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Divine Suffering is Divine Impassibility

James discusses David Bentley Hart’s beautiful statements on the nature of divine Triune infinity in a recent post.  For Hart, the affirmation of divine infinity necessitates the upholding of divine apatheia.  And he is right.  Or partly right about this.  The problem with Hart’s rejection of divine suffering isn’t that he misunderstands apatheia, which he defines perfectly and the infinite fullness and plenitude of the Trinitarian love; it is rather that he fails to allow this defi

nition to fully inform his concept of divine infinity. In Hart’s work there is a constant oscillation between a positive definition of divine infinity as “the power to cross every boundary” and the love which “consumes every pathos in its ardor” and a negative definition thereof which sees infinity as “everlasting immunity to every limitation” or that which “cannot be interrupted.”

Hart is right in stating that “divine apatheia is the infinite interval of the going forth of the Son from the Father in the light of the Spirit” and that “every interval of estrangement we fabricate between ourselves and God –sin, ignorance, death itself– is always already exceeded in him.” However, the mode of divine exceeding does not imply that God does not or cannot experience the interval of the finite in God’s own being. Precisely because of the overabundant dynamism of the divine infinity of kenotic love, there is no reason to assume that the finite intervals of sin and death cannot enter into the life of God. The

 finite poses no threat to the infinite but is taken into in the ardor of the Trinitarian love and only so is overcome, redeemed, and transfigured.

So Hart is right that God is not sundered by suffering, but he is wrong to say that this constitutes an immunity thereto. God need not be immune to suffering because anything that suffering imposes on God’s being is taken seamlessly into the folds of God’s infinite love and overcome by it. But that overcoming is not a static “always already” as Hart sometimes seems to imply; rather it is a dynamic consumption and absorbtion that is a real experience in the life of God. Cross no less than resurrection are realities that enter into God’s very life. The tears and blood of Christ are the tears and blood of the eternal Son of the Father. But this is not “change” in God. Rather it is a current, a ripple in the cascading tidal wave that is God’s eternal Triune love. But that makes God’s experience of it more real, not less. The divine pathos revealed in the Christ who weeps, hungers, and cries out in pain is the divine apatheia catching all creation up into the life of God in which such sufferings, the onslaught of the non-being of evil is absorbed, annihilated, and transfigured into the eschatological feast of love.


  1. Halden, it’s funny you should engage this post as I have been drafting an email to you to solicit your take on Hart’s critique of Jenson. I wondered if Hart’s critique missed Jenson’s alternative ontology, that he critiques Jenson according to the older model rather than considering Jenson’s overhauled metaphysic, and this seems to be your sentiment here. Anyways, I may have something more intelligent to say later on, but thanks for your insightful comments and interaction.

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Andrew wrote:

    always enjoyable to see you flex your muscles in critique.
    however, i have a question.
    The tears and blood of Christ are the tears and blood of the eternal Son of the Father. But this is not “change” in God. Rather it is a current, a ripple in the cascading tidal wave that is God’s eternal Triune love. But that makes God’s experience of it more real, not less.

    i have always wondered how this might be resolved. on the one hand, hart hart seems to impute a God nearly necessarily immune to suffering.
    contra hart (while still following a Christological instinct i doubt he would entirely object to), you ground God’s suffering in the Cross.
    however, one thing i wonder is how it is maintained that “…that makes God’s experience of it more real, not less” without simply falling prey to the kind of historicizing that hart critiques jenson for.
    i think you are correct to raise the Cross in direct relationship to the apparent complications in hart’s project but i also think that it is difficult to sustain God’s experience of suffering as some necessary contingency, re-historicizing Divine being.
    i do not think you are doing anything wrong with your particular objections. nor do i think there is an easy solution to this and i appreciate you taking this topic on.

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  3. Andrew wrote:

    i guess, more specifically to the point, just how can God have a ‘more real experience’ of anything?

