N.T Wright, God’s Impassibility and the Problem of Theological Rhetoric

I decided to pen this blog post not necessarily to expand on the tough subject of God’s “Impassibility”, but to document some of what I have been encountering lately and offer some of my own reflections on why I find discussions like this to be more frustrating than helpful.

Why am I specifically concerned with impassibility right now? This is a term that I spent so little time on in Seminary, and yet over and over it seems to come up in public discourse, especially when it comes to (often heated, sometimes hostile) disagreement between different factions of Christianity. For an idea I spent so little time on in my personal theological education, it certainly bears much weight for many when understanding and approaching the idea of the Gospel.

The term came to light for me recently when I noticed some on the heavily Reformed side of the equation reading books on the impassibility of God. It seems to be reemerging as a hot topic of the day seemingly for those on both sides of the fence.

Some books that I have seen people reading: God is Impassible Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion by Rob Lister; God Without Passions by Sam Renihan; Confessing the Impassible God: The Biblical, Classical, & Confessional Doctrine of Divine Impassibility. impassibility; Divine Impassibility: Four Views of God’s Emotions and Suffering; Confessing the Impassible God: The Biblical, Classical, and Confessional Doctrine of Divine Impassibility by Ronald Baines.

I also found this list of resources: https://headhearthand.org/blog/2016/02/10/the-impassibility-of-god/

Another reason why impassibility has been on my mind lately is because of the crap storm (to put it mildly) theologian N.T. Wright has recieved over an article he wrote for Time magazine back in March regarding a Christian response to the pandemic. I was unware of the controversy until I came across someone citing it on a random post. If you just google the words Wright, Time Magazine, and Impassibility you will encounter an endless list of articles taking the article to task and offering up a defence of God’s impassibility

You can find Wright’s article here: https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/

And some notable responses here: https://www.reformandamin.org/articles1/2020/4/1/nt-wright-is-wrong-christianity-offers-answers-and-hope-amidst-the-coronavirus-pandemic https://theconfessingmillennial.com/2020/04/04/is-wright-right-in-what-he-writes-the-undying-love-of-an-impassible-god/ https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/detrinitate/only-the-impassible-god-can-help-us-now/

While the above articles will give you a fair overview of the arguments for God’s impassibility along with their concerns for Wright’s article which they believe challenges or ignores God’s impassibility, it’s worth noting that much of the debate (not on Wright’s side, but on the side of those dialoging about the article) essentially boils down to two sides claiming the other is misunderstanding their central position. In case one might be tempted to pull for an amicable and balanced middle ground, it is worth noting that the issues push much further than this. For many this is about faithfulness to scripture, history, and the Gospel, with both sides of the discussion claiming that their view more faithfully represents all three. Trust me when I say to even attempt to reconcile this disparity will frustrate and evade even the smartest among us, because utlimately this isn’t about rationalist dialogue but conviction. And what underlies that conviction is much subtext and predetermined assumptions.

Let’s use the debate over Wright’s article as an example. For most of the detractors, the issues boil down to three statements:

“Supposing real human wisdom doesn’t mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations and say, “So that’s all right then?” What if, after all, there are moments such as T. S. Eliot recognized in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing?”

Wright

“Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.”

Wright

“The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.”

Wright

As Strachan says in his article: https://www.reformandamin.org/articles1/2020/4/1/nt-wright-is-wrong-christianity-offers-answers-and-hope-amidst-the-coronavirus-pandemic

How striking that Wright speaks against both hope and rationality (in a biblical sense) in his essay. Truly, he ends up with neither; that is, we come away from his article neither gripped with the force of resurrection hope nor struck by the beauty of the true and defensible gospel of grace. Instead, we are left pondering that God laments evil and suffering, yet does so without fullness of knowledge or power.

Strachan

Or as the Confessing Millennial says in his article: https://theconfessingmillennial.com/2020/04/04/is-wright-right-in-what-he-writes-the-undying-love-of-an-impassible-god/

Impassibility” does not mean that God has no emotional life whatsoever, but that his emotions (or “affections”) are not like ours… The doctrine of impassibility has fallen on hard times in recent years, mostly because grassroots, pop-Christianity has a caricaturized understanding of it as making God to be a cold, distant, aloof Being, indifferent to the affairs of the world, like a robot or an automoton. But correctly understood, the doctrine of impassibility is one of the central foundations for our hope in Christ. As postmoderns, this goes against our instincts because we often want to “anthropomorphize” God. As philosophers since Voltaire (at least) have suggested tongue-in-cheek: if God has made us in his image, then human beings have been trying to return the favor ever since. But God chides through the psalmist, “You thought I was just like you…” (Psalms 50:21). God is not like us. We are like God, albeit imperfectly and in a broken manner. We were created in God’s image, not the other way around. Any anthropomorphism is always, by definition, analogical. God’s “emotions” are not like our emotions. His affections and inner life comports with his perfections. The doctrine of impassibility tells us that God is dependable, that he is a constant, and that his affections are not those that ebb and flow like the fickle emotions of humanity. Impassibility forms the basis and foundation for God’s dependable.

