Category Archives: Impassibility

Two problems with saying God does not suffer

All the criticisms that maintain that God does not suffer – there seem to me two problems. i) On any view of the Incarnation, the second Person of the Trinity suffers. Assuming one adopts a two natures Christology, the suffering of the second Person is not negated by the fact that it only occurs in his human nature, for he has a human nature just as fully as a divine nature. ii) Suffering, insofar as it is a conscious experience, is still a modality of being – of existence. It is incomprehensible to me that such a thing could exist and be existentially “unknown” to God. It would be like saying that God doesn’t know what the color blue looks like. Blue only exists because God made it so. But surely if God makes a mode of being he must know it perfectly – indeed it must come absolutely from him and him alone. The same holds, I would argue, with suffering.


God’s Causality and the Existence of Evil

“The Lord has made all for himself, yes even the wicked for the day of doom.” Proverbs 16:4

It is interesting here how the Psalmist qualifies his statement. He seems to go out of his way to make sure you know that when he says “all things” he really means all things – yes, even the wicked.

Now we could debate whether or not the Psalmist was speaking a timeless truth about the actions and nature of God or whether his own culturally biased and naturally sinful character permitted him only to say of God what he was able, given his condition, to understand. Or we could even debate the nature of inspiration altogether: should Old Testament texts – particularly the gruesome ones – be considered as truly revelatory as those of the New?

But to do that would miss the point I want to talk about, which is the relation between God’s causality and the existence of evil. On the model I’ve been proposing, in which God causes all things that exist in the whole history of space and time, it seems to follow that God is the cause of evil as well. After all, evil certainly is something that exists in space-time. Not only is every rape, suicide, and murder an evil, but so is every bitter thought, every hurt feeling, every pain however slight. Even a stubbed toe is in its own sense a real evil. And since God causes all things and events, it follows, since these are things or events, that he causes them too. But doesn’t this make God himself the “author of evil”?

I would say that it does make God evil’s “author,” but that this doesn’t imply anything negative about God. We must be very careful here in our phrasing. What exactly is entailed in the word author? If we mean that God is himself guilty of something morally impure or evil himself, I deny that he is evil’s author. But if it means that he brings about things which are themselves evil I think we could agree with this without creating any theological problems.

Think about it like this. When God creates, say, an apple tree, he creates something which itself brings forth apples and feeds other of his creatures. He does not himself become either an apple tree or an apple. Or when God creates a roaring waterfall, he does not himself become one. What must be understood is that God’s creative action both a) distances himself from the created object; and b) gives the created object whatever definite and meaningful reality that it has. Thus when God creates an apple tree what exists is an apple tree. Furthermore, when God creates evil, say in the form of a wicked angel, what he creates just is a wicked angel. 

With this distinction in mind we can also avoid another common objection against the omnicausal view of God which is that if God creates absolutely everything then whatever he creates must be good. Therefore – the objection goes – every rape, murder, kidnapping, cancer, etc. must be really good, since God has ordained that it occur. What this objection fails to understand however is that these things are not good things precisely because God’s creative action has made them to have whatever evil that they do. In other words, the reason why evil things are not really good is because they really are evil. Death, torture, war, sickness – these things are true evils, horrible ones (and God knows them as such). They are not good just because they exist.

Lurking behind the objection above is the idea that a morally perfect and good God logically cannot create a universe containing evil. There are a few things that could be said here to help us navigate this puzzle.

1) There has not been a proper argument showing that God could not create a universe with evil in it. At least, we would need to see a logical incompatibility between a) the existence of an all perfect first cause God and b) the existence of evil in the created universe.

2) On any scheme of theology, God still has reasons for allowing evil to exist, otherwise it wouldn’t be at all. Even on the least providential view of God, where he is totally hands off and totally causally distinct from the world, God still has good reasons (e.g. his respecting of free will) to permit evil in the universe.

3) This assumes that to create a universe with evil, or to create evil in a universe, is itself morally evil or an instance of evil. But again, that just begs the question. It has not been proven that to create evil is itself an evil thing to do. If the connection between “creating x” and “being x” were inescapable it would mean that, when God creates a bird chirping, he himself would also be a bird chirping.

