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Trinity and Passibility

Peter Leithart has an argument about the whole question of divine impassibility versus divine suffering that I think has some promise:

1) God is “pure act,” never unrealized, never anything less than wholly Himself.  Yet, within the Triune life, God acts on God.  The Father begets the Son, and in relation to the Father’s begetting, the Son is “passive.”  The Spirit is breathed out by the Father and Son, and in that breathing-out the Spirit is “passive.”  The Father eternally glorifies the Son in the Spirit, and the Son receives that glory, but the Son eternally responds by glorifying the Father through the Spirit, a glory that the Father receives “passively.”  Passibility in the sense of passivity is a dimension of the Triune life.

2) God acts on God in history.  The Father sends the Son, and having received the Spirit from the Father at His ascension, the Son sends the Spirit to us.  As incarnate, the Son does all that He does to glorify the Father, even as the Father glorifies Him.  The Triune life of gift, reception, and response is worked out in God’s work in history.

3) Here’s key point #1: God acts on God in history, using the world to act on God.  The Father sends the Son, who is incarnate by the Spirit; that’s an act of the Father in regard to the Son, but the Father employs the womb of Mary to send the Son in flesh.  The Father glorifies the Son, and part of that glory comes through the work of the Spirit who turns men to praise.  The Father glorifies the Son through creatures; human praise is a means by which the Father glorifies the Son.  Too, the Father offers the Son as a sin offering, but He does that through the mechanism of sinful man who raise wicked hands against the Son.  In all this, the Son is “passible” in both senses of the word: He is passive in relation to creation (the praise and hatred of men) and He suffers.  But this is not ultimately a matter of the Son becoming subject to the creation, or becoming any whit the less Lord in His passibility.  Rather, because the Father is acting on the Son through the creation, the Son’s “passibility” is the same passibility as His eternal passibility before the Father, though that is worked out in the incarnation in the context of a sinful world.

4) Here’s key part #2, the Reformed/Augustinian part: This construction seems to depend on a strong doctrine of divine providence, which includes a strong doctrine of concursus.  All actions of creation are predestined by God, and carried out by God.  The actions of the creatures are most deeply actions of God in creatures.  Thus, again, all of the suffering and passivity of the Persons in history is ultimately God acting on God.  God remains utterly Lord; God is at the same time vulnerable within his creation precisely because He is Lord, because the creation has no independent power of operation but only operates because it is operated upon.

5) This doesn’t remove all the difficulties, of course.  What is going on when Jesus gets hungry?  We can say that this is the Father using the creation to act through His Spirit on the Son, but what kind of action of the Father through the Spirit creates hunger?  Perhaps we could work this out by positing inter-Trinitarian eros, so that the Son’s hunger is the incarnate form of His eternal desire for the life of the Father in the Spirit.

I would add a bit more to this. While the relations of passivity are clearly not identical or symmetrical, the Father also is the recipient of the Son’s action according to the same quality of passivity. The Father receives the kingdom that the Son hands over to him (1 Cor 15:24) and judges no one leaving all judgment to the Son (John 5:22, 27). Thus there is, at the heart of the Trinity, a fundamental dynamic of receptivity and passivity which clearly involves creation being brought into the dynamic insofar as it is taken up into God’s own intertrinitarian action of active gift and passive reception.

Of course, Leithart’s argument runs into the problem of turning the human violence against Christ in the passion into the active violence of the Father himself against the Son. Clearly that issue merits some further investigation. At least.


  1. Hill wrote:

    The relationship between passivity and passibility is not clear to me, but it seems to be playing an important role here. Am I missing something?

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I think they’re fairly synonymous terms, at least in this case. Passibility is being able to be acted on, i.e. passive in relation to the actions of another.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I guess I associated passibility with suffering, but that’s probably a Latin bias and not necessary.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  4. Thomas wrote:

    I think there’s some fairly serious terminological problems here. Actuality is not necessarily diametrically opposed to passivity, but to potency (and even there it’s not precisely opposed, since potency is a kind of actuality). There’s a big difference between saying that God is sometimes passive with regard to himself, or that Christ in his human capacity was passive with regard to creation, and saying that there is potentiality in God–that God could be something he is not. In the latter case, Aristotle’s cosmological argument immediately kicks in, since God would be composite and require a prior cause.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  5. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    No, I think Hill points out something important here. I’m not so sure passivity (or even receptivity) is usually synonymous with passibility. Certainly, one can speak of the Son as eternally receptive to the Father without thereby taking away from God’s impassibility. In my understanding, passibility is not restricted to suffering, but the impassibilist position wouldn’t preclude an account of passivity and receptivity (at least on the side of the Son). This reminds me of Balthasar’s attempt (much to the dismay of Thomists) to speak of the receptivity of the Father. Of course, Balthasar has been accused of passibilism.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    I think that’s actually what this account (and Balthasar’s) is trying to do. To develop an account of “impassibility” which can realistically accommodate Christological and biblical revelation.

    In other words it seeks to understand the ability to suffer as one form of the kind of passivity that the divine life can embrace — and does embrace in Christ.

    That’s at least what its trying to do. Whether or not it succeeds is another matter.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

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