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John Newton (1725 – 1807), a sailor and slave trader who was converted by the grace of Jesus Christ and became an Anglican clergyman and prominent abolitionist, is best known for his beloved hymns, “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.” Today’s post comes from Newton, not in song, but in exhortation. In an age in which the “prosperity gospel” (i.e., “health and wealth,” “name it and claim it”) is perpetuated through supposedly Christian television networks, radio programs, books, and teaching, it is vital for the Church to grasp the theology of Scripture, namely, the theology of the cross. Newton helps us tremendously with his discussion in “The School of Suffering”:
I suppose you are still in the ‘school of the cross’, learning the happy are of extracting ‘real good’ out of ‘seeming evil’, and to grow tall by stooping. The flesh is a sad untoward dunce in this school; but grace makes the spirit willing to learn by suffering; yes, it cares not what it endures, so that sin may be mortified, and a conformity to the image of Jesus be increased. Surely, when we see the most and the best of the Lord’s children so often in heaviness, and when we consider how much He loves them, and what He has done and prepared for them, we may take it for granted that there is a need-be for their sufferings. For it would be easy to His power, and not a thousandth part of what His love intends to do for them should He make their whole life here, from the hour of their conversion to their death, a continued course of satisfaction and comfort, without anything to distress them from within or without. But were it so, would we not miss many advantages?
In the first place, we would not then be very conformable to Jesus, nor be able to say, “As He was, so are we in this world.” Methinks a believer would be ashamed to be so utterly unlike his Lord. What! The master always a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief, and the servant always happy and full of comfort! Jesus despised, reproached, neglected, opposed, and betrayed; and His people admired and caressed! He living in the poverty, and they filled with abundance; He sweating blood for anguish, and they strangers to distress!
How unsuitable would these things be! How much better to be called to the honor of experiencing a measure of His sufferings! A cup was put into His hand on our account, and His love engaged Him to drink it for us. The wrath which it contained He drank wholly Himself; but He left us a little affliction to taste, that we might remember how He loved us, and how much more He endured for us than He will ever call us to endure for Him.
Again, how could we, without sufferings, manifest the nature and truth of the Christian graces! What place should we then have for patience, submission, meekness, forbearance, and a readiness to forgive, if we had nothing to try us, either from the hand of the Lord, or from the hand of men! A Christian without trials would be like a mill without wind or water; the contrivance and design of the wheel-work within would be unnoticed and unknown, without something to put it in motion from without. Nor would our graces grow, unless they were called out to exercise; the difficulties we meet with not only prove, but strengthen, the graces of the spirit. If a person were always to sit still, without making use of legs or arms, he would probably wholly lose the power of moving his limbs at last. But by walking and working he becomes strong and active. So, in a long course of ease, the powers of the new man would certainly languish; the soul would grow soft, indolent, cowardly, and faint; and therefore the Lord appoints His children such dispensations as make them strive and struggle, and pant; they must press through a crowd, swim against a stream, endure hardships, run, wrestle, and fight; and thus their strength grows in the using.
By these things, likewise, they are made more willing to leave the present world, to which we are prone to cleave too closely in our hearts when our path is very smooth. Had Israel enjoyed their former peace and prosperity in Egypt, when Moses came to invite them to Canaan, I think they would hardly have listened to him. But the Lord allowed them to be brought into great trouble and bondage, and then the news of deliverance was more welcome, yet still they were but half willing, and they carried a love to the flesh-pots of Egypt with them into the wilderness.
We are like them. Though we say this world is vain and sinful, we are too fond of it; and though we hope for true happiness only in Heaven, we are often well content to stay longer here on earth. But the Lord sends afflictions one after another to quicken our desires, and to convince us that this world cannot be our rest. Sometimes if you drive a bird from one branch of a tree he will hop to another a little higher, and from thence to a third; but if you continue to disturb him, he will at last take wing, and fly quite away. Thus we, when forced from one creature-comfort, perch upon another, and so on. But the Lord mercifully follows us with trials, and will not let us rest upon any; by degrees our desires take a nobler flight, and can be satisfied with nothing short of Himself; and we say, “To depart and be with Jesus is best of all!”
I trust you find the name and grace of Jesus more and more precious to you; His promises more sweet, and your hope in them more abiding; your sense of your own weakness and unworthiness daily increasing; your persuasion of his all-sufficiency, to guide, support, and comfort you, more confirmed. You owe your growth in these respects in a great measure to His blessing upon those afflictions which He has prepared for you, and sanctified to you. May you praise Him for all that is past, and trust Him for all that is to come!