The real question that is most pressing at this point is not if the existence of evil and a perfectly good God is logically compatible, but rather why evil exists. What would such a God’s motives be in creating evil, especially if the existence of the universe itself is something contingent? God did not have to create – his nature does not logically require a universe in order to be maximally perfect. Why then make a universe with evil? Why not make a universe with no evil at all? Or why not make a universe where all beings were saved? Or why not only create morally perfect creatures?

This is a tough question, but a few things can be said I think to alleviate some difficulties.

1) Although it is true that God’s nature does not necessarily entail the existence of the universe, it may not be meaningful to say that God “could have done otherwise.” That is, to ask “why didn’t God do such and such” may in fact be an incoherent question. For it seems that for it to be meaningful it would have to be possible for us to go back to some first point – some first moment in time – of creation, and imagine God as doing something other than he did. I can ask why I drove this way rather to work than that way because I can rewind my day and evaluate my motives at that particular point in time. But God’s actions – even his free ones – are done timelessly. They are not done sequentially. (This is also another good reason Molinism seems false: it creates a sequential and therefore temporal God.) He doesn’t “first” do this “then” do that. Therefore it doesn’t seem meaningful to ask why God created a universe with evil in it “rather than” a universe without evil. For again, that implies that he is temporal and capable of going back in time to evaluate a choice which he could have done differently.

2) If God is related to a thing, it seems he must be related to it as perfectly as possible. For instance, the Father is related to the Son perfectly as Father. Furthermore, the whole Trinity is related to the creation perfectly as Creator. What this means is that there is nothing in these particular relations that is imperfect or lacking. When we create something or are father of someone, we at times fail in living up to the maximally perfect relation possible between ourselves and such things. We can be bad fathers or create something poorly. But God, since he is perfect, cannot himself fail to be in perfect relation to whatever he is related to.

With this in mind we can ask the question: is it possible that God, in creating unrepentant sinners and the wicked who are reprobate, did so in order to stand in a perfectly appropriate relation to such a kind of evil being? That is, why can’t God express that which in him is infinitely and perfectly opposed to implacable evil by creating beings who themselves are implacably evil? Is it because he would be doing an injustice to the created being? Not that I can see. One could only think that by first imagining God creating an innocent person and thereafter “making” him sinful. But remember, God’s creative action creates its object immediately and with the entirety of its essence. Thus, if what God created just was a being who deserved judgment, how would it be unjust of God to judge it? God would just be bringing about a truly logically possible kind of creature.

Would we think this view of God makes him petty or egotistical? Not if we understand the traditional doctrine of creation. That traditional teaching is that God, since he is of himself perfect, does not need the universe in order to actualize his perfection, nor does he somehow become more perfect or fulfilled simply because it exists. If this is true then God in creating beings does not enrich his own experience of himself. Therefore he could not create the wicked in order to make himself look better or to flex his egotistical muscles. He doesn’t get his juices flowing by making creation such and such a way.

Perhaps we think it is just a waste of God’s time to make such a world. Why would he make beings who he knows will ultimately deny him and so be consigned to everlasting destruction (whether that be annihilation or some degraded or primal sense of consciousness)? What’s the point, especially if he is already perfectly fulfilled? Could it not be for the benefit of his creation, so that they could more perfectly know and understand who God is? I am far from agreeing with the Edwardian/Calvinist picture of God who is positively wrathful or somehow outraged, in the sense of losing his emotional control, over something that goes on in a world where he has ordained all that comes to pass. But if we look at God’s anger more along the Pauline lines of “longsuffering” and “endurance” I think we can perhaps get a better grasp of how to think about this objection.

Traditionally, God’s nature is such that it cannot suffer. That seems to me to imply he cannot be in the sort of emotional distress that the common Calvinist picture paints him to be in: like an enraged alcoholic who can hardly control keep from destroying the slightest thing that offends him. However, it seems to me perfectly compatible with an impassible nature to suppose that God’s anger is something like a perfectly patient and disapproving endurance. A sort of disapproving putting up with, with the thought of eventually destroying altogether, not with any bitterness, but with an unflinching – because completely deserving – finality.

Imagine a time when someone has wronged you. Which is a more appropriate, a healthier, a more God like response? Wishing and brooding over getting even with the person, or a calm recognition that, although that person may have gotten away with what he did, in the end, all will be set right? You see, when we imagine God as being positively offended by the creation, we are imagining him as passible and even whimsical. (We’ve certainly lost sight of actus purus – no consistent Calvinist can consistently believe in that it seems.) Does it not make more sense to view God’s wrath, anger, justice, endurance, etc. along the lines of a well-controlled but still absolutely disapproving judge?

