Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gavrilyuk, Paul The Suffering of the Impassible God: The dialectics of Patristic Thought

Gavrilyuk, Paul The Suffering of the Impassible God: The dialectics of Patristic Thought Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004.

I've been mulling over the doctrine of impassibility for a few weeks, promtped by some college students no less, and remembered seeing this book in the Library some time ago. The dark-red covers of the Oxford Early Christian Studies series definitely help their visibility! (And many of the titles sound engaging. I have one on Divine simplicity sitting on my shelf waiting to be read at present).

Gavrilyuk's work has a brilliant clarity to it. He sets up the theological scene well: impassibility is a relatively minor theological position in contemporary academia, plus the fact that readings of the Fathers on impassibility tend almost universally to dichotomise a Hellenistic influenced philsophical impassibility against a 'biblicist' passible minority.

The bulk of the book, then, is an attack on this status quo, through a careful, mostly chronological, discussion of impassibility against the patristic debates. In chapter 1, Gavrilyuk dismantles the basis for finding impassibility in Greek philosophical models, showing that impassible divinity is not found in Stoic thought (p29, the impersonal singular deity, the world-soul of Stoicism, was “an active, sentient, rational material principle”, yet subject to the changes of the world - hardly impassible), nor in Middle Platonism whose ultimate transcendent One was beyond even the passible/impassible dichotomy.

The debate about passibility deeply links to our reading of scripture in a God-befitting manner. How do we reconcile God being like a man, yet not like a man (Num 23:19, Dt 8:5, for instance. see p43 and discussion of Philo)?

In the second chapter Gavrilyuk begins to position the doctrine of impassibility starting with ante-Nicene fathers. He makes three main points (p48): (a) impassibility distanced God frmo the mythological gods. (b) impassibility was compatible with the emotionally-coloured characteristics. esp see divine anger. (c) located conceptualy in sphere of apophatic theology. His treatment of divine anger is particularly helpful, tracing how this was used polemically against Christians, and how theologians begin to speak of divine anger as God's judicial response to sin, actively willed by God. Impassibility is more about protecting God's sovereignty and agency, then about denying him an emotional life. So, “God is impassible in the sense of being immune to the negative consequences typically associated with human emotions” (p59, speaking about Augustine).

Chapter 3 begins to trace the debate in terms of the tensions with Docetic and Gnostic interpretations. Both were concerned to uphold God's transcendence and impassibility, and did so by denying the full reality of the humanity of Christ. The paradoxical nature of the 'orthodox' position is well revealed in this quote from Origen, "he who was in the form of God saw fit to be in the form of a servant; while he who is immortal dies, and the impassible suffers, and the visible is seen" qui immortalis est, moritur et impassibilis patitur et invisiblis videtur (Origen In Leviticum Homiliae 3.1) (p68-9). The desire of the docetics was to quarantine the divine from unbefitting actions and events. This is a theme that runs into the later chapters.

In the fourth chapter we move into monarchian debates. Noetus, et al, implemented a straightforward syllogistic approach to conclude that God suffered, therefore the Father suffered, and so passibility/impassibility were temporary, not eternal or innate, properties of God (p93-4). Gavrilyuk surprisingly argues that Tertullian and Novatian missed an important Christological point in the monarchian's position, about the unity of a flesh-spirit christology, while they were focused on Trinitarian questions.

The treatment of the 'Arian' controversy forms the bulk of Chapter 5, with Gavrilyuk surveying a number of readings of the driving concept of Arianism. The key question for impassibility here is, "Does the Generation of the Son from the father Entail pathos?" (p114), while pointing up the real difficulties of translating pathos ("it means anything that necessitates change or becoming or human experience" Hanson, Search, 101 n.11.; p114 of Gavrilyuk).

The gold of the argument here comes late in the chapter, as Gavrilyuk argues that the Arians were concerned to protect the immutability, transcendence, and thus impassibility of God the Father, and so the Son who suffered, being passible, must be "inferior in essence" (p130), while "For the orthodox the function of the divine impassibiliy...did not preclude divine care or God’s direct involvement in history" (p132), indeed for Athanasius salvation depended on that God himself became directly involved (De incarnatione makes this abundantly clear).

Chapter 6 then moves into the Christological debates between Nestorius and Cyril, and here we are moving to a Patristic dialectic solution: the 'orthodox' were concerned to maintain the real, full, and direct involvement of God in the incarnation, while preserving God-befitting language in discussion of God's emotions and suffering. This meant the careful distinction that the Son, not the Father of the Spirit, became incarnate and suffered, as well as the repeated paradoxical, yet necessarily so, as Cyril repeatedly placed side by side the impassibility of God, with the suffering of God the Son in the flesh (p162). If this is not so, and one asserts that God suffers, outside the incarnation, the problems are these: "First, it would mean that the antropomorphic descriptions applied to God literally, that God had a constitution that would enable him to feel human emotions and suffering prior to the incarnation. Second, the presupposition that the divine nature could itself suffer renders the assumption of humanity superfluous..."the incarnation would be unnecessary" (p159).


The success of Gavrilyuk's book is doing exactly what he set out to do: demolish the continued (I found it in a Church History textbook just yesterday) erroneous idea that impassibility represents an import from hellenistic philosophy, and so is false. The excellence of the work consists in some thorough-going treatment of the Fathers in their context, to show that they indeed worked through both biblical and systemic-theological processes, to reach a point of rejecting false solutions to the tension between God's impassibility and Christ's passion.

In some future posts I will ofer a few more reflections on impassibility, but for anyone with some interest, and background perhaps, in Patristics and the doctrine of impassibility, this is a great read.

2 comments:

Jeremiah Parker said...

Did you notice Gavrilyuk proposing any theory of his own? He does explain that there were anti-anthropomorphic and anti-anthropopathic tendencies in the LXX that were significant enough that he quotes someone's opinion to the effect that the LXX presents a substantially different picture of God from the Hebrew Bible. But I didn't notice him positing any source for the apparent bias in the translation. And, more significantly, where did the idea of impassibility come from? (leaving aside the matter of the diverse understandings even among the Fathers of just what the term meant!) Impassibility seems to have been even more important to the heretics than the Fathers -- but where did it come from? Did Jesus teach it? Or did they draw it from the LXX? If so, would they still have if it hadn't been translated as it was?

Seumas Macdonald said...

Hi Jeremiah,

I confess, it's been a while since I dealt with Gavrilyuk on this topic (this post is from 2010), but I can look over my notes and see what I come up with.