Does God Suffer?

extremehumilityicon.jpgA few days ago I finished the book The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought by Paul L. Gavrilyuk. Essentially the book is a historical study of impassibility, the doctrine that God does not suffer human emotions or feelings, in the early church fathers. While this sounds as dry as melba toast (and Gavrilyuk’s prose, though clear, is among the more wooden varieties), there are a few factors that make it really exciting. Gavrilyuk frames his whole argument as an apologetic toward the school of thought that he labels, rather cumbersomely, “The Theory of Theology’s Fall Into Hellenistic Philosophy,” which becomes his shorthand for the following:

A standard line of criticism places divine impassibility in the conceptual realm of Hellenistic philosophy, where the term allegedly meant the absence of emotions and indifference to the world, and then concludes that impassibility in this sense cannot be an attribute of the Christian God. In this regard, a popular dichotomy between Hebrew and Greek theological thinking has been elaborated specifically with reference to the issues of divine (im)passibility and (im)mutability. On this reading, the God of the prophets and apostles is the God of pathos, whereas the God of the philosophers is apathetic.

In short, the line of reasoning goes, the Bible depicts a God who suffers, Greek philosophy one who does not. With this as your starting point, which do you choose? Of course, forced into this dichotomy, any good Christian would choose the suffering God of the Bible.

This is essentially why I wanted to read this book. Gavrilyuk actually did the grunt work to show that this theory that the church fathers imposed some foreign theology onto the New Testament gospel that wasn’t unearthed until the Reformation or the advent of historical-critical exegesis actually has very little historical warrant. There was simply no consensus about these things even in Hellenistic philosophy. What the church fathers were really doing in their encounters with various forms of heresy, especially in the Sabellian, Docetic, Arian, and Nestorian controversies, was articulating a negative theology, hence the subtitle The Dialectics of Patristic Thought. In other words, they were safeguarding the inexhaustible mystery of the transcendent God. They weren’t capitulating to certain ideas dominant in their society, they were fighting to prevent certain erroneous conceptions of the person of Jesus Christ.

I encountered The Theory of Theology’s Fall Into Hellenistic Philosophy in two forms in grad school: (1) a certain New Testament exegesis prof repeatedly told his students to “be careful” reading the church fathers because they uncritically accepted theoretical and metaphysical thought forms foreign to the Bible, and (2) a certain applied theology prof sympathetic to the trinitarian thought of Jürgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jüngel (prime suspects 1 and 2 when it comes to Gavrilyuk’s Theory) appropriated their ideas in a very practical way.

So does God suffer? Well, yes and no. Literally. Cyril of Alexandria, who articulated the doctrine in its most fleshed out form, used the formula “the impassible God suffered” in Jesus Christ as his theological crux in his debates with Nestorius. Any attempt to resolve this paradox ultimately results in heresy.

The answer beyond that is complicated but fascinating. Jesus Christ suffered in his human nature, but not in his divine nature. His divine nature was involved in the sufferings of Jesus, because Jesus’ human and divine natures were, after all, inseparably joined. But in suffering, Jesus did not merely identify with human suffering but overcame it through his divinity. A God who merely identifies with human suffering isn’t capable of saving us from it. Moreover, Gavrilyuk meticulously points out that impassibility does not simply mean God is incapable of all emotions, but is rather incapable of the type of emotions that are not historically-defined as “God-befitting,” such as grieving and despair. Otherwise, again, how would he overcome them for our salvation?

It’s exciting to see a theologian worth his salt who is taking on both the assumed fall of Christian theology into some kind of dark age after the New Testament era as well as the near-consensus among modern systematic theologians that God suffers in his very being. As this book is an extremely focused and dense theological monograph, I hope these ideas catch on at a more popular level.


17 comments so far

  1. chad on

    ah, who cares if God suffers or not. I’ll give a dollar to whoever can name the two profs Jeff is referring to? Any takers???

    I used Gavrilyuk extensively in my thesis (in a positive manner, that is). I fully concur with Jeff. Mind you, this book is a bit of a dense one to plow through but with great rewards if you do. I would also check out Thomas Weinandy, O.P. “Does God Suffer?” as well. He gives a bit of a different take on God’s impassibility, one well worth engaging.