So is it not possible to say that God created evil in order to display to his creatures that which is in itself (and in himself) a perfectly appropriate stance towards implacable evil, that is, as St. Paul said, enduring it with longsuffering and patience for a season, and then eradicating it altogether?

On Kenosis, with notes on Balthsar

“The self-surrender which he practiced before the Fall meant no struggle but only the delicious overcoming of an infinitesimal self-adherence which delighted to be overcome—of which we see a dim analogy in the rapturous mutual self-surrenders of lovers even now.”

The idea of God emptying himself in order to become man is at once both promising and puzzling. If God “became” man and in so doing emptied himself of his very divine attributes themselves, then in what sense could it really be true that it is God who is man? On the other hand, if the man Christ possessed the divine attributes – omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, impassibility, etc. – how could he really be a man with a human body and soul?

This post will not be an exploration of the doctrine of the Two Natures. I’m saving that for a future one. Rather, this post is designed to focus on one particular occurrence – namely the act of self-emptying or kenosis – as it pertains to God.

How can God, as God, empty himself? More modern thinkers will say that he can do this as God because there is an analogue for this act it in the very Trinity itself. This is because God’s nature is just to be in Triune relations. Therefore he must necessarily always be in Triune relations, for this is what makes him God. If, per impossible, he were to cease being in Triune relations, he would cease to be God. Thus what defines God as God, and what makes his acts consistent as the acts of God, is the fact that he does them – is eternally doing them – in his Triune relations.

This idea is really just an expansion of the earlier one regarding the Incarnation. The problem centers around the identification of properties and how a thing can remain itself. Simply put, if to be God means having the divine properties of a, b, and c, then insofar as God exists and does such and such, he has these properties as he does such and such. If any of them are lacking it is not God we are talking about – for God must necessarily have these properties – but something else, say a very powerful or wise angel, etc.

Thus, to restart the train of thought, since God as God empties and humbles himself in becoming man, one of his essential properties in his divine Triune life must involve an emptying and humbling of himself also. For again, if God’s triune relations did not involve these sort of acts, and if God’s essence is identical to his triune relations, God as God necessarily could not have such properties.

Modern theologians – Balthasar comes to mind – therefore want to say that, in light of this, since God as God does in fact empty and humble himself, this means that God as God also must experience in doing so the suffering and pain of self-sacrifice that attends such emptying. Thus Balthasar holds that in the very Triune relations themselves there is a “supra-kenosis,” a supra-emptying. The Father in creating the Son makes himself “destitute” of all that he is, and in so doing takes on the modality of suffering-for-the-sake-of-the-other. As he puts it “The unfolding of the Trinity is an eternal self-destitution of the persons toward each other. God as absolute love contains all modalities of love even the modality of suffering-separation and self-destitution motivated and anchored in the love exchange of the Trinitarian persons in the one God.” (Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. viii. – ix.)

Now, at first this is promising. In fact in my last post on the Dying God I was myself somewhat infatuated with this view. A God who suffers in his very being – essentially – as part of his love! How romantic! But after a little closer thought I see the devastating consequences – both logical and romantic – of such a belief.

The main problem is summed up in the quote at the beginning of this post. It can be put like this: why assume that a self-emptying and a humbling on the divine level necessarily entails suffering, pain, privation, or evil? You will often read Kenoticists and those who believe in a God who suffers in his very nature say something like this: “Kenosis captures the state of a thing that should be full (plerosis) but has been emptied. Suffering is the result of being emptied (of kenosis).*” But what I want to say is, why suppose that second sentence follows from the first? Why suppose that kenosis necessarily entails suffering?

If we suppose that it does, what results is basically a Dualist conception of God. For think, if God in his very essence and nature necessarily contains or “is” or “experiences” suffering and pain, he necessarily contains within himself evil. Therefore he needs evil to be what he is, and would not be what he is were that evil to be absent. But this is nothing else than to say that the Good as such needs Evil. All of theology rejects this notion. Good as such is independent, self-existent, fully real. It can be entirely on its own. It does not need Evil. It is the Evil as such which is needy. It is parasitic on the Good and could not exist except for it. Yet suffering and pain are real evils. Therefore, although they may need the Good for themselves to exist – say the good of a finite rational being in whom they can reside – nevertheless the Good as such does not need them and can exist without them.