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  4. Geoff wrote:

    My old roommate and I were just discussing this yesterday on a road trip. Our conclusion was that God’s impassibility really had to do with his character. Nothing can change who God is. Therefore when God creates, he suffers for the sake of his creation, thereby revealing that he is the God loves his enemies, even when they kill him on a cross.

    So for us divine impassibility just proved that God’s character can’t be changed by his creation, but instead he loves his rebellious, broken creatures in a self-emptying, Trinitarian sort of way.

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 9:13 pm | Permalink
  5. Christopher Greene wrote:

    Realizing that I would need to take a week, standing and reading aloud, with dictionary close at hand, to finish “beauty”, I gave up after the first chapter. So I’m grateful for your reflections on the themes in Hart’s book.
    I have a question about this divine impassability. What would Hart say about the prophetic utterances of God’s jealousy, longing, anger and despair over Israel. Was God experiencing human emotions, or were the prophets only expressing these human emotions/feelings as they were moved by the Spirit to reach Israel in terms Israel could understand (they didn’t). Or was this prophetic voice the voice of Jesus anticipated in his Incarnation, Death & Resurrection (in a “completion of narrative” sort of way)?

    Are we to understand not only that God the Father was impassable to the sufferings of God the Son through God the Holy Spirit, but also that, prior to the Incarnation (narratively speaking), there was no experience of human suffering in the life of the Trinity?

    I realize this question only has reference to an aspect of the divine impassabilty question, but I believe that the “story” that Jesus was/is and the narrative of Israel he fulfilled makes it difficult to believe that God is unmoved by our infirmities simply because he must be beyond that or changeless.

    Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 5:10 am | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    I’m definitely interested in trying to flesh this out more, but my biggest worry is that the language used to describe divine impassability (a venerable and ancient strand of theology) is so carefully and precisely worded, whereas the sort of addendum you are considering, as compelling as it is (and it is indeed compelling) is rife with all sorts of metaphor and (necessarily) vague theological concepts, including “the infinite experiencing the interval of the finite,” etc. Of course it would be impossible to do theology without these sorts of constructs. I just want to make sure it doesn’t lapse in to a kind of bad apophasis in which clear contradictions like “divine pathos is divine apatheia” are made to carry more of a theological load than they can actually bear. I think what you are saying is important, but I want to make sure that there isn’t another mode that might articulate it somewhat less apophatically.

    Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  7. Thanks Halden for this post,

    You recognize here (unlike in your review of the book from a few years back) that Hart is at least straining toward a positive understanding of divine infinity, though he may oscillate back toward “formlessness” at times. To argue that this positive understanding opens up space to think about pathos as something other than a diminishment is precisely where Hart’s argument should have led, but didn’t.

    There is certainly a lot of delicate work and hard thought to be done here, especially if we are to avoid pushing paradox into contradiction—so Hill is right to touch the brakes a bit—but I do think that this is a journey worth taking. The primary reason being, of course, avoiding the Christological (and subsequently Trinitarian) gymnastics necessary to talk about the cross as only peripherally an event of self-revelation.

    FWIW, last week, I spent about four times as many words making your post’s argument half as well. The series starts here.

    Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  8. Tom wrote:

    I’ve dropped in here off and on for a year or so and have also tried unsuccessfully to contact you via email. I’m a doctoral student pursuing these same issues. Drop me a line if you don’t mind.

    Great response to Hart.


    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 5:25 am | Permalink
  9. Teresita wrote:

    God designed suffering into creation with a purpose. If you eat certain mushrooms and find yourself bedridden with stomach pains and weakness, your body learns a lesson about toxic mushrooms in a way that your head never fully can through book learning. That sort of suffering is not meaningless. What Christ did was transform empty suffering into something that redeems the world, and he opened up the way for us to sacrificially offer our empty suffering, uniting it fully with his. The instant of his death on that cross thus becomes the universal Shared Moment.

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    I’m pretty sure that God did not design suffering in to creation.

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  11. Jill Pennell wrote:

    Hill: I’m pretty sure that God did not design suffering in to creation.