    A dollar…it’s on the table. And heck, I’ll make it Canadian or American. Contestants, NAME THAT PROF….

  2. jeffreimer on


    Do I get to play?

  3. Josh on

    I’m still here, don’t want to offend, but can I just give initials?

  4. Josh on

    By the way, the post is helpful. I’ll keep my eye out for Gavrilyuk. And for Cyril. What work of Cyril’s does G. cite?

  5. MJS on

    Really good stuff, Jeff. How *do* we popularize such great ideas?

    I know you didn’t exactly invite this, but let me speculate for a minute. . . The key is to connect the insight into who God is that ideas like these provide with real-world “application,” with practice: not exactly devotion or some dull, masochistic “discipline,” but a dangerous, spiritual and jnanic (that’s Sanskrit for gnostic—yogic wisdom), knowledge that could either save or destroy. The edginess and danger is very real when we’re dealing with a God who “doesn’t care,” and it’s essential for animating the popular imagination. Then once we’ve got the adventerous, risk-taking early adopters, we can add some kind of wise, protective, sacerdotal order—no half-assed, ecumenical “spiritual directors.”

    The place to start popularizing, in other words, is with exactly those theoretical and metaphysical “thought forms” (nice expression) your professor warned against. Combine these with a New Age-y improvisatory freedom for the individual, and a serious, but very(!) understated commitment to orthodoxy (keep that shit in the fine print, there’s nothing cool about obeying the rules), and you’ve got something.

    The idea that “God suffers in his very being” is so f-ing last century. That God is weak. He’s got an abject, terminal air about him. Re-acquainting ourselves with an impassible God allows us to tolerate (here come the hardcore thought forms) a non-rational negative theology, an almost Neoplatonic conception of God as Being-beyond-being (a la Eckhart’s Godhead), and the rehabilitation of a Western mystical tradition (contra the Enlightened parts of the Reformation and too much historical-critical machinery) that can co-exist with high-minded Pagan ideas (think Dante’s Virgil) and even open up the possibility of some metaphysical overlap with other religions . . . now there’s the makings of a theology with some real trickle-down, secular cross-over potential. It’ll be like the theological equivalent of Amy Grant’s awesome “Every Heartbeat,” or some kick-ass theological P.O.D.

  6. chad on

    initials are fine for those still at Regent…

    and if you were senile, Jeff, I’d let you play.

  7. chad on

    and Jeff, we’ll need a confirmation from you when the names/initials are posted…and I’ll supply the reward.

  8. jeffreimer on

    Shoot, I was really hoping for that $1.

  9. jeffreimer on


    Gavrilyuk’s all over the map with Cyril, citing pretty heavily from his letters, but his most concise christological treatise is “On the Unity of Christ,” which St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press has published as part of their Popular Patristics series.

  10. chad on

    hints (conveying my guess): the first prof thinks everything Christian went to pot as soon as we move out of the period of the New Tesatment. Fathers = bad. Second prof can’t get enough of the social doctrine of the Trinity. Loves it.

  11. Josh on

    RW, DJ. Suspense was killing me.

  12. Josh on

    Is that CDN or US $? Cause, if it’s US, you can probably just keep it. Not worth anything up here these days.

  13. jeffreimer on

    Correct! Chad, pay up.

  14. chad on

    Congrats, Josh. The dollar has been donated to the Save the Wallabee foundation in your name. You’ll receive your tax deductible receipt in the mail sometime in the near future, and your own hand designed Wallabee scat display.

  15. Josh on

    Chad, Thanks! I look forward to the display. Is there a particular Wallabe that dollar saved? Can I send him/her a postcard?

  16. timothycairns on

    Did you think the quiz was hard Chad? I knew it was Rik Watts and Darrell Johnson (for those non Regent people who want to google them!!!) can I have a buck as well – its roll up the rim at Tim Hortons so I could buy a coffee and win a Toyota!

  17. chad on

    Josh – sorry about this. A little embarrassing. But I left part of the title out. It’s actually the “Save the Wallabee’s fir to make a coat” foundation. That’s why you get the scat display – it’s the result of taking off its fur. Wouldn’t you?

    Tim – if I can help get you a Toyota, then by all means, a dollar is in the mail.

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