Friday, March 2, 2007

The Suffering God?

In my systematic theology class last week, we had a rousing discussion about theopachism. This topic arose during my presentation of the two natures of Christ and the communicatio idiomatum (communication of attributes.).

The Lutheran Confessions clearly affirm that "the Son of God suffered" because of the communication of attributes; yet at the same time, is reticent to speak of divine suffering. Because of the hypostatic union, "not only the bare human nature (which possesses the characteristics of suffering and dying) suffered for the sins of the entire world, but the Son of God himself suffered (according to the assumed human nature) and, according to our simple Christian creed, truly died--though the divine nature can neither suffer nor die" (The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VIII).

Since the mid-twentieth century, however, a whole spate of theologians--Catholic and Protestant--have reconsidered the traditional teaching of the impassibility of God and affirmed theopaschism. In an article entitled, "The Suffering of God: A New Orthodoxy," Ronald Goetz remarked that after the atrocities of World War II, "talk about an impassible, immutable God was for many simply inconceivable. How could God be love and not lay wounded on the battlefields of France? Only a God who suffered with the victims of the war could speak to the disillusionments created by the war."

A counter-perspective was recently offered by Thomas Weinandy in "Does God Suffer?" Weinandy thinks this "new orthodoxy" leads down a dangerous road theologically. He states that while "we may intellectually grapple with the mystery of God in the midst of our suffering," theologians must resist the idea of theopachism and reaffirm God's impassibility. He writes,

In the Church’s most important public task of communicating the gospel, speaking of the God who does not suffer as we suffer may go against the cultural grain, but such is the God of Scripture and normative Christian tradition. As I have tried to show, the truth that God does not suffer is at the heart of the gospel, making it truly good news. This is especially in contrast to the bad news, which has become something like a “new orthodoxy,” that God is in as much trouble as we are.
I admit that my own perspective has been shaped more by perspective of the "new orthodoxy," but I also believe that Weinandy's concern warrants some serious reflection and response. Though written well before Weinandy's piece, Richard Bauckham (a Moltmann disciple) offers these intial thoughts in response to the kind of concerns that Weinandy raises. In "Only the Suffering God Can Help: Divine Passibility in Modern Theology," Bauckham writes:

It seems increasingly obvious that the Greek philosophical inheritance in traditional theology was adopted without the necessary critical effect of the central Christian insight into the divine nature: the love of God revealed in the cross of Christ. For the Greeks, suffering implied deficiency of being, weakness, subjection, instability. But the cross shows us a God who suffers out of the fullness of his being because he is love. He does not suffer against his will, but willingly undertakes to suffer with and for those he loves. His suffering does not deflect him from his purpose, but accomplishes his purpose. His transcendence does not keep him aloof from the world, but as transcendent love appears in the depth of his self-sacrificing involvement in the world. Finally, if Christians know anything about God from the cross, it is that 'the weakness of God is stronger than men' (1 Cor. 1:25). The cross does not make God a helpless victim of evil, but is the secret of his power and his triumph over evil. This is why 'only the suffering God can help.'


Kevan D Penvose said...

I actaully have less to say now as I thought I would when I was half way through your post, thanks to your contribution of Baukham's quote at the end. In doing theology, we have to identify what presuppositions we bring when we speak the term 'god'. Do we automatically assign certain attributes to define 'god', usually from Greek philosophy? Or do we determine the definition of 'god' by following the narrative of the Hebrew scriptures leading up to God acting definitively through Jesus to bring about the kingdom of God on earth? I go with an approach indebted to Robert Jenson: 'god' is whoever raised Jesus -- Israel's messiah and therefore also the world's savior -- from the dead.

Chris Scharen said...

Hi, Cheryl.
Chris Scharen here.
I wrote a book on u2 and theology of the cross. This question of god's suffering came up, and I really sided with the Moltmann school on this. I quote this:

To recognize God in the crucified Christ means to grasp the Trinitarian history of God and to understand oneself and this whole world with Auschwitz and Viet Nam, with race hatred and hunger, as existing in the history of God. god is not dead, death is in God. God suffers by us. God suffers with us. Suffering is in God.

(From Moltmann, Theology Today 1972)

I worry quite a bit about the negative legacy of the early marriage between patristic theology and Greek philosophy. This debate seems an example where, as Kevan says, a good dose of the Hebrew Scriptures goes a long way.

It would be fun to be a fly on the wall for the conversation . . .

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