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), headed by Mikey Weinstein, was contacted by seven individuals from the U.S. Air Force Academy (four cadets, two faculty members, and one staff member; six of whom Christians) regarding an announcement made in the dining facility that “Ask an Atheist Days” would be held on 19-20 March on the third floor of Fairchild Hall, an academic building. According to a member of the Cadets Freethinkers Club, the days are being held in protest over the Academy’s correct refusal to permit their group to participate in Special Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE), a long-running program at the Academy in which one night per week is set aside for various religious groups and external para-church organizations hold religious meetings for the cadets. The Cadets Freethinkers Club has been refused recognition as a SPIRE group by the Academy on the grounds that they are not a religious group, and are permitted to operate only as a club. An MRFF client who is a member of the club explained the motivation behind the event, stating the group believes it is within its rights, as a non-religious club, to set up a table and have their event announced on the same basis as other non-religious groups. MRFF believes the group should be able to participate in SPIRE, but disagrees with the manner in which the club has protested the Academy’s refusal to recognize them as a SPIRE group. According to Weinstein, the announcement made to a captive audience of cadets in the dining hall and permitting the club to set up a table in an academic building is similar to allowing an “Ask a Muslim Day” or “Ask an Evangelical Christian Day.” He remarked, “They are proselytizing for atheism.”
It may come as a surprise to some that I disagree wholeheartedly with Weinstein on this point. Weinstein and the MRFF have failed to distinguish between “proselytization” and “evangelism.” On the one hand, military members are prohibited from forcing unwanted and intrusive attempts upon others in order to convert them to a particular religious (or non-religious) view. That is, loosely, how the Department of Defense defines “proselytization.” “Evangelism,” on the other hand, occurs when military members discuss their faith (or non-faith) with others who are willing to discuss such matters. This is completely permissible.
Maj. Lonzo Wallace, Executive Officer to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, informed MRFF that the Academy is allowing the “Ask an Atheist Days” to proceed. Weinstein objects, believing that, “Religious neutrality means religious neutrality. Whether it’s saying that Jesus is your lord and savior or saying that there is no god makes no difference. Neither is a neutral position, and neither can be promoted by the United States Air Force Academy.” Weinstein and the MRFF have failed to grasp the fact that permitting an event is not the same as promoting a particular religious (or non-religious) view. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. Therefore, if the Academy were to prevent the atheists from setting up a table and permitting cadets to ask about their perspective, then the Air Force would be guilty of violating the Bill of Rights.
Todd Starnes, Fox News, “Why does Air Force Academy encourage atheism, prosecute Christianity?” (21 MAR 2014)
Chris Rodda, Huffington Post, “MRFF Complains About Atheists Proselytizing at Air Force Academy? Surely Pigs Are Flying!” (19 MAR 2014)
Bryant Jordan, Military.com News, “Air Force Academy Sanctions ‘Ask an Atheist’ Days” (20 MAR 2014)
Tom Roeder, Military Religious Freedom Foundation, “Mikey Weinstein enraged by evangelical atheists” (19 MAR 2014)
St. Jerome (c. 347 –420) was a Christian priest, apologist, historian, and eminent scholar. Best known for his translation of the Holy Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), his list of writings is extensive. His works in the field of dogmatic theology are quite polemical, directed against assailants of orthodoxy. Much of his written work was produced at the request of members within the congregation at Antioch, which was divided deeply by doctrinal disputes. Jerome was recognized not only for his great learning, but also for his personal piety. Still, he aroused a great deal of resentment from many non-Christians whom he condemned in his writings, and by many Christians who were offended by his biting sarcasm. Without any hint of sarcasm, consider these concise and thoughtful statements from St. Jerome regarding death and grief for Christians:
- “We should indeed mourn for the dead, but only for him whom Gehenna receives.”
- “You must regret him not as dead but as absent.”
- “Why do we grieve for the dead? We are not born to live forever.”
Divine Love, Freedom, and the Trinitarian Distinction
The specific understanding of love in the modern sense of reciprocity, with its focus on God’s voluntary opening of his own being to suffering, is fundamentally based on the relational freedom between God’s intrinsic being and his external acts. However, I contend that because only the historical trinitarian distinction maintains this freedom of God, theologies of divine passibility that eliminate this distinction will ultimately prove theologically unworkable. The attempt to hold together this modern relational understanding of divine love, freedom, and passibility, with the elimination of the trinitarian distinction, can be examined revealingly in terms of the conflation of one aspect of the Trinity into the other. Understanding the elimination of the trinitarian distinction in this way will show how God is not free in terms of this view, thus taking away that which Moltmann and Ngien hold as central to their theologies. This point can be demonstrated with the following two arguments.
First, if the concept of the immanent Trinity is conflated into that of the economic Trinity, then God’s being is his acts ad extra. The immanent Trinity is neither reiterated nor revealed in God’s external acts, but it is God’s external acts. Thus, God’s being exists only in terms of his external relationships and, if that is true, then God must relate to the creation in order to exist. God is no longer free not to relate to the world since he is dependent upon the creation for his existence. Furthermore, if God’s being ad intra is one and the same as his self-revelation ad extra, then it would not be possible to affirm that God existed in himself before his external act of creation. Thus, this move unacceptably leads to monism (God and the creation are one) in that it eliminates the freedom of God in his otherness and transcendence as related to his external acts.
