Only a Suffering God Can Help: A Review of Divine Impassibility: Four Views (Part 2)

If you’re just tuning in, this is second of a two-part review. If you haven’t already, check out part one for a brief introduction to the topic of divine impassibility and its relationship to other topics like the problem of evil, along with information about the framing of the book and contributors. In part one I commented on the first two essays (out of four): “Strong Impassibility” by James E. Dolezal and “Qualified Impassibility” by Daniel Castelo. In this post I’ll comment on the final two essays: “Qualified Passibility” by John C. Peckham and “Strong Passibility” by Thomas Jay Oord.

Allowing Scripture and Reason to Produce Theology

By far the essay in this book most grounded in arguments derived from the revelation contained in Scripture is John C. Peckham’s. While both Castelo and Oord’s essays grant far more significance to Scripture than Dolezal’s (who flatly dismisses it), Peckham’s demonstrates his dependence on Scripture for his position by appealing to Scripture far more than any other essay. He also makes clear why:

“I believe it is best not to adopt any overarching a priori claim in this regard. Rather, toward allowing Scripture itself to function as the sufficient and final norm of theological interpretation, I believe we should take biblical language in its minimal, demonstrable, exegetical sense (in light of the entire canon), while recognizing that our resulting conception of God is unavoidably analogical and thus imperfect (as is all God-talk). For now, we can only ‘know only in part’ (1 Cor 13:12). Yet I believe we have access to no better understanding or language than that which is contained in Scripture.” (p.96)

This is an important check not only on the a priori claims of Dolezal that he derives from this classical Reformed tradition, but also on the a priori claims of the new impassibility apologists who rely almost entirely on their interpretation of the “church fathers.”

“In my view, the question should not primarily be which view corresponds to that of the church fathers, who held varying opinions, but which view best corresponds to Scripture as a whole. As such, putting conclusions regarding the patristic view(s) aside, I agree with Daniel Castelo that given ‘the double testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospels’ depiction of a suffering Christ, there is no question that divine impassibility as it existed in the wider Hellenistic world is untenable for Christians.” (p.105)

For those who may have missed that, the Daniel Castelo whom Peckham quotes is the author of the “Qualified Impassibility” essay—the one in which he abandons impassibility mid-presentation. Which means all three theologians who give Scripture priority over tradition also reject impassibility. (That’s no coincidence.)

In fact, Peckham is completely straightforward about the use of the term “impassibility” being unbiblical and unhelpful.

“Given that impassibility is not affirmed in Scripture (semantically or conceptually) and given the confusion and diversity of meanings associated with this term in past and present theology, I wonder whether its utility is far too slight to warrant continued use, particularly if we aim for clarity in theological communication. To his credit, Castelo recognizes: ‘It could very well be the case that the language of divine impassibility has run its course and that new terms need to replace it.’ Robert Jenson goes further, stating, ‘I am more or less aware of the subtle qualifications and real insights involved in the tradition’s sophisticated massaging of the notion of impassibility. But in any sense of impassibility perceptible on the face of the word, it will not do as an attribute of the God of Scripture and dogma.’” (p.107-108)

Mic drop.

Peckham, Castelo, and Jenson are exactly correct. The recent surge in impassibility apologetics is a fundamentally quixotic project. Not only is the term obsolete, it’s wholly inaccurate. Not only is the concept unhelpful, it’s wholly unbiblical. As all three theologians who attempt to derive their theology from Scripture agree, impassibility is not taught in the Bible.

In fact, Peckham goes to far as to imply that this new quest to recover and demand affirmation of divine impassibility threatens Nicene Orthodoxy itself! Yes, you read that correctly. Affirming impassibility might formally make you a heretic. (I have written very specifically about this in the past and I’m tempted to re-post those articles!). Here’s how Peckham puts it:

“…maintaining that Christ only suffered in his humanity would imply that the cross involved merely a human sacrifice and human Savior […] I find any move to restrict the suffering of Christ to his humanity to be deeply problematic, Christologically and soteriologically. Whatever one says about the suffering of Christ, one should not make any moves that would jeopardize a single-subject Christology […] one should make no moves toward downplaying the suffering of the Son of God.” (p.111-112)

Peckham’s essay is worth the cost of the book alone. It’s grounded in Scripture, it’s accessible to lay-readers, it’s straightforward in its rejection of impassibility, and its deeply faithful to the ‘faith once delivered.’

Essential Kenosis and Strong Passibility

That’s not to say that Peckham and Oord’s essays don’t present an interesting tension to explore. Oord has no problem affirming all the same things Peckham has about God’s ability to feel emotions and suffer. Oord likely affirms the vast majority of what Peckham writes. But there is one sticking point between these two passibilists, and it’s a debate that Oord has raised before: Is God voluntarily ‘open’ or ‘open’ by nature?

For context, Oord is an Open and Relational theologian. This means his views are alongside Open theists and Process theists. More specifically, he’s called his view “Essential Kenosis.” This means that the openness to suffering and empathy that Paul teaches is characteristic of Christ’s incarnation in Philippians 2 (i.e. “kenosis”) is more fundamentally characteristic of God’s nature, full stop. For Oord, it’s not enough to say God voluntarily chooses to be open to the world in the ways Open theists have claimed for decades. He takes that openness a step further, into the essential nature of God, over which God has no choice.

