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Justo González and the Politics of Impassibility, Part 5

We’ve finally arrived at the fifth and final installment of this series on the ‘politics of impassibility,’ looking deeply into an important book: Mañana [1] by world-renowned, Hispanic theologian and historian Justo González. Be sure to check out the rest of the series

In part four, we drew readers’ attention to the ninth and tenth chapters of Mañana: “On Being Human,” “And the Word Was Made Flesh” respectively. Part four focused on chapter nine and so we’ll now turn our focus to chapter ten.

The Constantinization of the Church Meets the Stubbornness of Jesus

González begins chapter ten with a look back at Nicea. As he did in previous chapters, he commends the bishops for their resistance to the Arian attempt to import the Greek concept of deity (i.e. immutability, impassibility, etc.) into Christian theology by unequivocally affirming the fully eternality and divinity of Jesus Christ. They proclaimed Jesus “very God” and “of the same substance with the Father” to silence any notion that God is ‘above’ the feelings and movement (i.e. passibility) of human life. Messiah Jesus of Nazareth, who was fully human and fully divine suffered, therefore it is true to say God suffered.

Nevertheless, González laments that the council did not go far enough in preventing the “Hellenization—and therefore the Constantinization—of God.” (p.139) By this González means that by utilizing the Greek concept of “essence” (ousia) to describe the divine nature, the bishops inadvertently imported a “basically static” conception of God into the history of the revelation of the dynamic, Living God of the Bible. This, he marks as an important misstep. He traces this error back to the beginnings of Christianity’s adoption of Greek philosophy and metaphysics:

“Although the Council of Nicea, in affirming the eternal divinity of the Word, avoided the extreme ‘Constantinization’ of God, it did not go so far as to state that immutability is not a characteristic properly to be applied to the Christian God. On the contrary, in speaking of the ‘essence’ (ousia) of God, it did imply that God could most properly be spoken of in terms of the Greek notion of substance, which is basically static. Therefore, the process begun two centuries earlier with Justin—and even before that with Philo—and of which the Trinitarian controversies were an expression, was not stopped by the Council.” (p.139)

Recall that González is keen to expose the socio-political ramifications of the Christological debates. So he immediately moves into charting the process by which Christian theology began to be de-Christianized.

“Such Constantinization was a relatively simple matter. After all, ‘No one has ever seen God.’ All that was necessary was to bring about a change in people’s minds as to who God is. In order to do this, the Greek notion of being was readily available. By showing the ‘rationality’ of this notion—on the basis that only the fixed and given is strictly rational—and the anthropomorphism of the images with which Scripture and early Christian theology described the living God, the exponents of the theology of the status quo were able to do away with a great deal of the biblical picture of an active, just, loving, and avenging God. At the same time, allegorical interpretation dehistoricized the Bible, and thus God’s activity in history was transmuted into perennial and supposedly ‘higher’ meanings. The pharaohs of the Roman Empire and of Western Civilization became the ‘new Israel,’ while secretly hoping that God would not upset the applecart of society, as had been done in Egypt of old.” (p.139)

A living God of the Bible, who acts in history, is filled with passion, love, and justice was despised by the Greek. A God who suffers on the Cross was “foolishness” to them, says Paul. (I Cor. 1.18—25) The only proper way of conceptualizing God was as unmoved by this creaturely world of movement, untouched by the passion that affects human beings, unsullied by the evil of matter. So, to the Scriptures had to be stripped of those unsightly anthropomorphisms which depicted God as being moved by compassion, anger, love, and justice. Such notions weren’t “rational” enough!

At the same time this is going on, the Scriptures are also being decoupled from their historical context in the life of the nation of Israel. Then the promises made to a beaten and battered tribe can be appropriated by one of the empires who beat and battered them! Pharaoh is transformed into Moses and Rome is transformed into Israel!

There’s just one small problem with that scheme: Jesus.

Messiah Jesus of Nazareth stubbornly stands in the way of Constaninization. His story—which is also the story of our redemption—clings unrelentingly to the historical context in which it took place: “…Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate…” Jesus’s story refuses to be transformed into an empire-building program.

“…there was one irreducible fact that refused to be Constantinized. This fact was Jesus, the carpenter from Galilee who was called the Christ. Although ‘no one has ever seen God,’ here was one whom people had not only seen but also heard and even touched (I John 1:1). Here was a historical figure whom one must take into account.

Great pains were taken to mitigate the scandal of God’s being revealed in the poor carpenter. His life and sayings were reinterpreted so as to make them more palatable to the rich and powerful. Innumerable legends were built around him, usually seeking to raise him to the level that many understood to be that of the divine—that is, to the level of a superemperor. Art depicted him as either the Almighty Ruler of the universe, sitting on his throne, or as the stolid hero who overcomes the suffering of the cross with superhuman resources and aristocratic poise.

Even after all this was said and done, there still remained the very real and very human figure of the carpenter crucified by the ruling powers, crying in his distress, and yet declared to be ‘very God.’ This was and is the stumbling block that no form of Constantinian theology can overcome.” (p.140)

Gnostic-Docetism: Another Way to Relativize Jesus

Fear is a major impediment to freedom. The children of Israel clung to the idols of Egypt out of fear of what it would mean to follow YHWH into the desert as a free people. Yes, freedom is risky—and following the Living God entails risk—but there is no better risk to take! The Greek conception of God, the essentially static, unmoved, unfeeling god is more secure for those too anxious to follow the untamed God.

“Freedom and dignity are always costly, as the Israelites discovered when they began missing the leeks, onions, and security of Egypt. To follow the living God means that one—an individual or an entire people—must abandon the security of all idols. It means taking the initial risk of believing in this God who is like no other god. And it means taking the further risk of challenging structures of injustice and oppression, trusting that the living God shares in the struggle.” (p.140)

If the Jesus who is rooted in history is not so easily Constantinized, then there is another way to relativize him: Gnostic-Docetism.

There is a false piety to placing God outside our experience. God is “too great” to suffer as we suffer. God is “too holy” to be moved by our suffering. The world of matter is beneath the Supreme Being, such a god cannot even be thought to muck about in it. This way of thinking leads to a Christ who only Seemed to be human, but was really only divine all along.