Second, and more pertinent to these theologies of passibility, when the idea of the economic Trinity is conflated into that of the immanent Trinity, then God’s acts ad extra are in God or constitute the very intrinsic being of God. Here, God himself is not merely reiterated or revealed in his external acts; God’s external acts are “in” God himself. If God’s acts ad extra constitute his being, then these acts must necessarily take on the reality of divinity since divinity is the reality of God’s being. This is the case even if God’s acts ad extra constitute, but do not exhaust, his reality since they would take on the reality of divinity by having any part in the intrinsic reality of God. Thus, if God takes human suffering into his own being, then this suffering takes on the divine being of God. Suffering that is raised to the status of divinity by being “in” God must then become associated with the divine intrinsic nature of eternality or freedom from time. It would no longer be possible to say that there was a time when God did not suffer, and then in freedom God chose to suffer; when suffering is associated with his intrinsic being and “divinized” or “eternalized,” it is not accurate to talk of it in temporal terms. This is exemplified in the human experience of begetting as it is applied to the divine intrinsic relationship between the Father and the Son. When the Father is spoken of as begetting the Son in terms of the immanent Trinity as an act ad intra, the term “begetting” takes on an eternal and perpetual significance: the Son is eternally and perpetually begotten. In the same way, when suffering takes on an eternal and perpetual significance by virtue of its incorporation into the immanent Trinity, it can no longer be said that there was a time before when it was not and a time after when it is. When suffering is taken into the being of God, it always and everlastingly is. The God who loves from the fullness of his own being by “taking up” suffering into his own being is eternally and perpetually suffering. This suffering will never be overcome. Moreover, a passible God who takes suffering into his own intrinsic being is not and never has been free not to suffer. Divine suffering in this sense becomes as necessary for God’s intrinsic being as any of his attributes. When God is understood as eternally and perpetually suffering, he can never be understood as not suffering. Thus, it is at this key point concerning the freedom of God that the application of love as reciprocity to the being of God becomes problematic. Without God’s freedom in relation to suffering, there can be no true, voluntary love, and no divine passibility according to the terms in which modern theologies of passibility such as Moltmann’s and Ngien’s want to define them.
Yet, a mediating position might state that although God the Son, incarnate on the cross, takes suffering into his own being, God the Father could have participated in the suffering in some qualitatively distinct way that maintained God’s passibility as well as God’s freedom. Again, I answer, “Opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa“; what is attributed to one person of the Trinity is necessarily attributed to the Trinity as a unity of three persons. To argue that a distinct intrinsic work, experience, or relation of God the Father is in any degree ontologically separate from that of God the Son is to deny the unity of the Godhead that this historical affirmation seeks to maintain. The unity of the Godhead is clearly disrupted if it is affirmed, for example, that while God the Son suffered and died on the cross in his own being, God the Father remained impassible and alive in his. Since it is the triune God who is always and everywhere present, it must follow that God in his tri-unity was present on the cross, although the work is properly understood as distinctly that of the divine second person. Therefore, I would argue that a move in the direction of this sort of mediating view is a move toward tritheism.
Divine Suffering and the Person of Jesus Christ
Although these theologies of divine passibility ultimately prove to be problematic theologically, this does not leave humanity with a God who does not relate to human suffering. I believe that both Moltmann and Ngien properly look to a theology of the cross and to the suffering of Jesus as a true revelation of God in solidarity with suffering humanity. They each ask what the cross of Jesus means for God himself. Ngien answers that the divine nature of Jesus participated in the suffering of the cross in such a way that, “The human suffering of Jesus is really God’s own suffering: God suffered as we do.” (6) Moltmann is even clearer when he concludes, “If that [God himself suffering and dying on the cross] is taken seriously it must also be said that, like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself.” (7) While I agree here with Moltmann and Ngien that conclusions concerning the suffering of God can and should be drawn from God’s self-revelation hidden in the humility and suffering of Christ on the cross, I contend that these conclusions must be understood within the context of properly related doctrines of Christology, the Trinity, and the incarnation. Thus, any conclusions affirming the intrinsic suffering of God’s being as the divine nature of Jesus are as problematic as those relating to the elimination of the trinitarian conceptual distinction. This point can be demonstrated by applying the conclusions reached above to the following brief outline of the historical Christian understanding of the incarnation and two-nature Christology, which focuses on the doctrine of the hypostatic union.
The hypostatic union simply refers to the synthesis or hypostasis of the divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the hypostatic union is founded upon the assumption that it is cogent to speak of a human nature and a divine nature that include the full attributes or all the essential qualities that make up humanity or divinity, respectively. Furthermore, while the human nature as a created thing does not necessarily exist (since its essential qualities are found in its nature rather than in its subsistence), the divine nature does exist necessarily (since God’s nature or essence includes existence). In other words, the qualities essential to humanity can be divided from their particular instantiation or hypostasis, but God’s cannot. This distinction is important for understanding the anhypostasis and enhypostasis characteristics of the human nature of Jesus as it relates to the hypostatic union.
