Only a Suffering God Can Help: A Review of Divine Impassibility: Four Views (Part 1)

“You mean there are people who think God doesn’t experience pain?” she responded. “That’s messed up! How could anyone think that? What about Jesus dying on the cross?”
— From the Introduction (p.2)

In the American Christian circles I’m familiar with, it’s common to hear some version of “who needs theology?” from time to time. That is, until someone brings up suffering, or pain, or death. Then, suddenly, everyone’s a theologian. “Where is God when people are suffering?” is a perfectly reasonable question, given the world we live in. Some are surprised to learn that theologians have been asking this, and other questions like it, since the birth of the church. “Doesn’t God care?” “Why won’t God help us?” The so-called ‘problem of evil’ is at the heart of questions like these. In response, Christian theology offers Jesus Christ, God incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended, to inaugurate God’s Kingdom, restoring all that is broken in the world. But how? When we drill down into that question, we find still more questions—some about the very nature of God, others about Christ’s nature. Divine impassibility, which means God does not experience suffering or emotions, is an attribute that hovers near the center of all these questions.

In exploring the subject of God’s ability or inability to suffer and feel emotions we simultaneously explore God’s relationship to the evil in the world and what God is doing about it. That is why for over a decade, as esoteric as it has seemed to others, I’ve been fascinated by this topic. When my questions about evil and suffering in the world were met with the response that tradition tells us God is “impassible,” I set out to understand this tradition, where it comes from, and why it emerged. Along the way, like many others, I encountered The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann. This masterpiece of theological exposition has framed a generation of exploration of these questions, and ignited a resurgence of impassibility apologists. Which is likely why a book like this new offering from InterVarsity exists at all. Divine Impassibility: Four Views of God’s Emotions and Suffering is a great resource for theology students, and others who are questioning, since it lays out side-by-side various positions related to this subject. That is one of the primary reasons I was eager to read and review this new work. This is part one of a two-part review.

Framing and Contributors

Robert Matz (PhD, Liberty) and A. Chadwick Thornhill (PhD, Liberty) are the editors of the book and they decided to frame the four positions as either “strong” or “qualified” versions of either impassibilty or passibility. This means that two positions presented in the book affirm the belief that God does not experience suffering, pain, or emotions. One affirms this belief in a “strong” (or unqualified way) and the other in a “qualified” way. This also means that two positions affirm the belief that God does experience suffering, pain, and emotions (passibility) in either a “strong” or “qualified” way. It could be debated whether this framing is the best possible. I have no objection. By choosing this framing, the editors reject the common equivocation of impassibilists that their belief doesn’t necessarily mean God does not suffer or feel. The editors take the straightforward definition of impassibility for granted, as they should. The trend among the impassibility apologists to want to have their cake and eat it too is perhaps one of the reasons why more people have lost interest or grown frustrated with this topic. Here the editors disallow such sophistry and I’m in favor of their decision.

The editors have also made an important decision regarding the role of Patristics in this debate, which I think is wise. From the outset they acknowledge that most of the support for impassibility among the new apologists rests almost entirely on a re-imagining of the “Church Fathers’” understanding of this doctrine. But the editors did not want a rehashing of all those extra-biblical arguments. Instead, they wanted to focus on support from reason and Scripture over tradition.

“…even if historical uniformity existed regarding impassibility, this is of lesser significance (for most) than how to work through the varying biblical texts and resulting philosophical arguments.” (p.7)

This will no doubt frustrate the new impassibilists, who stake a disproportionate amount of their claims on the authority of their interpretation of the “Church Fathers,” but it’s absolutely the right decision. Not only is the historical record from early church theologians not “uniform,” it has proven to be a Rorschach test. The new impassibilists twist and contort quotes to fit their theories and confirm their biases. To exclude such content from the contributions was quite appropriate and much appreciated.

The “Strong Impassibility” position is presented by James E. Dolezal (PhD, Westminster). The “Qualified Impassibility” position is presented by Daniel Castelo (PhD, Duke). The “Qualified Passibility” position is presented by John C. Peckham (PhD, Andrews). And the “Strong Passibility” position is presented by Thomas Jay Oord (PhD, Claremont).

