Monday, May 17, 2010

Weinandy on Impassibility, II

I've been a little slow in my reading of Weinandy. My reading list is quite long and he's not the focus of my studies. That said, I was reminded today, as I read through Chapter 7, of how breathtakingly powerful his presentation of impassibility is. In this post, I explore chapters 4 through 7, as Weinandy moves from the Biblical Data to a Theological formulation.

After having established a well-grounded concept of God's Otherness and Presence, especially from the Old Testament, Weinandy begins to treat the New Testament's extension of this. In particular, he draws attention to the way in which the NT, and Philo similarly, highlight the importance of God as Creator, over against the Creation, as a distinctive between the Biblical God and the Hellenic conception of the divine. Jesus is thus the Son and Revelator of the Creator God. In treating Philo, Weinandy defends him and his treatment of impassibility on three grounds: God's otherness is related, not opposed, to his personalism;"God is comprehensible only to himself" (p77) because he is other than the creatures; immutability is about what God is not, not about what he is. it is an apophatic qualifier. Impasssibility is therefore not a denial of 'emotions' to God, but a denial of subjection to suffering, change and sinful desires.

Weinandy's treatment of the Fathers is at once robust and yet strangely lacking. His scope focuses mainly on early Fathers, Apologists and the like, and I found this a lack in terms of dealing with later Patristic Writers, especially in the East. His major note here is to defend against the charge of Hellenistic philosophising (see Gavrilyuk on that charge), and to highlight the way the Fathers treat impassibility as a negative, apophatic qualifier, not a positive description of what God is, in conjunction with the Creator-Creation distinction.

The workhorse of Weinandy's theologising comes in the lengthy chapter 6. Here he tackles a philosophical-theological account of God, firstly as Trinity: three eternal persons subsisting in relationship; secondly an account of God as pure act, derived in large part from Aquinas.

The 3 persons are defined only by their relations, unlike us who are only partly defined by our relations. Moving on from this, Weinandy emphasises that because they are eternally in relation, there is a sense in which the Persons are 'verbs' not 'nouns', they are in pure act, not essential beings. This is part of Weinandy's contention that the Trinity is pure act, and has no potentiality, so that God is fully dynamic and active, not static. This must feed in to our account of immutability and impassibility if we are to avoid the cold, distant and unfeeling Deity. Rather, God is fully active, love perfected, etc.

"The problem is that all critics of Aquinas and the Christian tradition consistently interpret divine immutability in a positive manner, as if to say that God is immutable is to conceive him as static and inert." (p123)

I will spare you the intricacies of Thomist philosophising, but Weinandy is right: God as pure act, and as simple being, means that for God "to be" is "to love", and he is all love, perfected, dynamic, and in this manner immutable and impassible.

When you move into the seventh chapter, is when the importance of impassibility becomes deeply apparent. For Weinandy offers an account of evil that denies evil any ontological independence. This is thoroughly Patristic and Augustinian: evil is not a 'thing', rather God created a good world and evil is a corruption and perversion of good things from their natural good. On this account, "evil is contained within and confined to the created order" (p153), and so God cannot suffer: because to suffer is to be subject to evil in some sense, and God is pure good, and outside creation. A passible God must collapse into monism or panentheism or the like, destroying the Creator-Creation distinction, which is what the preceding chapters, and our Christian theological antecedents, have been vehement to defend.

Secondly, when you take into account God's eternal subsistence in three persons, "God as pure act, and thus pure goodness itself in act, can never be deprived of a good or perfection which would cause him to suffer." (p157) God cannot suffer because it would destroy the very nature of the scripturally-revealed Godhead.

Is God then a God of Love? Yes, more than we can comprehend. Weinandy pointedly notes that in relation to human love, it "is defined by and manifested in the giving of ourselves...for the good and well-being of another" and "suffering itself is not a constitutive element of love." (p160). God's love is analogous to ours, but not the same: it is God's self-giving that is not constrained or conditioned by us or by our changeable and fallen world. Thus God is free to love us, and because God is pure act, he does not become 'more loving' by loving us, since he is love itself, love perfected. So his love is all for our sake.

Nor does God change in response to us, rather his unchanging nature is the ground and basis for his unchanging character. So it is not that God is continually reacting to our good works, or our sins, or our repentance, or our faith, with favour, anger, forgiveness, etc., but rather that God's impassibility guarantees and secures for us that God's love is always expressed towards sin as divine judgment, God's love is always expressed towards our repentance as forgiveness. "God is perfectly compassionate not because he ‘suffers with’ those who suffer, but because his love fully and freely embraces those who suffer." (p164), and his mercy and compassion move not to 'suffer with us', but to dispel the cause of our suffering, and this is seen at its greatest in the Cross! The impassible God dies passibly in the incarnate Son, and so is mighty to save!

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