“The strong divine passibility view I defend says being affected by others is a necessary attribute of God’s nature. God doesn’t voluntarily choose to be affected; God is necessarily affected.” (p.145)

For Oord, the problem of evil to which divine passibility offers relief is stunted by the notion that God could at any time withdraw that passibility and choose to be impassible. To his way of thinking this amounts to subordinating God’s nature of love (cf. 1 Jn 4.8) to God’s will. But Peckham denies this characterization.

“Only the suffering God who retains the power to finally eradicate evil forevermore can help; only he can finally defeat suffering. […] This does not, as some might contend, privilege God’s ‘will’ or ‘power’ over his ‘love’ but rejects any attempt to pit them against one another. In my view, these and all other divine attributes are perfectly congruent with one another within God’s nature.” (p.101-102)

This contention between Peckham’s “Qualified Passibility” and Oord’s “Strong Passibility” parallels the difference between John Sanders’ “Self-limiting” Open theism and Oord’s Essential Kenosis, which he outlines in his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God:

“In sum, I find the model of providence as voluntarily self-limited attractive in many ways. I like that it says love motivates God to give freedom/agency to others and to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe. But I can’t embrace the model fully because its view of voluntary divine self-limitation leads to a major problem: If God has the ability not to give freedom/agency or not to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe, God should sometimes use those abilities, in the name of love, to prevent genuine evil. A loving God would become un-self-limited, if God were able, in order to stop evil. Claiming that a God capable of control nevertheless permits evil leaves crucial questions unanswered.” (p.94)

This is Oord’s quintessential argument when it comes to theodicy. The model that presents God as imposing restrictions upon Godself is better than an all-determining model, but nevertheless remains problematic because evil is still permitted while God could prevent it. Therefore, Oord’s model is one in which evil exists not because it is permitted by God, but because God can’t prevent it. This is what his latest book, God Can’t, is all about.

As I’ve written many times already: I am deeply grateful to Tom Oord for the many ways his scholarship and theology have challenged and sharpened my thinking. I’m not fully persuaded to his view, but I find him to be a more than gracious and kind dialogue partner—which are sadly rare among theologians today. His essay in this volume is no exception. I find him irenic and winsome. Along with Peckham’s, it is worth the cost of the book.

Two Final Take-aways and Recommendation

These counterpoints-style books are fantastic at presenting readers with clearly contrasting views and how their proponents engage with alternate views. I think this is invaluable. And I’m particularly thankful for this “Four Views” book because this subject has been so divisive in my personal experience. It was incredibly affirming to discover that I’m not alone in my belief that those who use the term “Impassibility” to describe God yet also affirm God’s capacity to feel emotions and suffer are stripping the word of all cogent meaning. It was also incredibly affirming to find that I wasn’t alone in my belief that the term was obsolete at best, if not completely misleading. The fact that three of the four contributors all affirm God’s passibility—including one of the contributors who set out to defend “Impassibility”—reaffirmed the stance I’ve had for many years. Not to mention, for years I’ve argued that Impassibility does not flow from biblical exegesis, but from philosophical and perhaps even dogmatic pre-commitments. Dolezal’s essay confirmed this as well. By linking impassibility inextricably to Determinism and the dismissal of Scripture as a valid source for theology, my stance was once again thoroughly substantiated. So, my first take-away is that this book confirms what I’ve said for many years:

  1. God is passible;
  2. The concept of divine impassibility cannot be substantiated from biblical exegesis;
  3. Impassibility is inextricably linked to Determinism; and
  4. To coherently use the term “impassibility” one must completely deny that God feels emotions or suffers in any way.

But that wasn’t the only way in which this book has confirmed my theological instincts and insights. Peckham’s essay in particular reaffirmed that the same impulse that drives some theologians to affirm divine impassibility is the impulse that lies behind the heresy of Nestorianism. Several years back I actually wrote a series of posts on this very subject. (I may need to re-publish them). But Peckham makes this link as explicit as I’ve seen it made, with the possible exception of Justo González. Peckham couldn’t be more clear:

“…maintaining that Christ only suffered in his humanity would imply that the cross involved merely a human sacrifice and human Savior […] I find any move to restrict the suffering of Christ to his humanity to be deeply problematic, Christologically and soteriologically. Whatever one says about the suffering of Christ, one should not make any moves that would jeopardize a single-subject Christology […] one should make no moves toward downplaying the suffering of the Son of God.” (p.111-112)

I am thankful to Peckham for corroborating my long-standing argument that divine impassibility is actually linked to Christological heresy. In these two take-aways, both the unbiblical and misleading nature of “impassibility” itself, as well as the heretical philosophical underpinnings, were very encouraging to read. For these reasons and more, I would gladly and strongly recommend this book to all—especially anyone who is confused by this seemingly-esoteric subject. Like the passible God of the Bible revealed in Jesus, this book will help!