To deny suffering and pain and “self-destitution” are evils would be to deny that they are themselves, and would be the same as saying that it is not better to be free from them than to experience them. Heaven therefore may be filled with an eternity of suffering and pain and be, since these things are good, the better for that.

I think we should say, rather, that although self-emptying is a necessary act of the persons of the Trinity in their own ad intra relations, this kenosis is not itself an act attended by pain and suffering. Rather, it is one done with indescribable joy. It was for the “joy set before him” that Christ endured the cross (Heb 12:2). For in the Trinity there is a perfect communion, a perfect penetration and knowledge of intellect and will, an uninterrupted experience of absolute love that cannot possibly be further increased. In God there is as it were no place or “foothold” for evil to make its dwelling and affect God. In fact that just is what it means to be God: to be absolutely and maximally good, “in whom is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is incapable of being better than he is, not because he is unable to do something, but because his goodness is so complete, so fully real, that there is no room for it to grow. There is not even the slightest spot of evil in himself that could be wiped away that would make him say “now I am better, now I am more fully experiencing Love and Goodness!”

In fallen man self-sacrifice and emptying involve pain and suffering. But that is because he is fallen and imperfect. In God, it seems to me much better to say that if kenosis is an act of the Trinity itself among the persons, then this very act itself, like all their acts of love, is one of ecstasy and unspeakable joy. Perfect Love need not have evil to be most lovely. Otherwise we must suppose that a perfect marriage must have death and separation to be perfect itself. Yet then Death would be a principle on par with Life. Life would not reign supreme. It would be conditioned in its goodness by an equal and opposite force which it needed in order to be fully itself. Although Dualism is certainly a manly religion, it is not the same as Christianity, which, as the medievalists said, holds that God or the Good is that which “has no opposite.”

In the end I think the matter can be put like this. Although it is true that evil cannot exist without good, it is false that good cannot exist without evil. As such the kenosis of God as God need not mean that God as God is subject to or suffers from evil.

*(Does God Suffer? Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of Holy Saturday Matthew Lewis Sutton)

On the Dying God

“For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified He “did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness”. From before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience.” CSL, The Problem of Pain

I have been at pains to understand in what sense God can be “impassible” and also therefore assume flesh, suffer, and die on the cross. The dilemma seems to be precisely this. If God created time, he must therefore transcend it (otherwise he himself would be one more species of becoming that is itself subject to it.) And if he transcends time, there can be no before and after with him. Thus God must be unchangeable. Now, this is the classical understanding of God and I find nothing problematic with it so far. Yet what also follows from this idea is that God has a nature “of his own” which he does not gain or actualize from the creation itself. God is not “more God” in light of the fact that he created. He does not accrue some good that he would otherwise lack because of finite, contingent beings. Otherwise, how could he be self-existent? How would he not necessarily “need” creation? And so how would he himself not be just one more conditioned and contingent being among many? But if God were this, we would have to look for something outside of God to explain this particular imposition of limitation and contingency in him. Therefore, the classic theologians conclude, God must be in himself all that he is: a perfectly full existence that cannot be added to or taken away from. He thus cannot be “moved” and cannot suffer “passion.” He is then “impassible.”

Yet – and I am now finally getting to the real puzzle – if God is fully God with or without a creation, and if he cannot suffer “passion,” in what sense can the crucifixion of Christ tell us anything about the essence of God himself? The difficulty lies in the fact that if we conceive of God as existing in pure and unsullied bliss in his inner being, then even Christ’s crucifixion cannot as it were change or interrupt such a state. For nothing in the creation can supervene on or determine God’s own experience of existence. Yet if that is the case then Christ’s very passion itself – his agony, his self-sacrifice, his groaning and sorrow – cannot really tell us anything about God.

“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” These words are from Christ’s lips, but they point to a truth we already know from experience: to sacrifice one’s own self for the sake of another is the height of what it means to love. Insofar as the difficulty of such a sacrifice is greater, thus far is the act of love more intense. In fact to the degree that doing something is pleasureable that very thing can hardly be called a self-sacrificial act at all.

