Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

It’s Time for Some New Candidates

I posted the first of these a while back, but the campaign for President has significantly increased in intensity, so I thought I would give an update. My vote’s with Kierkegaard, though I think the Nietzsche campaign is running the most effective ads!

Kant Attack ad:

Nietzsche Attack Ad:

Kierkegaard announces his candidacy:

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.

Vote Nietzsche in 08!

And you thought presidential election politics were nasty!

Thanks, Daniel!