movement is one example of how (in my opinion) Hegel can make things go wrong (once you deny cration ex-nihilo I think the game is up)

I have had so little time as of late (we've been moving, and I have had a lot more responsibilities on my plate recently), I haven't had all that much time to read more, but I hope I get a chance to soon, hopefully next year, I've read a few books recommended on this blog and I've never been dissapointed.

As for the Exodus 3:14, I highly recommend YHWH at Patmos by Sean McDonough, also our brother Pavlos does a lot of work in that area One thing that YHWH at Patmos reminded me of, and is something that biblical scholars need to me reminded of every now and then, is that it wasn't just the Greeks that were capable of philosophical sophistication, even though the Hebrew tradition didn't include the same categories, doesn't mean that they were not capable of careful and sophisticaed metaphysical conceps. I seem to remember that McDonough considers the LXX translation to be an honest attempt at interpretining the divine name from the Hebrew bible in Hellenistic categories and not a kind of reformulation.

Edgar Foster said...

As you know, I respect you/your views and we're close on about everything and it might surprise people to hear me say there's some redemptive value in Marx. However, I'm no Marxist and quite critical of him in other ways. But I agree that he made some excellent criticisms of capitalism. However, I wonder if he overlooked the strengths of capitalism, and he could not have known how capitalism would develop in our time. Two differences between Mark and Hegel is that Hegel is a dialectical idealist and a panentheist: one weakness I'd point out in Hegel is his improper elevation of the German state and absolute denigration of Africa.

I'm with you on the lack of time. If I didn't work at home, I would hardly be posting now. Even then, time is tight for me.

I have read McDonough and Pavlos, both worthy sources, but thanks for reminding me. I'll go back and take a look.

Roman said...

I appreciate you saying that, as you know I highly respect your learning and views, and I am grateful that you engage with my thoughts (even my not-always-worked-out thoughts that I post on your blog).

I largely agree with your critiques of Marx, I also think there are other critiques of Capitalism such as John Ruskin's "unto this last"; I feel Marx's materialism let him down, he basically agreed with the fundamental idea that production and consumption is just good, the more the better, he also basically accepted the fundamental axioms of classical liberalism/economics, which are false (there is no homo-economicus, and the Marxist version of that is the idea that the economic is the base and everything else is superstrcuture). John Ruskin's quote that "the only wealth is life" which includes his distinction between illth and wealth (the former being deterimental to life, such as cigarettes and poronography, the latter being good for life, such as food and music) and his insitence that human beings have all kinds of desires for virtue, honor, recognition, and so on, that cannot be reduced to the desire for commodities.

The best critique of "political economy" however is in the bible, Exodus 22:26-27; Deuteronomy 24:12-13; Leviticus 25:35-37, i.e. the moral one, the concern about human well being trumps any economic logic.

Anyway, I'm going off topic, my main interest in Hegel lately, has been in my thinking about theology proper, and my attraction to various aspects of classical theism (especially the classical demonstrations), while at the same time recognizing that it cannot account for the biblical revelation, etc etc, and trying to find tools and resources that might help in that regard.

Edgar Foster said...

Just to let you know a little about my background in some of these areas: I just took the required classes for economics and western civilization in college, but later, I started teaching some classes that involved analyzing Marxist thought and reading some of his works. My latest concern about economics in the ancient world is a result of conversations I've had with Duncan. The literature is so vast that I'm limiting my focus to the 1st century CE (circa). In any event, we know that all economic systems have their limitations, including capitalism. Some features of capitalism just cannot be squared with biblical statements concerning the use of money and what should be put first in life. So I agree that the Bible provides the best critique of "political economy." I feel that the Bible always encourages us to be balanced in most things and that includes our view of money.

On the subject of homo-economicus, I would recommend Leslie Stevenson's 13 theories of human nature, which has a chapter on Marx and Josef Seifert's "Back to Things in Themselves," which contains some interesting thoughts on Marx and Immanuel Kant. Seifert's approach is termed phenomenological realism.


I'm not sure if you've ever read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, but that might be helpful too.

Roman said...

The most helpful for me with regards to the first century economy have been Sean Freyne (his collected Essays on Galilee) David Finskey (he actually reviewed my first book, and he edits a volume on the economy of Galilee, where he balances the social-science vrs archeology debate), Richard Horsley, and Douglas Oakmann (his book Jesus and the peasants was quite helpful for me).

One thing I've learned, especially from economic anthropology and the whole substantialist vrs formalist debate, is that there is a lot of economic activity going on in the ancient pre-capitalist world that is not "economic" in the modern sense, in terms of the first century: patronage, kinship, the koinonia of the early congregation, economies around cultic practices and so on. There are shifts between modalities, and multiple modalities going on.

This is why you can have archeologists dig up evidence of industrial activity and lots of trade, and luxury items; yet the textual evidence shows discontent about the economic situation; we might read the archeological data as demonstrating prosperity, but that might be misleading if we ignore the other modalities (kinship, patronage, etc etc).

Even though my work (my two books) has been labeled "materialist" (I think in the Marxist sense), I am very skeptical as to how much one can apply Marxian categories to the ancient world beyond broad insights on class and class conflict, Marx works well in examining Capitalism, but I prefer social and economic anthropology as frameworks for working out historical data from the ancient world (first century), since it allows for a broader understanding of economics beyond categories of production, markets, money, etc etc, and more into the bare inter-personal relationships that underlay any economic system, and it takes into account cultural (but just as important) aspects such as honor, shame, social belonging, etc etc.

Come to think of it ... the best critique of Political economy, or any economic or political system or ideology is 1 John 5:19 :P.

I haven't read the whole Phenomenology, I've done the preface, and then bits and pieces here and there depending on what secondary material I'm looking at (as well as "the science of Logic" and his "lectures on the philosophy of religion," again ... fragments).

Thanks for the Josef Seifert tip this is exactly the type of thing I'm looking for :).

Edgar Foster said...

Freyne and the other sources you mentioned are helpful, thanks. It is also interesting what you say about kinship, patronage and koinonia. In history some years ago, one of my instructors taught us about the works of Michael Ivanovitch Rostovtzeff. I'm now reviewing his works again and learning about the opposing history school of Moses Finley. I don't remember if you reference these writers in your works, but I'm sure you're the right person to ask. :)

I get what you're saying about the advantages of anthropology in relation to economics for studying the ancient world. To be honest, I'm not going to get "out of my lane," and try to dive fully into economics or anthropology: I'm primarily trying to do theology/history and other abstract endeavors, but I believe a multidisciplinary approach helps us to get a better overall view of the past. One writer said that history is a "retelling" and there is a difference between narrating history and the res gestae themselves. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere.

Thanks for providing some valuable input.