Imagine, then, that all acts of self-sacrifice – all acts of crucifixion, in their various forms – were simply deleted from the world and from our memory. Would our idea of Love be lessened? I think it would be. That idea of love which does not involve voluntary suffering seems to me a pale shadow of the deeper, pulsing fabric of reality we sometimes connect with when we actually experience Love. To think that Love cannot take on even pain and suffering and endure them if it would so choose would seem itself to be a defeat of Love. Is it not strong enough to endure pain – indeed even death – for the sake of what it loves? To deny this would be to equate love with simply “joy” or “bliss.” No doubt such things are lovely, and express a particular dimension of Love itself. But they are not exhaustive of the reality of Love as such.

But notice the curious thing that happens here if we really agree that self-sacrifice is a lovely thing. Since God is Love itself, and since his being and his goodness cannot be actualized by creation, it must therefore be the case that something like self-sacrifice exists in God’s very nature. Scripture says that the lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world.” Could it not be the case – indeed is it not quite ignorant to deny – that in God himself, along with our human experiences of Joy and Bliss, there exists an analogue to our human experience of voluntary self-death or Kenosis for the sake of the other?

I take it, then, that apart from creation God in himself knows – because he thus is – such a process, such an experience. In the same way as he knows the begetting of the Son, and the giving to him of all things, so he experiences in some way a denial of his own self for the Son, for the Other. The father in begetting the Son thus by the same act voluntarily dies to himself: he is no longer the only existing person. And the Son, having been begotten by the Father, straightway lays down his own life, surrendering all that is his, and thus in his own way perfectly imitates the Father.

We must remember that the various words we use to describe acts of God – begetting, creating, loving, dying, self-sacrificing – are all abstractions from our interaction with the material world. Thus the realities that the words expressed are always in our experience coupled with change. But in God there is no change. The words we use are only an imperfect grasp or conception of what is in itself impossible to be grasped by us in its totality.

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” I take it that Jesus came to show us what God is like. Therefore the acts of Jesus must somehow have some analogue to the very life of God as he is in himself. There must then be in the Trinity some sense in which voluntary submission, emptying, and self-sacrifice are experienced realities. Otherwise, the death of Jesus could tell us nothing about God. His Passion would be a meaningless revelation, since in God there would be nothing akin to suffering. The human nature which the Word assumed then, would not be a true reflection of the Word itself. It would have as it were useless facades. Christ’s pain, ignorance, fear, anxiety, sorrow – all these things would show us only a human being, but not God himself. What, therefore, would be their point? How then could Christ be God incarnate? How therefore could he have assumed our humanity? What would Christ hanging on the cross mean if God himself does not know what it is to suffer and die for another?

To all those who have come to believe in the beauty and power of a God who freely endures suffering for the sake of the other – to all those who believe that the crucifixion of Jesus shows us the nature of God – their faith would literally be false. For on such a view God himself never suffers, indeed cannot even know what it feels like to suffer or die, since in him these realities have no place in his life. So if we are comforted by fact that of the Incarnation, what occurred must have been a real incarnation. Otherwise, as far as I can tell the whole point of the Incarnation disappears. Why would God tell us Jesus is like him when his most defining act – laying down his life for others – is something that God cannot do at all?

With all this said, the doctrines of the Impassibility and Immutability of God are not therefore ones we have to give up. God’s existence as first cause and his complete possession of perfection entails that nothing ,so to speak, ever “happens to him.” That is, nothing affects God from the outside. I take it that is what the true import of passibility implies: i.e. that nothing moves God. Yet this does not mean that from the inside God does not know anything like what we call a passion or emotion. Certainly God experiences joy, love, happiness, etc. These emotions happen to us – they “move” us, and as such are passions. Yet in God they simply are his active reality that he is. And since these human emotions are in God (in a transcendent, changeless way of course), it seems to me necessary to say that, the whole process of self-death which gives way to life for the other is present in God’s being as well. That is, the idea of voluntarily taking on “suffering” (abstracted from the material things which are the means by which such a reality is experienced by us through sensation) must, it seems to me, be an essential aspect of God’s being, not itself actualized by creation but there necessarily in his Triune relations from all eternity.

With this idea in mind we can also remove another difficulty, which is in conceiving how God as eternal and immutable did not change by becoming man and being crucified. For the truth is that the Incarnation in a revelation of what is changelessly and eternally already in God’s very essence. God in becoming man does not take on some new, unexperienced reality. He knows self-emptying, humbling, submission and crucifixion from “before all worlds.” Not in light of creation – for that would make these realities of his dependent on something other than himself – but in light of his Triune relations. What happens is that in the Incarnation God reveals to us changing beings what in him is his unchanging divine life.