The four primary questions this volume sets out to address are:

  1. To what extent is God’s emotional life analogous (similar or dissimilar) to the human emotional life?
  2. Are God’s nature, will, and knowledge passible, and to what extent?
  3. Do the incarnation and passion of Jesus Christ necessitate passibility?
  4. Does human activity (such as prayer) occasion an emotive/volitional response from God?

Underneath these questions are still more questions about God-talk and definitions. What can we know about God from humanity and the world? What can be accurately portrayed of God in human language? Where do we look for authority in our theological questioning? One of the things I appreciated most about this book was the editors’ requirement for each contributor to address these four questions, revealing the answers to the underlying questions. Some of the contributors were downright forthright in their declarations.

Dolezal’s Reformed Tail Wags His Biblical Dog

For example, Dolezal, who presents the “Strong Impassibility” position, outright admits that his position does not derive from Scripture because Scripture isn’t a sufficient source of truth about God. Instead, Dolezal relies entirely on Reformed dogmatics, the philosophical reasoning of theologians in the past, codified in his Reformed tradition.

“The truth of divine impassibility is most convincingly arrived at through the contemplation of other doctrines. It is a necessary entailment of doctrines such as divine aseity and independence, pure actuality, and simplicity.” (p.17)

“If the doctrines of aseity and independence, pure actuality, and simplicity are funded by divine revelation and are theologically sound, then so are the interpretive judgments that necessarily flow from these doctrines.” (p.35)

Translation: Dolezal consciously starts with doctrines from his Reformed tradition, presumes they are supported by revelation, and then interprets the Bible to fit with these doctrines. At least he’s honest! Most Reformed theologians I’ve encountered aren’t nearly this upfront about their assumptions. In fact, I have a very distinct memory of a time when a Reformed theologian projected this accusation directly against his opponent in a debate and it backfired spectacularly.

In 2007, I was a seminary student in Boston attending Gordon-Conwell, a conservative Reformed school. One of the professors at Gordon-Conwell is John Jefferson “Jack” Davis. That year, I attended a theology conference hosted at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, MA. It was called “Open Theology and Science.” During that conference, Jack Davis debated Open theist theologian, John Sanders. Thomas Jay Oord (the contributor of the “Strong Passibility” position) happened to be the debate moderator and co-director of the conference.

At the end of the debate, there was some time set aside for interaction with the audience. Davis took this opportunity to chastise all the Open theists in the room, whom he believed were desperately wrong about God. He said, “You Open theists let the philosophical tail wag the biblical dog!” Them’s fighting words to Evangelicals! Two rows in front of me and to my right, Greg Boyd stood up and was acknowledged by the moderator. “We definitely don’t want to do that—let the philosophical tail wag the biblical dog. We want to be biblical. So, could you please tell us Open theists where in the Bible it teaches the doctrine of divine timelessness?”

Davis quickly snapped back, “Well, don’t you believe in Creation Ex Nihilo?!?” (the doctrine that God created the universe ‘out of nothing.’) Oord, the debate moderator, graciously but firmly reminded Davis that he was just asked a question and his response can’t simply be a question in return. Visibly flustered and frustrated, Davis blurted out “John 1:1!!” All over the room, I could see foreheads furrow and heads get scratched as each Open theist silently recited John 1:1 to themselves. Then almost in unison, a burst of laughter from all across the room. Greg Boyd laughed and then sat down. “Okay, thanks for proving my point.”

Like Davis, Dolezal doesn’t actually believe the Bible is a sufficient source of revelation about God. Only the Reformed tradition can accurate tell us what God is really like. And then the Bible must be interpreted through the lens of Reformed theology. But, the difference between Davis and Dolezal is that Dolezal admits it.