The Confesswing Millenial

And Wyatt Graham’s repsonse from the article: https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/detrinitate/only-the-impassible-god-can-help-us-now/

Bonhoeffer’s essential insight is that God suffers alongside us and so is passible. Yet historically Christians rarely taught such a view. Instead, they affirmed that God in Christ experienced suffering. He could do so not because he was divine but because he was human. The single person of Christ remained what he was (divine) and added to himself what he was not (human). Only in this specific sense, God in Christ suffered death, even death on a cross. Yet the incarnation of Jesus Christ does not change the nature of God! He does not become passible, or able to suffer in his divine nature. That would mean God entered into change and become something he was not. But God does not change. So the Logos became human (John 1:1, 14). He took on the form of a slave (Phil 2:7). And he did so while remaining fully and truly God….So it is natural to assume God experiences emotions like us, suffers like us… And during this age of pandemic that we live in, how comforting would it be to know that God knows how we feel? He is just like us, we sometimes assume. And yet almost no Christians before this century and the last would have spoken of God like this. Most would have felt it entirely improper and uncomforting to know that God suffers. Why might that be?

Wyatt Graham

Graham is responding to Wright’s statement that “God was grieved to his heart, Genesis declares, over the violent wickedness of his human creatures. He was devastated when his own bride, the people of Israel, turned away from him. And when God came back to his people in person—the story of Jesus is meaningless unless that’s what it’s about—he wept at the tomb of his friend. St. Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit “groaning” within us, as we ourselves groan within the pain of the whole creation. The ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches us to recognize the One God in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit.”

So to summarize, where Wright is saying we need a fresh sense of the mystery of God, a fresh understanding of our Christian hope, and a fresh reading of God’s relationship to suffering that resists the trappings of rationalist and enlightenment tendencies, opponents are pushing back saying we need a reclaiming and doubling down on the traditional sense of the mystery of God, the traditional proclomation of the Christian hope, and a response to suffering that rests on a rationalist defence of the true Gospel. And for these opponents the key seems to lie in reclaiming and upholding God’s impassibility. This mirrors the larger conversation that seems to be evident in this new found and re-invigored interest in this theological idea that some feel is under attack and others feel needs reform. While one side is saying that impassibility borrows from Greek ideas rather than scripture, the other side is saying that it uses Greek language to describe a specifically and uniquely Christian ideas. Both sides are accusing the other of ignoring scripture, history and Tradition, and both sides are accusing the other of working from wrong headed and sweeping generalizations along with invoking imporoper definitions of either impassibility or passibility. Does your head hurt yet?

One article that has been championed as a fair and concise representation for strident and strong proponants of a necessary theology of impassibility is this one from the The Gospel Coalition, which should be noted is a site that deals exclusively with Reformed Theology, often from the Calvinist perspective. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/the-impassible-god-who-cried/

Impassibility is the idea that “God does not experience emotional changes either from within or effected by his relationship to creation”. While on the surface this working definition might seem to lead to a picture of God who is cold, calculated, emotionally distant and removed from creation, propronents of impassibiity as a necessary theology will maintain that this is a misunderstanding of the term. To think in such terms is to apply human definitions and human emotions to what are divinely given and demonstrated attributes, and God is by nature wholly (and Holy) other. What is most important in this theological stream of thought is for the Creator-Created distinction to be upheld, especially when it comes to speaking about the incarnation. If we lose sight of this we lose our Christian hope, for it is precisely because of God’s unchanging nature that we can hope in the first place. Therefore for God to become human is not for God to suffer and thus change in nature, but for God to take human suffering, which is caused by human sinfulness and/or God’s necessary judgment of human sinfulness, and give it a redemptive purpose. As Wesley Hill puts it in his article, https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/01/the-impassible-god-of-the-bible,
this is the very point of what it means for God to enter into human suffering as one who cannot suffer and who does not change:

The reason the pagans could not conceive of anything like the incarnation is that their gods are part of the world, and the union of any two natures in the world is bound to be, in some way, unnatural, because of the otherness that lets one thing be itself only by not being the other. But the Christian God is not a part of the world and is not a ‘kind’ of being at all. Therefore the incarnation is not meaningless or impossible or destructive.


