Modern Opposition to Divine Blessedness [Part 3]

Article by   January 2015
The doctrine of divine impassibility has been much discussed, and it deserves to be: it is crucial for the Christian church to be able to confess the right thing about the omnipotent God precisely at this point, at the foot of the cross where the rulers of this age crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Cor 2:8). For most of Christian history, theologians considered it utterly axiomatic that the divine nature was not capable of suffering. Passibility was of a piece with mutability and mortality; anything that could suffer could be changed by another, could die, could cease to exist and might therefore never have existed in the first place. For the church fathers, the scholastics, and the reformers, to be passible meant to be conditioned and contingent, which meant to be, by definition, not what God is.

So far the old orthodoxy. But as Wesley Hill recently noted, the modern period - the twentieth century, really - ushered in a "new orthodoxy," a shift in conventional wisdom about whether God could suffer. Pointing to the cross and taking into consideration the realities of human suffering, more and more theologians began to affirm that since God suffered on the cross, God could suffer. And most of these new divine passibilists didn't merely grow more comfortable with the idea of God suffering, or decide that the idea could be admitted into their doctrine of God alongside other attributes. The leading proponents of a suffering God were convinced that impassibility theory was the Great Greek Idol that needed to be torn down if the God of the gospel was to be acknowledged truly. As a rule, these theologians were as passionate as their God was passible. They were motivated to do a new kind of theology, with all the old doctrines played in a new key.

What Wesley Hill noted in his post "The New 'New Orthodoxy'" is that the wave of passibilist publications has been succeeded by a wave of publications defending and rehabilitating the classic impassibilist doctrine. He points to Levering, Gavrilyuk, and Vanhoozer, and I'd add to that my friend Rob Lister's 2012 book, God is Impassible  and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion. Lister's book is especially valuable for its survey of recent opinions and for striking an intentional balance (as the title indicates) that avoids the errors of describing God as either pathetic or apathetic.

These recent discussions of God's impassibility are closely connected with the topic of divine blessedness, which I've been exploring in this series of articles. But there is a difference of emphasis between the two doctrinal complexes. The question of God's suffering demands to be worked out in the context of Christology and atonement, because it is through the assumed human nature that either "God suffered impassibly" (as Cyril put it, speaking for the impassibilist consensus) or that we beheld "a Cross in the heart of God before there was one planted on the green hill outside Jerusalem" (as Dinsmore said, in a line widely quoted by passibilists). The thematic focus of the doctrine of God's blessedness, on the other hand, directs attention elsewhere. While implicated in incarnation and atonement (no thoroughly Christian doctrine can fail to be), blessedness refers always into the inner life of God, the summative divine attribute that describes what it is like to be the one who possesses all the other divine attributes in their transcendental unity and simplicity. 

And so behind the arguments about divine suffering has loomed the more comprehensive doctrine of God's blessedness, and theologians on both sides have been aware of this horizon of beatitude. In fact, much modern theology can be understood as a rejection of the idea of a settled divine beatitude. Many characteristically modern theologies are driven by an attempt to relate the divine nature to the course of history, to show that God is experiencing the course of events in a way that has deep implications for the divine being itself. Theologians downstream from Hegel depict God as coming to fuller self-possession as the project of creation makes progress, coming to himself or self-actualizing in some way through the experience of alienation and reconciliation. For such theologians, God may have been blessed in the beginning (though that too has been called into question), and he may be moving toward blessedness in the end, but along the way he is "the fellow-sufferer who understands" (in the words of process philosopher A.N. Whitehead). 

Few theologians are short-sighted enough to polemicize directly against the blessedness of God ("If we can't be happy, God can't be happy either"), but some come close. Jürgen Moltmann, as early as his book The Crucified God, excelled at making statements that tended in that direction, hammering away at all doctrines of God that he considered to be inadequately cross-shaped. But by the time he wrote the highly influential book The Trinity and the Kingdom, he had adopted a somewhat different strategy for taking account of the idea of God's blessedness. Interacting with the thought of C. E. Rolt, Moltmann carefully avoids denying God's eternal blessedness. Instead he says that "the evil which God suffers is the condition of his eternal bliss because it is the presupposition for his triumph." Apparently God's blessedness is the blessedness of overcoming evil, so evil itself can be taken up into divine blessedness as a constitutive element of it. "This means," he goes on,
that God's eternal bliss is not bliss based on the absence of suffering. On the contrary, it is bliss that becomes bliss through suffering's acceptance and transformation. In the eternal joy of the Trinity, pain is not avoided; it is accepted and transmuted into glory. The eternity of the God who is love, suffering love, and self-sacrifice can only be the consummation of this very history of suffering. (p. 34)
This seems to imply that God's bliss, even when it is characterized as "eternal bliss," requires temporal process, opposition, strife, and vindication in order to be itself. And while not quite taking that position directly himself, Moltmann goes on to quote Rolt who draws the implications: "God must, therefore, pass through time to attain to his eternal being. And in this passage He must experience the pain as untransmuted pain. Only thus can he transmute it, and, by it, attain to his own perfect bliss" (p. 34).  Paul Tillich, operating on a different underlying philosophy, reached similar conclusions: "The Divine Life is the eternal conquest of the negative; this is its blessedness."