Although the ancient Church fathers borrowed the concepts of “anhypostasis” and “enhypostasis” from the philosophy of Aristotle, they employed these terms (in this context) to describe certain supernatural realities that transcend, not only their use in Greek philosophy, but also the possibilities inherent in our natural world. Anhypostasis defines the human nature of Jesus as not having its own instantiation or existence. Enhypostasis defines the human nature of Jesus as having its existence only in the divine Son or Logos. The human person of Jesus must be an instantiation of human nature in the same way that any specific human person must be an instantiation of the human nature. However, the doctrine of the hypostatic union holds that the human nature of Jesus exists, not in an instantiation or subsistence of a specific human person, but in the instantiation or subsistence of the divine Son. The divine Logos or God the Son, who is necessarily both divine nature and the instantiation of that nature, “took on human flesh” (John 1:14). Thus, the hypostatic union involves the divine Son, with both divine nature and hypostasis, becoming the hypostasis of the human nature. This makes it possible to affirm that the incarnate Jesus possesses a human nature and a divine nature united in one hypostasis or person. This doctrine of the two natures in traditional Chalcedonian Christology seeks not only to make a distinction between the divine and human natures, but also to assert their unity in the one person of Jesus. The one-person Jesus is both fully human, possessing all the essential qualities or attributes of humanity, and fully divine, possessing all the essential qualities or attributes of divinity. Therefore, it is equally proper to assert, from the Chalcedonian perspective, that the historical person Jesus is God and man.
Of course, many issues arise from this outline of the hypostatic union that are all worthy of serious analysis. Important to this discussion, however, are the implications of the trinitarian distinction and the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum (communication of proper qualities between the two natures) as they are applied to this basic understanding of the hypostatic union. These implications form the proper context for a theology of the cross as they profoundly affect the way God may be understood as suffering in the person of Jesus. Because Jesus Christ is not merely a revelation of God, but actually God the Son incarnate, the intrinsic being of God must be present necessarily, actually, and ontologically in the person of Jesus as his divine nature and hypostasis. Thus, the trinitarian distinction relates to the incarnation in such a way that it can be affirmed that Jesus is fully God himself, and that the extrinsic work of the person Jesus is a true reiteration or self-revelation of God’s being, or “God for us.” It is for this reason that Jesus understands his personality and personhood in terms of Sonship; that is, as the Son of God (Matt. 11:27; John 10:30), as well as Son of Man (Matt. 16:13). In this context of the hypostatic union, the tradition affirms the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum in order to better understand the way in which the human nature and the being of God as the divine nature coexist in the one person of Jesus. By this doctrine, it is generally understood that the proper qualities of each nature in the unity of the person of Jesus are interchanged or communicated from one nature to the other within the hypostatic union. Given this simple definition of the doctrine, it is important to note the one key implication that demonstrates the problem with affirming God’s intrinsic passibility in the suffering of Jesus.
This implication of the communicatio idiomatum is simply that there are some attributes distinctly related to each nature that are not communicated to the other. That is, what can be properly attributed to one nature of the hypostatic union is not necessarily properly attributed to the other. For example, the divine attribute of infinitude, while fully present in the divine nature, cannot be communicated to the human nature. This is simply because an infinite human nature is something more than what is properly human; therefore, if Jesus possessed an infinite human nature, soteriological problems would arise since he would not be human in the same sense as humanity in general. If this were the case, Jesus would not be truly human in the same way he would not be truly God if his divine nature did not possess infinitude, or if the finitude of the human nature were attributed to the divine. Likewise, while it is proper to attribute suffering to the human nature, the divine nature of Jesus could not suffer as the intrinsic being of God for the reasons concluded in the discussion of the trinitarian distinction above. The specific human quality of suffering cannot be attributed to God’s eternal being in the same way that the specific human quality of finitude cannot be attributed to God’s infinite being. Suffering is an experience of human nature that cannot be properly communicated to the divine. Therefore, it should be concluded that, although the person of Jesus did indeed experience suffering, the divine nature-which, as I have shown, must remain impassible in order to be freely and fully God-could not and in fact did not suffer within the hypostatic union. The precise reality of the communication of divine and human attributes in the person of Jesus is beyond human comprehension. Yet, this discussion demonstrates the importance of maintaining an understanding of the doctrine between the boundaries of a total separation (Nestorianism) and a complete confusion (Eutychianism) of the attributes of the divine and human natures.
Theologies of the cross holding to divine passibility, such as Moltmann’s and Ngien’s, which seek to affirm the intrinsic suffering of God in the passion and death of Jesus, push the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum beyond what it historically intended to affirm. Moltmann criticizes Martin Luther’s theology of the cross for not relating what he referred to as the suffering of God in the person of Jesus to the intrinsic triune being of God. This is due, as Moltmann acknowledges, to Luther’s careful articulation of the suffering of God within the context of traditional Chalcedonian Christology. (8) Moltmann, however-by articulating the Christology of Chalcedon within the context of his notion of love and divine passibility-proceeds beyond Luther in denying, at least in terms of suffering, the qualitative distinction between the divine and human natures of the one person of Jesus that the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum seeks to maintain. In the context of Chalcedon, Luther rightly wants to speak of God as truly suffering in the person of Jesus; but he does not want to attribute this suffering specifically to the divine nature and ultimately to the intrinsic triune being of God. Thus, Luther holds his theologies of the Trinity, incarnation, and two-nature Christology in proper relationship and as the context for his theology of the cross.