“Jesus did not really come in the flesh but only appeared to do so. This view of Jesus, called docetism, had great appeal for many Christians, for it seemed to exalt Jesus by declaring him to be a purely heavenly and divine creature.

Likewise, according to the docetists, our suffering and death, as well as all the injustice and evil that exists in the world, are not important. Our bodies are prisons holding our souls in this material world and clouding our vision of spiritual realities. But when all things are consummated, our bodies and indeed all matter will be destroyed, and there will be nothing but spiritual realities.” (p.141)

“…docetists seemed to be giving Jesus greater praise than did the more orthodox Christians, who insisted that Jesus was a human being, who needed to eat just as we need to eat and who was capable of suffering just as we suffer.” (p.142)

This is often the case with Christological heresy: it errors in an attempt to preserve Jesus from his own humanity. “Surely Jesus whom we worship as God cannot be thought to suffer, since God cannot suffer,” is the thought. That’s how the false god of Greek philosophy attempts to relativize the God of the Bible and the Jesus of the Gospels. But the real Jesus isn’t so easily pushed around.

“The most important stumbling block gnosticism found in its way was the person of Jesus Christ. The Gospels and Christian tradition made it quite clear that he was no ethereal phantom flouting in the clouds and speaking mysterious words. On the contrary, the Gospels spoke of him as being born at a particular time and place. They spoke of him as growing, eating, sleeping, weeping, perspiring, bleeding, and even dying. The Fourth Gospel affirmed that ‘the Word was made flesh.’ Indeed, the Christian message could be spoken of as that ‘which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands.’ (I John 1:1). The notion that the supreme revelation of God had taken place in such a person made it clear that spiritualist escapism was not the Christian way […]

Docetism, while seeming to glorify Jesus, in truth deprived him of what in the New Testament is his greatest glory: his incarnation and suffering on the cross. In the last analysis, what docetism denied was not only the reality of the incarnation and the suffering of Jesus but the very nature of a God whose greatest victory is achieved through suffering, and whose clearest revelation is in the cross.” (pp.142-143)

Gnostic-docetism attempts to preserve the immutable, impassible god of Greek philosophy—which projects those attributes upon the powers the be. God becomes emperor-like so that the emperor can become god-like. But is the solution to deny the eternal divinity of the Word?

Rugged Individualism and the Self-Made God

Christological heresies that deny the eternal divinity of the Word are called “adoptionism” because it is presumed is “declared that Jesus was ‘mere man’ who somehow had been adopted into divine sonship.” (p.144) But rather than being the cure to Constantinization, this heresy is also used to oppress the powerless. González connects adoptionism to the myth that ‘anyone can make it.’

“Those who belong to the higher classes have a vested interest in this myth, for it implies that their privilege is based on their effort and achievement. But those who belong to the lower classes and who have not been propagandized into alienation from their reality know that this is a myth, and that few that do make it are in fact allowed to move on in order to preserve the myth. […]

Adoptionism is seen as an alienating doctrine by those who realize that their society is in fact closed. One of us making it is important; but it does not end the basic structure of injustice, which is the real issue. The one who ‘makes it’ must be more than simply another one of us, more than the proof that oppression is not all that real after all. The one who ‘makes it’ must also be the expression of a reality beyond our closed reality. Jesus Christ must be more than the first among the redeemed, more than the local boy who makes good. He must also be the Redeemer, the power from outside who breaks into our closed reality and breaks its structures of oppression. He must be more than the ‘adopted son of God.’ He must be God adopting us as sons and daughters.” (pp.144-145)

It’s clear that adoptionism can be just as oppressive as docetism, but for different reasons. Both heresies fail to declare Jesus’s full divinity and full humanity simultaneously. Hence, Chalcedon.

The Chalcedonian Parameters

At Chalcedon, the church declared that “in Jesus Christ, and for us and our salvation, the divine and the human have been joined.” (p.145) But because of the infiltration of pagan, Gentile philosophy, “human” and “divine” held contradictory connotations:

“In effect, what the church had done in accepting the notion of God as impassible, immutable, infinite, omnipotent, and so forth, was to define God in terms of negation of all human limitations. We are finite; God is infinite. We are subject to change; God is impassible. Our power is limited; God is omnipotent. God is whatever humans are not, and vice versa. These mutually exclusive understandings of both divinity and humanity were known and defined a priori, quite apart from the incarnation. […] “The inescapable paradox of the incarnation, that this particular man is also the universal God, is turned into a contradiction when the terms of the union are stated on the basis of a supposed a priori knowledge of what it means to be human and what it means to be divine.” (pp.145-146)

Rather than starting from where Scripture points for God’s self-revelation (i.e. Jesus, particularly on the cross), some Christians started out (and still do to this day!) with a unbiblical notion divine and human as mutually exclusive categories. If the Incarnation and Cross of Jesus are a Christian’s starting place for God’s self-revelation, then the truth is that divinity and humanity aren’t contradictory and have been joined. God does suffer! Humanity can be glorified!

Chalcedon only set the parameters: Jesus is at once fully God, fully human. But at least two ‘schools’ emerged that worked out that formula slightly differently. They were the Alexandrian and the Antiochene. The Alexandrian ‘school’ had what’s been called a “unitive” Christology—meaning, they were sure to affirm both Christ’s divinity and humanity. However, their articulations often bordered on docetism. The Antiochene ‘school’ had what’s been called ‘disjunctive’ Christology. They “insisted on the full humanity of Jesus, and also on his full divinity, but feared that too close a union between the two would result in the humanity being swallowed up in the divinity.” (p.146)

While these schools are emerging, Arianism has not been fully eradicated. So, in an attempt to explain the joining of divine and human natures in Christ, Apollinaris (of the Alexandrian school) came up with a compromising articulation:

“Jesus was physically human, but that psychologically he was purely divine. […] According to [Apollinaris], the mutable body could be joined to the immutable Son, thus preserving both the union of the divinity and humanity and the immutability of the Son.” (p.147)