Put positively, because the Christian God is radically transcendent (which “impassibility” gestures toward), therefore God can take human nature to himself without displacing it or destroying it. And because the transcendent God has taken human nature to himself, the suffering which God undergoes in that nature is redemptive, rather than simply passive victimhood and solidarity with us. Because it is God who suffers in Christ, that suffering is not simply the suffering a fellow-sufferer who understands but is instead the suffering of One who is able to end all suffering by overcoming it in resurrection and ascension and immortality. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is only by affirming impassibility that we can maintain the deepest soteriological import of the suffering God takes on himself in and through the Incarnation.

Wesley Hill

In short, if God was not unchangeable, God could not be in full control, thus stripping Christianity of its hopeful proclamation. For God to be in control it requires God to be above Creation and wholly (and Holy) other. God is not simply loving, God is love. Thus this requires that God cannot be moved or swayed by human limitation and human experiences of suffering, the mark of created and fallen order. Thus when we approach the problem if suffering we must see it in terms of God’s accomodation of this distinct human fallenness and human depravity. We must see the revelation of God making itself known through the limited nature and language of the human experience as an unchanging reality freely given. As Wyatt Graham writes,

If God could suffer pains of the body, he would be no God; he would be a human. If God could get angry due to hunger, then he is a creature. If God’s mood changes on the basis of weather, hormones, or heat, then his love does not outpour upon us with constancy. If God could suffer the pains of loss, his love could be an act of protection to avoid loss. But God loves freely without any need to protect himself. He is open and never-closing. If God could lose what he has, what hope do you have that he could lose you? If God’s love changes, then can something come between you and God’s love for you in Christ Jesus? God did become human in Christ Jesus, and so he experienced everything that by nature divinity could not. But through this mysterious union of divinity and humanity, Christ’s divinity and humanity did not mix together to create a third thing. Christ’s two natures kept their integrity: he was fully God and fully man, not a mixture of the two. And so even in the incarnation, God considered in himself remains impassible. And what a glory that is because apart from the impassible God there is no ever-beneficent flow of Goodness. And when we enter into suffering, we need a God whose affections for us does not rely on his self-preservation or our response but solely on his good and loving nature. In difficult days like today, only the impassible God can help us

A couple thoughts from my own world of experience and struggle. And I note, these are not acadmically driven thoughts. They are personally driven. While I did not study the doctrine of impassibility in seminary, what is clear is that so much of my experience of Christianity and my own journey of faith interesects with it in very specific and important ways. I grew up unconsciously adopting a theology of impassibility even if I could not give it a name, while much of my subsequent and later struggle with Christianity stemmed from an unconscious rejection of it. While I love Jesus, theology and scripture, these discussions of God’s impassiblity strike me as less important than they are muddled, frustrated and divisive. They are an example of how theology itself can become an idol, a demonstration of our devotion to rationalist depictions, knowledge driven approaches and control. It becomes less a discussion of those existential wonderings regarding this working tension that exists between the human experience and the mystery of God, and fare more a demonstration of these knowledge based systems that lead to and inform our salvation. Maybe this sounds trite, but it seems to me the last thing someone needs in the midst of suffering and questions are complicated theological systems of thoughts that pretend to offer us the right answers to the tension. Which is why I for one apprciate Wright’s call to uphold the mystery of faith rather than rushing towards these kinds of theological systems, especially when these theological systems arrive with so much baggage in tow. Love and humility seem to be in right order when approaching the subject of suffering. Further, if both sides agree that we can appropriately speak of God as being present in our suffering, why do we need to color this language with our “yes buts” rather than simply being free to say that God is with us in our suffering. Or better yet, demonstrating that God is with us in our suffering by being there in the suffering of others.

As an avid reader of Wright and as someone who has been deeply affected by his work, I can bring my personal biases to the table here. When Wright speaks of the necessary mystery, the need to temper our devotion to ideologies and theological systems with the simple practice of sitting with things that don’t quite make sense, I am inclined to hear in that the wisdom of the Biblical writers and the great mystics of our Tradition. This has been a fruitful exercise that I have come to hold near and dear through the years as I have become free to wrestle with my own faith. And as I have given myself the freedom to actually wrestle with my own faith, I have come to fall more and more in love with Jesus. It’s strange how that works. When theology is no longer an idol I must worship but rather an invitation to enter into the mysteries of God and Creation something beautiful emerges in its place- Christ-likeness.