Properly Relating These Key Doctrinal Formulations
The properly related historical doctrines of the trinitarian distinction, incarnation, and two natures of Christ do not allow free movement between what is properly attributed to the hypostatic unity of the person of Jesus (which may be the essential attributes of each nature) and what is properly attributed to each specific nature. For example, it is proper to affirm that the incarnate person of Jesus as the God-man is infinite and eternal, as well as able to suffer and die. But it is not proper to say that the specific human nature of Jesus is infinite and eternal, or that the specific divine nature of Jesus can suffer and die. To take the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum out of the context of the person of Jesus and apply it without limitation to the particular natures of the hypostatic union, is to confuse the two natures and push the doctrine beyond the boundary of Eutychianism.
This error is exemplified by Ngien when he states, in focusing on the person of Jesus, “Evangelicals should not be offended at the thought that the death of the crucified Christ involved not only the humanity of Jesus but also his deity”; and then states, when he moves to a focus on the two natures of Jesus specifically, “Christ’s death would be the death of just another human being, [if not for] the death of the Son of God.” (9) I agree that the suffering and death of Jesus do involve his humanity and deity in the sense that he is the incarnate God-man; that God suffered and died for us in Jesus Christ is a true and accurate assertion. However, in light of a properly applied doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, it must be affirmed that the divine nature of Jesus did not specifically suffer and die in and of itself, but only in reference to the unity of the person of the God-man. For, in addition to the conclusions stated above, the intrinsic death of God in the specific death of the divine nature of Jesus is obviously problematic since in God we all “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If God actually and intrinsically dies, then the whole of creation, which he alone sustains, must also die with him. Furthermore, a death experienced by God within which he may still actively sustain creation or resurrect himself is not a death in solidarity with that experienced by humanity. The mystery of the incarnation is not in the actual death of God’s intrinsic being; it is in the precise reality of the communication of attributes between the two distinct natures in the unity of the one person of Jesus. Thus, within the relational context of these historical Christian trinitarian, incarnational, and christological doctrines, it is possible to affirm that Jesus, as the God-man in the true mystery of the incarnation, suffered in a way that makes possible the affirmation that God, though intrinsically impassible, truly suffered in solidarity with humanity.
Divine Impassibility and Our Suffering God
I have argued that the modern understanding of love, which is a primary motivation for contemporary theological affirmations of divine passibility, is founded upon the freedom of God; and that the freedom of God is preserved by the traditional conceptual distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. Furthermore, I maintained that the trinitarian distinction must be confused or eliminated when this modern understanding of love is applied to the intrinsic being of God; and that the resulting loss of God’s freedom makes divine passibility, based upon this notion of love, problematic. In addition to this, I demonstrated that when this conclusion is properly applied to the incarnation and traditional two-nature Christology, the problem with attributing suffering specifically to the divine nature of Jesus is also clear. Thus, I have shown how affirming divine passibility is problematic for evangelicals who want to remain faithful to the revelation of Scripture as it has been witnessed to historically in the traditional doctrinal formulations of Christology, the Trinity, and the incarnation. I have also shown how evangelicals, by maintaining a proper relationship between these doctrines serving as the context for a theology of the cross, can affirm both divine impassibility and God’s identification and solidarity with human suffering in the person of Jesus Christ. I will now conclude with an answer to the concern as to why modern evangelicals should affirm both divine impassibility and the suffering of God with a focus on the trinitarian distinction.
It should be understood that the trinitarian distinction is the conceptual key that locks the door on our attempts to “humanize” God or, in this case, to bring the infinitely qualitatively distinct and incomprehensible God closer to humanity through the application of human suffering to God’s intrinsic triune being. In this way, the trinitarian distinction prevents us from re-creating God after our own image. Yet, the trinitarian distinction is also the conceptual key that opens the door for the understanding of God himself as freely relating to humanity in the incarnate person of Jesus. It properly points humanity to Jesus, who is the only mediator through which God and humanity may meet in true solidarity. The more human we try to make God, the less we need the incarnation. But the more we acknowledge the radical otherness and transcendence of God, through the affirmation of traditional doctrines such as the trinitarian distinction and divine impassibility, the more we will cherish, lift up, and worship Jesus Christ who is the incarnation of God, the Immanuel, or “God with and for us.”
Rather than following after the contemporary trend of theological thought that seeks to affirm divine passibility in the face of profound human suffering, evangelicals should reaffirm this historical Christian doctrine of the trinitarian distinction with its christological and incarnational implications. Through this doctrine, we understand that God must be impassible to be freely and fully God for humanity. Only through this freedom and fullness may God truly be in loving relationship with humanity. And only in the affirmations of this trinitarian distinction, as they are properly applied to Christology and the incarnation as the context for a theology of the cross, may we affirm both the divine impassibility of God and the loving, voluntary choice of God to suffer in the passion and death of the person of Jesus Christ in true solidarity with suffering humanity.