Building on González’s previous chapter on human nature (see part four of this series), he points out the error of Apollinaris’s view:

“Apollinaris’s view of the incarnation in fact denied that God had been joined to a true human being. A human being is not just a body in which a mind resides but is both a body and a mind. What Apollinaris proposed was a partial incarnation. The consequence of such a partial incarnation would be a partial salvation.” (p.147)

Then González quotes Gregory Nazianzen who said, “For that which [the Son] has not assumed He has not healed.” Thankfully, Apollinarianism as rejected at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

The next heresy to form because of disjunctive Christology was Nestorianism. Since Nestorius held the same mutually exclusive categorical conceptions of divinity and humanity that the pagan, Gentile philosophers taught he objected to the use of the term “theotokos” (bearer of God) for Mary, Jesus’s mother. Nestorius could not reconcile Jesus’s human and divine natures, so he sought to preserve them both by keeping them separate—so separate in fact that his view was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Instead, the church adopted the doctrine of communicatio idiomatum “…the doctrine that in the incarnation the union of divinity and humanity is such that what is predicated on one can be also be predicated on the other.” (p.148) Nestorianism is a heresy because, “the constant distinction between the two ‘natures,’ without a real union between the two, denied the reality of the incarnation.” González shows why Nestorianism is a particularly unbiblical heresy:

“Nestorianism has never been a temptation for Hispanic Christians. The reason for this is that we feel the need to assert that the broken, oppressed, and crucified Jesus is God. A disjunction between divinity and humanity in Christ that denies this would destroy the greatest appeal of Jesus for Hispanics and other groups who must live in suffering. […] The suffering Christ is important to Hispanics because he is the sign that God suffers with us. An emaciated Christ is the sign that God is with those who hunger. A flagellated Christ is the sign that God is with those who must bear the stripes of an unjust society. […] Nestorianism denies that God took these up. For this reason, the Nestorian Christ can never be the Lord of our devotion.” (pp.148-149)

There is only One in heaven worthy to be receive power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and praise: the Lamb Who Was Slain! (Revelation 5) If Jesus did not truly suffer as both God and human, he is not worthy to be worshiped as the Savior or Redeemer.

“If in Jesus the human is swallowed up in the divine, to such a point that he no longer functions as a human being, his sufferings are sham and are not like ours. He did not bear our sufferings, and therefore we cannot find vindication for those who now suffer. The Crucified One must be truly crucified. […] He must be divine, for otherwise his suffering has no power to redeem, and he must also be human, for otherwise his suffering has nothing to do with ours. And the two must be joined in such a way that his true humanity is neither destroyed nor swallowed up in his divinity.” (p.149)

Toward a Biblical Christology

González does not leave readers with all the many ways Christology has run aground the biblical witness and relied upon the appearance of human wisdom for truth about the nature of God. No, he closes out the chapter by constructing a way forward that relies upon God’s self-revelation in Christ for the truth about divine and human natures. It turns out, the Bible is hand in this regard:

“…we do not know who God is, nor what it means to be fully human, apart from divine revelation. We must not approach divine revelation with a preconceived notion of God and accept in that revelation only that which agrees with such a notion. In the Older Testament we have the revelation of who God is—or, more precisely, of how God acts—as well as of what it means to be human. This revelation, and in whom the true meaning  of full humanity is also revealed. Therefore, we must not approach the person of Jesus Christ with an a priori notion of what it means to be divine—in this case drawn mostly from the Greek metaphysical tradition—or with an a priori notion of what it means to be human. The proper starting point for Christology is neither theology nor anthropology—nor a combination of the two—but Jesus himself as Scripture witness to him.” (p.151)

“God’s very being is love, for-otherness. This is the Trinitarian God. This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. What Jesus has done is precisely to open for us the way of love, to free us so that we too can begin to be for others. In being for others we are most truly human. And in being most truly human we are most Godlike. Indeed, God did become human so that we could become divine!” (p.155)

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  1. Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Abingdon, 1990) [http://astore.amazon.com/theolograffi-20/detail/0687230675]
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Justo González and the Politics of Impassibility, Part 4

This is the fourth part of our series on Justo González and the politics of impassibility. (If you’re just tuning in, be sure to check out parts one, two, and three.)

Two the best chapters in Mañana [1], are chapter 9: “On Being Human,” and chapter 10: “And the Word Was Made Flesh”. In these two brief chapters, González accomplishes something most theology scholars could devote dozens of books to and not address nearly as thoroughly. In the span of 30 pages, González takes readers through a seminary degree’s worth of insights into human nature, church history, Scripture, and Christology. But that weren’t enough, he continues to integrate the socio-political nature of faith into his discussion.

In this fourth part, I’ll attempt to synthesize González’s thought on human nature from chapter 9, the implications it has on Christian theology, the church, as well as the socio-political ramifications. Let’s dive in!

What is Human Being?

All Christian doctrines can be misused to oppress people. But the doctrine of humanity has been particularly useful in this regard. González clearly and concisely shows just how this can be accomplished. The first step is to dissect the human being into “parts,” rather than considering a person a united whole.

“The Bible is not interested in the body and the soul, or in the body, the soul, and the spirit, as constitutive parts of the human creature. The Bible is not interested in how many parts there are to us or to how they relate to each other, but rather in the divine purposes for our lives, and how we can be obedient to such purposes. As José Ortega y Gasset would say, ‘A human being is not a thing, but a drama.’

“…the Bible nowhere says that the soul is immortal. On the contrary, Jesus speaks of one who can ‘kill the soul’ (Matt. 10:28). In most cases, the Bible uses the term ‘soul’ as another way of speaking of one’s entire being, without any attempt to distinguish it from the body or to enter into discussions as to how many parts constitute a human being.”

“…the soul and the body are not two different parts of a person but rather the same person as seen from different perspectives. A human being is not a soul that has taken up a body, nor a body to which has been added a soul, but a single being who is at the same time both body and soul.”

