Miscellanies on God’s ‘Impassibility’. In response to Wesley Hill’s ‘First Things’ Article


Wesley Hill, professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry, just wrote an article for First Things entitled: The New “New Orthodoxy”: Only the Impassible God Can Help. In this article Hill provides a brief sketch, and then a kind of corrective (I think that’s what he is attempting) for what it appears he thinks has become a kind of waywardness within modern theology; that is, what could be called a ‘death of God’ type of theology, the type maybe typified by someone like Jürgen Moltmann and his post-Holocaust theologizing around the theme of God crucified. Hill writes:

By the time Goetz wrote, that theme—of God hanging there on the gallows with the innocent sufferer, in the timeless image Elie Wiesel offered in his book Night—had come to dominate many forms of Protestant theology. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had written from a Nazi prison that “only the suffering God can help.” Jürgen Moltmann, in the wake of the revelation of the full extent of the Holocaust, had authored a book called The Crucified God. And figures as diverse as the process theologian Alfred North Whitehead, who characterized God as “the fellow-sufferer who understands,” and the Japanese Lutheran Kazoh Kitamori, who spoke of “the pain of God,” had ushered in a way of thinking about divine majesty and power as God’s ability and will to share in human misery. Across the spectrum, from both pulpits and pews, the “new orthodoxy” came to reign: God suffers in God’s own nature. (source)

It seems that Hill believes that this has been a deleterious turn for Christian theology, and thus through his article he seems to be calling for people to turn back–to repent as it were–to the old paths; to the paths provided by many of the Patristic theologians, a turn that leads us back to a sense of God’s transcendence, of his otherness, his unlikeness from us, to an apophatic kind of labyrinth vis-à-vis God that has become somewhat of a rage among a sub-group of youngish (and some olderish) [so perceived] conservative minded theological types. This seems to be the category that Hill falls into,

And what do we find with that newly awakened textual sensitivity? Just this: that, far from being unconcerned about the human plight, the Church Fathers were motivated by their theology of salvation in upholding doctrines of divine immutability and impassibility (God’s transcendence of human suffering and passions). Their doctrines of salvation prompted their—allegedly aloof and insensitive—understandings of God.

“God’s Logos is by nature immortal and incorruptible and Life and Life-giver,” wrote Cyril. Only so is God able, through sharing our human flesh in the Incarnation, to impart eternal life to that flesh, rather than succumbing to our death and being extinguished by it. When it comes to rescuing us from death, and not merely enduring death along with us, only the impassible God can help. (source)

One thing that wasn’t clear in Hill’s essay though was how he actually defines impassibility in regard to God. He seemed to trade on a certain understanding of what that entails; mostly for Hill that seemed to be an idea of God’s transcendence, his otherness from humanity in his inner-being. But Hill didn’t tease out exactly what he meant; he seemed to be suggesting that the Church Fathers for example endorsed a kind of Greek metaphysic in regard to God, insofar as that metaphysic supplied a theological grammar for them to articulate and worship God through. But left unqualified, as Hill left it, it does seem as if he gives us some Patristic authors and thinkers who indeed fell back into the Greek metaphysical temptation of thinking God in terms of analytical philosophical categories rather than the lively ones that the so called ‘New Orthodox’ ones have been attempting to construct in regard to God and his passions (so Moltmann et al) – the categories that Hill is apparently attempting to undercut as viable. But as I left Hill’s article all it really felt like is that he had simply swung the pendulum back from one side to the other, without attempting to grab any fruit from the side that he opposes.

Myk Habets, my friend, has written a little on how the Church Fathers used the Greek metaphysics (in what we might say non-correlationist ways), and in particular the language of impassibility, to help unpack the mysterious ways of God made manifest in the flesh (en sarkos). But I think Habets closes the door where Hill left it open, and so I offer this brief sketch from Myk in response to Hill’s article in an attempt to foreclose on the language of ‘impassibility’ in a way that I think it ought to be. Habets writes:

… When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures. However, in Patristic theology immutability and impassibility, as applied to God, were not associated with these philosophical ideas but were actually a challenge to it. It is true that God is not moved by, and is not changed by, anything outside himself, and that he is not affected by anything or does not suffer from anything beyond himself. But this simply affirms the biblical fact that God is transcendent and the one who created ex nihilo. What the Fathers did not mean is that God does not move himself and is incapable of imparting motion to what he has made. It does not mean that God is devoid of passion, of love, mercy and wrath, and that he is impassibly and immutably related to our world of space and time in such a way that it is thrown back upon itself as a closed continuum of cause and effect.

I grant that patristic theology was tempted constantly by the thrust of Greek thought to change the concepts of impassibility and immutability in this direction, but it remained entrenched within the orbit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the living God who moves himself, who through his free love created the universe, imparting to its dynamic order, and who through the outgoing of his love moves outside of himself in the incarnation. (source)

The first couple of clauses from Habets (i.e. “When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures….”) signals a qualification that Hill glosses over, and thus then weakens (in my view) his article. Hill skips from the Patristics to the Bible in his genealogy of ‘impassibility’, but he fails to sketch how Medieval theology appropriated and thus impacted theological receptions of the language of impassibility. My guess is that Hill would affirm Myk’s sketch on how the Patristics retexted the grammar of impassibility, but I am not altogether sure he sees the distinction between the Patristics and the Medievals (and I would want to suggest that it is the Medieval reception and recasting of ‘impassibility’ that gets appropriated in Christian Dogmatic and constructive theology, more than the Patristic offering); at least not in the way he leaves things open in his article.

So my question to Hill is, if he sees this distinction between Patristic and Medieval offerings of God’s impassibility (as a doctrine)? Does Wesley Hill believe that this distinction needs to be recognized (between a Patristic and Medieval conception of ‘impassibility’), and how to not do so (make some sort of critical distinction) ends up leaving us in an equivocal jumble of things that leaves discussion about God’s impassibility (without this kind of discussion) open for critique in this way?



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