6 Ngien, 40.
7 Moltmann, The Crucified God, 278. Brackets added.
8 Ibid., 235.
9 Ngien, 40-1. Brackets added.
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An important aspect of the Christian gospel that seeks to proclaim the love, mercy, and compassion of God is the affirmation of God’s identification and solidarity with human suffering. A suffering humanity needs a God who knows what it means to suffer. The church has traditionally met this need by emphasizing the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Especially in the theology of the Reformation, a “theology of the cross” sought to recognize God’s self-revelation hidden in the humility, shame, and suffering of the cross of Jesus Christ. Through the theology of the cross, God is known as the God who suffers with and for humanity. Yet, how does God identify with human suffering? Does God suffer in himself, in his own being; or is God immutable (unchanging), and therefore impassible (incapable of suffering), as the church has historically affirmed? Can God’s impassibility be upheld while at the same time affirming his real awareness of, and true identification with, human suffering? Why is it theologically important to maintain the historical witness to God’s impassibility, especially in the face of so much suffering in today’s world?
In this article, I will seek to answer these questions in two ways. Negatively, I will offer a critique of the contemporary theological trend that seeks to attribute suffering to God’s being, or to assert God’s passibility. (1) This trend affirms that God suffers in himself, and that the suffering of Jesus is the actual suffering of his divine nature. A clearly articulated representation of the general trend, and a viewpoint also being voiced in wider evangelicalism, is Jurgen Moltmann’s theology of the cross. The most important discussion of Moltmann’s theology of the cross is found in his book, The Crucified God, where he attempts both to understand God’s being from the suffering and death of Jesus and to apply this understanding to what he calls a “theology after Auschwitz.” (2) A representation of this theological project in contemporary evangelicalism is found in Dennis Ngien’s article, “The God Who Suffers,” which appeared in the February 3, 1997, edition of Christianity Today. (3) Positively, I will seek to answer these questions by reaffirming the Christian historical understanding of the trinitarian conceptual distinction, the incarnation, and Chalcedonian two-nature Christology; and by demonstrating the proper relationship between them as the context for a theology of the cross. In view of these key doctrinal formulations, I will demonstrate how an evangelical theology of the cross can and should affirm both divine impassibility and God’s true identification and solidarity with the suffering of this hurting world.
The Modern Understanding of Love
One of the key motives for affirming a theology of the cross that attributes suffering to the being of God is a modern understanding of love that is founded upon the freedom of God. This understanding of love is held in common by both theologies under consideration here. Drawing insights from modern psychology, this view of the nature of love focuses on the concept of relational reciprocity: an exchange of feelings in the voluntary opening of oneself to vulnerability, or the possibility of being affected by another. (4) This sort of love is seen as the acceptance of the other without regard to one’s own being. It necessarily includes the possibility of sharing in suffering and the freedom to suffer, and therefore must be a voluntary act of will. As such, it creates the possibility for an alternate view of suffering that is neither an unwilling suffering that results from some alien cause, nor apatheia or the incapability of suffering. When applied to God, this “suffering of love” has as its very foundation the freedom of God to choose to be affected by human action and suffering in history. Both Moltmann and Ngien move from this notion of love to divine passibility by arguing that God’s suffering love for humanity, working in freedom, must flow out of the fullness of God’s being. Furthermore, to love in the fullness of his being, God must reciprocally take suffering, even death, into his own being. Thus, for these theologies of divine passibility, God may truly and justly be God for humanity through his loving, voluntary openness to our suffering, in which he intrinsically participates.
This understanding of the nature of love is useful when applied to humanity and to the person of Jesus in general. It broadens and enriches the classical theistic view of love as merely an attitude and action of goodwill toward another. However, I contend that to apply this notion of love to the intrinsic being of God is problematic when analyzed in light of the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity that draws a conceptual distinction between what is referred to as the immanent (or ontological) Trinity and as the economic Trinity. In recognizing that their relational, reciprocal concept of love must focus on God’s external, or extrinsic, relationship to the creation as it is also applied to God’s own being, both Moltmann and Ngien are forced to resolve the resulting conflict between God’s external works and the triune intrinsic being of God by stressing the conceptual equivalence of the immanent and the economic Trinity. However, when this modern understanding of love is applied to the intrinsic being of God through this elimination of the trinitarian conceptual distinction, it becomes problematic in that it also eliminates the freedom of God it holds as foundational. In order to demonstrate this, I will first briefly explain what is meant by this trinitarian distinction in the historical Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The Conceptual Trinitarian Distinction
The conceptual distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity has traditionally been affirmed in obedience to the biblical witness of God’s transcendence from his creation, and his freedom in relationship to it, and God’s immanence in the creation in terms of his external acts. Briefly stated, the immanent Trinity refers to the being of God insofar as he is transcendent from his creation and focuses on God’s internal acts (his acts ad intra). The economic Trinity refers to the God who is immanent in his creation and consists solely of God’s actions outside of himself in relation to his creation (his acts ad extra). The immanent Trinity is the intrinsic Trinity or “God in himself,” while the economic Trinity is extrinsic or “God for us.” In terms of relationship, the concept of the immanent Trinity is primary to that of the economic Trinity and therefore exists necessarily; the latter is dependent and contingent upon the former, and exists only when God acts externally. The priority of the notion of the immanent Trinity is the foundation of the freedom and self-sufficiency of God; God does not need the creation to exist-God exists in himself prior to, and independent from, his act of creation. This makes it possible to affirm that God is free in relation to his creation since he does not have to act ad extra, but can choose to relate to the creation or choose not to. Thus, intrinsically, God is independent and ontologically distinct from his creation even as he freely chooses to exist in relationship to it. It is this point that serves as the basis for the freedom of God. Here, God’s “otherness” is always affirmed in both his transcendence and immanence; and here, God is able to be immutable and impassible and creative and in relationship with creation.