“The Bible does not speak of human beings as divided into two ‘parts’ or ‘substances.’ It speaks rather of a single entity that is properly understood neither in purely materialistic terms nor in purely spiritual terms. The entire human being is body, and the same human being is soul. A disembodied soul is not a human being, just as a ‘dis-souled’ body is no longer a human being.” – p.126-127

At this point, it might not be clear to some how one’s view of the human being has any bearing on Christology, let alone politics. That is because of the pervasiveness of the myth of abstract theology. One’s view of the human being supposed to be neutral. González will dispel that myth and connect the dots.

“…the common understanding of the human being as consisting of two (or three) parts is not a sociopolitically neutral notion. On the contrary, it has been used and is still used to justify oppression. Once one divides human nature into two parts, one physical and the other psychical, it is a simply matter to move on to the affirmation that the higher element in our life is the psychical. At least by implication, the physical is then downgraded and seen, if not as evil, at least as less significant or less human. Thus from the division of the human creature into two substances follows the hierarchization of those substances.” – p.128

Just as soon as people start dividing up the human nature into “parts,” the discussion naturally flows into an ordering of priority. In the history of Western philosophy, the “soul” or “mind” has always been valued above the body in the exact same way Plato envisioned the abstract forms being greater than their physical manifestations. The hierarchization of soul/mind over the physical body is classic, Greek dualism, and it has dramatically influenced Christian theology and politics.

For example, González cites Pope Innocent III’s use of this dualism to assert the ecclesiastical priority of authority over the state:

“As God the creator of the universe established two great lights in the heavens, the greater to preside over the day, and the smaller to preside over the night, thus did he also establish two great authorities in the heaven of the universal church… the greater, that it might preside over souls as if they were days, and the lesser, that it might preside over bodies as if they were nights. These are the pontifical authority and the royal power.” – p.128

It’s difficult not to hear the echoes of “Plato’s Cave” in Innocent’s description. The bodies over which the royal power has jurisdiction are less real than the souls over which the Church rules. Thus the mind-body hierarchization is carried over and applied politically.

But González also notes that this dualism not limited to Christian theology and politics.

“…quite apart from issues of church and state, this hierarchical understanding of the relation between soul and body contributes to a similarly hierarchal understanding of society.” – p.128

The hierarchization of human nature also contributes to a hierarchization of human achievements and activities. The prioritization of the mind-soul to the body means those with education, those who enjoy the “vocation of leisure” (as philosophy was known in Plato’s era of Athens), those who study and teach in universities, are superior to those who toil in fields or perform manual labor. This harkens back to the “impassibility” that the philosophers in Athens exhibited toward the slaves who built the city and toiled while they reclined to philosophize on abstract ideas.

“On this basis [mind-body dualism], men who have been doing their theology in universities and libraries have tended to look down upon the women who cook their food and the minorities who collect their garbage.”

“The hierarchical ordering of the soul and body is then joined to the racist and sexist notion that women and people of darker skin are best suited for physical pursuits, whereas white males are best suited for the intellectual life. The obvious conclusion is that the present ordering of society—and of the ‘traditional’ household—is grounded on human nature and ought not to be questioned. But it is clear that it can and should be questioned.” – p.129

Being-For-Others

González draws upon the Genesis narrative of creation to correct dualism and also construct a positive account of human being. In this section, he confronts hierarchical relationships between men and women as well as between humanity and the creation.

One of the most profound insights González shares in this section is that essential and complete human nature is “being-for-others.” Humanity was created to be in relationships with ‘others’. It was not good that “man” be alone. Instead, God created humanity in a system of relations in which humanity has a vocation of “dominion.” This “being-for-others” nature is critical to understanding humanity’s vocation of dominion because it is directly related to humanity’s creation in the image and likeness of God.

“…the very verse that speaks of human dominion over creation puts that dominion in a certain context: ‘Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion…’ The dominion is after the likeness of God’s dominion. And God’s dominion, as we have already seen, is dominion in love. God does not rule the earth and humankind as a tyrant. God’s very nature is being-for-others, love.” – p.131

Sin as For-Other-ness Breaking

From there, González goes on to show the effect of sin on human being.

“In Genesis 1:26-27, it is both the male and the female that are to have dominion. But in Genesis 3, after the fall, the man claims dominion over the woman by giving her a name not his own. In this naming, they are alienated from each other. They are no longer ish and ishshah. Now she is Eve, named by Adam. Their intended for-otherness, based on their being ‘fit’ for each other, ‘as in front of’ each other, is now disrupted. Thus is the society of dominance born, in which we are alienated from one another. In such a society, it is not only the ‘other’ that is lost. We are all lost because we have lost our for-otherness, and God has rightly said ‘it is not good’ for us to be for ourselves.” – p.134

Criminalization, Sexualization, and Privatization

González points to at least three ways sin has been distorted by culture and therefore the fundamental disordering of human nature has been misunderstood. First, sin has been associated with crime. When political and ecclesial authorities conspire to amass power, they conflate sin with crime. In this way the religious condemnation of sin supports the political status quo.

“The almighty God is turned into an ally of the mighty in our society, thus creating an almost invincible alliance. But sin is not always crime, and crime is not always sin. This has been very clear to Christians who have been a minority within any given society. In the early church, to be killed for refusing to obey the law that required the emperor be worshiped was no sin but was rather the crown of Christian faithfulness. Moses and his followers broke the law of Egypt, from whose standpoint they were criminals. Early Christians, by having a common table at which master and slave ate together, broke the law of Rome. Martin Luther King, Jr., broke the laws of many states.

All these people should unashamedly be called criminals. They broke the law. When caught—and some of them wished to be caught—they were legally condemned. We may now say that the laws by which they were condemned were unfair. But it was the law, and they broke it. They were outlaws for God. In this they followed the same path as that convicted outlaw and executed criminal, Jesus of Nazareth.” – p.134

Sin has also been reduced to sexual misconduct. This can serve as nothing more than a smokescreen that protects the powerful who exploit the poor and a reasserting of mind-body dualism.