“Scripture’s language and manner of speaking about God, like Solomon’s temple, is a finite human structure in and through which God deigns to manifest himself to us. But it is not a structure that is equal to his manner of being.” (p.33)

This denigration of Scripture’s role in guiding theology is also demonstrated in how poorly he uses it. What few references to Scripture Dolezal makes are utilized as little more than proof-texts. For example, he cites passages from the friends of Job, even though the point of Job was that the friends were wrong about God and Job all along. Oops!

Another important admission Dolezal makes is that his affirmation of divine impassibility cannot be divorced from his affirmation of divine determinism. For him, all the doctrines of classical Reformed theology coinhere. Dolezal says that the doctrines of aseity and independence necessitate the belief that God is the “absolute source of all caused acts.” (p.18) A more concise definition of Fatalism/Determinism I have yet to find. In Dolezal’s conception, God is the absolute source of every heinous crime and unspeakable atrocity. For Dolezal, this is a necessary conclusion based on his pre-commitment to the Reformed traditon’s doctrines. At least he’s honest! I’ve encountered few Reformed theologians willing to admit they affirm God causes sin and evil in the world.

All this amounts to a very poor advertisement for impassibility. Protestants and Evangelicals who take Scripture seriously as a source for theology will not find help from Dolezal, which makes his endorsement of impassibility suspect at best, but potentially altogether disqualifying. One might think, “At least there’s one more defender of impassibility in this book!” But that one would be wrong.

Castelo Abandons Impassibility Mid-Essay

Daniel Castelo’s presentation takes Scripture much more seriously as a source for theology, which may be why he abandons impassibility mid-presentation. He makes an admission that knocks his presentation right out of the ‘Pro-Impassibility’ camp:

“God’s nature is passible but only to the degree that God allows Godself to be. […] I think that divine impassibility could be defined as the attribute that indicates that God cannot be affected against God’s will by an outside force. Of course, revelation history shows time and again that God is moved by the circumstances and conditions of the creation that God brought into existence.” (p.66)

If you don’t believe that this disqualifies his presentation from the ‘Pro-Impassibility’ camp, just read Dolezal’s response:

“Castelo advances a voluntarist notion of God in which the divine nature (or certain features of it) is something God freely chooses for himself. […] It should be observed that self-authored passibility is still passibility. […] I take it that any coherent affirmation of divine impassibility must include, at a minimum, the denial that God can experience passio. Otherwise the language is rendered meaningless.” (p.75)

I agree with Dolezal. The new impassibility apologists who equivocate about the meaning of “impassibility” are not being straightforward or honest. If “impassibility” doesn’t mean that God is incapable of experiencing passions, then use of the word is less than meaningless, it’s deceiving. But this also renders three of the four presentations ‘Pro-Passibility,’ and the only ‘Pro-Impassibility’ presentation dismisses Scripture and endorses Determinism. The case for impassibility is not looking good!

Castelo’s essay had much to commend it. For example, he rightly calls attention to the ways subjectivity and social location influence our interpretation of Scripture (p.60), and he draws upon some real-world experiences he’s had in the Latin American church (p.72-73). But his essay ultimately falls short due to a logical error and a misconception about the reason for affirming impassibility.

First, Castelo commits the classic logical fallacy of “Middle Ground.” Castelo takes for granted that the truth in this case is somewhere in between impassibility on one end of the spectrum and passibility on the other. But while that is often true in many cases, this is not one of them. Half way between truth and a lie is still a lie. And this is why Castelo struggles so much in his essay. He knows impassibility is false, but he nevertheless clings to the language. He wants to keep the word and yet drain it of all helpful significance. His “middle ground” is actually just more false teaching.

Second, he doesn’t want to simply affirm passibility because he thinks its affirmation is rooted in “sentimentality.” This is a Straw Man. Proponents of passibility have made their arguments from Scripture and reason just as he has. Yet he dismisses those arguments and prefers to believe in a less credible motive. This is a disappointing response from an otherwise seemingly very capable and bright theologian.

In part two of this review, I’ll comment on the two presentations from the ‘Pro-Passibility’ half to the book: “Qualified Passibility” by John Peckham and “Strong Passibility” by Thomas Jay Oord.