The notion of the economic Trinity also relates to the immanent Trinity as its reiteration; the former corresponding to or revealing the latter. This precise reiteration makes it possible to affirm that God has truly revealed himself in his external works. Thus, the God who reveals himself to be in his acts ad extra truly corresponds to whom God is in his very being ad intra. It should be noted that while God’s acts ad extra constitute a true reiteration or revelation of himself, this revelation is not exhaustive of his intrinsic being. This differentiation serves to confirm the veracity of God’s self-revelation on the one hand, while it maintains God’s otherness, infinitude, and incomprehensibility on the other. One further important point concerning the relationship between the concepts of the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity is referenced theologically by the phrase, “Opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa” (the external works of the Trinity are undivided). This affirms that the whole Godhead is present in whatever God does ad extra, or external to himself. It seeks to maintain the unity of the Trinity in the relational actions of God that are often manifested particularly as the operation of one or another of the persons of the Godhead.
As I stated above, theologies such as Moltmann’s and Ngien’s-which seek to attribute an external, relational aspect of God to his intrinsic being,must diminish this traditional distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity. Moltmann recognizes this when he follows Karl Rahner in eliminating the distinction altogether and affirming them as one and the same. He argues that this traditional concept of the immanent Trinity as a closed circle of divine being distinct from God’s external acts is inadequate. Stressing the loving “mutual relationship” within God himself, and between himself and the world, Moltmann sees God’s relationship to the world as having a “retroactive” effect on his primary relationship to himself. God affects the world and is affected by his experiences of the world to the point that the economic Trinity can be understood as actually taken up into the immanent Trinity. Thus, he recommends a “Trinitarian concept of the cross,” which focuses on the event of the cross that occurs between the Father and the Son, and as the kyrios (pivotal or dominant event) of the history of the world. (5) Here, Moltmann affirms that, at the cross, not only suffering but all of history is taken into the intrinsic being of God. Thus, with this concept of the Trinity, rather than with that of the traditional trinitarian distinction, the true scope of Moltmann’s theology of the cross and his doctrine of divine passibility are realized.
(to be continued)
1 For a concise account of the modern development of the issue of divine suffering, see Paul S. Fiddes, “Suffering, Divine,” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, ed. by Alister E. McGrath (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), 633-6. For a more detailed account, see Paul S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).
2 Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. by R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993). For a concise discussion of other theologians representing this trend, see Warren McWilliams, The Passion of God: Divine Suffering in Contemporary Protestant Theology (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985).
3 Dennis Ngien, “The God Who Suffers,” Christianity Today, February 3, 1997, 38-42.
4 Fiddes, 634. Fiddes discusses this modern understanding of love as one of the four primary motivations for affirming divine passibility. The remaining three motivations he cites are Christology, the justice of God, and the mutual relationality between God and creation.
5 Moltmann, The Crucified God, 249.
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St. Patrick (c. AD 373-465) was the most influential Christian missionary to serve Ireland. Patrick came from a Christian family (for two generations at least). His father, Calpurnius, was a deacon and the son of Potitus, a presbyter of Bannaven Taburniae. Patrick was born in what is now known as Scotland. Kidnapped by a band of pirates when he was 16, he was sold to a chieftain in northern Ireland and forced to labor as a shepherd. It was during this time he was himself converted and became a follower of Jesus Christ. He recounted:
Before I was humbled, I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and He that is mighty came and in His mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for His great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure.
Following six years of captivity, Patrick escaped and returned to his home in Scotland. After several years he sensed a divine calling to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the land of his former captivity. Though his family urged him to remain with them, he sensed this calling was confirmed by Holy Scripture and set out for Ireland with several associates around AD 405.
The task facing Patrick and his comrades was a difficult one as Druids ruled the religious landscape of Ireland. The inhabitants worshiped “idols and things impure,” and the land was filled with sorcerers and exorcists. The missionary later related that his labors suffered “twelve dangers in which my life was at stake—not to mention numerous plots.” He noted tribal leaders “laid hands on me and my companions and on that day they eagerly wished to kill me; but my time had not yet come. And everything they found with us they took away, and me they put in irons; and on the fourteenth day the Lord delivered me from their power, and our belongings were returned to us because of God.”
Patrick’s time would not come for another six decades. He spent 60 years preaching the gospel throughout Ireland. Thousands were baptized after professing faith in Jesus Christ, including numerous pagan kings and nobles. The missionary ordained approximately 450 elders and established approximately 365 congregations all across the Emerald Isle. He praised God readily for these successs:
I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon after confirmed, that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, and the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth. As He once promised through His prophets: To you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Our fathers have inherited naught but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit. And again, I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost ends of the earth. And I wish to wait then for His promise which is never unfulfilled, just as it is promised in the Gospel.
St. Patrick’s Day is observed on 17 March, the date of his death. It is celebrated not only within Ireland, but in many other nations as a religious and cultural holiday.
