Wednesday, August 8, 2007

God Suffers For Us

Most modern scholars recognize that behind Arius's campaign to differentiate Jesus from God was the Hellenistic theological conviction that the high God cannot suffer. Rowan Williams argues that Arius had the right idea about divine suffering, but the wrong idea of God, which “puts the unavoidable question of what the respective schemes in the long term make possible for theology.” One must honestly admit, according to Williams, the “odd conclusion that the Nicene fathers achieved not only more than they knew but a good deal more than they wanted.” (Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition [London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 198]), p. 22). Now, what does that mean?

The Arians recognized the importance of the genuine sufferings and death of Christ as God. R.P.C. Hanson notes that “at the heart of the Arian Gospel was a God who suffered” (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988], p. 121). Unfortunately, they would not (or could not) go the whole way with this insight because they too were under the control of the Greek philosophical impassability axiom. The Arians argued that God must have suffered in Christ, but only a god whose divinity was somehow reduced could suffer. Therefore, the Son was god (theos), but not the one high and immutable God (o theos). He was something of a demigod: created by the high God, but not of the same substance or being as the impassible God.

Although Hanson praises the Arians for not “shying away from the scandal of the cross,” in fact, their own theological program was its own attempt to explain away the scandal of the crucified God. If the Nicene theologians, as Rowan Williams argues, did not fully understand the implications of contending for the homoousios of the Father and Son, they nevertheless rightly emphasized the unity of the one Lord Jesus Christ in such a way that eventually the question of God’s participation in the suffering and death of Jesus would have to be addressed.

We're still addressing this issue. Many Christians are uncomfortable with affirming that God the Son experienced death as a man (the theopaschite formula). They feel the need to distance God from the suffering of the man Jesus. This is a huge mistake. It's pretty close to Peter insisting that what Jesus had said about his suffering and death in Jerusalem would "never happen" to him (Matt. 16:22). Jesus pushes Peter aside as a Satan, saying that he does not have "his mind on the things of God, but on the things of man" (16:23). Indeed.

God the Son lived as a man, suffered, and experienced death. There is no Gospel if this is not the case.


Jim said...

FWIW, you might want to take a look at Paul Gavrilyuk "The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought" (Oxford, 2004). While entirely orthodox (as best as I can discern), Gavrilyuk wants to defend the idea of impassability in (early) Christian theology from the criticism that the fathers were, as it were, "under the control of the Greek philosophical impassability doctrine."

Given that impassability has been knocked about (at least by professional theologians, if not by the folks in the pew), the book is a spirited defense for "a" proper theological role for impassability.

Jeff Meyers said...

Jim: I agree. The fathers were not under the spell of Hellenistic philosophical impassibility notions. If they were, as Rowan notes, they would never have confessed what they did about the incarnation. Nicene theology, being anti-Arian, is decidedly opposed to Greek notions of impassibility.

Now, of course, that does not answer the question of whether there is a distinctively Christian way of confessing impassibility. I think there is, but it's not much like the Greek notion.

Jeff Meyers said...

Yeah, even the language of "nature" is problematic. The divine nature didn't die? Well, okay, I understand what this means. But death is not cessation of existence. Never was. When people say God can't die, they are almost always concerned to deny that he can't and didn't cease to exist. Sure. But that's not what death is.

Yes, the theopaschite formula is that the divine Person of the Son experienced death as a man on the cross. But I'm not sure I want to say that the divine nature remained unmoved and unaffected, as if we can separate nature and person(s) in the divine being.

But as you say, these are linguistic tightropes and it's easy to teeter and fall one way or the other.

Jim said...

This is related to the question I've been pursuing, which is whether there is any orthodox fashion in which we can say that the Father suffered in the death of Christ as well.

Orthodox confessions seem, appropriately to me, to affirm that only God the Son died on the cross.

Like I said, that's fine. But death is not extinction, it's separation.

So if the Son died on the Cross, i.e., was in some way cursed or separated frosm the Father, then it seems to me that the Father also suffers by being separated from the Son, albeit, the Father does not suffer "on" the cross.

What led me to ask the question is the well-known rite in Gn 15. We can't say that the left side of the lamb suffers by being separated from the right side of the lamb, but not vice versa, do we?

So how can we say that Jesus suffers from being separated from the Father, but that the Father does not also suffer in the separation?

Let me stress that that's a musing, not an affirmation.

Jeff Meyers said...

Great question, Jim. Muse away. I'm close to making it an affirmation, myself. If we understand "death" in a fuller, richer way as not simply that which was judicially laid on humanity as a curse after the fall, but as the original pedagogy for maturity for Adam and his posterity, then I believe we can affirm the Father's personal suffering and "death" in the Son.

It think this starts with the fact that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another in self-effacting, "death-to-self" ways. This was God's intention for humanity. Adam was to learn to live as God lives. Imaging God means living lives of self-denial and love toward others. This is a kind of good death to self. Adam failed in the Garden. And now the training process is more painful.

Okay, I can see this discussion will be better on separate post. I'll write something up in a day or so.