“Although theologians repeatedly tell us that sin is much more than improper sexual activity, in our common parlance ‘sin’ is almost equated with that subject. And yet if we were to read the entire Bible, listing on the one hand those texts that seek to regulate sexual practice and on the other hand those that seek to limit and regulate property rights, we would find that the latter outweigh the former. The God of the Bible is concerned with the misuse of property at least as much as with the misuse of sex. Yet we hear very little in the church about the misuse of property. What we hear is vague, such as the notion of ‘stewardship.’ But we are not told that the ‘maximization of profit’ is condemned by God because it violates the rights of the poor (see, for instance, Deut. 24:17-22; Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22) This selective preaching and teaching is not mere coincidence. Nor is it because sexual sins are more common. It is rather because we have learned to interpret “sin” like so many other elements in biblical doctrine, in a manner that is less offensive to the powerful.” – p.135-136

This sexualization of sin also relates back to the mind-body dualism:

“The philosophical tradition in which that hierarchical understanding developed held that the goal of wisdom was to have the mind be totally in control of the body and its passions.” – p.136

In this we can hear the echo of the pagan, idol god—the passionless, “impassible” god is thought to be the highest imaginable perfection. Thus, the Christians who adopted this foreign god as their own, began being molded in its image:

“Since in sexual activity the body takes control over the mind, such activity came to be seen as the opposite of the life of wisdom and virtue. When such views were introduced in the Christian church, they became one of the main impulses leading many Christians to a life of celibacy.” – p. 136

Who better to represent the impassible god who is free from “passions” than a celibate priest who is thought to be from the “passions” of sexualized sin?

But this sexualization of sin also contributed to a view of sin that divorced it from matters of economics.

“Such privatization of sin contradicts the very nature of our humanity. It is ‘not good’ for us to be alone. An individual alone is not the person God intended. We are created for-otherness. It is only when that for-otherness takes place that we are the human beings God intends. This for-otherness is for God as well as for creation and for other human beings. We stand amid God’s creation, as part of it and responsible to it and to others as the concrete expression of our responsibility toward God. As in Ortega y Gasset’s famous dictum, ‘Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia’ (I am I and my circumstance). Sin is the violation of that for-otherness. Sin is the violation of God’s image in us, which is precisely the image of God’s for-otherness.” – p.136-137

What it means to be human is to be a united person of soul and body given a vocation of dominion that reflects God’s very image and likeness: God’s for-otherness. The dividing of the human being into parts precipitates dualism which leads to political oppression. Sin has been associated with society’s crimes, sexualized, and privatized. But each of these distortions misses the fundamental nature of human being. We were created to to reflect God’s for-otherness. Economics is an indispensable and inseparable aspect of human for-otherness.

In part 5, we see how González relates these insights to the Word Made Flesh. Stay tuned.
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  1. Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Abingdon, 1990) [http://astore.amazon.com/theolograffi-20/detail/0687230675]
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Justo González and the Politics of Impassibility, Part 3

Were in part three of a series considering the thoughts of celebrated historical theologian Justo González on the doctrine of “impassibility” from his fantastic book Mañana. Be sure to also check out parts one and two.

The Patripassian Truth

After Nicea ruled definitively against Arianism, rejecting the immutable and impassible god of the philosophers in favor of the God revealed in the Crucified Son of God, who is ‘of one substance with the Father,’ another heresy arose which came to be known as Patripassianism. The name is unfortunate because instead of being named for the heretical portion of its view, it is named for its only truth.

Patri-passian is from the Latin Patri- for “father” and -passian for “suffering” or “passion.” But this is not what was worthy of condemnation in the view. Patripassianism is a heresy because it is a form of Modalism. [1] González distinguishes between what Patripassians got right, and what they got wrong:

“Although Patripassianism took different forms, in general it held that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were three ‘modes’ or ‘faces’ of the same God. This God had appeared as Father in the Old Testament, as Son in Jesus Christ, and now as Spirit in the life of the church. Its opponents called this doctrine Patripassianism, because it implied that the Father had suffered the passion of Christ. They often argued against it on the basis that it made God passible, thus inadvertently playing into the hands of the Arians. What these opponents of Patripassianism did not seem to realize was that the reason this doctrine was so attractive to so many in the church was that it showed clearly that God was one of their number. God was not like the emperor and his nobles, who had an easy life in their lofty positions. God had toiled and suffered even as they must toil and suffer every day. On this point, it would seem that the Patripassians had an insight into the nature of the biblical God that the more powerful leaders of the church had begun to lose.

On the other hand, this does not mean that the eventual rejection of Patripassianism by the church at large was a mistake. In clearly asserting the suffering of God, Patripassianism was right. But in denying the distinction between the Father and Son it lost the dialectic of power and powerlessness, of suffering and hope, which is central to the Christian doctrine of redemption. Indeed, what makes the suffering of Christ a sign of hope is that, even in the midst of his suffering, next to him stands the Father who is to raise him from the dead. What makes his powerlessness so powerful is precisely that while God is being crucified in the Son, the same God is also upholding the entire universe—and even those who crucify Jesus—in the Father.” [2]

Patripassianism, because it was a form of Modalism, also makes Christ’s humanity temporary event in the life of God.

“The other point at which Patripassianism was questionable was in that it made the incarnation only a passing stage. God was made human but did not remain so. Over against this, the church held that the incarnation was not a passing moment in the life of God. God did not take on humanity for thirty-three years in order simply to discard it as a used garment. The incarnation did not end with the crucifixion and resurrection. On the contrary, what the doctrine of ascension meant was that God is still human, that even now one of us, a carpenter, an outlaw, a convicted and executed criminal, sits ‘at the right hand’ of the Father.” [3]

González shows that the passibility and mutability of God is logically inherent in the still-incarnate Son of God in heaven. Were God not able to change or experience “passions” (suffering), then Jesus could not be the exalted Lord in heaven who still possesses a glorified human body. Patripassianism was heretical in its idea that the Father and Son are not distinguished, and in the resulting inference that the incarnation was only a temporary condition for God, but it was not heretical in its insistence that God is mutable and passible—that God experiences change and suffering. In this, González emphasizes the connection to the very truth of the Gospel.