We must remember that this view of a suffering God does not of course lead to a “helpless” God, a God who is impotent or bites his nails anxiously. For the crucifixion cannot be separated from the resurrection and subsequent glorification. In the life of Christ we are connected to a divine pattern that seems to us to be many separate things. But in God, in whom there is no becoming, such a movement of one reality to the next cannot really be what is taking place. Rather in God the whole process is somehow his very Divine Life – the Divine Love – itself.


On the Trinity, Impassibility and Creation, with Reflections on Aquinas’ Conception of Jesus’ Human Mind

The “traditional” doctrine has always been that the three persons share the same divine nature. Thus all three are omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, etc. But I feel a real difficulty when we get to certain other divine attributes, such as aseity and impassibility. If to be divine is to be impassible, then how can the Son, who is eternally begotten (i.e. eternally receiving his existence), be impassible? To be impassible seems to be equivalent to being purely active and not in any way passive. But would not the Son, since he is derivative, be purely receptive in his being, and therefore passible? A similar point can be made as regards aseity. If to be divine is to be a-se, then how can the Son, who derives his being from the Father, be divine? To be a-se means to be self-existent and not get one’s being from another. It means, in a word, to be unconditioned. But how then can the Son be a-se, since he is only the Son by being begotten of the Father?

Further difficulties emerge when we consider the things we can say of the Son, over against the Father. The Son, for instance, assumed a human nature. Yet the Father did not assume. How therefore can the Father and the Son be equal when you can predicate the property of “assuming a human nature” to one and not the other? Traditionally, theologians have wanted to say that the three persons are identical as regards the divine nature and that they only differ in their relations to each other. But I am having a difficult (impossible?) time in seeing how a relation can be a particular relation without simultaneously implying differences as regards to the nature of the person who possesses that relation. That is, if the Son is related to the Father by way of generation, how then is the Son in his own nature not passible and dependent? I suppose one could say that God considered as a Trinity possesses the full range of the divine attributes, but that each person considered in itself does not, necessarily. But if that is the case, in what sense can “all” persons be divine and equal? That is, just what are the properties that each share that make them all divine?**

Another problem I have is in considering how the Son, considered as impassible, could truly be united to a passible human being. In particular, how could the divine nature in Christ really “know” and be related to his passible human nature? If the divine nature is changelessly, perfectly happy, knowing all things timelessly and fully, how could he unite himself to a changing, suffering, ignorant human body and soul? The traditional doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Son was united to both a human body and soul, and thus that he was united to that which is natural to each. It is natural for man to be limited in knowledge and confined in body. How, therefore, could the Infinite and All-knowing unite itself, remaining what it is, to the finite and unknowing?

Aquinas and others have said two things about this, which are worth looking at. The first is that although the human nature really is related to the divine, the divine is not really related to the human. In other words, the divine stays unchangeable, omniscient, etc, and it is only the human nature that changes. But in this case, is there really a union of God and man? If so, where? If it is only the human nature which is becoming divine, and not the divine that is also becoming human, then in what sense can the divine in itself really relate to the human? Second of all, in explaining the human ignorance and suffering of the human nature, Aquinas is driven to say things like Christ, from the moment of his conception, saw the beatific vision of God in the womb. Likewise, when he hung on the cross, he experienced “in the higher part of his soul” inexpressible joy, though in his “lower soul” he experienced torment and pain unspeakable. Aquinas also holds that when Christ expressed ignorance of certain things he was not really ignorant but rather choosing not to reveal things that he already knew. (Doesn’t this just make him a liar? Why not say, as he in fact did say in other places, that such things were not necessary for his hearers to know?) Further, Aquinas holds that Christ had neither faith nor hope, since these virtues only come about because one does not yet have the beatific vision nor perfect knowledge of God. Since he held that Christ from the moment of conception onward held an absolutely perfect knowledge of God (and all things in God), he was driven to hold that Christ neither had faith nor hope.

