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 who 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.”

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 (emphasis mine)

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 (emphasis mine)

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 (emphasis mine)

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 which 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 (emphasis mine)

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.’ ” – p.92 (emphasis mine)

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 are 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 (emphasis mine)

The Decent into Idolatry: When Christian Theology Fails to be Christian

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 (emphasis mine)

“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 (emphasis mine)

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 (emphasis mine)

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.” – p.97-98 (emphasis mine)

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.