John Newton (1725 – 1807), a sailor and slave trader who was converted by the grace of Jesus Christ and became an Anglican clergyman and prominent abolitionist, also penned several hymns. His most well-known hymns include “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.” As an orthodox Anglican minister, Newton affirmed the Thirty-Nine Articles and, therefore, Calvinism. When a fellow minister was prepared to author an article criticizing a fellow minister for his lack of Reformed orthodoxy, he wrote to Newton regarding his intention. Newton’s reply, found in his letter, “On Controversy” in The Works of John Newton, states:
As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper, my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side; for truth is great, and must prevail; so that a person of abilities inferior to yours might take the field with a confidence of victory. I am not therefore anxious for the event of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph, not only over your adversary, but over yourself. If you cannot be vanquished, you may be wounded. To preserve you from such wounds as might give you cause of weeping over your conquests, I would present you with some considerations, which, if duly attended to, will do you the service of a great coat of mail; such armor, that you need not complain, as David did of Saul’s, that it will be more cumbersome than useful; for you will easily perceive it is taken from that great magazine provided for the Christian soldier, the Word of God. I take it for granted that you will not expect any apology for my freedom, and therefore I shall not offer one. For method’s sake, I may reduce my advice to three heads, respecting your opponent, the public, and yourself.
Consider Your Opponent
As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.
If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: “Deal gently with him for my sake.” The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.
But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit), he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.” But you know who has made you to differ. If God, in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been as he is now; and he, instead of you, might have been set for the defense of the gospel. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes, and not his.
Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy: but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose. “If peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.” If you write with a desire of being an instrument of correcting mistakes, you will of course be cautious of laying stumbling blocks in the way of the blind or of using any expressions that may exasperate their passions, confirm them in their principles, and thereby make their conviction, humanly speaking, more impracticable.
Consider the Public
By printing, you will appeal to the public; where your readers may be ranged under three divisions: First, such as differ from you in principle. Concerning these I may refer you to what I have already said. Though you have your eye upon one person chiefly, there are many like-minded with him; and the same reasoning will hold, whether as to one or to a million.
There will be likewise many who pay too little regard to religion, to have any settled system of their own, and yet are preengaged in favor of those sentiments which are at least repugnant to the good opinion men naturally have of themselves. These are very incompetent judges of doctrine; but they can form a tolerable judgment of a writer’s spirit. They know that meekness, humility, and love are the characteristics of a Christian temper; and though they affect to treat the doctrines of grace as mere notions and speculations, which, supposing they adopted them, would have no salutary influence upon their conduct; yet from us, who profess these principles, they always expect such dispositions as correspond with the precepts of the gospel. They are quick-sighted to discern when we deviate from such a spirit, and avail themselves of it to justify their contempt of our arguments. The scriptural maxim, that “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God,” is verified by daily observation. If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service of the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit. The weapons of our warfare, and which alone are powerful to break down the strongholds of error, are not carnal, but spiritual; arguments fairly drawn from Scripture and experience, and enforced by such a mild address, as may persuade our readers, that, whether we can convince them or not, we wish well to their souls, and contend only for the truth’s sake; if we can satisfy them that we act upon these motives, our point is half gained; they will be more disposed to consider calmly what we offer; and if they should still dissent from our opinions, they will be constrained to approve our intentions.
You will have a third class of readers, who, being of your own sentiments, will readily approve of what you advance, and may be further established and confirmed in their views of the Scripture doctrines, by a clear and masterly elucidation of your subject. You may be instrumental to their edification if the law of kindness as well as of truth regulates your pen, otherwise you may do them harm. There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only showing a becoming zeal in the cause of God.
I readily believe that the leading points of Arminianism spring from and are nourished by the pride of the human heart; but I should be glad if the reverse were always true; and that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind. I think I have known some Arminians, that is, persons who for want of a clearer light, have been afraid of receiving the doctrines of free grace, who yet have given evidence that their hearts were in a degree humbled before the Lord.
And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility, that they are willing in words to debase the creature and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of. Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit.
Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.
This leads me, in the last place, to consider your own concern in your present undertaking. It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. If ever such defenses were seasonable and expedient they appear to be so in our own day, when errors abound on all sides and every truth of the gospel is either directly denied or grossly misrepresented.
And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?
Your aim, I doubt not, is good; but you have need to watch and pray for you will find Satan at your right hand to resist you; he will try to debase your views; and though you set out in defense of the cause of God, if you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your own cause, and awaken in you those tempers which are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct communion with God.
Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who “when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.” This is our pattern, thus we are to speak and write for God, “not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that hereunto we are called.” The wisdom that is from above is not only pure, but peaceable and gentle; and the want of these qualifications, like the dead fly in the pot of ointment, will spoil the savor and efficacy of our labors.
If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves. If you can be content with showing your wit, and gaining the laugh on your side, you have an easy task; but I hope you have a far nobler aim, and that, sensible of the solemn importance of gospel truths, and the compassion due to the souls of men, you would rather be a means of removing prejudices in a single instance, than obtain the empty applause of thousands. Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts that you are taught of God, and favored with the unction of his Holy Spirit.