But how could Christ, who fully assumed human nature, not even be able in principle to have faith or hope? If Christ did not assume some measure of ignorance, some measure of intellectual distance from God, how could he have assumed true humanity? Furthermore, what is one to make of the distinction in Aquinas of Christ’s human soul as regards its “higher” and “lower” parts? (Did he not hold that the soul was immaterial and therefore not composed of parts?) I cannot find this distinction intelligible. It seems to me that a human mind can only contain one conscious experience at a time. They may come and go with great rapidity and evolve and morph in all sorts of ways, but to say that one is simultaneously experiencing inexpressible joy in his higher soul while also experiencing horrible anguish in his lower is a concept I cannot make sense of. This is typical of Aquinas though. He gives us seemingly contradictory statements – without any meaningful analogues in our own inner experience – and just lets them sit there clashing against one another. I have a love-hate relationship with his writings. On the one hand, a man so thoughtful, who put so many questions to himself, must have seen the inconsistency in what he said, or at least the possible ways in which what he said could be interpreted to be inconsistent. Yet there is never a hint of recognition from himself regarding this. He speaks as if he sees things perfectly clearly. It’s like a person who has drawn a picture of a face, but disfigured the proportions, and yet does not admit that the picture itself is imperfect, or even bad in places. At least admit that what you’ve drawn looks horribly mangled. You do see it, right? Surely?

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about creation. I have argued in the past that God did not “need” to create, and that even without creation he could have been God and been perfectly fulfilled. Yet he freely chose to create, not for his own good, but for the good of the creature. Now the classic idea of a changeless and immutable God here brings up problems for me. For God, since he is independent of creation and does not need it to exist, must in a sense never acquire some new experience from creation. He cannot be “more God” in virtue of creation. Nor can he, as it were, “learn” new principles of being, some deeper metaphysical truths about reality. An open theist could argue that he can learn contingencies as they come to be in time, but I doubt even an open theist would conclude that God could learn some new present existential experience simply in virtue of the creation. All experiences must already exist in God, before he creates. For they only exist because they have first of all existed in his own creative mind. To give an analogy, everything in the book must somehow exist beforehand in the author’s mind.

Yet what about pain and evil? These things must have existed in God’s mind prior to creation, else they never could come to be in a world created by him. That would be like saying there was some passage in the book that existed without the hand of the author. Yet how could God, considered in himself, “know” them? This very problem lies at the back of why theologians are driven to assert that the divine does not suffer, even in the crucifixion. But again this has two insurmountable problems. i) If the divine cannot suffer then the assumption of the human by the divine seems impossible, for the divine must assume all that is real in the human, if it is to assume it in its fullness; and ii) just where does the metaphysical reality of suffering come from, if it does not exist beforehand in God’s creative mind? If the author puts something in the book, he must know it, not less, but better than everyone else. Surely the characters cannot know the novel better than he does.

I’m not going to pretend to have nice and tidy answers to these questions. But it does seem to me there are nuggets in the open theist camp that have not been fully mined. The first thing we must think more about is if it is possible for there to be some sort of “becoming” in God’s very being, because if so, we could perhaps better explain the Incarnation and how God “became” man. We must think about if this becoming is something God imposes on himself or takes on from some prior state of being or if he has eternally been existing in such a way. The second thing we must dig more into is God’s existence in himself (ad intra) apart from the world, prior to creation. Does God in this mode of being possess potentiality, and if so, who or what sets such a limit? If it does not come from God’s will, how could it exist? Does it come from his nature? Is his nature different from his will? And if God does in fact possess potentiality, does this mean he can potentially “open” his own experienced inner life of joy and fullness to a self-imposed vulnerability, insofar as he allows himself to be moved by creation? And if so, does this mean that God really does experience some new reality, in virtue of the creation, when he experiences pain and evil?

**In fact, now that I think about it, how could three persons share the attributes even of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence? The Father does not know himself as the Son, nor is he “in the place of” the Son, nor can he become the Son. Therefore there are things the Father doesn’t know (“I am the Son”, “I was generated by the Father,” etc – all the “I statements” predicated of the Son). There are places the Father is not – he is not in whatever metaphysical “space” the Son occupies. And there are things he cannot do – he cannot BE the Son.

On Divine Impassibility, Aseity and the Incarnation

“In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give. The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation. It is essential.” CS Lewis, The Four Loves

I’ve been doing some thinking lately. Here’s what I’ve got.