Sacralizing the Status Quo

In every generation, there are inevitably some who think it is possible to consider the doctrine exclusively in the abstract. Today, it is particularly common for middle class, white males in North American evangelicalism to approach theology this way. From their privileged position in Western society, doctrine is merely intellectual curiosity with little ramifications for everyday life. Like Plato in Athenian society, they have deceived themselves into thinking that their theological conclusions are “pure reason,” uninfluenced by their socio-political context. This, of course, is merely self-deception.

It’s exceedingly easy for those in privileged positions in a society to deceive themselves into thinking that they are neutral. Which is precisely why González begins Mañana by exposing the myth of objectivity: Every person is biased. And when those doing theology are ignorant of their own biases, they will inevitably sacralize the status quo.

While Nicea took decisive action to stop Arianism from canonizing the Impassible God derived from Platonism, and while the Nicene faith also rejected the Modalistic heresies which made Jesus’s humanity a passing phenomenon, they themselves were not impervious to their socio-political context:

“…the profound insight of this Nicene faith was often overshadowed by the fact that Christians had now become a powerful body and would soon be literally a majority. Since the church—or at least its leaders—now had power, it tended to identify its God with the God of the powerful—that is, with the Impassible One who by virtue of seemingly neutral inactivity sacralized the status quo. To this day, the church may be separated from the state, but it certainly is not always separated from the structures of privilege and injustice that the state often embodies.

…there is no doubt that faith in a ‘prime unmoved mover’ or a ‘Supreme Being’ may well be the means of sacralizing oppression. But faith in the living God of the Bible, in the Crucified One who is ‘of one substance with the Father,’ has enormous liberating and subversive power. It is faith in a God who joins the dispossessed in their struggle and marches with them to victory, liberation, and new life.

In [the U.S.] the God whose supreme revelation takes place in a carpenter from Galilee is seen primarily not in the stained-glass windows of the rich suburban church but in the Chicano lettuce or grape picker who is denied the right to unionize; in the suffering of the Puerto Rican in a Chicago tenement house; in the pain of those who are constantly told, in a thousand different ways, that their culture and language are inferior, and that they must conform to the language and culture of the majority—which is no more than a veiled way of saying that they must be reconciled with the fact that they will always be inferior. God hears and understands. This we know because the One who is ‘God from God, light from light, very God from very God’ was crucified, died, and was buried, and the third day rose from the dead and ascended unto heaven, where he sits in power, and from whence he shall come to judge the powerful and the powerless.” [4]

In part four of this series, we’ll look at what it means to be human, what the human nature of Messiah Jesus, and how the Hellenization of Christian theology led to its Constantinianization. Stay tuned.
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  1. Modalism is a heresy because it proposes that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are ‘modes’ of the One God rather than distinct, simultaneous ‘persons’. For more on the modalism of Patripassianism, see: Patripassianism [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patripassianism]
  2. Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Abingdon, 1990), p.109. [http://astore.amazon.com/theolograffi-20/detail/0687230675]
  3. Ibid., p.109-110.
  4. p.110-111.
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Justo González and the Politics of Impassibility, Part 1

Doing Theology in Spanish

Theology has everyday implications for life. Christian faith is more than just the abstract ideas one holds in one’s head; faith is the lived reality one embodies in the world. In fact, in parts of the world today, theology remains a matter of life and death, the difference between privilege and oppression.

Few are better than Justo González at connecting the dots between what a person thinks about God and Christ, and how a person lives as a result. In his book Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective, González starts by confronting the myth of objectivity. He knows that every human being who explores the mystery of God, and every person reads the Bible, has a context and a culture that impact their perspective. He himself is no exception.

“…every theological perspective, no matter how seemingly objective, betrays a bias of which the theologian is not usually aware.” – p.21

“…if there is one thing that can be said with absolute certainty about the God of Scripture, it is that God cannot be known through rational objectivity.” – p.21

“…theology cannot be done in the abstract. There is no such thing as a ‘general’ theology. There is indeed a Christian community that is held together by bonds of a common faith. But within that community we each bring our own history and perspective to bear on the message of the gospel, hoping to help the entire community to discover dimensions that have gone unseen and expecting to be corrected when necessary.”- p.22

So, what impact exactly does being Hispanic have on González’s Christian theology?

“…my experience of being a minority in the ethnic sense opened my eyes and ears to the oppression that is very much a part of our society, and to hear the voice of the oppressed who are crying out, often in the name of Christianity.” – p.25

As a Hispanic American, a minority group who has been alienated and marginalized, González relates to the biblical narrative and Christian theology in a different way from those in the majority culture. Those portions of Scripture which are written from the perspective of oppressed peoples have more meaning for him, given his social location. It would behoove those in majority culture to pay close attention to the insights gained by those who are most intimately acquainted with the conditions under which the Scriptures were written.

“The minority report of the prophets is best understood by those who are not usually included in the chronicles of the kings or of high society. The exile is best understood by those who live in societies that are not theirs, and who ‘by the rivers of Babylon’ are called upon to sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land. The enormity of the self-marginalization of God in Galilee is best understood by modern-day outsiders in modern-day Galilees—ghettos, barrios, and the misdeveloped countries. The post-Constantinian era, by forcing poverty and weakness upon the church, calls it to a renewed commitment to the paradoxical ‘good news’ of the cross. At this point one is reminded of Luther’s contrast between a ‘theology of glory’ and a ‘theology of the cross.’ A theology of glory attempts to see God in power, in wisdom, in hapiness and prestige. It is a theology that sounds good. But it is not proper theology. A theology of the cross, on the contrary, sees God in suffering, in weakness, and in folly. A Constantinian theology will necessarily be a theology of glory. It is theology written in endowed chairs and preached from prestigious pulpits. The new theology, even when it finds its way to such chairs and pulpits, is aware that they represent a dying age, and that the coming one, although painful, will provide the church with greater opportunities for faithfulness.” – p.50

González also confronts many of the sources of error which have led to the myth of objectivity and have obscured the biblical portrait of God. As not only a postcolonial theologian, but also a historical theologian, González is able to draw upon his extensive research into the historical and cultural contexts of theological development in Church history, to shed greater light on how Christian theology has gotten off track. In Mañana, he boldly asserts that the Church needs a “new reformation”—one characterized by an uncompromising Christocentrism and special attention to the socio-political ramifications of Christian theology:

“Too much traditional theology has bought into the Eleatic-Platonic understanding of truth as that which is changeless and universal, and then has sought such truths in the Bible. The new reformation believes that our understanding of the nature of truth must be such that a particular man Jesus, at a particular time and place, can say, ‘I am the truth.’ Biblical truth, the truth in which the people of God are called to live, the new reformers say, is concrete, historical, truth. It does not exist in the world of pure ideals but rather is closely bound with bread and wine, with justice and peace, with a coming Reign of God—a Reign not over pure ideals or over disembodied souls but over a new society and a renewed history.” – p.50

For González, theology must be “embodied.” This is a critical piece in his overall work. Theology is meant to be lived out, and if one’s theology has been corrupted by unbiblical concepts, and if one has been deceived by the myth of objectivity, then the theology one is living out will be sub-Christian. Christian theology, being a theology centered around divine revelation in a historical person, must do the same: integrate divine revelation into the lives of historical persons—persons who live in culture and class, time and space—embodied persons.

“The understanding of the Bible as a book that deals essentially with ‘spiritual salvation’ after death can be proven to be the result of the introduction of Christianity into the Greco-Roman world, with its preconceived notions of the nature of religion. But this is more than a historical accident, for it also carries with it a political agenda. That political agenda, simply put, is to make God apolitical. If God is primarily interested in the salvation of souls, and not in bodies and in how we distribute the things necessary for physical life, God is not interested in politics—for politics is, after all, the process whereby a society decides how its material resources are to be allocated. And if God is apolitical, it follows that believers ought to be equally apolitical, or at least that they ought not to mix faith and politics.

The problem is that if it is true that human beings are political animals, then everything that we do has a political context and political consequences. Thus the ‘apolitical‘ Christianity that many advocate is in truth a Christianity that supports the politics that exist, that is, the power of those who are presently powerful.” – p.83

Only a Biblical Theological Method Can Rightly be Called Christian

For González, any conception of God that does not take into account the concrete reality of Jesus’s life, death, resurrection—as well as the concrete reality of the culture and contexts in whicyh Christians live—is an idol. Only the God revealed in Messiah Jesus of Nazareth is the One True God. This especially applies to the false gods of pagan Gentiles. The ‘god’ of the Gentile philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rather, the God of Israel has revealed Godself in a man. Therefore, we should not despise the biblical anthropomorphisms, since God was pleased to create humanity in God’s image, and to become a particular man in a particular body in a particular time and place.

“Acceptance of anthropomorphic language about God, however, is much more than a mere inconvenience to which we must submit, given the limitations of our mind and language. Beyond that general human reason for anthropomorphic language, there is a specifically Christian reason for the unashamed use of it: our central confession that God’s supreme self-disclosure has come to us in a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. The incarnation must be the basis not only of our doctrine of redemption but also and above all our doctrine of God.” – p.91

This insistence on the biblical language confronts head-on the language of theology that has been adopted from extra-biblical sources. González will not shy away from calling such language error:

“Clearly, the Bible never attempts to speak of God in Godself. On the contrary, the Bible always speaks of God in relation to a creation and a people. God is not depicted in Scripture as ‘the prime unmoved mover,’ as ‘pure actuality,’ or as ‘absolutely simple.’ When the Bible speaks of God, it speaks of creation and redemption. When it refers to God’s will, it does so in terms of a call to human obedience. When it speaks of God’s ‘heart,’ it deals not with the inner workings of the Godhead but with God’s purposes and feelings—yes, feelings, why not?—for humans.

Nowhere does the Bible say that God is impassible. On the contrary, there are repeated references to the divine anger, love, and even repentance! God walks in the garden. God wrestles with Jacob and haggles with Abraham. God is like a stern judge who will be moved by the impertinence of a widow. God is love. Thus if there is any sense in which the God of the Bible can be described as ‘immutable,’ this has nothing to do with impassibility or ontological immobility, but rather with the assurance that God’s ‘steadfast love endureth forever.’ ”

If one is constrained to use the language of Scripture to describe the self-disclosing God, it is impossible to come up with the classical categories for God which González dismisses. Instead, González is content to stick close to the Bible and to demand that God dictates the terms by which God chooses to be revealed.

This will necessarily confound theologians who afraid such a theological method will lead to a depiction of God that is less than their predefined pictures of power and glory. These theologians know that the God of the Bible suffers and is oppressed, and such a portrayal of God is embarrassing. González confronts this fear as well:

“…the God of the Bible is also the object, and even the victim of history. God does not rule the world with an iron fist, as Pharaoh ruled over Egypt or Pinochet ruled Chile. God does not destroy all opposition with a bolt from heaven. Nor is opposition something God has created—like a military dictator who sets up an opposition party in order to claim that his rule is democratic. Although all things are created by God, God’s free creatures have set up an empire of evil that denies and challenges the divine power. Evil is real and powerful. It cannot be dismissed or explained away as a necessary step in a great cosmic plan. God will indeed use it to achieve the divine goals, and perhaps those goals will so use evil itself that Christians who sing the traditional Easter Eve hymn are justified in saying, referring to the sin that has opened the way for redemption in Jesus Christ, ‘O blessed sin.’ But in spite of this, God does not will evil. God does not will injustice. Furthermore, inasmuch as God suffers with the oppressed, God suffers oppression and injustice. This fact, well attested throughout Scripture, finds its clearest expression in Jesus Christ, in whom God is carried to and fro by human beings whose victim God becomes. If being a minority means being subjected and victimized by forces one does not control, God is a minority!