    Pain is a miraculous defense mechanism. People who are born without the ability to feel pain rarely live to be twenty years old. People who lose the ability to feel pain in their feet due to nerve damage from diabetes lose their feet because the pain that would normally cause them to subconsciously change how they walk isn’t talking to them anymore, so they end up with repetitive abuse of the same part of their foot, and they get open sores, and they can’t feel those and they become infected and gangrenous and they end up having an amputation. So I think it dishonors the Creator to say that pain is a curse which only came in with the Fall.

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  12. Hill wrote:

    None of that implies that God built suffering in to creation unless you are assuming that God built diabetes and amputation in to creation as well.

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  13. Chris wrote:

    The end-around this concept of “God designing suffering” is that God didn’t design anything with respect to all that is not him. He gifted his creation to grow and develop in whatever way it needed to in order to survive.

    Regarding the post, though, I’m not so comfortable with Hart’s project. Divine impassibility, it seems to me, is best construed as God’s changeless character, as Geoff noted above.

    Any talk about Jesus suffering “according to his human nature” and not “according to his divine nature” ought to be stricken from the book. With Chris Greene, I think Yahweh’s weeping in the prophetic literature shows that he has as one of his main characteristics self-limitation and thus empathy.

    Monday, July 14, 2008 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    It’s worth noting that divine impassability is hardly a project, much less “Hart’s project.” It’s as old a strain of Christian theology as there is. It’s just that many of the metaphysical presuppositions of modernity have rendered it unintelligible to your average Joe. Definitional precision is absolutely paramount to having a discussion about divine impassability. It is tempting to use the same word for both a particular human experience and a characteristic of God and assume that it means the same thing in the same way. I have no idea what it means for “self-limitation” to be a characteristic of God. I don’t think we have to abandon the traditional understanding of divine impassability in order to understand the “personal” God of the Bible. If anything, Hart’s project is to help us understand how this could be.

    Monday, July 14, 2008 at 11:02 pm | Permalink
  15. Chris Green wrote:

    Having heard Hill’s concerns, many of which resonated with me (except for the one about divine impassibility being “as old a strain of Christian theology as there is”), I still must say, Halden, that I think you’re right on.

    A couple of points on which we might disagree.

    (1) I don’t see how we can get around talking about Jesus’ incarnation-life-death-resurrection-ascension as constituting some kind of change in the Trinitarian economy. Jesus’ death, if it really means anything, must mean that God’s periochoretic fellowship is temporarily disrupted and that his being resurrected into new creation accomplishes an eternal marriage of divine-human and eternal-temporal. As you say, the cross, no less than the resurrection, was real for God. There was the Word and then there was the Word-made-flesh. And then there was the dying of the Word-made-flesh and after that the being dead. And then there was Word-made-new-flesh. That, it seems to me, changes everything, including God. Though not in such a way that God is somehow made more loving or just. Instead, it means that God is “event,” that God’s identity is inseparable from God’s activity in Jesus Christ. (So far as I understand him, that is what Jenson means.)

    2. Following Hill’s lead, I must say that nothing can be “more real.” Something is either real or it is not. But I would say that what God experiences makes reality real. And so God’s suffering makes our suffering possible – and guarantees the eventual end and undoing of all suffering.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 12:21 am | Permalink
  16. Chris wrote:

    Hill, methinks you afford Hill too much of a pass. At any rate, by ‘project’ I simply mean to refer to Hart’s take on divine impassibility. The notion is old, to be sure.

    But “the old strain of Christian theology” inherited it from the Greeks, not least through Philo. There is a sense in which divine apatheia could be understood Christianly, but insofar as it excludes the notion that God cannot be affected by what he loves, it thereby leaves the realm of Christian theology for good.

    I daresay it’s not so much the modern mind that can’t grapple with the notion of divine impassibility; it’s the thankfully modern penchant to question what has been take for granted — in this case, the Greek philosophical underpinnings of certain aspects of Christian theology.