Towards this end, one of the most important ideas that I have been freed to explore through Wright’s work is a theology of Creation and the New Creation. Whenever I encounter staunch protectors of God’s impassibility I typically find that the story of creation takes a back seat to the story of the fall. We move quickly past the idea of humankind made in God’s image towards a declaration of humanities depravity, using this as the necessary differentiating between Creator and Creation. Wright has done a lot of work towards this end, speaking to what we lose when we move so quickly from creation to fallenness without the necessary picture of creation and new creation that Christ embodies and the Gospels proclaim. We lose the necessary context of humanity as God’s image bearers within creation and the imagery of creation as God’s temple. We end up with theologies that then demand these complicated solutions to the problem in order to deal with the gaps that end up existing within a good God and a fallen creation, often turning these theologies into heavy laden doctrines that read this Creator-Created distinctions primarily through the idea of total depravity and all that flows from this in terms of how this retains this distinction. And lest our systems of faith collapse in on themselves, we must uphold all of these theologies at all cost. We lose the ability to actually appreciate the imagery and the metaphors and the pictures that emerge within the larger story of God and His people as we find them in their mystery, their nuance, their tension, and their simplicity.

If one thing has become clear from reading all of this exhaustive debate surrounding the notion of God’s impassibility, it is that even those who hold up God’s impassibility as the “answer” to the problem of suffering and salvation aren’t actually offering anything different in terms of the solution. For both sides the answer is ultimately Jesus. The question is, where do our theologies begin to hide Jesus from our view and where do they raise Jesus more firmly into view. And as Wright puts it in his article for Time, this might be precisely where we need to give lament its due, so that we ensure our hope is not being placed in something other than Jesus and the story in which Jesus belongs. Because to rush towards the answers of our theological systems is to replace Jesus with our built theologies.

Another thing that has become clear to me is that while both sides of the impassibility question tend to blame the other for misappropriating the terms and missing the necessary nuance in favor of generalizations, in truth, any soft or nuanced forms of these ideas would be better off discarding the term altogether. There is no true middle ground available when it comes to subscribing to something like impassibility, only distinctions between those open to embracing the mystery of the faith and those who are not. For those who are not, theological systems lead to more theological systems until the whole thing becomes a systematic theology full of ideas that are inherantly dependent on the other. It no longer becomes about Jesus, but rather about any number of the theological ideas which, if removed from the equation will cause the whole system to come crashing down. And sadly, often this kind of theology has little to say to our real world context or to someone who actually needs to hear the message of the Gospel.

To come back to the conversation of God’s impassibility, one of my struggles is with the sheer brevity of theological ideas it requies in order to stay upright, many of which exist to answer that question, how does a good God allow or cause suffering, by upholding God’s divine obligation or right to operate according to a different kind of love as that to which we are called as God’s image bearers to emulate. And this usually is described in accordance with some form of divine justice. Maybe I’m just naïve, but it seems to me that I am to make sense of God in my life and at work in this world, the love which I am called to embody as an image bearer should be the same love embodied in the Creator. Many of the theological treaties that I encounter speaking about God’s freedom to embody a different kind of love sound smart and feel well argued and are largely colorful in appearance, but in truth, far more often than not I come away from these theological proclamations feeling anything but hope and freedom, typically because of the ways in which it removes this simple truth from the equation. It leaves me needing to answer the problem of suffering in the world, for example, with answers that say that somehow God is the author of our suffering. And this is precisely the kind of thing Wright is taking to task in his article for Time magazine. Rather than pertain to offer such answers to what is a deeply human struggle, better to point to Christ as the one who entered into our suffering with us, and to allow Christ to free us to enter into the suffering of others. This seems so clear to me when I read the Gospels, unmuddied by the brain fog of God’s impassability. This simple truth evades our needs to contextualize it into our theological systems. It just rings with a senes of fidelity to the Christian story and feels like it fits with the challenge and need of the human experience rather than lofty theological statements.