Does this, then, deny the power of God? Certainly not. The Crucified is also the Risen One, who shall come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead. What it denies is an easy jump from creation to resurrection, with no cross. The cross, standing between creation and final consummation, is not an accident. It is not something that could just as well not have happened. It is, on the contrary, the supreme instance of the manner in which God’s power operates. God’s final victory does not ignore human suffering but takes it up and vindicates it. Ours is not a victorious, uncrucified God, victorious like an undefeated football team. Ours is the God who achieves victory through suffering, and liberation through oppression. Ours is a God who, having known oppression, shares with the oppressed in their suffering. And it is precisely by virtue of that divine sharing that the oppressed can also share in God’s victory (Heb. 2:14-18).” – p.93

The Decent into Idolatry: When Christian Theology Fails

So, if the Bible reveals a God who suffers and has shared in humanities experiences of injustice and oppression, how did Christians come to talk about God as “impassible”? González details the Christian decent into idolatry as a path to hell paved with good intentions. At first is was “respectability” that Christians sought:

“The idols of the nations are dead, for they have no power or freedom to act. The ‘prime unmoved mover’ of the philosophers, the ‘impassible,’ ‘omnipotent,’ ‘infinite’ God is no more alive than the idols—of which, in fact, it is one. Therefore, the ‘death’ of such a God ought not to cause any chagrin but rather rejoicing among Christians who seek to ground their faith on the biblical witness.

It is a well known fact that the omnipotent, impassible god whom we have just called an idol resulted from the encounter between early Christians and the Greco-Roman world in which they were called to witness. Forced to give account of their faith in the One God, and often accused of atheism because they had no visible gods, Christians had recourse to what the earlier philosophical tradition had said regarding the Supreme Being. Against those who accused them of impiety, the witness of Socrates and Plato was a powerful argument. If the best minds of the Greek tradition had asserted that above and beyond all beings there was a Supreme Being, this put Christians in very respectable company and confounded their detractors.” – p.96

“The problem, however, is that such apologetic bridges tend to bear traffic in both directions. While the earlier christian apologists saw at least some of the crucial differences between Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy, as time passed some—eventually most—Christian theologians came to the conclusion that Scripture is best interpreted in the light of Greek philosophy—more specifically, Platonic philosophy.” – p.96

“By the fourth century, when the Arian controversy broke out, practically all theologians agreed on this point and conceived of God as essentially immutable and impassible. Indeed, an argument could be made that the Arian controversy was the result of the incompatibility between such a notion of God on the one hand, and the doctrine of incarnation on the other… That such is the origin of much of what we call the ‘traditional’ attributes of God, few will doubt.” – pp.96-97

As we can see, the desire for a “respectable” conception of God—one that the early Christians could use as an apologetic in their Greco-Roman context—led to the abandonment of biblical language about God and ultimately to idolatry when nothing biblical about God remained in their conception.

God became an idol when Christians stopped being willing to be mocked and scorned for the Gospel and started wanting to have their theology taken seriously by pagans. God became an idol when Christians compromised the beauty and foolishness of the self-disclosing God of the Bible in exchanged for a better defense of their beliefs. What would St. Paul say?

The Social Context that Creates an “Impassible” god

While it’s easy to see why most early Christian theologians abandoned the God of the Bible for the god of the philosophers. González points to a mostly overlooked aspect of the development of such an idolatrous conception of God: the socio-political character of Greece in the so-called “Golden Age.” In the modern U.S., it’s a wonder that in a nation so deeply affected by the institution of slavery, the social location of the Athenian aristocracy isn’t the subject of more theological critiques. It would seem reasonable that Christian theologians doing theology in the U.S. would be especially attuned to the social contexts in which theology emerges considering just how blatantly Christians in the South used the Bible to justify their owning of other human beings. González is going to connect the dots between the “impassible” god of the philosophers and their social location:

“What we often do not see is the connection between [the impassible conception] of God and the vested interests of the ruling classes. Indeed, the philosophy Christians espoused in this development had appeared in the golden days of Athens, and the philosophers who had produced it prided themselves in that philosophy was ‘the occupation of the idle,’ and that they stood high above ‘the many’ (hoi poloi). Athenian society, like many other democracies, based its wealth in the labor of some—among them a high number of slaves—while others lived in relative leisure. To say that philosophy is the occupation of the idle was therefore to say that it was the occupation of the leisurely, of those who did not need to work because the ordering of society was such that others did the work while they had the leisure to philosophize.

It is not surprising that such philosophers conceived of changelessness as the supreme perfection, without which nothing can really be said to be in the strict sense. This was not the result of purely rational considerations, as they claimed and sincerely believed. It was rather the result of the ‘rational’ considerations of a reason molded by the leisurely social class in which it took shape. To that class, as to any privileged class, social change—particularly change involving discontinuity—was abhorrent. The static ideal of the social order, transmuted into metaphysics, thus resulting in the ideal of being as changeless perfection. […]

Therefore, when Christians, in their eagerness to communicate their faith to the Greco-Roman world, began interpreting their God in Platonic terms, what they introduced into theology was not a sociopolitically neutral idea. What they introduced was an aristocratic idea of God, one which from that point on would serve to support the privilege of the higher classes by sacralizing changelessness as a divine characteristic. Yahweh, whose mighty arm intervened in history in behalf of the oppressed slaves of Egypt and of widows, orphans, and aliens was set aside in favor of the Supreme Being, the Impassible One, who saw neither the suffering of the children in exile nor the injustices of human societies, and who certainly did not intervene in behalf of the poor and the oppressed. It would be possible to follow the entire history of Christianity to see how this God functioned in favor of the privileged precisely by condemning change and sacralizing the status quo.”

We can now clearly see how the myth of objectivity contributes to what González calls an “innocent reading” of the Bible that is really only a guise for the biases of the reader—who is a person in a culture and context. This “innocent reading” in turn allows readers to set aside the biblical language for descriptions of God from pagan philosophy, which appears neutral. We’ve then seen how the quest for a “respectable” conception of God led the early theologians to abandon the God of the Bible for an “impassible” god that is in fact only another dead idol—not the Living God of the Bible. From there, we’ve seen how the “impassible” god concept arose as a means of preserving power for the aristocratic ruling class, and has remained prominent in Christian theology ever since for the same reason.

In part two, González will show us how a relational, trinitarian metaphysic destroys the impassible god idol and retrieves the suffering God of Love revealed in the Person of Messiah Jesus of Nazareth.