If God is a se that means that he is not dependent on any reality outside himself in order to be what he is. His own essence has no “needs” as it were, nor is God somehow more “complete” in virtue of any reality other than himself. Thus it follows that God, in creating the universe, does not acquire some new perfection, some richer or more full mode of existence, in doing so. God is not “more God” after creating. Anyone who concedes that God freely created the world must also concede this, for it is the simple consequence of believing that God did not have to create. To suppose God had to create is to suppose that God metaphysically needs the world in order to be himself or realize his own perfection. But if that is true, God’s being is contingent and dependent. This is a conclusion that anyone who believes in God at all ought to find impossible to accept. The ultimate explanation for all of reality and the Unconditional Fact behind all conditioned existences cannot itself be conditioned.

So, to repeat, God in creating the universe did not gain some new perfection in doing so. He would have been perfectly fine – just as infinitely happy – if the universe did not exist. Therefore, God’s reason for creating was not for any good that would accrue to himself in doing so (since that would be impossible and make God’s essence co-dependent on the creation.) Rather, the whole reason God creates is for the goodness of the things he has made themselves.

This point, when grasped, has staggering consequences. Allow me to list a few.

1. Since God cannot have created in order to maximize his own experience and happiness, He cannot have created with the motive of “displaying his attributes” at the expense of the creatures he has made. Ergo, the Calvinist scheme which holds that God creates vessels of wrath, not for the purpose of doing good to the creature, but in order to show forth his hatred of sin or display his justice, must be false. For in creating God is not seeking to satisfy some unfulfilled desire. He does not “need” vessels of wrath nor even to “display” his attributes in creation to be happy or to be God. He is perfectly happy and fully God with or without a creation! Remember, he creates entirely for the good of the creature, not for the good of himself. Therefore, since his action in creating has as its motive purely and entirely the good of the creature, he cannot thus use creatures in such a way that is inconsistent with what absolutely best for them. This has consequences for our doctrine of Hell I would like to work out another time.

2. If God did not have to create, then it was possible for God to exist alone, without a creation. Therefore, God has essential and necessary properties “ad intra” or without regard to a creation. That is, God, since he can exist without a creation, must have properties or things that are true about him that do not themselves depend on creation itself. He would have these properties whether or not creation existed. One of these properties, it seems to me, must be infinite and unsullied happiness. Otherwise, if God is not essentially infinitely happy, then God existing in himself could be better than he is – in which case he would not be God, the full perfection of being. What this means then is that God is necessarily happy. Therefore God cannot be unhappy – he cannot suffer – because then he would cease to be God, since to be God necessarily entails being happy. In other words, a property of divinity is to be infinitely happy. God, since he cannot but be God, cannot but be infinitely happy. Therefore God cannot suffer.

Some may suppose that God in himself is not necessarily infinitely happy, but is only contingently happy. But this to me has several difficulties. If God ad intra (that is, in himself apart from creation) is possibly less than infinitely happy — if, in short, God as existing in himself Tri-Personally can suffer — then we must ask, what would be the cause of such suffering? God ad intra is in perfect communion with himself. Further, he knows and loves himself perfectly, so there is no lack of union to cause any grief. Since he is omnipotent, where would any resistance that could give rise to suffering come from? Suffering or unhappiness implies that something is present to oneself which is not desired. But how could God ad intra, existing in himself as perfect Trinity, be faced with something he didn’t desire? If we are talking about God’s essential and necessary properties – that is, if we are talking about God alone – where would such unhappiness come from?

3. Therefore, since God cannot suffer without ceasing to be God, Kenosis theories must likewise be false. For insofar as God can exist without a creation, he can have properties which do not depend on creation, but which rather depend entirely on his Triune experience alone. In such an experience is the fullness of all joy and bliss and perfection, or else God could be better than he is, and we can conceive of some being greater than God. Thus these properties which God has of himself ad intra cannot be lost by God or he would cease to be God. There would be nothing to connect what are now two different subjects as a single thing. God’s identity would fall apart. Therefore, when the second person of the Trinity unites a passible, human nature to his person, the divine nature cannot itself suffer. The second person of the Trinity does not experience any less beatitude, joy, and happiness due to the fact that he is united to a suffering human nature; or else, again, God in assuming human nature would cease to be God.

We must remember that all suffering derives from something created or ad extra to God, and that no created thing can possibly be any sort of obstacle or give any resistance to divine omnipotence. Thus the second person’s divinity is such that any human experience of suffering, even something so horrible as the crucifixion, is instantly consumed in the joy of uncreated and infinite triune bliss. As a snow flake is instantly consumed by a flame, so too is the passible human suffering of Christ qua man consumed by the impassible divine joy of Christ qua God.