    Absolutely God’s love is “apathetic” in the sense that it is free, generous and self-giving; nor is he subjected to suffering against his will. But that is not to say that he may not voluntarily expose himself to suffering, which, as the previous post mentions, is encapsulated in “Jesus’ incarnation-life-death-resurrection-ascension.”

    This is what’s meant, incidentally, by “self-limitation.” We could look at creation itself and surmise self-limitation, but the Gospels will do just fine.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 5:43 am | Permalink
  17. Chris wrote:

    er, “methinks you afford Hart too much of a pass.”

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 6:59 am | Permalink
  18. Hill wrote:

    I don’t deny that there are formulations of “divine impassibilty” that are in fact suspect both in light of scripture and basic theological reasoning. The doctrine is also “Greek” in some sense, but so is the entire New Testament. Hart’s project is actually to show that the Christian doctrine of divine impassibility is actually singular and not a mere evolution of Neoplatonic thought. I just don’t buy the rhetoric that if something looks similar to pre-Christian Greek philosophy, it must be bad. If that were true, we’d have to throw out the entire Gospel of John and quite a bit of the New Testament. Hart’s account is far more complex than you seem to appreciate based on your concerns. If you haven’t actually read The Beauty of the Infinite (and The Doors of the Sea) it is really worth doing. Forgive me if you already have. I just find that there is a general (baseless) paranoia of “Hellenic” theology that causes people to take a sort of scorched earth attitude when critiquing someone like Hart where a more charitable approach actually proves far more fruitful.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  19. Chris wrote:

    Hart is a magnanimous thinker, and I have yet to read what some consider to be his (as yet) magnum opus. Plenty of articles, though. And in the context of this discussion: “No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility”, Pro Ecclesia (Spring 2002): 184-206.

    That said, I’m all for finding truth (as the old saying goes) wherever it may be found. Divine apatheia is indeed salvageable, but to my mind, only in the context I tried to describe above. I’m still very suspicious about his thesis re: impassibility not being directly descended from greekish notions of divinity. Put another way, it’s one thing to argue that the scriptures clearly identify Jesus with Yahweh (and they do, which subsequently informs our doctrine of the Trinity and our Trinitarian symbols of the Christian faith). It’s quite another to suggest that Nicea bequeathed to us that doctrine. The same could be said for the notion of divine apatheia, yet I wonder whether or not the scriptures can bear that weight.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  20. Hill wrote:

    I’m totally sympathetic to your concerns, and I think Hart goes a long way towards addressing many of them. Beyond that, though… the book is simply a joy to read. Divine apatheia may be descended from greekish notions of divinity, but that is really here nor there. The Gospel of John is very clearly descended from Greekish notions of divinity. I think this is an important, and under appreciated point. The New Testament is so thoroughly Greek as to render somewhat odd the sorts of projects that present “Hellenization” as some how a priori bad. That isn’t to baptize all Greek thought, but I think there are very good arguments for the particular philosophical universe of Jesus’s life as being something other than arbitrary, and perhaps even some kind of preparatio evangelii, properly understood. I think Ratzinger does a good job of laying this out in pretty simple terms in Introduction to Christianity. At any rate, thanks for the discussion.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 11:35 pm | Permalink
  21. I am not clear on why we don’t view impassability relative to the divine essence so that it refers to a stability in being God which would allow the Son qua hypostasis to suffer?

    Secondly, if we take a cue from Athanasius and Cyril on impassability it doesn’t seem as if there is a need to view the question in terms of a real passive potency in God. (I am following Anatolios’ reading of Athansius and Gravilyuk’s reading of Cyril) Here certain aspects of Platonism can be a help rather than a hinderance. Plato thinks of knowledge for example as a power or activity that reaches out and grasps things, namely forms. Cyril and Athanasius seem to think of the suffering of Christ in this way, not as a passive potency being actualized from an external power but as an activity that reaches out and lays hold of the suffering, thereby distinguishing our suffering from Christ’s in a unique and “superior” way.

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  22. Errata,

    “I am not clear on why we don’t view impassability relaive to the divine PERSON…”

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

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