Making the world a necessary element of God's happiness is an error. Making the evil of the world a necessary element of God's happiness is a grave error. The motive driving these theologians is often a laudable one: they want to show that God is concerned and involved with the suffering of the world, and they want to describe the divine attribute of blessedness in a way that requires them to route it directly through the story of the gospel. But by making divine blessedness conditional on the world process, they actually juggle away blessedness before they even begin their work of affirming it. The final stanza of the poem "On Another's Sorrow" by William Blake puts it this way:
O! he gives to us his joy 
That our grief he may destroy; 
Till our grief is fled & gone 
He doth sit by us and moan.
Those who would postpone divine blessedness until the eschaton want to comfort humanity with the second couplet, offering God as the Most Sympathetic One. But for God to "sit by us and moan" in a way that does us any good demands the first couplet: God has to have joy if he is to give it to us, and our grief can only be destroyed if joy is first of all his to give.

Though Moltmann's The Trinity and the Kingdom is a powerful and provocative book well worth studying, it has been the proximate source of a number of problems in contemporary theology. Of those, the most apparent have been its divine passibilism, its panentheism, and its quixotic attack on monotheism. But in that book Moltmann made another move with even wider consequences for contemporary theology, though it has not often been pointed out. In an earlier article in this series I pointed out that divine blessedness occupies a strategic position in comprehensive systematic theologies. It is the bridge doctrine from the treatise on God as one to God as triune, de Deo uno to de Deo trino. In Thomas' Summa Theologia and in Polanus' Syntagma, as well as in some shorter systematic theologies, the exploration of God's perfections comes to a rounded conclusion in the idea of God's outward glory and inward blessedness. There is a momentum to the development, as if the doctrine of the one God became so full and ripe that it had to burst forth into the teaching on the three persons. 

In striking contrast, Moltmann's influential monograph on the Trinity begins (after an introductory survey of "trinitarian theology today") with a treatment of "The Passion of God." Where the characteristic ancient move is to preface trinitarian theology with divine blessedness, the characteristic modern move is to preface trinitarian theology with divine suffering. The consequences  are far-reaching, and ripple through the entire dogmatic system. The world and its progress are almost necessarily taken up dialectically into the constitution of God, and the immanent Trinity is, if not eliminated, collapsed into flat identity with the economic. 

There is one other, perhaps rather unexpected, casualty of the replacement of divine blessedness with divine suffering as the gateway to the doctrine of the Trinity. That casualty is the clear confession of the oneness of God. In the older ordering, the fecund unity of the divine nature made an obvious connection to the trinitarian relations, especially considered as relations of origin. But in the new ordering, as signaled by Moltmann, the unity of God is a goal to be achieved in two senses: In the weaker sense, it is a theological goal for us to argue our way toward. In the stronger sense, it is a divine goal for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to struggle their way toward. Even among theologians who eschew the stronger sense, the weaker one has its influence. Bruce Marshall has complained about "the evident demise of the treatise de Deo uno in Catholic theology, by whatever name it might be called, as well as of its Protestant parallels." He notes that "the admonition to 'start' with the Trinity has had the effect, it seems, not so much of relocating sustained reflection on the one God as of killing it off altogether, though we can hope the effect is temporary." 

One way to ensure that reflection on the one God is given its theological due is to re-install the doctrine of divine blessedness as the crown of the doctrine of the one God, and make plain its connections to the doctrine of the triune God. We can look forward to a host of beneficial theological consequences from such a right ordering of doctrines.

Fred Sanders is Professor of Theology at Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. His recent books include The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway, 2010) and Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love (Crossway: 2013). He writes regularly at The Scriptorium Daily

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