Here’s the truth. Those who hold to God’s impassibility largely do not believe that God is distant from Creation or devoid of emotion. Those who hold to God’s passibility largely do not believe that we cannot trust in the promise of God’s New Creation and that God’s charachter changes. Both are reductionist views of the opposing positions. At the same time, both sides do come to some necessary points regarding who God is and who God must be in order for their position to be distinguished. It’s important to recognize both of these aspects of the larger discussion. I have heard hard nosed Calvinists say that if Calvinism was not true they could not believe in God. Somehow they find comfort in the idea that God determines all things, good or evil. For me, I walked away from that kind of determinism because if that was true I could not believe in God. For me it did not bring hope, it brought the opposite. So how do we reconcile these two experiences? This is why I appreciate Wright’s article and his larger body of work. Wright would say we need to return to Jesus who came, died and rose again “according to the scriptures”. And what are the scriptures? It is the story of God and God’s people. A part of engaging the mystery of God then is thinking of these things in line with this story, a story that culminates in and is fully expressed in the Word made flesh. And what’s fascinating to me is how little these responses to Wright’s article take heed of the words he actually penned regarding this shift in focus from our own suffering to the suffering of the world. Where do we find this modeled for us? Precisely in the pereson and ministry of Christ Himself.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

3 thoughts on “N.T Wright, God’s Impassibility and the Problem of Theological Rhetoric

  1. Yes, we always need to look to Jesus and not get too bogged down in theology. At the same time, for people to understand that the Lord doesn’t experience emotions the same way we do is important. This came up in a discussion I had with a sister who was wondering how God felt about people who were in hell. I told her that the Bible doesn’t tell us, but that God must punish sin because He is holy–also that trying to ascribe our own human feelings to God is not helpful because we are sinful, and He’s not.

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    1. Thanks Keith.
      I think why the theology itself feels strange to me is because it brings up questions that I wouldnt naturally ask. I have always understood that God loves and feels and cares for me and the world. At the same time I use language all the time that infers a God who is steadfast and trustworthy and a perfect representation of that love.

      What I struggle with in terms of encountering the theology “as” an actual and developed theology is the way it takes the mystery of those truths and turns it into a dogma. An answer to the problem of evil, for example.

      I don’t think saying God is impassible answers any more questions about those kinds of things any more than saying God is passible. It still comes down to having a degree of faith in the tension that exists.

      To that end, what I’ve found in listening to both polarized sides lately is that they often they share many things in common, but that their differences come down to emphasis. Often the one thing they feel needs to be protected at all costs. Personally I feel like I side closer with the Open Theist (more of the Greg Boyd brand) than I do with someone like say William Lane Craig, who leans more towards the Calvinist side of things. But that certainly doesnt deny that God embodies the same emotions we feel perfectly. I just feel like where I would struggle is with seeing God as somehow operating differently than the way He has revealed Himself to us and in the way He calls us to imitate, even as we do so imperfectly. It’s the same love that we are called to exhibit that christ has demonstrated to us. The same tears we are provoked to shed over brokenness and suffering that God sheds in His brokenness. The same lamenting. The same joy. I know that those who hold to impassibility, or who call it that would disagree with me there. But it doesnt make sense to me otherwise.

      The other place I know they would disagree with me on is the idea that God can suffer and does feel and respond. I don’t think that changes who God is, but I’m a little more with the Open Theist there in the sense that I think you see God reacting in the Bible all over the place, changing plans when the person he has chosen isnt getting it done, and getting super creative with how he brings his purposes to fruition. That feels to me like a relational God who is taking something of a risk in loving His creation and taking us to do the Kingdom work. I think my starting point for that is that is creation. We were tasked to create as Gods good creation, and ever since choosing to destruction, God has been raising people up to reestablish the kingdom work. When Abraham moses up God takes a different Avenue, as he does when Israel messes up. And yet I have to think God had hopes and desires for that to work. Otherwise that doesn’t make sense to me. The Promised Land is described as the new creation, the light for the world, and yet that resulted in exile. And ultimately this all comes to fullness in Christ.

      Those are just questions that I like to think about. Why I like Wright is that he can often play both sides without being blocked in by either. What I struggle with is when people see the questions as heretical. I mean some of these theological systems are so complicated and developed that to think about Christianity as hinging on understanding those things even if I agreed with them feels impossible. Which is where I start to wonder about that line between theology being exploring the mystery and replacing christ.

      Thank you so much for reading and responding. I really do love this kind of conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dave, Yes, the differences often come down to emphasis–but unfortunately “the one thing they feel needs to be protected at all costs,” as you put it. I don’t have a problem with someone disagreeing about a “non-salvation issue” unless they say that their position is the only one. I experienced that with a former pastor of mine, for example, who insisted that God loves everyone–without defining what that meant–and then said his position was “nonnegotiable.” I’ve also experienced it online a couple of times since I started blogging last year.

        You are very welcome to visit my site; if you go to the Archive, you can see the questions and issues I’ve written about. I, too, love this kind of conversation.

        The Lord bless you!

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